Not doing the PhD (and being ok with that)

Eleanor Malbon is a research fellow at the University of New South Wales and an aborted PhD candidate.  She researches social policy and public administration, which can be as dry as it sounds, but the people she works with are consistently interesting. You can find her research profile here and most of her published work is available on academia.com

Earlier this year I told some of my friends that I was enrolling in a PhD. This was a lie, but at the time I thought it was the truth.

In February I was made one of those offers that you can’t refuse, a true gift for an early career academic; I was offered a PhD place and a scholarship for work that I am already paid to do.

This would essentially mean that I could get a PhD the easy way. I could take the journal articles that I’m already writing and publishing (as a Level A academic) and wrap them into a PhD by publication, with a bit of extra writing to tie it all together. Plus I would get both a salary and a scholarship to do it. This is like getting a really big cake. My supervisor said to me “I wish someone had offered me an opportunity like this”.

I felt that I should take the opportunity because it was rare and good. I applied. I prepared my partner and my sister by saying “I need you to support me in this”. I told some other friends that I was excited. I pinned the proposal to my wall.

Then I freaked the fuck out.

I have a history of anxiety. That’s a nice way of saying that I currently have crippling anxiety and I have done for years. My anxiety episodes can last for weeks or months, and I can find it pretty hard to do anything except get myself fed, showered, and show up at the doorstep of my job. But some days, not even that.

In the days after I applied for the PhD I crashed. The main issue is that my work and the proposed PhD is in the discipline of social policy, and while I don’t yet know what my academic direction is, I know that it isn’t social policy. I was going to end up with a PhD in an area that I don’t even want to work in for the long term, while simultaneously not even knowing what I do want to research for the long term!

It was clear to me that I was acting out of fear. I applied because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to keep my research position without enrolling in a PhD. I was scared that the Australian government would start charging students for PhDs. I was scared that I would look back at my work and wish that I had done a PhD (so I could go on to do a post-doc and keep running up the academic ladder).

I applied because it seemed like an easy way to get a PhD and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to finish one otherwise.

But when I thought of not doing the PhD I had applied for I had a double loop of fear. Then I was scared that my anxiety was holding me back from achieving the things that I might be able to achieve if I were more confident, more decisive, more diligent and generally more ‘correct’ in the world of universities. Academia doesn’t make a lot of space for people who aren’t sure of themselves, it tends to eat them alive.

It was months before I made the obvious decision: I declined the offer. By this time at least, most of my closest colleagues and friends knew that I didn’t want to do this PhD. They helped me decline it.

This experience opened up something else in me. I started to try to tell the truth to my friends and to my colleagues. I started to tell them that my current work is only my job, it’s not my passion, and I don’t yet know what my ‘passion’ is and that I’m even starting to suspect that I don’t have one.

It’s an interesting experience to look my academic colleagues in the eye and tell them that ‘this is just a job for me’ and ‘I don’t want to be a Professor by the age of 35, and maybe never at all’. It’s not something that we often hear in academia. I don’t want to be defined by my job, by my relationship to cultural or economic capital, I’d rather be defined by my relationship to the people and ecosystems around me. I’d rather be able to be flexible in my work and listen to myself when I think I might need to leave.

This makes me different in academia, because an overwhelming narrative is that we are working to our passions and strengths, that we are giving social commentary in the hope that someone listens and it helps to solve some of the biggest questions we that face like climate change and global migration and how to act respectfully towards each other. But for me, for now, it’s just a job that offers me stability and kind colleagues while I try to look after my mental health.

I know that my reluctance to put my career first might mean that I don’t progress, or that eventually I stop getting work in academia.

Is there a place for me in academia? Is there a place for someone who insists on treating it as ‘just a job’? Are millenials even allowed to admit that they do something that is hard, challenging and time consuming just for the money, security and stability?

I want to keep making academia work for me. There are systemic problems that could mean that it might not always work for me, and at that time I will leave. But the key factor to remember is that my job needs to work for me and for my life, not the other way around. I’m going to keep researching, writing and giving conference presentations, not because it is my passion, but because it is my job and I’m good at it.

But when I do a PhD, that will be for me.

Thanks for honestly sharing this experience Eleanor – and for raising some pretty interesting questions about the nature of academic work. What about you? Do you think academia can just be a job, or does it have to be a passion? Do you sometimes wish you had refused the offer of a PhD? Love to hear your responses in the comments.

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18 thoughts on “Not doing the PhD (and being ok with that)

  1. Thanks, love your thought, your writing and your honesty. I don’t think the PhD process is very nourishing for one’s mental or physical health. (I’m in the middle of it right now) I think you made the right decision. You raise some great questions about academia.

  2. Wow Eleanor, thank you for a brilliant honest post that was a true test of courage to write and post i’m guessing. I think the true motto of the story is to be true to yourself, follow your instincts and protect your health and surround yourself with champions. With an attitude like that you’ll succeed no matter what.

  3. This is a very relatable post. It’s why I wish I’d done a DTP rather than direct PhD, as I could have explored my interests before deciding on my PhD. While I really like my project outcome, I don’t like working towards it, it’s boring. For me, my PhD is very simply a route to lecturing, nothing more. I have no intention on carrying on with research once I finish, and will be devoting all my efforts into teaching instead.

  4. Thank you so much for this post! After couple of years working with PhD (and ending up having depression) I have realized that this is not for me. I feel a bit ashamed of that and it is difficult to say it aloud, but I have decided to leave academia.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I am starting the PhD process and I think honest examination of why is a good thing. I am certain others wll find it of value also.

  6. Being an academia has to be by passion. Any work that leads to influencing how people think of the world and their roles in it, that shifts mindset even unintentionally and that contributes to knowledge has to be done with caution and care for the people who ‘consume’ the contribution. This is the heart of education, which has been silenced or foregone by many in academia/education/training for the sake of commercial or professional priorities.

  7. Thanks. I had a very similar experience as a research fellow at Melbourne. I declined the PhD offer and scholarship, but for a different reason. Like you, I thought ‘I could take the journal articles that I’m already writing and publishing (as a Level A academic) and wrap them into a PhD by publication, with a bit of extra writing to tie it all together.’

    However, at UoM one could not use previously published material in a PhD thesis and, even with the articles, I would still need to write a full monograph and wait 3 years. So, I submitted my PhD by publication when I was ready to another university. No additional scholarship, but also no stuffing about with the administration.

    Main point is that even if you later regret your decision, you can still take the publications and make them into a PhD, provided they are coherent and there is a solid integrative essay. Good luck.

  8. Thanks for your post Eleanor. It raises some really important issues – 1. Staying in academia while coping with mental health challenges, 2. Being associated with research in an academic setting without climbing up the traditional academic ladder, 3. Chasing one’s elusive “passion” or “calling” in life.

    In my PhD experience, I find myself being constantly apologetic for the time I’ve taken to wrap up my PhD. There were wide variations in productivity while I was dealing with 2-3 years of depression and anxiety (often debilitating for long periods), which put be behind in terms of university deadlines. It is difficult to justify this to academic committees who often see it as a convenient excuse, rather that a genuine problem. I am proud of the work I have got done now, but the struggles I faced to get here – close to two years without pay, eviction out of university student housing, cancellation of my student ID card – would easily dissuade anyone from going on. There have been several times during this process, where I have doubted my abilities and felt humiliated by the lack of empathy from my university. I feel it is completely justified to quit or take a break for the sake of one’s mental health while pursuing a PhD. Another shove and I would have left science for good during those years.

    Because of the heavy toll it has taken on my mental health, I am doubtful if the traditional academic route suits me well. I have been burnt once, and despite my PhD project coming together in the end, I am scared of committing to what I perceive as a risky route all over again. I am looking at independent research, research associate positions or a shift to industry as a data-analyst as alternatives – which may have their own share of pit-falls, but are worth exploring.

    About the constant search for one’s true passion – I thought my PhD project was exactly that when I started out. In recent years, I have stopped pressurizing myself about seeking one single calling – not because I’ve turned cynical from my PhD experience, but because I realize that several different things (field-work, data analysis, science journalism) interest me. There probably is no single holy grail that will promise eternal satisfaction like I’d imagined. And I’ve realized my interests have also evolved with time, and may continue to do so. I have decided to choose the most appealing work opportunity from those actually available to my skill-set at any point in the future. It has definitely eased some of the restlessness I would constantly carry with me when I was trying to discover my one true passion.

    • Thanks for such an honest and interesting response Bharti – I think the ‘one true calling’ is something we are encouraged to think about as academics, but not necessarily in other parts of the workforce. Maybe it comes from our monastic roots? Anyway, well done on persisting through all those obstacles.

  9. Thanks for sharing this. I am on a bit of a PhD high at the moment, having just passed my viva, but there have been so many times over the past few years that I wished I hadn’t taken the post. It has been very bad for my mental health and occasionally my physical health, as well as leading me to spend most of my twenties behind a computer, when my friends were all getting married and having kids. In hindsight I’m glad I did it, but I wish I’d been more thoughtful about the level of sacrifice when I was starting out.

  10. I also have the case of the “PhD high” at the moment. Finished my M.A. two years ago, and didn’t do any research. But for the past 2 months I’ve been reflecting and thinking why didn’t I do research, and publish. Now, I really want to do research and make an impact, and PhD seems to be the way to do it. What should I do? Should I still go for a PhD when all I want is to make an impact in the educational world through practical research? Or what other options do I have?

  11. Hi Eleanor,
    Thanks for writing this. I’m really proud of those of us who decide rationally to withdraw. I withdrew in July. I’ve only told a few people. When I do I’m all prepared to be defensive and yet every single one has said something to the effect of ‘good for you’.
    I began my PhD because I was searching for an answer – not to improve my career prospects. I’m not in academia, and don’t want to be. When the answer was found I couldn’t ethically hold it back until I’d completed. So, after clearing it with my ethics board, I applied and shared that knowledge. Our practice is safer as a result.
    I decided another few years of study for something I don’t need or particularly want is lunacy so I withdrew. I have no regrets. I’m loving life once more.

  12. Pingback: Sweet Link ParTEA (July 2018) – Sweet Tea, Science

  13. Pingback: Avoiding the PhD to avoid failure? – OnCirculation

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