Last June I officially dropped out of my PhD in Comparative Literature and Religion at the University of Warwick. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long time. As soon as I had announced my intention to drop out, I was filled with an overwhelming and surprising relief.
What made me decide to quit? I’m afraid I don’t have the kinds of good reasons that so many other people tend to cite for dropping out of PhDs. I was not feeling especially suffocated by the politics of university life, mostly because I had managed to stay clear of university life for quite a few years already, often avoiding hanging out with university friends in favour of all my local friends, refusing absolutely to participate in conferences and panels, trying not to buy into the bullshit of academic discourse. I was never desperate for a position in the department after my graduation so I never had to freak out about not getting it. I was also pretty grandfathered into the department, so my supervision was relaxed and rather carefree: I was never in any trouble, never had to ask for deadline extensions, never woke up covered in sweat over the amount of work I had to do. I was a full-time PhD student and a full-time book editor and, as a hobby, a recording musician. I could have completed my PhD without a problem.
But I decided to quit anyway, and my reasons were emotional. I was just unhappy doing a PhD. And my goal in writing about this, and in doing so in this tone, is to encourage anyone who is in a similar position to take the plunge if that’s what their gut is telling them to do.
Yes, of course, there were plenty of objective reasons for my unhappiness at university: academics are an unbelievably emotionally repressed lot, and PhDs in the humanities are simply not as important as anybody in the humanities department will pretend. I felt this everywhere I went in the department. People were haunted-looking, stressed out, worried about finding a job after their considerable financial and temporal commitment to completing their dissertation, and on top of that, they were in an environment where it was deeply unfashionable to express these worries honestly. To be clear, everybody moaned, all the time, about everything. People were happy to announce they had too much work to do, and that their students were a handful, and that they had five conference papers to prepare. But that was moaning, and there is a difference between moaning and getting in touch with the real sadness at the heart of academia as it exists right now, and which infects the people caught in it. I really believe this: the academic life, especially for PhD students, can be profoundly depressing. And for some reason, probably as a result of pride and insecurity and not wanting to have wasted so much money and time, people stick around. It is really, really sad to see. And thanks in part to the fashionable hyper-sensitive hyper-narcissism of left-leaning young intellectuals… wait, no, I won’t go into that.
For me, my actual PhD work was enjoyable, solitary, and not too difficult. I was looking at novels based on the life and character of Jesus, analysing the dynamics between characters in each novel using a Lacanian framework. Precisely the kind of shit that sounds like a good idea when you submit an application. And I benefited enormously from studying this topic. I thought it was fascinating, and it gave me an incredible and pretty life-changing opportunity to research fiction based on the New Testament for my own writing. I also couldn’t have asked for a better supervisor. She was supportive and kind and interesting to talk to.
But I was unhappy. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be there any more. I didn’t believe in my subject enough to spend so much of my time writing, reading, summarising and “dialoguing” about it. I was astounded by the lack of intellectual courage in the people around me. Impossible to believe how unquestioningly major critical theorists were quoted as a way of ending debates. If somebody was a Kantian, they would quote Kant at you; if Deleuzian, then Deleuze. If they had personally met Judith Butler, then Butler was always right. Even if it had nothing to do with the discussion, this kind of shit went on. If you have to appeal to authority, however subtly, to win an argument, you are not to be trusted intellectually. This shouldn’t sound like an arrogant thing to say.
Professional academics and their disciples alike struck me more and more as scared, ineffectual, physically uncomfortable people trapped in a system that systematically undermined the good work they were sometimes capable of doing, good work they would be able to do a lot more of if the whole place had felt less like a corporation. That leads me to the political argument that I could be making here, to justify leaving. It is true: I saw people getting more stressed over the years, as Warwick University became increasingly bureaucratic and market-driven and obsessed with its own accomplishments, of the type it could boast about on leaflets. (But then again, that particular criticism has been thrown at Warwick for decades now.) Every year it seemed we students had to justify our existence a little bit more, and the staffers had to justify theirs much more indeed. There were more and more questionnaires to fill out, about our “student experience” — and if we filled them out in time, there was a chance to win a £250 voucher at the bookshop! And, of course, the tuition fees went way up, causing indignation, consternation, and serious financial difficulties for a lot of people.
But I didn’t leave for political reasons. While all of the above complaints seem to me justified, the truth is that they were not enough to make me all that unhappy.
I just wanted to get out and do other things. Emotions are real. Gut instincts are valid. The truth is in the body as much as in the mind. I felt like things had run their course for me at university.
And in the end, my desire to quit was enough of a motivation for me to quit.
It sounds obvious: if you don’t want to keep working on a PhD, you don’t have to. Yet after talking to people who have also dropped out of PhDs, I’ve realised that it’s weirdly common for people in that position to feel that they’re just not allowed to drop out.
This is the first thing that happens when you decide you want to get out of the academic world, after you’ve already put a lot of time and energy into it: others will tell you not to. They will try to make you feel guilty for wanting to quit. They will give you reasons to stay. Don’t you know how lucky you are to get this kind of education? Don’t you know how many people would have loved to receive that grant? Don’t you understand how this is just a way of proving your legitimacy as an academic, a passport to the academic world, and that once you’re in you’ll feel more confident about what you want to do? Don’t you realise how helpful it will be to put PhD next your name on a job application? Strangely, however, nobody in the academic world itself tried to persuade me to stay in this manner. At most, they said, “Why not just finish the thing?” Only people outside the department gave me this type of “Think of your future!” stuff, which is interesting. Explaining to my family was a little more difficult, but then, part of being an adult involves negotiating these decisions without sounding ungrateful, but without being a pushover either. My family’s financial help with my education made my life a lot easier, and no doubt it would’ve been a harder decision if I’d had to pay for everything myself. On the other hand, I’m sure I would have dropped out sooner if that have been the case.
All kinds of objections can be levelled at me at this point, for being contradictory or blinkered. But, without wanting to sound like a smartass, those objections would be primarily academic. Some of the unhappiest people I’ve ever met were PhD and post doc students. Well, and full-time teaching academics. And most were in complete denial about it, when it came right down to saying the honest thing. Which is why it was such a relief for me when, having announced my decision to quit my PhD to some of the more important professors in my department, all but one of them told me that they fully encouraged my decision, and that I should get out while I could. One of them told me he wished he’d had the balls to get out decades earlier.
And it’s on that note that I will finish this little post. If you want to quit your PhD because you are unhappy doing a PhD, that doesn’t mean you should quit your PhD. However, it is a perfectly legitimate reason, and 100% self-sufficient. There is no doubt much more at play than any particular problems you may have with your PhD. Explore that. But, you know, you can always quit.
I have absolutely no regrets. I’d checked out long before I made the decision.