I’m taking the time to write this in the – likely misguided – hope that it will prevent me from having to repeat myself with all of you: I have decided to withdraw from the PhD program at UBC. This was obviously a really difficult decision to make, especially given the fact that I received a tremendous amount of personal and institutional support, and that my performance in the program had been promising. So why does someone walk away from something so significant that he or she has invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in? It should go without saying that this is a deeply personal decision and I think my reasons are quite different from many others who have done the same thing. What follows is my attempt to clarify my reasons for getting to this point.
First of all, I would like to say what this isn’t. This is not something that belongs to the genre of “Why I Quit Grad School and You Should Too” articles. This isn’t a condemnation of the culture of contemporary university life, a bemoaning of the corporatization of higher education, or a polemic against a horrific job market and an exploitative employer/employee relationship. All of these articles have been written and I have no desire to call into question anyone else’s motivations for starting, or stopping, grad school. As I said, this is a very personal decision, largely impacted by my own experiences and my own point of view. If you are looking for a stemwinder about grad school and its discontents, this post isn’t for you.
This decision has been at least two years in the making. In arriving at this point, I have retraced many of the steps that led me here and I think I’m in a place where I can accurately articulate why I decided to start, as well as why I decided to stop. So, first things first: why did I start? Well, in my case it was because I had returned from overseas after a number of years and was looking to consolidate my education before entering the workforce in Canada. This was a somewhat daunting proposition considering both my age (29 at the time) and the economics of life in Vancouver (stupid then, as now). As I wrapped up my BA, I was unsure of how best to translate my skills to a job market outside the university. Like many, I foolishly believed that I had little to offer in the way of concrete and measureable skills, and so when a program advisor mentioned that my grades would likely get me a good offer to grad school my ears perked up. I really didn’t have a better plan and I was also hesitant to delay working any longer. So I reached a conclusion: I would do an MA but only if I was paid to do it. In the end, I was offered guaranteed funding to start the program and I resigned myself to one more year of schooling.
The MA program was intellectually exciting but also grueling, and, for the first time, school began to feel like drudgery to me. But because I was performing well, my fellow students and professors began to suggest that I should consider doing a PhD in English. They all seemed to agree that I had the requisite skills for the job and that an academic life was one that might be a good fit for me. I didn’t research the job market (dumb), but neither did I go into the application phase with my eyes shut. I applied to a number of good schools in the UK and a couple in Canada and resolved to go to whichever one, on balance, presented me with the best option. That ended up being UBC and in 2009 I started there.
Almost immediately, I found that juggling my part-time college job, associated additional administrative duties I had been asked to contribute, and my PhD work meant sacrificing other parts of my life. I also began to realize the state of the university job market and knew that to have a good chance at a tenure-track position I would have to unwaveringly commit myself to this path. I did so without hesitation. What I could not see at that time was that, by doing so, I was no longer looking after myself (either physically or mentally) or the relationship that I was in at that time. Despite taking an extended trip to China as a “reward” for winning a federal scholarship and for my hard work at UBC and the college, I found my ability to cope with my staggering workload was waning. The mounting stress of uncertain job prospects, and my desire to complete as quickly as possible to resolve this uncertainty for my girlfriend, created a situation where the less-favourable aspects of my personality began to emerge: I became irritable, impatient, physically lazy, and I began to harbor a grudge against the very university system I was attempting to enter. Such things do not make for happy endings.
As my relationship imploded, I witnessed the loss of many things I loved: my home, my pet, my partner, and much of my self-respect. I don’t think it goes too far to say that this was a life-altering event. The best decision I made at that time was to take some time off and reevaluate what I was doing. I began to focus on my health (running in half marathons); I began to reconnect with family and friends; I began to do things I had been waiting for (learn to sail, rock climb, etc.); I began to read for pleasure again; and, I began to set new limits for how hard I was willing to work. When I returned to my PhD, I had rediscovered a sense of equilibrium. My work had firmly taken a back seat to other priorities in my life but that felt right somehow. Some of the work I produced at this time was the best I’ve ever done and was recognized as such. The problem was that, despite the rebalancing of my life, and the improved quality of my work, I had lost the desire to be a research academic. The requirements of the job were not going to change, and I had reached a point where I knew I was no longer interested in subordinating everything else to achieve a tenure-track job. It was right around that time that I met Amy.
Amy’s presence in my life was a godsend. She helped me clear away the clutter and wreckage of my past mistakes and we began to chart a new path forward, together. I began to realize that I had entered the PhD program looking for validation. I had been looking for someone or something to tell me that it was OK to write. The fact that I come from a blue collar family, I think, made me susceptible to this line of thinking. Because writing was not the sort of thing one did as a form of “honest work,” continuing an educational career that had a writing component was a way to address that desire.
The problem, as I began to see, was that academic prose was not the form of writing I was interested in producing. In fact, I had worked very hard to eradicate its influence in my own writing while at UBC. I also discovered that writing for an academic audience means that one’s target is almost infinitesimally small. I wasn’t looking for this sort of cloistered reading group; toiling for years to reach that small a segment of the population seemed increasingly difficult to justify. Lastly, I discovered that this form of writing took a toll on me, both physically and mentally. Even though I was capable of producing texts that were met with favour, I became increasingly less interested in doing so. I ached to do other kinds of writing and my dissertation was increasingly getting in the way. Such things do not make for happy endings.
I came to a point where I concluded that if I was going to invest myself heavily into some form of work that it had to matter. It became increasingly obvious that the happiest times of my life coincided with not working on my PhD and vice versa. They say correlation is not causation but that was a hard dynamic to ignore. My work as a Victorianist, although initially very exciting, had lost much of its appeal. I felt I spent too much time with the dead and not enough with the living. When I could no longer see the connection between my work and the rest of my life, it was obvious that a significant rupture had occurred. This crisis of relevance has never really resolved itself and probably never will.
I also fell back in love with being a college instructor. As I stopped making regular progress on my PhD, I had more time to invest in being a better teacher and that was something I really enjoyed. My students seemed to mirror my engagement and a virtuous circle, as opposed to a vicious cycle, began to establish itself. The job I had been looking to flee from became something I looked forward to doing. I realized that my own background as a foreign expat and my ability to speak Mandarin (poorly, but still) were valuable assets and something my college appreciated. I repeatedly turned down other opportunities that were extended to me (head of our department, Dean of Education, even an offer to be groomed as a replacement for our college’s president) because they took me further away from the job that I was enjoying. Douglas College tried to work me into their system and I experimented with that until the commute became intolerable. I found that my free time – for myself and for my family – was more valuable than another step up the career ladder. Even when UBC opened a college similar to my own and posted tenure-track instructor positions, I decided not to apply, as my flexible work arrangement would be severely compromised. I became convinced that our cultural conditioning to want the next bigger, better thing, instead of to appreciate the thing we already have, was a severe blind spot that I had finally managed to see my way around.
Becoming a father was another significant factor in this decision. Choosing between working on my dissertation or spending time with my daughter was, as they say, no choice at all. Conversations with Amy also cemented my desire to try being a part-time stay-at-home dad. I knew my college would allow me to condense my teaching to two days per week, while still earning almost a full wage. This was, quite simply, a better deal than I was going to get doing anything else. The only sticking point was that completing my PhD would disrupt an otherwise finely balanced life. When I weighed things out – carefully and over an extended period of time – it became clear that my PhD was no longer worth completing, especially if I couldn’t see using the designation to open up an attractive alternative career path.
I realize that I am extremely fortunate to have this choice – my wife’s career has acted as a prop for my own, and without her support none of this would be possible. There is no way to honestly assess this decision without acknowledging how incredibly fortunate I am to have her in my life. Because both of our families live in southern BC, there was no way we were going to uproot our family to seek work elsewhere, even in search of a tenured position. Thus, a line was crossed and a decision made.
The last piece of the puzzle was the foundational experience of my own father’s death. He left us when he was only 56 (and when I was 20) and this has haunted me ever since. I once told him before he died that his suffering had, tragically, provided me with a valuable lesson. I had seen firsthand the way in which life can thwart your best laid plans. The only remedy for this was to live as though you might not see the next day. This is easy to say and yet extremely hard to do. I think that, on balance, I have done pretty well in living a life that accords with this philosophy but in retrospect I can see now my PhD was not providing me with the sort of experience I needed to feel fulfilled. I am happiest outdoors, on the water, with family, travelling, climbing mountains, and academia demands a more sedentary life. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing; simply that it’s not for me and I’m OK with that.
“Aren’t you a bit disappointed that you did so much work and didn’t get the end result you were looking for?” To put it simply, the answer to this is no. One of the hardest circles to square in this whole process was the weight of other people’s expectations, or how much they wanted this for me. I know how much it would mean to my friends and family to see me achieve this goal. That’s something I will have to live with. But I also know they trust my judgment and know I wouldn’t do something like this without first putting a tremendous amount of thought into it. I am also certain that, if they know me at all, they would say I am happier and healthier than at any other time in my life.
Before I began this program, my wonderful supervisor, Suzy Anger – a better model for a great academic one could not find – asked me to consider one thing before committing to study at UBC. She asked me if I would be OK with things if they didn’t go as I planned. In her view, it was only worth doing something like a PhD if the experience itself was worth it. If I needed a tenure-track job to justify the sacrifices then it would be better to do something else. The regret and bitterness of a less than satisfactory outcome would otherwise be potentially overwhelming. This was fantastic advice and I took it to heart. Again, for me there are simply Things Worth Doing and Things Not Worth Doing and the past four years of my life, warts and all, will always belong to the former category. I have met wonderful people, learned innumerable things, travelled to exciting places, and generally become a much better version of myself. In my view, that’s pretty much the whole point of the humanistic educational endeavour and so I count my own experience there as a success. But if I’m being completely honest, one thing I will always regret is not getting to wear that wizard hat. I would have rocked that motherfucker.