Erica Davis is a freelance editor and writer actively working on a practical nonfiction guide called The PhDidn’t Handbook. In 2013, she quit her doctoral program in English Education to assist adult learners through the academic writing process. In 2016, Erica pivoted from academia to publishing and is now the Management Executive at Book Pipeline. There, she produces and co-hosts the writing podcast This Podcast Needs a Title. Erica lives with her husband and dogs at the edge of some woods where she also runs her tarot business Dork Witchery. She welcomes connections via Twitter @TheDavisGirl.
This guest post is going to be just like my PhD: short and awkward. Ready?
Let’s jump in.
Confession #1: I loved research but getting graded made me hate it.
In August of 2013, I was six semesters deep in a doctoral program in Higher Education and slightly aware of how it was breaking my spirit a little more each day. By the time I figured out it was really REALLY not a good fit, I was $200,000 in student loan debt, and dreading courses with little idea how to get out, but a lot of fear that Everyone™ would be mad at me.
I don’t know who Everyone™ included, but the fear sure felt real.
Most of my amazing cohort loved their research topics. They were even giddy when they talked about it. These incredible fellow Nerds included:
a high school vice-principal tired of watching under-prepared students going through the motions of graduating
the frustrated parent of a gifted but un-challenged neurodivergent learner
an avid Marvel fan who saw the untapped power of teaching comics
an elementary school administrator sick of a district’s non-action against bullies
and me, the world’s okay-est horror-movie-watcher who didn’t feel like job hunting.
These amazing humans had this exploding aura of unicorn magic. They were tapped into some sort of boundless mental, emotional, and physical energy.
And it sounded exhausting.
They didn’t just want to figure out how to fix a part of their academic field. They needed to. That’s some serious agency. I just didn’t have it. At least, not for academia.
Confession #2: I didn’t have one big breaking point. I had a five little ones.
Steven Bartlett said it beautifully: Anything that costs you your mental health is too expensive.
My five little breaking points all hit me in the same week in a combined purge on my physical, mental, and emotional well-being. All of which were amplified by undiagnosed ADHD and anxiety. What I realized was that since enrolling in my PhD program I had:
stopped writing fiction
stopped drawing for fun
stopped reaching out to my family and friends
lost sleep and woke up scared on class mornings
realized my potential salary math did NOT outweigh the cost of tuition let alone the changes to my mental and emotional health
Any one of the above IS a glaring red flag, but I was too deep in that You-Can-Do-It headspace to see it.
Confession #3: I knew I could do the work. I just didn’t freaking want to anymore.
And that is okay.
It is okay to change your mind about wanting a PhD.
It is okay to not want to be there anymore.
It is okay if your professional goals change.
And it’s very okay to not know what to say when you’re quitting. I sure didn’t. So after weeks of google searches and talking it over with my dog, here’s how I initially brought my decision to quit up with my advisor:
I have decided to discontinue my doctoral studies after this semester. While I was considering a leave of absence this past year, I realize now that my career goals do not require a doctorate degree. Thank you for your guidance these past semesters. What I now know about [AREA OF STUDY] has improved my writing and inspired me to return to my original pursuit of publication for my fiction.
Is it a perfect email?
Did it get my point across?
My advisor didn’t believe me. They kept replying, saying that I was overthinking it (well, duh), that I was mistaken (wait, what?), that I Could Do It If I Just Believed in Myself (uhm, I do, that’s why I’m pivoting to fiction), and that I Shouldn’t Be Intimidated by My Male Classmates (excuse me?).
After a few more exchanges, I was fed up. If I hadn’t already been at my crappy apartment, in my pajamas, and knuckles deep into my ninth re-watching of The Blair Witch Project, I’d have gone back to campus and screamed at my advisor: “I’m not quitting because I Can’t Do The Work. I’m quitting because I WANT TO BE SOMEWHERE ELSE.” Instead, something just clicked into place. I think it was my agency.
My agency to GTFO.
So, my next and final reply went something like:
Dr. [NAME], My choice is final. Thank you in advance for taking my decision seriously.
And then I deleted the email chain and spent the next month watching horror movies while job-hunting. No regrets.
Confession #4: I wasn’t 100% sure about my choice to quit until years later.
Getting into my PhD program relatively simple. Getting out was complicated AF. Thankfully, there were more than a few resources that were instrumental in affirming my decision to quit my PhD even though I didn’t find them until after I left.
At the very least, these resources affirmed my decision to quit, so here they are for you:
- If I had the foresight to read this before I applied, things may have turned out differently.
- This article highlights a huge piece of what I ignored when deciding to enroll in a doctorate.
- This is another gem that may have prevented a lot of stress.
- And this one, right here on The Professor Is In
- They’re Not Quitting! Reclaiming a Genre – a #Postac Guest Post
- My Fraught Relationship with Academia: Down But Not Out – WOC Guest Post
- Academic Hazing is Abuse – WOC Guest Post
- From English PhD to Digital Marketing Entrepreneur – Langer 1
- Knowing When to Leave: Lessons from an Academically Unaffiliated Life – WOC Guest Post
So much of this reminded me of me – lack of fun, lack of belief (that I’d thought it through), cost to mental health, undiagnosed ADHD. Thank you for writing it. It means a lot to me.
Amy Thornton says
Thank you, Erica. This is validating my decision to GTFO.