It’s OK to Quit Your PhD

Author: Jennifer Polk
Original: From PhD to Life

Occasionally I’m asked about quitting, particularly “quitting” a PhD program. This happened several times last week, when I was in Vancouver.

Contrary to what you may hear or what your own internal critics tell you, there’s no shame in moving on. I remember a long post on a Versatile PhD forum from “PJ,” an ABD thinking about leaving instead of spending another two years (minimum) to finish their PhD. In response, one commenter wrote, “But the real question is, do you want to be a quitter? Now, not everyone will view that question the same, and I’m sure many will say that equating quitting a PhD program to being a quitter is not valid, but in reality, it is.” No! Thankfully, most other commenters on the thread offered more nuanced and helpful reflections and advice. “Finishing is not just about the destination,” one former tenure-track professor pointed out. “If that’s the only thing you want, then it’s a tough few years ahead.” Indeed.

Before you make the decision to leave, separate your inner critic – who may well be reflecting outer critics in your life – from what you know is right for you. Trust your gut, not your gremlin. In my experience, this is a decision that individuals make and re-make over time. I’ve worked with a few clients who’ve contemplated not finishing their PhD programs. While you figure out what you want, it’s ok to be ambivalent, carrying on the work but distancing yourself psychologically and emotionally from academia. What are your goals? Once you know them, you can determine the correct strategy to move toward them. (With thanks to Harvey P. Weingarten’s recent post.)

The “no one likes a quitter” attitude that exists in graduate school and perhaps in academia writ large isn’t warranted. There is nothing inherently good or bad about completing a PhD. It’s only a good move for you if it is a good move for you. While individuals who depart sans degree will come to their own personal conclusions about their decisions, the wide world rarely cares. It’s instructive that in PJ’s original post, they mentioned that their former undergraduate professors were unanimous in advising them to quit. I’ll let English professor (and graduate advisor) Leonard Cassuto speak for ideal advisors everywhere: “Most of my advisees finish their dissertations and get jobs. I’m proud of them. But some walk away – and of that group I’m just as proud” (Graduate School Mess, p. 121). I feel the same way about my own clients, whatever path they choose to take.

A while back Christine Slocum reflected on her career journey in a Transition Q & A post. She’d completed an MA and then two years of a PhD program, then moved on before achieving ABD status. In her post she explains there were several reasons for her choice, including feeling burnt out, lack of community in her department, and desire to start a family. Pursuing the doctorate no longer meshed with her goals: “After some soul searching, I remembered that the reason I was pursuing sociology in the first place was to better understand the mechanisms of social stratification because I wanted to better understand how to undo it. ​Four years of graduate study [later,] I felt like I had enough that the next five years would be better spent working for an NGO, nonprofit, or government position getting practical experience in the field.”

Heather Steel made a similar decision when she decided not to continue her PhD in the midst of dissertating. She learned important information about herself during graduate school. “There were parts of my program that I enjoyed very much (classes, having the chance to read and think, teaching, and my colleagues), but in the end,” she realized, “sitting for hours in front of a microfilm reader to write something that few people would actually read was not fulfilling.” Heather learned that she enjoys “research in small doses, not projects that take years to see results.” When I did an informational interview with her during my transition, I learned that she didn’t regret her choices. Her career has continued to progress since then.

When I was in Vancouver, a graduate student in the audience at one of my talks shared his own story: He’d been enrolled in a PhD programs years before, then left. But here he was back doing another doctorate! He was nearly done, and this time around he knew it was the correct path for him. I know several people who’ve done similar things, for a variety of reasons. Fascinating, eh?

If completing your PhD is the right move for you, carry on. Get support and help wherever you can find it, go part-time, or take a break or leave or absence. Make whatever changes you need to smooth your journey. But if the doctorate no longer makes sense — your goals have changed, you’ve learned more about yourself over the years — then I’ve got your back (in spirit) in deciding not to continue. You’re not “quitting” or “leaving”; instead, you’re embarking on a new, better-for-you path, taking what you learned and experienced and applying it in a context that’s more suitable to who you are, how you work best, and where you want to go. That’s risky and brave, but it’s also just you standing up for yourself. It took me until after my PhD to do that. Feel free to do as I didn’t.


The Valley of Shit

Author: Inger Mewburn
Original: Thesis Whisperer

I have a friend, let’s call him Dave, who is doing his PhD at the moment.

I admire Dave for several reasons. Although he is a full time academic with a young family, Dave talks about his PhD as just one job among many. Rather than moan about not having enough time, Dave looks for creative time management solutions. Despite the numerous demands on him, Dave is a generous colleague. He willingly listens to my work problems over coffee and always has an interesting suggestion or two. His resolute cheerfulness and ‘can do’ attitude is an antidote to the culture of complaint which seems, at times, to pervade academia.

I was therefore surprised when, for no apparent reason, Dave started talking negatively about his PhD and his ability to finish on time. All of a sudden he seemed to lose confidence in himself, his topic and the quality of the work he had done.

Dave is not the only person who seems to be experiencing these feelings lately. I have another friend, let’s call him Andrew.

Andrew is doing his PhD at a prestigious university and has been given an equally prestigious scholarship. Like Dave, Andrew approaches his PhD as another job, applying the many time management skills he had learned in his previous career. He has turned out an impressive number of papers, much to the delight of his supervisors.

Again I was shocked when Andrew emailed me to say he was going to quit. He claimed everything he did was no good and it took a number of intense phone calls to convince him to carry on.

Both these students were trapped in a phase PhD study I have started to call “The Valley of Shit”.

The Valley of Shit is that period of your PhD, however brief, when you lose perspective and therefore confidence and belief in yourself. There are a few signs you are entering into the Valley of Shit. You can start to think your whole project is misconceived or that you do not have the ability to do it justice. Or you might seriously question if what you have done is good enough and start feeling like everything you have discovered is obvious, boring and unimportant. As you walk deeper into the Valley of Shit it becomes more and more difficult to work and you start seriously entertaining thoughts of quitting.

I call this state of mind the Valley of Shit because you need to remember you are merely passing through it, not stuck there forever. Valleys lead to somewhere else – if you can but walk for long enough. Unfortunately the Valley of Shit can feel endless because you are surrounded by towering walls of brown stuff which block your view of the beautiful landscape beyond.

The Valley of Shit is a terrible place to be because, well, not to put too fine a point on it – it smells. No one else can (or really wants to) be down there, walking with you. You have the Valley of Shit all to yourself. This is why, no matter how many reassuring things people say, it can be hard to believe that the Valley of Shit actually does have an end. In fact, sometimes those reassuring words can only make the Valley of Shit more oppressive.

The problem with being a PhD student is you are likely to have been a star student all your life. Your family, friends and colleagues know this about you. Their confidence in you is real – and well founded. While rationally you know they are right, their optimism and soothing ‘you can do it’ mantras can start to feel like extra pressure rather than encouragement.

I feel like I have spent more than my fair share of time in the Valley of Shit. I was Thesis Whisperering while I was doing my PhD – so you can imagine the pressure I felt to succeed. An inability to deliver a good thesis, on time, would be a sign of my professional incompetence on so many levels. The Valley of Shit would start to rise up around me whenever I starting second guessing myself. The internal monologue went something like this:

“My supervisor, friends and family say I can do it – but how do they really KNOW? What if I disappoint all these people who have such faith in me? What will they think of me then?”

Happily, all my fears were groundless. My friends, teachers and family were right: I did have it in me. But boy – the smell of all those days walking in the Valley of Shit stay with you.

So I don’t want to offer you any empty words of comfort. The only advice I have is: just have to keep walking. By which I mean just keep writing, doing experiments, analysis or whatever – even if you don’t believe there is any point to it. Remember that you are probably not the right person to judge the value of your project or your competence right now.

Try not to get angry at people who try to cheer you on; they are only trying to help. Although you are alone in the Valley of Shit there is no need to be lonely – find a fellow traveller or two and have a good whinge if that helps. But beware of indulging in this kind of ‘troubles talk’ too much lest you start to feel like a victim.

Maybe try to laugh at it just a little.

You may be one of the lucky ones who only experience the Valley of Shit once in your PhD, or you might be unlucky and find yourself there repeatedly, as I did. I can completely understand those people who give up before they reach the end of the Valley of Shit – but I think it’s a pity. Eventually it has to end because the university won’t let you do your PhD forever. Even if you never do walk out the other side, one day you will just hand the thing in and hope for the best.


The Productivity Robbing Myths of Grad School

Author: Steve Shaw
Original: How Not To Suck at Grad School

I am not sure if there is a best way to be efficient and productive as there are many very different, but positive, ways to work. However, there are some common and universally terrible ways to work. Here are a few things that I hear students say with pride that are actually signs of an inefficient worker.

“I do my best work at the last minute. I thrive under pressure.”

–No. The first draft of everything is terrible, even for the best writer. You may be an extremely good binge writer, but I promise that the work will be better with another draft and some time to consider and change content.  Plan your time well. The draft of any project should be completed three days to two weeks before it is due. The remainder of the time can be spent in the real work of writing: editing.

“I am not a detail person. I am an idea person.”

–Ideas that are well-researched, communicated in detail, completely thought out, and effectively implemented are useful. All others tend to be vague dreams that borderline on hallucinations. Everyone is a dreamer, but the truly useful person works hard and uses detail to convert dreams into reality.

“I am a perfectionist.”

–This is not a positive trait. Trying to pursue perfection is a useless activity that is harmful to well-being and productivity. Being conscientious, detail focused, and striving for excellence are laudable characteristics. Perfectionism is maladaptive.

When I hear people tell me that they are a perfectionist, I feel the need to assess further to determine if we simply are defining perfectionism differently or if their behavior is maladaptive. Usually people mean that they are detail focused and striving for excellence with undertones of anxiety. This is typically a good set of characteristics for grad students. But when they mention the need to be perfect, then we are into a zone where anxiety may be maladaptive. Seeking excellence is good. Seeking perfection is a neurotic waste of time.

“I edit while I write.”

–This is a guaranteed method of getting nothing finished or severely limiting your productivity. Get all of your ideas out on paper. Only edit when you have completed a document or at least a substantial portion. Editing while writing is slow, makes for choppy prose, reduced flow and creativity, and increases anxiety. People with this habit also tend to be perfectionists and have learned this habit while doing last minute work. Take the time to complete a full draft and then edit.

“I don’t want to show this to you until it is ready.”

–I understand this secrecy problem. Some supervisors are extremely judgmental and even hostile to unfinished work. Submitting any work is aversive under these conditions. The best approach is to have students submit work on a timed basis, even if it is raw. The difference between a professional and an amateur writer is deadlines. Working to a deadline is more important than achieving the mythic ideal paper. I also find that when students wait to submit their ideal paper that they are crushed when substantial revisions are to be made. The supervisor can make suggestions, edits, improve the paper and move on without judgment. The goal is to develop a relationship that produces a large amount of scholarly material in an efficient manner. Trust between a student and supervisor is the best way to make this happen. When the secrecy issue is fostered we are teaching grad students to be perfectionists and adding anxiety to their lives.

“I’m a multi-tasker.”

–You are not. You can only attend to one task at a time. Many folks have developed a sophisticated skill set where they actively shift attention from one task to another. You attend to the television for a few minutes and then back to your book—you cannot do both at the same time. That counts for radio or music as well. You can focus on music or focus on your work, not both. What we tend to do is shift attentional focus. If you are listening to music and you know what was playing and enjoyed it, then you are shifting focus. Once you are in an activity where you are shifting focus between two things, then your efficiency is being robbed. There is some evidence that music with a constant beat and no lyrics can actually aid in concentration and focus. Classical music is an example. When I am at my most scattered, I listen to a metronome to help with focus. But no one is truly multitasking, you are rapidly shifting attention and reducing efficiency. This is not necessarily bad, but inefficient and needs to be used sparingly.

My wife works from home with the TV on.  She says that she likes the noise while she works. However, when I ask her what she is watching on television, she has no idea. She is certainly losing some focus, but not as much as she would if she was at all attending to the TV. I watch television while working only on weekends. I am mostly watching TV, but get a little work done at commercials. Not efficient and focused work, but better than nothing.

White noise can be a better idea than music or TV. White noise can be ideal for folks who like a level of sound to mask the often jarring ambient noise of your real environment such as construction, lawn maintenance, and loud neighbors. There are several white noise generators available online such as and . One of my favourite websites and apps is This site plays the ambient noise from a coffee shop. You can even select the type of coffee shop noise from “morning murmur” to “lunchtime lounge” to “university undertones.” This style of white noise is also helpful for the folks who actually prefer to do creative work in coffee shops, but cannot get there. I do not understand how people do this as my attention flits to the homeless guy, the hostile person in a long line, and the sounds of coffee slurpers; nonetheless many people do their creative work in coffee shops. The white noise from coffitivity is associated with a place of creativity, which can put you in the mood to work. The secret of white noise is that there is no content in the noise to draw attention away from your work.

Once I learned the skill of unitasking, I became at least twice as efficient as before. Now I do one thing fully focused until completed and then turn my attention to the next task. Not only is my work completed at a faster pace as a unitasker; I enjoy movies, TV, and music much more. And as an extra bonus, there are not the nagging feelings of guilt that go along with such multitasking.

We all develop work habits and there are many ways to be a productive worker. But as grad students and professors have increased pressures to produce the limits of our work habits are often reached and exceeded. What worked as an undergrad no longer works and now falls under the heading of a maladaptive habit. There is a constant need to hone work habits and remove of the productivity robbing myths and habits from your work.


The Lie Guy

Original: Chronicle of Higher Education

You’d think I’d get used to being called a liar. After all, I’ve written a candid, semiautobiographical novel about being a scam artist, been interviewed in the media about my former life of lying, cheating, and drinking, even edited a prominent philosophical collection on deception. But when a colleague recently ridiculed me about being known as a liar, my feelings were hurt. I have a new life. I’ve been clean and sober and “rigorously honest” (as we say in AA) for two years. Still, to tell you the truth (honestly!), I earned my reputation fair and square.

In the Internet age, a sordid past is a matter of very public rec­ord—for that matter, of public exaggeration—and if you write fiction and memoir about your worst days, as I did (and continue to do), even your students will take the time to read the racy parts (or at least excerpts in online interviews of the racy parts, or YouTube interviews about the racy parts).

God bless and keep tenure—I’d probably hesitate to be frank in this essay without it—although, to be fair to my institution, the ignominious stories about me and my novel were out before my committee granted me tenure. “It takes an odd person to work on lying,” my late mentor (and friend and co-author), the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, once told me, himself having written one or two of the best papers on the subject.

When I was 26 years old, in 1993, I dropped out of grad school at the University of Texas at Austin—I was on a fellowship, staring day after day at my stalled dissertation among stacks of books and papers from the Kierkegaard Archive in the Royal Library in Copenhagen—to go into the luxury-jewelry business. I decided to burn all of my bridges. I didn’t fill out any forms. I didn’t have the ordinary courtesy even to contact my two dissertation directors, Solomon and Louis H. Mackey. I just vanished.

I told myself that it was a conscious strategy, to prevent myself from going back, but I also knew the truth: that I was simply too ashamed to tell them that I had gone into business for the money. Like many of our deceptions, mine was motivated by cowardice: “Tell the people what they want to hear,” or, if you can’t do that, simply don’t tell them anything at all.

A few years later, my next-door neighbor (my wife and I had just moved in) caught me in the driveway and asked, “Hey, Clancy. Did you go to grad school at the University of Texas?”

“I did, that’s right.” I was already uncomfortable. I opened the door of my convertible. The Texas summer sun frowned cruelly down on me.

“I’m an editor of Bob Solomon’s. He told me to say hello.”

Busted. This was Solomon’s way of calling me on my b.s. It was his personal and philosophical motto, adopted from Sartre: “No excuses!” Take responsibility for your actions. Above all, avoid bad faith. Look at yourself in the mirror and accept—if possible, embrace—the person that you are.

But I was on my way to work, and Bob Solomon, at that point in my life, was the least of my problems. I had him stored neatly in the mental safety-deposit box of “people I had not lied to but had betrayed in a related way.”

The jewelry business—like many other businesses, especially those that depend on selling—lends itself to lies. It’s hard to make money selling used Rolexes as what they are, but if you clean one up and make it look new, suddenly there’s a little profit in the deal. Grading diamonds is a subjective business, and the better a diamond looks to you when you’re grading it, the more money it’s worth—as long as you can convince your customer that it’s the grade you’re selling it as. Here’s an easy, effective way to do that: First lie to yourself about what grade the diamond is; then you can sincerely tell your customer “the truth” about what it’s worth.

As I would tell my salespeople: If you want to be an expert deceiver, master the art of self-deception. People will believe you when they see that you yourself are deeply convinced. It sounds difficult to do, but in fact it’s easy—we are already experts at lying to ourselves. We believe just what we want to believe. And the customer will help in this process, because she or he wants the diamond—where else can I get such a good deal on such a high-quality stone?—to be of a certain size and quality. At the same time, he or she does not want to pay the price that the actual diamond, were it what you claimed it to be, would cost. The transaction is a collaboration of lies and self-deceptions.

Here’s a quick lesson in selling. You never know when it might come in handy. When I went on the market as a Ph.D., I had six interviews and six fly-backs. That unnaturally high ratio existed not because I was smarter or more prepared than my competition. It was because I was outselling most of them.

Pretend you are selling a piece of jewelry: a useless thing, small, easily lost, that is also grossly expensive. I, your customer, wander into the store. Pretend to be polishing the showcases. Watch to see what is catching my eye. Stand back, let me prowl a bit. I will come back to a piece or two; something will draw me. You see the spark of allure. (All great selling is a form of seduction.) Now make your approach. Take a bracelet from the showcase that is near, but not too near, the piece I am interested in. Admire it; polish it with a gold cloth; comment quietly, appraisingly on it. You’re still ignoring me. Now, almost as though talking to yourself, take the piece I like from the showcase: “Now this is a piece of jewelry. I love this piece.” Suddenly you see me there. “Isn’t this a beautiful thing? The average person wouldn’t even notice this. But if you’re in the business, if you really know what to look for, a piece like this is why people wear fine jewelry. This is what a connoisseur looks for.” (If it’s a gold rope chain, a stainless-steel Rolex, or something else very common and mundane, you’ll have to finesse the line a bit, but you get the idea.)

From there it’s easy: Use the several kinds of lies Aristotle identified in Nicomachean Ethics: A good mixture of subtle flattery, understatement, humorous boastfulness, playful storytelling, and gentle irony will establish that “you’re one of us, and I’m one of you.” We are alike, we are friends, we can trust each other.

The problem is, once lying to your customer as a way of doing business becomes habitual, it reaches into other areas of your business, and then into your personal life. Soon the instrument of pleasing people becomes the goal of pleasing people. For example, who wouldn’t want to buy a high-quality one-carat diamond for just $3,000? (Such a diamond would cost $4,500 to $10,000, retail, depending on where you buy it.) But you can’t make a profit selling that diamond for $3,000—you can’t even buy one wholesale for that amount. Since the customer can’t tell the difference anyway, why not make your profit and please the customer by simply misrepresenting the merchandise? But that’s deceptive trade! There are laws against that! (There’s a body of federal law, in fact: the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Texas awards triple damages plus attorney’s fees to the successful plaintiff.) Aren’t you worried about criminal—or at least civil—consequences? And how do you look at yourself in the mirror before you go to bed at night?

During my bleakest days in business, when I felt like taking a Zen monk’s vow of silence so that not a single lie would escape my lips, I often took a long lunch and drove to a campus—Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, the University of Texas at Arlington—to see the college kids outside reading books or holding hands or hurrying to class, and to reassure myself that there was a place where life made sense, where people were happy and thinking about something other than profit, where people still believed that truth mattered and were even in pursuit of it. (OK, perhaps I was a bit naïve about academic life.)

I was in the luxury-jewelry business for nearly seven years, and though I don’t believe in the existence of a soul, exactly, I came to understand what people mean when they say you are losing your soul. The lies I told in my business life migrated. Soon I was lying to my wife. The habit of telling people what they wanted to hear became the easiest way to navigate my way through any day. They don’t call it “the cold, hard truth” without reason: Flattering falsehoods are like a big, expensive comforter—as long as the comforter is never pulled off the bed.

It seemed that I could do what I wanted without ever suffering the consequences of my actions, as long as I created the appearance that people wanted to see. It took a lot of intellectual effort. I grew skinnier. I needed more and more cocaine to keep all my lies straight. And then, one morning, I realized that I had been standing in “the executive bathroom” (reserved for my partner and myself) at the marble sink before a large, gilt Venetian mirror every morning for days, with my Glock in my mouth (in the jewelry business, everyone has a handgun). I still remember the oily taste of that barrel. Before I confronted the fact that I was trying to kill myself, I had probably put that gun in my mouth, oh, I don’t know—20, 30 times. I said, “Enough.”

I called Bob Solomon. That was in May of 2000.

I was relieved when he didn’t answer his phone. I left a message: “I’m sorry, Dr. Solomon. I’d like to come back.” Words to that effect, but at much greater length. I think the beep cut me off.

When he called back, I was too frightened to pick up. I listened to his voice-mail message. He said, “Clancy, this is not a good time to make yourself difficult to get ahold of.”

I called again. He let me off easy. (He was perhaps the most generous person I’ve ever known.) I caught him up with the past six years of my life. He told me to call him Bob, not Dr. Solomon: “We’re past that.” Then he said, “So, why do you want to come back?”

“I want to finish what I started, Bob.”

“That’s a lousy reason. Try again.”

“I need to make a living that’s not in business. I hate being a businessman, Bob.”

“So be a lawyer. Be a doctor. You’ll make more money. It’s not easy to get a job as a professor these days, Clancy.”

“It’s the one thing I really enjoyed. Philosophy was the only thing that ever truly interested me. And I have some things I want to figure out.”

“Now you’re talking. Like what? What are you thinking about?”

“Lying. Or failure. I feel like I know a lot about both of them right now.”

(I was writing a long essay about suicide, which, come to think of it, might have been more to the point at the time. But I didn’t want to scare him off.)

A beat.

“Nobody wants to read about failure. It’s too depressing. But lying is interesting. Deception? Or self-deception? Or, I’m guessing, both?”

“Exactly. Both. How they work together.”

With the help of a couple of other professors who remembered me fondly, in the fall semester of 2000, Bob Solomon brought me back to the philosophy doctoral program at Austin, and I started work on a dissertation called “Nietzsche on Deception.” One of the other graduate students—Jessica Berry, now one of philosophy’s best young Nietzsche scholars—called me “the lie guy,” and the moniker stuck.

I went to work on deception not because I wanted to learn how to lie better—I had mastered the art, as far as I was concerned—but because I wanted to cure myself of being a liar. What had started out as a morally pernicious technique had become a character-defining vice. I had to save myself. I needed to understand the knots I had tied myself into before I could begin to untangle them. (It seems like an odd solution now. At the time, I thought I was too smart for therapy.)

It’s an old idea, of course: The Delphic injunction “Know thyself” is an epistemological duty with moral muscle, intended for a therapeutic purpose. Throughout the history of philosophy, until quite recently, it was thought that the practice of philosophy should have a powerful impact on the philosopher’s life—even, ideally, on the lives of others. So I studied deception and self-deception, how they worked together, why they are so common, what harms they might do, and when, in fact, they may be both useful and necessary. Think, for example, about the misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception involved in falling in love. Who hasn’t asked, when falling in love, “But am I making all this up?” Erving Goffman would have agreed with the joke—I think we owe it to Chris Rock: “When you meet someone new, you aren’t meeting that person, you’re meeting his agent.”

I was lucky: I was awarded my Ph.D. in 2003, and I got a job. Being part of a university as a professor was very different from being a student, even a grad student. Suddenly you have power. In business—especially in retail—the customer has all the power. But students are nothing like customers, although they are starting to act more and more that way, I’ve noticed, and have eagerly adopted the motto “the customer is always right.” My fellow professors wore their power like a crown. They didn’t feel the need to pull a smile out of anyone.

I was still going from classroom to committee room trying to please everyone. I don’t think it harmed me or anyone else, particularly: It was simply unnecessary. As that sank in, I became disoriented. It reminded me of when I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the 1990s, trying to hire the world’s best (and most underpaid) jewelers. No one cared about your money. The concept hadn’t yet sunk its teeth into the post-Communist soul. Similarly, in academe, no one paid much attention to the capital—charm—I was accustomed to spending in my daily life.

In fact, charm could even be a hindrance. In my first year, I was asked by a senior colleague to be the research mentor to a philosopher who had been hired around the same time. After talking about my research, my colleague added, “You are mostly who you seem to be.” This from a man who prided himself on being only who he seemed to be—as though we are all only one person!—and as a way of letting me know that he had “seen through me,” that he “was not prey to my charms.” Also, no doubt he was gently letting me know that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone other than I was.

In my old life, everyone was always trying to be more charming than everyone else—even the gruffness of certain wholesalers was (everyone understood) only pretense, the pose of authenticity, the rough exterior that hid the honest, caring heart. To be charming was among the highest virtues.

But now the chair of a science department at my university—a person whom I like very much, and who is enormously charming—and other colleagues often seem suspicious of charm in anyone. Charm is what you expect from administrators, and they, we all know, are not to be trusted. Administrators are just glorified salespeople who can’t publish (so the story goes). A charming student is a dishonest student, an apple polisher.

If I was a bit rude to people, however, if I acted superior, if I had the right mix of intellectual distance and modest moral disdain, I was suddenly a member of the club. I had to be the opposite of eager to please. Other people must be eager to please me. And if they were, I should be suspicious of them. They should be subservient without being (obviously) obsequious. They can flatter, but never as a salesperson flatters; I want flattery only from my equals. This from people who were regularly checking to see how many hot peppers they’d earned. Or who fretted—or, still worse, pretended not to fret—about their teaching evaluations.

I got Bob Solomon on the phone again.

“Bob, the professor business is even sleazier than the jewelry business. At least in the jewelry business we were honest about being fake. Plus, when I go to conferences, I’ve never seen such pretentiousness. These are the most precious people I’ve ever met.”

“Come on, Clancy. Did you really think people were going to be any better in a university?”

“Um, kind of.” Of course I did. “And it’s not that they’re not better. They’re worse.”

“Well, you may have a point there.” (Bob was always very tough on the profession of being a professor.) “Focus on the students and your writing. The rest of it is b.s.” (That was a favorite expression of Bob’s, as it is of a former colleague of his at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt.)

“With the students, I still feel like I’m selling.” (I was very worried about this.)

“You are selling. That’s part of what it is to be a good teacher.” (Bob was in the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers and had won every teaching award in the book. He also made several series of tapes for the Teaching Company.) “To be a good teacher, you have to be part stand-up comic, part door-to-door salesman, part expert, part counselor. Do what feels natural. Be yourself. Are your students liking it? Is it working for you?”

“Yes.” They liked it all right, maybe a bit too much. “And I think they’re learning.”

“Then forget about the rest of it. Just have fun. That’s the best reason for doing it.”

Stendhal wrote: “With me it is a matter of almost instinctive belief that when any … man speaks, he lies—and most especially when he writes.” I still like to tell a good story. But doesn’t everybody who loves teaching? How else are you going to liven up the classroom when students’ eyes are always turning to their iPhones or laptops?

People often ask me now if I miss the jewelry business. My brother and I rode elephants in the mountains of northern Thailand to buy rubies from the miners. I flew to Hong Kong to buy a rope of gigantic black South Sea pearls—each nearly the size of your thumb—and a precious antique jade bracelet from a dying Chinese billionairess, and flew to Paris two days later to sell it to a customer. I walked through the winding, crowded streets of Jerusalem with my diamond wholesaler, talking about the two-state solution. I stayed at the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental, or private mansions of friends. I lived shoulder-to-shoulder with celebrity clients, flew first class, had my suits custom-made, vacationed in Bali or wherever I wanted. More important—thinking of my life today—I didn’t worry about whether my daughters might have to take out student loans.

And the truth is, a lot of the time, that life was fun. The people were rich, noisy, outrageous. When I opened a new store, I felt like I’d created something special.

Would I go back? Do I miss it? No. Sometimes—I write this looking out my office window at the 100-year-old trees outside, their boughs barely lifting and falling in the autumn wind—I feel like a monk who has retreated from a world that was too much for him. “The greatest part of virtue lies in avoiding the opportunity for vice,” St. Augustine teaches us.

Maybe I’m persisting in a kind of self-deceptive naïveté that Bob wouldn’t have approved of, but you could say that my livelihood now depends on telling the truth. Back then I was arms-and-shoulders deep into life, and now at times I feel as though I am only skating on its mirrored surface. But I’d be afraid to go back. I feel peaceful now. It’s less work to be me, and to have me around. I don’t feel the need to lie. Most of the time.


Dr. Martin’s new book on deception in romantic relationships entitled “Love and Lies” is now available.


Je Suis Reviewer #2

Author: Ana Todorović
Original: Musings

I was recently invited to review a manuscript for a journal I follow regularly. The content was right along the lines of my kind of research, and I was happy to accept. I was, of course, Reviewer Number Two.

I always have been, in each of my fifteen-ish reviewing experiences. But this was the first time that the drop-down menu actually encouraged me to be your stereotypical Number Two:

I was in the second year of my PhD when that first reviewing assignment landed in my lap. So there I was, sifting through my inbox, deleting the “Dear Dr. Todorovic” flattery of predatory publishers. But then I hesitated at this one e-mail, because apart from the heading, it lacked the usual telltale signs of spam.

An invitation to review.

I forwarded it to my supervisor. “Oh, that’s a good journal – don’t you know it? I’d accept if I were you.” Wow. Pride and chagrin, all rolled into one.

I kept re-reading that manuscript, re-wording my review, postponing the submission. Should I tell the editor I’m a clueless student, and not Dr. Todorovic? Should I say I’ve never done this before, that I don’t know what I’m doing or why they picked me? That it’s all a big mistake?

In the end I said nothing. I pressed the submit button; the world didn’t implode. Two days later, an e-mail arrived. The other reviewer didn’t do their job on time, the editor thought my concerns were substantial enough to request a major revision. I was mortified.


It got easier over time and with some experience, but it never really got easy. I still open the report of the other reviewer, the one that knows what they’re doing, with trepidation. If they caught something I should have, I feel ashamed. If their misgivings align with mine, I’m flooded with relief. If I mention something they didn’t, I worry that I was nitpicking.

As Reviewer #2, I get to see plenty of weak papers in low-impact journals, written in broken English, with poorly described experimental procedures and inconclusive results. It’s very annoying when these come from good labs that write up their other papers, the ones I don’t get to review, with care.

I never know how much to judge and how much to help. I never know if helping will be seen as asking them to write the paper I would have written, the thing Reviewer #2 is notorious for. I never know what to do when I need just a few extra pieces of information to understand the design, before I can decide about the rest. I get frustrated when I don’t understand things, and I worry that this frustration will spill over into my review as pointless vitriol. Another feature of #2.

It’s worse when the journals are good. I can judge whether a design is creative and elegant, and can lead to the claimed conclusions. I can judge whether the analyses are sound. In some cases I will even check whether the numbers in the reported statistics all match up (you’re welcome). But when I have to judge novelty? And whether the wow effect matches the scope of the journal? Good grief, how should I know? Ask Reviewer #1, I can barely keep up with my own narrow topic.


Most of the learning from that first review onward was (and still is) a lonely process, with only the other reviewer’s comments as any substantial form of feedback. So every time I hear a gripe about Reviewer #2, I cringe a little on the inside. It’s me, it’s me, and I’m trying to be invisible.

I don’t think we should stop grumbling about Reviewer #2, I’m a big fan of complaining. But maybe, just maybe, a little bit of structured guidance would help? Someone to show us how to be kind but decisive. To tell us to always list strong points, then voice our misgivings as suggestions for improvement. To consider whether the experiment is something others would care to know about before we rip it apart.

I had a supervisor who showed me the ropes, but this shouldn’t be left to individual group leaders. We’re all in this together, both causing the damage and taking it. Instead of throwing young researchers into it head-first, maybe we can teach them, and make reviewing a more user-friendly experience.

“Hi, my name is Ana and I will be your reviewer tonight.”

‘Failure’ of Graduate Education is No Joke

Author: Melonie Fullick
Original: University Affairs | Speculative Diction

Recently University Affairs published an interview with Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle, two Canadian professors who have written a book of advice for graduate students. The book’s gimmick, if you want to call it that, is that it’s presented as a guide to failing—an anti-guide, perhaps?—as evidenced by the title, 57 Ways to Screw up in Grad School: Perverse Professional Lessons for Graduate Students. According to Haggerty and Doyle, “students often make a series of predictable missteps that they could easily avoid if they only knew the informal rules and expectations of graduate school.” If only! And this book, we’re told, is designed to help solve that problem.

Dropping all sarcasm, the first thing I have to say is: really?giphy

… grad students’ “failure” is somehow all about the mistakes they make? How many times do we have to take this apart before faculty giving this kind of “advice” start realizing how it sounds? Maybe this is just a part of the “joke” and I’m not getting it, but how long is it going to be before the irrational and erroneous assumption that student success is entirely about individuals and their intrinsic merit and skills, is displaced with a more realistic perspective?

Haggerty and Doyle have been promoting their book in the higher ed press for a couple of months now. While the University Affairs interview is relatively subdued, I want to bring your attention to their August 27th piece in  Times Higher Education (THE), in which we were treated to a lively sample of just 10 of the ways grad students can ruin their own chances of academic success. Back when the article was first published I shared a series of critiques on Twitter; I’m going to risk boring you by repeating them here, because the book is receiving attention and there are some fundamental problems with the ideas that it reflects and reinforces.

At the outset, the authors explain how they’ve “concluded that a small group of students actually want to screw up. We do not know why. Maybe they are masochists or fear success.” This sort of set-up trivializes and dismisses serious problems; but things get worse from that point. Here are a few of the “screw ups” listed in the THE article, along with some of the criticisms they provoked from me and others:

  • “Stay at the same university” for all your degrees. This assumes students have unimpeded mobility, and a degree of financial security, from an early stage. Mobility is also affected by your family situation, for example—if you’re married with a partner who can’t relocate, or if you have dependents who need to stay where they are, this is a problem.
  • “Choose the coolest supervisor.” Bad supervision can be career-limiting. But who is going to be really honest and tell prospective students about a faculty member who is (for example) a research “star” but also a terrible supervisor? Not the program chair; not the other faculty; and not the students who are happiest to represent the program. It’s also possible that your prof is new to supervision and not equipped to handle it. The student is being imagined here as a consumer who has the responsibility to make an informed choice, even when the relevant information isn’t available or when they don’t actually have the option.
  • “Expect people to hold your hand.” The issue of responsibility is already a sketchy one in graduate education, and we don’t all arrive with the amount of cultural capital that’s required to be autonomous or “just know” what we’re responsible for—and what we can reasonably ask of a supervisor. So, what constitutes appropriate mentorship and guidance, and what is merely “hand-holding”? Who gets to decide? (Hint: not the students.)
  • “Concentrate only on your thesis.” Assuming, of course, that this is an option for everyone. When the authors suggest non-thesis activities, though, these are not things like family time or self-care (and definitely not a job), but other academic professionalization activities such as authoring journal articles and attending conferences—as if grad students don’t already receive the message that they must do All The Things if they want to be minimally employable.
  • “Have thin skin.” As with other things on the list, this is a difficult call because it’s so subjective, and the party giving feedback is often also in a position to define its appropriateness. As I said in a tweet, giving and receiving feedback, like most professional skills, requires practice and modeling—and that’s a two-way street.

I hope you’ll forgive me for not finding the topic of grad student “failure” an amusing one. Usually I like a good joke (especially at the expense of academe), but I just don’t see how it’s appropriate for this issue. The “light-hearted” approach is grating to me, and I wasn’t alone. Reactions to the article included: “horribly smug”; “their post is not amusing”; “I’m a Professor who has supervised dozens of PhDs and I disagree with almost all of what the authors said”; “this is ridiculous”; “clickbait, consumerism, classism”; “I had trouble getting past #1”; and “much could be turned around into ‘do your job, grad schools.’

What’s even more frustrating is that almost every point made in the THE article could have been made in a helpful, critical and inclusive way, and simply wasn’t. In choosing this particular approach to “advice” the authors render their points not only unpalatable, but also condescendingly uncritical. Even if the advice is potentially of use, why put it in terms that are exclusionary to some students, and infantilizing to all? The authors make the argument they’re sharing tacit knowledge, thus doing us all a favour. But they also seem to be ridiculing students from not having this knowledge at the outset. The use of the word “guilty” (in their interview) just reinforces the feelings many students already experience when they discover something’s going wrong.

Haggerty and Doyle aren’t alone in their assumptions, and that’s why these kinds of articles and books represent a problem. They aren’t mere one-offs; as I’ve argued before (and no doubt you’re all sick of hearing it), it’s still too convenient for graduate programs and supervising faculty to dismiss students’ “failure” as a problem with selection of students, students’ lack of commitment, and/or a bad “fit”—an approach that shifts the blame away from problems of supervisory competence, appropriate social and academic support, and departmental climate and culture. That this perspective is espoused publicly by respected senior faculty members who not only supervise grad students but have also spent time as graduate chairs, shows how pervasive and influential it is in academe.

As always, I’m not trying to argue that students have no responsibility for their own success. What I’m responding to is the framing of this as a problem almost entirely in their hands. We already know (from research, in fact) that this is an inaccurate depiction, and that students’ experiences in graduate education are affected at least as much by the supervisor, department, and peer group—as well as by structural factors such as class, race, gender, and disability—as they are by individual merits and choices.

I’m aware that the book will provide more detail than a short post on THE, but because it’s the framing rather than the content that’s a problem, maybe “less is more.” You don’t need a book like this when the same or better advice is available from people who’ll give you a constructive and critical perspective on professionalization and the norms and values of academe—the latter having been taken for granted by Haggerty and Doyle. I recommend you check out those diverse perspectives instead—there are too many to list here, but a few online sources that spring to mind are Pat Thomson, The Thesis Whisperer, Conditionally Accepted, PhDisabled, Explorations of Style, Gradhacker, and also (for some background) the bibliography of research on doctoral education that I linked to above. You can also try #phdchat on Twitter, where you’ll find a wealth of resources.

Given the variety and quality of the research and resources available, surely at this stage there’s no excuse to reiterate the same old tired themes about irresponsible students and the silly mistakes they make. I only hope we can move beyond this in future debates about graduate education.