Why I Might (May [Most Likely]) Not Finish My PhD

red-phd-gold-pip_2I realize I go back and forth on this topic a lot. Probably a few times a week…actually I’ve been doing it since about two and half years ago when I began my PhD.

And so, as a disclaimer, I want to make it clear now that it is very likely that in two hours I’ll be ready to hit the archives and book lists and think that those funny pillow hats are the coolest things in existence. And that I like red enough to want to have to wear a CARDINAL robe to every academic ceremony I attend for the rest of my life due to Boston U’s unfortunate color choices (pity them).

This flip-flop may very well happen. In fact, it probably will happen.

But as of this afternoon, I would like to lay down some of my reasons for possibly not completing my PhD in American Studies. Because it makes me feel better to write them out instead of letting people conjecture all over the place if that ends up being my ultimate decision…and I like writing things…and I haven’t actually journaled anything for technically two months now and I feel guilty…MOVING ON!

Reason #1: I never was sure that I wanted to get a PhD in American Studies.

The grad. school scramble I went through my senior year at BYU was hellish and frantic and panicked. I just wanted SOMETHING TO GIVE ME PURPOSE and I knew I wanted to get a PhD in something that would allow me to teach at a university level. It was Geographic Information Systems, History, and American Studies neck to neck until the final deadline hours.

I got into BU’s fantastic program. I had a challenge to surmount again. I was happy.

But, as I went through my classes, I realized that I wasn’t as “into it” as I thought I should be. Sure, I liked going to class (most of the time) and I liked the papers I wrote (after the midnight-oil burning). I liked being in a place like Boston and eating fancy cheeses with people I admired and who talked about REAL THINGS and HOW TO FIX THEM…and often did, in fact, fix them. I liked the field trips to x-ray priceless Van Gogh paintings and the cut-glass dinners in the President’s office…

But I didn’t ever love it.

I guess, I didn’t ever love it until my last year when I met Dr. Freitas and became absolutely obsessed with Women, Sexuality and Spirituality/Religion. It was the first time in grad school I went out and read extra books and extra articles, wrote extra analyses and audited extra classes. I found something to be passionate about. And I still am passionate about.

The problem was, as I prepared to move away from Boston, I was told that I could not make that topic work as an American Studies dissertation. My committee was suddenly disbanded two weeks before I had to be out of my apartment and across the country at a new research job.

Because of this, I feel as if my interests are not really of an “American Studies” variety, and subsequently, any future self-driven work (read: all the rest of my degree) would be forced, painful, and probably way more boring than archival research would have to be.

Reason 2: I moved to Oregon.

This was unavoidable. This was a topic MUCH discussed in the two years leading up to the move. This was something that was put off at least one year later than it could have been, just so I could finish my course requirements in Boston.

Of the two of us, Atticus was more fulfilled and happy in his PhD program as well. I had had major doubts as to my “fit” from day one. Furthermore, in the realm of possibility, it was feasible that I could finish my PhD in Oregon if passionate about it, while Atticus would have had to give up his schooling all together if he had moved to Boston.

Time apart was not worth it after I finished my Boston reqs, and we were both tired of going crazy.

Unfortunately, reason 2 coupled with reason 1 has been a difficult concoction to swallow. Beginning with a loss of my passion-driving possible topic and a doubt that this could be the best academic fit for me overall, finding a dissertation beginning here in a semi-rural community has been almost impossible and undeniably boring.

I have a viable idea and a luke-warm interest in the 19th century local history of the area…but the archives here are incomplete, unorganized, and underfunded. All in all, I have come to realize that one would have to be OBSESSED about this topic to get any “top ten program” type of dissertation out of the materials available…and even then…

There is a possibility that I could simply research another topic in San Francisco. An hour’s flight away and friends that might put up with me in their apartments makes it an option.

However! Once again, knowing that my original passion was not accepted as viable, I would have to try and discover a new interest while trying to negotiate travel expenses, time away from a job, and the limits of not having local access to a large academic institution.

Ultimately, I think that my original idea that it could be possible to finish here is true. However, my drive level, local interest, and investment in the program as a whole is not up to par with what would be required to finish a history-centered PhD in three years here…probably not even in the requesite seven.

Reason 3: The thought of life with a PhD in American Studies is appealing for only two reasons: I would be DR. Harris (which has been my lifelong goal. Dr. Harris in anything) and I would possibly have the credentials to teach in a Humanities topic (religion, literature, history, art: another not-quite-as-lifelong goal).

However, as I went through the program, I realized that my passions might be better suited in a more specific (and, to be blunt, marketable) degree. Of course, I’m sure the employment difference between an American Studies and, say, Religious Studies doctorate isn’t that large, but at least it would be something I enjoyed enough to want to read everything about it and publish fascinating books and articles in top journals about the Female Pentecostal Experience in Colorado (don’t you want to read that, or what?!).

Then, of course, there’s my interest in GIS that went unfulfilled during Grad School applications. I even went so far as to visit the UofO’s program (the closest one to where we are now) and garner the “I would advise you” stamp of approval from two professors before even applying. Alas, the 2.5 hour commute was not going to work out for me (or for us)…but until I made that first driving loop I was d**g serious about the enterprise.

Ultimately, this locale is not where AmSt. PhDs are born (at least not easily or interestingly), and I’m not very sure at all that I’d want it to be for me.

Reason 4: I was able to get my Master’s degree from BU before I left.

It is not as if my two years are completely worthless if I do not finish the post-BA PhD program I was originally accepted into. In fact, it might be the best situation in that it does not saddle me with 3 more years of something I never was really committed to.

Reason 5: As much as my classmates and I spent time around conference tables debating “A New Era for American Studies” and “A New Definition for American Studies”…the fact of the matter is…it is on its way into obscurity.

Very, very, very few of the affiliated faculty even had degrees in American Studies. Most were specialized in more “foundational” fields like Literature, Art History, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Religion. There are hardly any universities with American Studies programs anymore, maybe five or less with American Studies departments (usually undergrad-focused).

If I did finish my degree…I think I really would only have the satisfaction of touting the DR. in front of my name with little else to show for it. I would rather have a more active distinction.

I would rather have a degree that I might have a more realistic chance to develop: most likely in the social sciences like Geography and GIS. I would like to invest my intelligence and time to an education that is involved with new creation, not endless rehash and rediscovery. I would rather take my Humanities degree and wed it to technology to try and adapt new ways of developing information in tandem with celebrating the old beauties I had the chance to discover and dissect at BU.

I would rather invest in a future where I might do more good for the Humanities in a degree outside of it than a future based in strictly the Humanities would.

Reason 6: As Atticus and I have both discussed, the next move we make is my perogative. With his degree, Atticus has a reasonable chance of finding a decent job in a much broader geographic range than I would. Personally, I would like to move to a place where he can work on a post-doc and I can develop myself with another Masters or a PhD.

The question of children may come to your mind. We both know that it might not be the easiest way, but from the examples of some of our friends and role models, we know that such an arrangement is possible and even enjoyable as both parents gain experience filling each other’s shoes at different times. Couple empathy, I’ll call it. Double-parent face time for your kids. Everyone wins, we just might not have 9 hours of sleep every night. But who does?

Reason 7: All this, of course, would leave a hole of sorts in my “goal-seeking.” A hole about 2-3 years long wherein I’d most likely work an average job in a rather rustic city. This view is, at first, rather depressing. I’ve always been driven by “the next goal” and such a living arrangement would be lacking the level of “goal” I feel I should be working toward at 24 years old.

However, on the flip side, having time to figure out my true passions and drives is something I’ve never really had the opportunity to do. I was rushed into grad school (I know, I did it to myself) and rushed into a tres-boring dissertation topic when my passions and committee were not approved. I don’t know if I really want to join the peace corps, teach middle schoolers, become a business CEO, run a library, write novels, develop GIS for the CIA, or curate at the Getty Center. All of these options have appealed to me GREATLY at one point or another…in the past 48 hours…

The extra time would also allow me to better find an academic program more suited to my interests and needs. It would allow me to get to know professors better (both in correspondance and in reading their work). It would allow me to dabble and volunteer in positions I think would interest me and make better choices based off of actual experience.

In a broader view, not finishing my AmSt PhD might actually be the best academic opportunity I could have.

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15 Comments

Filed under Considering, Conspicuously Overwhelming Note, Feministing, Hobbies and Such, Matrimanity, The Oddness Within

15 responses to “Why I Might (May [Most Likely]) Not Finish My PhD

  1. I fully fully FULLY support you in not finishing. I think all the time about not finishing my Ph.D. program and I don’t have half the compelling reasons you do. Hell, I don’t have a third the compelling reasons you do, given that my only reasons are “Can I really do it?” and “meh.” So I say, go for it! Don’t finish! Religious studies (sometime) it is!

    (But you should know that if you ever needed to come do research in San Francisco you would be entirely more than welcome to stay at my apartment. I don’t have a ton of room–the best word for my apartment is “cute,” meaning “small”–but I would be absolutely delighted to share it with you.)

    Pinto: Heck. If I can find a full-time job, I’m going to just come visit you sans archival obligation. I promise I would only interrupt your studies by posting on my blog. Things like “Hey, do you want to go eat now?”

  2. Rees

    Bag it all and open up a bookstore! You’d be a fantastic business owner and could share your love of reading and books with so many people :) You could call it “The Book Nook” and it would be quaint and lovely. You’d play all of your cool music softly and sell your bake wares at a little counter. DO IT!

    Pinto: Hmmm…the passion in your voice makes me think that you may have had this same dream…

  3. Rees

    You might not be “Dr. Harris” — but I like “The Book Lady” lots better :)

    Pinto: uhhh…

  4. This was my favorite Pinto Bean so far. I almost felt like I was reading about an American Scholar.

    And as a wise man once told me, “Education is not a destination but a journey…”

    Pinto: I don’t knowwww…I think technical scholars are, like, PhDs…::sigh::

  5. kia

    I’m pretty sure that “Dr.” is more than it’s cracked up to be (a suspicion of mine that will be confirmed once I get there in about 8 years).

    Pinto: hah. Yeah, let me know what it’s like on the other side… I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Kia: If I didn’t pass out at the words “Circulatory System,” your life is the one I’d be wanting to lead.

  6. Oooh! Oooh! I think you should run a library. :)

    But then, you know my bias.

    Also, kudos for this post. It’s brave. Also, I think taking some time off to reorient yourself in a direction that would make you happier in the long run would be very wise.

    But whatever you decide, I hope you pick the thing that’ll make you happiest.

    Pinto: Thanks Beth.

  7. You could get a PhD in WAFFLING. That is what I plan to get MINE in.

    Pinto: oh man, I’m so sick of waffling…

  8. Megan

    You can get your PHD. I Believe in ya! Do what you want though…read the alchemist and chill. ;) It’ll all work out.

    I should re-read that book. All I remember is there’s this glass-blower, and it’s cool, but really trippy at the same time.

  9. christina q

    if you open a bookstore……i will come do the repair work. :)

    Pinto: Stop seducing me with promises of bookish bliss and friendly banter!

  10. Orin

    Speaking as a doctoral student who nearly wasted a lot of time on an M.D., I found that much of what makes a doctoral student, and indeed a Ph.D. is a passion for research, teaching, or [typically] both. I think that if research and teaching are what you want to do, then you really should go for a Ph.D. Perhaps not American Studies, especially if you will not get the freedom to choose a topic, but perhaps Women’s Studies, History (and do your dissertation on women, sexuality, and spirituality), or otherwise. Either way, good luck!

    Pinto: Thanks Orin. I know I have a passion for teaching much more than research (at least in AmSt…although that may be different in other areas like you said). I agree with ya and thanks for the confidence. Best in California!

  11. Rachel

    I’m not going to offer the concrete suggestions above, but I will offer the following:

    As someone dedicated in the PHD pursuit but more excited about teaching (as I see it, encouraging self-reflection and pondering connections to wider society, promoting dialogue between a multitude of life experiences) than publishing and conference-shmoozing, I view going after a Phd as something self-directed (I think BU is ridiculous for claiming your research interests aren’t “American Studies” — please remember BU’s program is rather conservative when compared to programs at some other institutions) and a way for me to serve others and make an impact on a wider scale through teaching — and the Phd will let me do it on the university level which allows me time to volunteer at my church and get outside and grade on whatever beach my kayak lands me, while still making sure I have a place to sleep and a full belly – not to mention still have people respect my words despite my Chacos and dreadlocks. Heh.

    Reading your post, I wondered how I got to a place where I feel sure-footed, the process by which I make my life-decisions, and I suppose my [sugg/qu]estions for you are these:

    1. How do you measure success in your life?
    2. What are your passions? (this is the easier question)

    I’ve always thought that starting where the answers to those two questions connect is the best compass to guide you toward What To Do Next and Where To Start.

    Pinto: Rachel, you are a wise mujer. Really, thank you for this comment.

    I’m going to really sit back and think about this. My gut reaction to your questions were: 1) Feel valued in my family and in society, be able to progress (not feel trapped or unable to move forward), be respected, autonomy. and 2) Create access to and love of knowledge. People, places.

    Kind of broad, but a place to begin, like you said. I hope to visit Boston sometime. I hope we can catch up. You really were, in a lot of ways, a role model to me in Boston.

  12. Rachel

    (Also, I keep reminding myself to send you a thank you for your e-mail on November 29th — it really meant a lot. Thank you.)

    Thank you for the thank you.

  13. Laura

    I am in a similar boat. I am in a History PHd program that I never was quite set on, and I can’t seem to make any progress on my dissertation.

    Here is what is keeping me in, it’s the whole: “You have come this far it would be a shame for you not to finish.”

    This continues to hold some water for me, because I indeed completed every other requirement and have done very well in my program up until this point. Yes, I am not passionate about my dissertaion, but I have been told by many people that your disseration does not have to be the culmination of your life’s work. It is just a big paper. And we all have written many papers.

    One of my big hangups is that I am afraid of the expectations that come along with the title. I never really wanted it.

    But, if you want a PHd and would consider pursuing another one, you should seriously just finish this one. You are 75% of the way there. You can finish that pesky dissertation and then write about whatever you want and teach about it as well.

    Pinto: Thank you, Laura, for your comment. I really appreciate it and I have to say that the “you’ve come so far already” reason has been the most convincing for me as well. For my program, however, I do still have to complete orals and my dis. research out here in the Oregonian boondocks and it would be 100 times more difficult than it would be normally (or ever should be…really…it would be absurd). If I was still living in Boston, I am sure I would not leave my program just because I’m the kind of person who hates leaving things undone and the reason “you’ve come so far” would far outweigh any other feelings of “not really into it” that I have. For now, I would say to you “Go for it!” if you are in a position to reasonably finish. As for me, I’m happy to finally be in a place that will let me drop something that has increasingly become impossible for my current life situation and long-term goals.

  14. toodous

    not sure you have finished it now or finally give up it. it’s now 2 yrs past. just curious…if people will regret to start PhD, I need to think about it too, maybe not neccesary to do it, as it’s no good to my carreer at the moment. thanks for sharing your experience. toodous@hotmail.com

  15. C

    Hey Im about to quit the PhD these days and I am wondering – if you still for any reason keep looking at this blog, and if you don’t mind replying – did you quit in the end? How did it go? How did you deal with other’s people “dissapointment” or your own? and what are you doing now? Are you happy? Thanks a lot! C.

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