What do I do now?

I’ve reached the point where I need to make a tough decision about my doctorate. I’m three years in, finishing December next year. I don’t have three years of work behind me. I have three years of wasting time and worrying, punctuated by brief periods of working on it. I think the fact that I’ve been sick for almost two months isn’t helping things. However, my entire life has taught me that I am very good under pressure and always come good at the end. I am confident that I’ll finish it, but I don’t know if I want to.

Update: I should point out, I’m not stressed at all by the doctorate or the work. I’m very “yeah, whatevs” about the whole thing. It would probably help if I was more stressed.

I get to be called Doctor.
I love my topic (how young adults get their political news).
I wanted to do a doctorate because I’ve never had a job that challenged me and figured this would. It does, and not always in the way I expected.
I’m very good with external deadlines, so as it gets closer, I’ll feel more excited and my work rate will increase.

I am sick of having no money.
I am sick of worrying about having no money.
I am sick of relying on ManFriend financially.
Days slip by and I have nothing to show for it.
I spend too much time by myself and I’m sick of my own company.
I don’t feel at all connected to my university.
I don’t want to be an academic.

So, what do I do now? Do I walk away, or keep at it?

96 responses to “What do I do now?

  1. “You’ve come too far to stop now”, “Go on, just finish it, it’ll feel so good when you do”, “Walk away, and what, waste all those years”.
    Internal dialogue of my decision to stay or leave my degree when I had half a semester left (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, external conversation with some friends).

    There are pros and cons to both finishing and continuing, which, because you’re not an idiot, you know. Ultimately, will you get more out of finishing than you will from stopping?

    • I have absolutely no idea, which is why I’m stuck. The “walk away, and what, waste all those years” line is weird, because it works both ways for me – walk away and waste all those years, or walk away so I don’t waste more years.

      What did you do with that half a semester?

      • I went back – but I didn’t have an undergrad, and knew I needed something to move forward. Im stuck with the concept of my masters though!

          • There are a few streams I can follow. My Bachelors was in Communications, and I opted out of my Masters in this, and wanted a switch to International Relations of Human Rights.
            Human Rights interests me more, but IR seems more job-practical, unless I want to live in a tent somewhere (Stereotyping, I know, but really, after my last travelling experience I realised I truly liked the luxury of running water once a week!)

        • And also? Studying on your own is a truly horrid experience some days. My whole degree was via correspondence, with only bulletin board discussions relevant to the topic.
          I used to call my sister (a uni lecturer) and whinge about how unfair my life was… want her number? She’s at home with baby now, she’d probably enjoy the distraction! HAH

  2. Do you think you’ll regret it if you don’t? Can you see yourself in 5, 10, 15 years thinking “I only had one more year… I should’ve stuck with it and had something to show for it”?? If so, stick with it. Because if it’s something you want to have next to your name it’s do it now when the 3 years is already behind you or start all over again in another few years.

    On that same note, if you don’t think you’ll care, if you think you can walk away and feel fine about it then do it.. you are the only person that knows how much it really means to you.

  3. Sister, just keep going. You are articulating (well, as usual) all the doubts and uncertainties that are inherent in doing the damn thing, particularly if you are doing it with integrity.
    I took seven years to do mine. The submission was a comedy of errors that I still can’t process or recount properly, but it involved trips to the binders in between breastfeeding a seven mohth old (who of course was supposed to arrive AFTER submitting) and then finding out I’d bound the bloody thing with a missing chapter. I screamed, howled and threw the thing around the room. And then had a small moment of truth. I had spent seven years of my life in order to become a member of a club that I had scant interest in joining.
    Ten years later, I am still, slowly, understanding the benefits of completing it (and, goddess help me, mine is in literature). Yes, it opens doors. It commands respect (as it should). You are unlikely ever, ever, to get the chance to think this deeply and to research this widely again.
    But, finally, in the end, I promise you: it does help you connect to the most fantastic people, ideas and creativity just as profoundly as you feel disconnected from them now. Just. Keep. Going.
    This blog is proof that you’re one talented woman. The world needs you and it needs the best informed, educated, qualified you. Good luck.

    • Oh wow. Thank you.

      Your experience sounds like hell. Did you work constantly on it? I always feel like everyone else is working constantly, but I go weeks without even thinking about mine.

      • rachelcunneen

        It wasn’t all hell, although the last bit certainly was. I remain in love with my discipline although I think I forgot this for a while. And nah, I went for a long time without doing much. I took up my APA so I could fund my student activism (will I get sued for this now, do you think?). And you have been writing an awesome blog , which is hardly ‘nothing’ :-).

        • Aw, thanks. I don’t write here very often these days.

          I’m so glad to hear someone else spent a lot of time not working on their doctorate. That makes me feel much better. Thank you.

          • rachelcunneen

            And I thought of another thing, something that someone reminded me of when I was complaining and threatening to quit one day: despite having to live on the bones of your arse, PhDs cost a lot of money. A lot of taxpayer’s money. This particular listener reminded me that I had a civic responsibility to finish and to give something back, for all the education I’d received at public expense. Something to think about & it certainly made me put my head down for a while (despite all the stuff I’ve already admitted to here about using the scholarship to fund activism :-)).

  4. This was me in 2008. I had (somewhat casually) been doing my phd since 2001. (Part time and punctuated by the birth of my two kids). The only thing that kept me going was the thought that what else would I do if I didn’t get this thing done. Return to casual work in the retail sector? After all that time I had little usable on paper to show for my years of study. I applied for an extension and buckled down got the majority of it written in little over a year – at submitted in the beginning of 2010. I had to wait until I panicked and then rode the adrenaline wave to get it done. I think it didn’t have to happen that way, better supervision perhaps would have kept me focused along the way. However, in my case, it all worked out well for me – I started a full time academic position the day I handed the thesis in. By this time my kids were in school and it was a good time to move to full time work, and part time thesis-ing while they were small had been great in some ways (even though it was rather unproductive and inefficient at times).

    So yeah, I was at that crossroads – only there didn’t seem to be be anything for me in the direction of not finishing. And I wanted to be and continue to (mostly) love being an academic. Without that desire I wouldn’t have completed.

    • Apart from the children and the desire to be an academic, you’ve just described me. I have been rather casual about the whole thing and definitely don’t have much to show for it. And the thing that keeps me suspended in this place is that I don’t know what to do instead. If I quit and then get a full time job, what would that job be? I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. I’m working in research but it’s not really where I want to be either.

      What’s your thesis on?

  5. Short-term, have a nice cup of tea and walk around the block.

    Long-term I have no idea, but good luck anyway.

  6. Get it done girl! It’s a bit like making love. Sometimes, half way through, you may not think it’s worth it, but when you get there, it feels very good! The money and respect you command when you get it will be worthwhile! And think of all those speaking engagements you will get as the expert in the field. And don’t forget there’s a book in it as well!

  7. Some more questions to ask yourself:
    After it’s done what will you do that you couldn’t do now?
    For me, doing my honours (only a miniscule part of what you’re going through) a bit of it was being able to avoid asking myself, what do I do after uni? If you don’t want to be a journo anymore then I think it’s important you ask this question as well.

    On another point, if this is something that will launch you into something you would want to do: professional author? Will this doctorate make you more of a prospect to, say, publishers? Of course, the practical benefits of a doctorate aren’t something people generally get into it for but I think you get to a point where everything becomes related to ‘opportunity cost’. Personally I’m finding my priorities shifting: do I want to spend my life building stuff for other people or do I want to focus on doing something that I love and doing it for me (like my action figure website!). I think these questions also apply to what you’re going through: do you love doing this doctorate? Is it something that you care about passionately? If not then maybe think about those things you do love doing. Life’s too short and we’ve only got a couple of decades to go. I still want to cram a lot into that time and so spending days/months/years on something that doesn’t drive me seems like a waste.

    Having said that i would love to be called Doctor Dik so maybe I’ll do one just for that! :oP

  8. Wow, that’s tough. I haven’t been in your situation, but like any choice with far-reaching implications either way, the wondering what to do must be crazy-making.

    Perhaps break it down like this so it seems less scary: there isn’t a right or a wrong decision here. There’s only the best decision you can make based on your gut and the info at hand. Whatever choice you make will be the right one, because you made it. There’s not really any such thing as choosing ‘wrong’, because things only look ‘wrong’ with the benefit of hindsight and through examining the if-onlys and what-ifs and maybe-I-should-have’s.

    One last thing though, don’t make a decision while you’re feeling sick and not yourself … confidence and self-motivation are tough to find when you feel shitty.

  9. I have never heard the comparison between a PhD and sex in that way before….intriguing.

    I am in the camp of suggesting you just get on with finishing the bloody thing. The feeling at the end IS great and it really doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be an academic. In fact, in a way a PhD has more cachet outside of academia (where everyone needs one just to survive). For what it’s worth I think EVERYONE goes through a phase of wondering why they’re doing it and feeling guilty about not working on it hard enough. I went days without doing any work on it (maybe not weeks at a time, but it did add up) – and wasted rather too much time feeling guilty. Then, at the end I handed back five months of my scholarship money and wished I had faffed around more!!!

  10. PS I go by Dr Banana at home. I think Dr K has a nice ring to it.

    • Haha. Thanks. I had a few advantages – especially amazing supervisors and a supportive university environment. I still feel it was an immense privilege to get to spend time being paid to do such a great project.

  11. I completely understand this problem. I walked away from doctorates twice. Once when I lost my Commonwealth Scholarship after I was imprisoned because of censorship issues (1971 or 2, not sure) and was so involved in censorship and other battles and tutoring that I wasn’t really applying myself. My topic was the Social theory of Anarchism – so let’s say the practice took over from theory. I came across a typed chapter recently on some lightweight airline paper. It was about Pareto, an Italian social theorist. It felt so weird as I didn’t know I had kept it. Years later, I was back in the same sociology department at UNSW. I had a great supervisor and all my material. This time I was doing a Bourdieuan analysis of a miscarriage of justice case. But was so busy and overworked by that time as a senior academic that I could not bear getting up one more morning feeling the stress of having too much to do and not getting it done. Not enjoyable. Every now and again, I still think of finishing. But probably not.

    Now to you. It’s a big decision. Firstly, you need a supportive atmosphere at uni and an activist supervisor for a while until you are seriously moving. Secondly, as a journalism and good scholar, you will write quickly so you are right about that – just start to make lists and put yourself on some sort of software like Omni that helps take the stress away so you know you are moving forward. Thirdly, you are interested in the topic – that is very important and key. If you weren’t I would say walk away. Fourthly, give yourself a month before make a decision. Put all steps into place to overcome the problems. It is a very big step to walk away. Fifthly, if it is not happening at uni, organise an afternoon tea seminar for your friends where you present a progress report and get us interested in what you are doing. I’ll come and if your house is not big enough, have it around the big table in our kitchen. Make your own support group – Wendy Bacon

    • Aw, thanks Wendy.

      I’ve had the opposite problem to you – instead of being too busy, I took away all the external distractions, so I ended up with too much time, great long stretches of time, that I could easily waste because there was so much of it.

      I’m working on a list right now, of rewards/punishments and ways to be accountable to someone else each day.

  12. Oooh, I know this feeling! I’m in year five now (changed topic and supervisor in year three – both the best thing I could have done and a terrible idea) and am now pushing myself with external deadlines set by my supervisor to get a full (if terrible) draft done of the major body chapters by the end of the year. I quit all but 1.5 days a week of work to focus solely on writing and it’s been a blessing to have the time, but also exhausting. I’m sick of worrying about not having any money, sick of being financially dependent on husbandy-person (the most patient man in the world) and ready to do something else, whatever that may be. I’ve had moments of elation and moments of wanting to start a giant bonfire with all my books and photocopies but I am at the point where I just want to get it done and call myself doctor before moving on to the next chapter of my life.

    It’s been great to read all the comments and gain some perspective, it’s always nice to hear from people who have made the decision either way. Good luck making yours. If you do decide to stick it out I’m sure we could get an online accountability group going for all the PhD students this post is going to bring out of the woodwork!

    • Good idea. Want to be in it?

      Alex, welcome to the News with Nipples. What’s your thesis on?

      • I would love to be in on some kind of group that keeps me accountable and offers a sense of support and community. It’s a long, hard slog and it would be great to share the pain sometimes. My PhD is on media representations of women’ sexuality in contemporary Japan and since I’m based in Tokyo it can be quite a lonely experience sometimes, despite all the crazy nights out that seem to come with fieldwork here!

        I agree with Orlando, this is normal. Completely normal. Oh dear god please tell me it’s normal! Love your blog, it would be a shame to put all that writing talent to waste, but ultimately you have to come to your own decision and be happy with the path you choose. I would definitely buy any book that came out of your work though.

        • Thank you. And wow, your thesis topic sounds great! Did you live in Japan before you started it, or did you move there to do it?

          As for accountability, what would help you? Checking in on each other over email at agreed times to discuss the work we’ve agreed to do, or having an open thread here once a month to talk about what we’ve done and what we’re going to do (and comparing it to what we said we’d do last month), or writing a short guest post on what you’ve found out so far?

          • Thanks, I do love the topic (even if I’m not loving the writing). I did my undergrad in Japanese studies in Australia, and then something went horribly wrong in my brain and I decided to move here to do my MA (on the image of non-Japanese in Japanese entertainment media). There were only so many sexist, racist, nationalistic TV shows I could watch so I changed topics for my PhD and now I spend my time talking to sex toy importers and reading womens magazines. Much happier!

            An open thread or email talk would work for me, but I would rather not have the formality of a guest post – it would be more editing and stress! What works for you? Looking forward to hearing more detail about your work, it’s a topic very close to my heart as I’m teaching university students here who don’t even own TVs! Not that I really watch mine much anymore either…

  13. You do realise, don’t you, that this is how everyone feels after three years of a four year doctorate?

    • It doesn’t feel like that, because I’m not part of any PhD community. I’m completely disconnected from my university. I’ve only had limited contact with other doctoral students in my department, but they all talk about the hours and hours and hours of work they’re doing every day, and the journal articles they’re writing. I’ve decided they’re a bunch of liars, because they also say they never have any problems.

  14. Tricky. I’ve a little something to offer on the ‘process’ of what you are discussing, hopefully to help. One piece of advice that has helped me is to ‘pro’ and ‘con’ on actually both decisions… (i.e. pros of continuing / cons of continuing, pros of stopping / cons of stopping). It draws the issue out in more complexity and can offer insights into making the choice (avoiding an either/or dichotomy too quickly). Another thing is to note the many people here who have talked about continuing and what that has offered them, which is great. Can you connect / find people who stopped? I’d be interesting to hear their insights too. As you well know, ultimately this is your own choice to make, so another helpful question-set is, ‘What do I think I need to know in the process of making the decision about my PhD? (Content) Then, how am I going to go about deciding? (Process)’ i.e. data collection prior to making the decision, then actually how to go about making the decision…

    Finally, I’d be more than happy to chat over tea/coffee/beer/blah blah, having asked myself similar questions, and having had friends in the same situation. Good luck.

  15. Keep at it! The time will pass anyway. This is just another way of procrastinating. At the end of the year you’ll earn your own money and have a PhD!

  16. Keep at it! I gave up my PhD after working on it part-time for 6 or 7 years and have regretted that decision ever since. Time for ‘head down, bum up’ to cross that finishing line. 20 months is a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things, especially if there isn’t anything else that you would rather be doing. I’d say give it up if you have a burning ambition to be a deep sea scuba diver, jackhammer operator or a anything else you care to name. Otherwise, accept the opportunity to continue the adventure. You will be surprised and delighted about where it takes you.

    Follow Wendy Bacon’s advice especially about getting your own group going. (Who wouldn’t want the chance to be in a group with Wendy Bacon!) Graciously, accept your ManFriend’s financial contribution knowing you would do the same for him if the situation was reversed. Every PhD candidate I’ve ever met feels like you just before the final push so don’t give up. And remember, we all need the results of your research. Your results WILL have positive effects even if you never directly get to see or hear of them. I, for one, would love to read your thesis and I’m sure there are many others who would too. Keep on truckin’ gurl!

    • Ha! Thanks Terry Webster. I’ve told ManFriend that once I finish the damn thing and get a full time job, he can quit his job and play pinball.

      You’re right. Since there isn’t anything else I want to do right now (other than work and have money), I might as well finish it.

  17. I can understand not wanting to be poor and rely on manfriend financially but will the doctorate help you earn more in the long run?

  18. Woohoo! Sounds like you have arrived at a decision. Well done! Honestly, the next 20 months isn’t that long and then you can be called Dr K FOREVER!

    • Yeah, I guess I have. When I wrote the post I was ready for someone to put me out of my misery. And it seemed a good time to do it because there’s a job that I’d like to do but they won’t consider part-time applicants. It’s not my dream job – whatever that is – so I wasn’t weighing up the job versus the doctorate, but was something interesting and I’d finally have money again.

      But I looked at the pros and cons and realised that they’re about different things: I like the work but I’m sick of the lifestyle. It would be an easy decision to quit if the work was in the cons list.

      So, I’m going to do everyone’s advice. All the advice I got here, and all the advice I got on twitter. And I’m going to smash this thing!

      I hope.

  19. I don’t know what you should do, but it would piss me right off not to finish it. And not to get to call myself ‘Dr Rhiannon’.

  20. My dad always told me when I got to that point in my degree, “Once you’ve finished it, you will always have that accomplishment and that piece of paper. Stopping short means you won’t have something to show for all the work you’ve already done”. I think it’s super common to get to a sticking point like where you’re at, but it’s so close now… keep at it!

  21. I know all kinds of people who gave up working on their Doctorate for one reason or another. My daughter asked me one time if I realized that I had over 70 hours over my Master’s Degree. She continued by saying she only needed 90 over hers for her PhD. I just smiled and told her no more school for me (boy, did I take that seriously!). She just finished her Doctorate recently and loves being called Dr. White (Married, too).
    So, I guess that is all up to you. If you like the idea enough, then it is worth it. If not, just be satisfied with what you get without it. That’s the key – be satisfied.

  22. Sorry to hear you’re stressed about this. That sucks. I hope you keep on with it, because I think you’re work is really cool, and while it’s possible to think through all this stuff outside of universities, I find that having the space and time to do a PhD is a time to revel in curiosity. Yeah, there are annoying bits to it – lack of money!!! – but what a massive joy to have the opportunity to research one thing in such depth.

    My main bit of advice to you is that you have to know why you are doing it. You have to know what it is you want to get out of it. Maybe that changes over time – it did for me. When I started my PhD it was entirely about my interest in the topic (I freaking love my topic), by the end I had added to that a focus on finding a way to continue researching and teaching in universities, and a PhD is a necessity for that.

    As for not producing? Meh. You will. Really, the writing bit won’t take you long and since you are already such a good writer, it won’t be so difficult for you. A big advantage! And your topic is so awesome and I learn a lot from reading your blog.

    As for feeling isolated, yeah that sucks too. Conferences etc can be really useful for that, and they often have postgrad days or workshops the day before. I also found attending seminar days at unis useful too. I made some great post-grad friends who were totally not in my field. In the end though, everyone is going through the same thing, right? This idea pisses some people off, but I find comfort in the knowledge that the experience of doing a PhD is not entirely unique.

    I just submitted my PhD two weeks ago, which is a massive relief. Unlike you, I never doubted that I would finish, despite the many obstacles, etc that interrupted me along the way. I have to tell you that despite the various challenges – frustration, isolation, poverty, and so on – it is one of the best things I have ever done in my life. It has opened opportunities for me – people, places, publishing – that I could never have imagined at the beginning. Maybe I’ve been really lucky (I had amazing advisors), but I also just made the most of every moment.

    Relentless (blind) optimism all the way.

    (Oh, by the way, I quoted your blog in my thesis. I write about the importance of fucking up in how we learn, and you posted a good line about it once (‘The curious case of trolls’). So, there you go!)

  23. Finished what you have begun. It may not seem it, but 18 months is a blip in a life time and it will result in major accomplishment. Concentrate your efforts over 4 days. Remove the clutter/distraction that has you ‘with nothing at the end of a day’. Get a part time job. (New people. Interaction. Pocket money)
    I’d wish you good luck, but it is never about luck.

  24. I’ve just submitted. It took me 7.5 years, and I worked full-time throughout, so I did a lot of it on my annual leave and even on leave without pay. There was no external push for me to do it – I didn’t have a scholarship and it doesn’t affect my employment. There were months when I didn’t do much – I’ve had several surgeries, for example, and I’m not great for weeks after an anaesthetic. As time went on, I worked in bursts – five days over Easter; a week’s annual leave – but in the last three or so years I also worked on it every Sunday and every second Monday (by arrangement with work – I worked longer hours to bank a day a month and was also able to claim ten days a year as study leave). Like you, I had no community of students around me; I had to motivate myself.

    I think you should ignore all the girly swats who are working 10 hours a day, publishing etc etc. They’re probably not achieving any more than you are. But if I were you and I wanted to finish I would really commit for this last 18 months: name several days a week you will work 6-8 hours, stick to them and look forward to them. Plan for them in your mind (on Monday I’ll finish reading …, on Tuesday I want to re-read that chapter and make some notes on what it still needs…) Think of it like a part-time job.

    If, on the other hand, you don’t want to finish, don’t. Like me, you are in a brilliant position. You’re not 23 with no back-up plan; you’re not supporting a family who are depending on you to do this for the next step in your career. It’s your choice and you can make it happen. If you want to. And you do have to want to.

    And, yes, it’s perfectly normal to feel like this. 🙂

    • This is all excellent advice. Thanks M-H. (When I look at my output over the last three years, I should have been working full time, instead of part time.

      Congratulations, by the way. How does it feel?

  25. Listen to Mary-Helen, she knows stuff. I’ve been doing my phd since 2009, upgraded from a MEd in 2009. Looks like we will are on a similar #phd time line ;). Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler write about forming a phd identity, you might think you have done naught but actually you have done the stuff of it.

    Pomodoros are 25 minutes (some pomodorians do 45 min) of writing, or associated activities (i like coding) interspersed with 5 min of doing something else (put the washing on, make a tea etc) then back to it… There’s an app if you have a smart phone, but a kitchen timer is just as good.

    The Pomodorians do call outs with #suaw hashtag, and some days we even do massed virtual pomodoroian fiestas… that include do the washing and the dishes during the breaks (personally I like creative interpretative dance as my pomodorian breaks). Other hash tags to find phd tweeps and writters include #ecrchat #phdchat #acwri

    I’m usually around on Sun, Mon and usually one other day during the week (Thurs or Friday), tweet if you want to join in.
    See you on the twits!

    • I’ll definitely see you on the twits!

      You know, the pomodoro doesn’t work for me when I’m doing academic writing. Fiction, yes, but there’s something about it that puts me on edge when I’m doing academic stuff.

  26. You’re possibly just going through what has accurately been described as the “Valley of Shit”. http://thesiswhisperer.com/2012/05/08/the-valley-of-shit/

    • Oh, that is a very well named valley. I think that’s part of it. The other part is not feeling very connected to what I’m doing right now, so I don’t do much of it.

      On a different note, I was talking about you today. Was wondering if you had anything on The Project yet?

      • But, you don’t even know who I am!! *disappears into a cloud of smoke to the tune of ‘the final coundown’*

        *emerges coughing from the cloud of smoke*

        OK, well, that’s a shame. If you’re ever keen to shoot the breeze on the topic, just let me know. And, I promise not to even try and convince you to do your PhD with me instead. 🙂

        Hmmmm, hope you were saying nice things? We’re going to be looking at The Project in some detail as part of the ARC Discovery project that started up this year. It’s an aspect of the study which I am keen to push on with quite early, so hopefully it won’t be long before there’s something published/presented from it.

  27. Dino not to be confused with

    Chickybabe ya ain’t finished yet?!!!!
    Get off your proverbial procrastinating posterior and start F’n writing!
    How am I gonna take ya Doctorate away of ya don’t get one?
    You better start writing real quick!.
    Don’t make me come down there!

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