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.

logo_square

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.

logo_square

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 http://mynoise.net/NoiseMachines/whiteNoiseGenerator.php and http://simplynoise.com/ . One of my favourite websites and apps is http://www.coffitivity.com/. 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.

logo_square

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.”

Interviews: How to Handle Tricky Questions

Author: Steve Joy
Original: Early Career Blog


This post is a companion to my last piece about preparing for an academic interview [and is a re-posting of my piece on the Guardian Higher Education Network‘s website]. I’ve trawled the archives to pick out common yet tricky questions, and I offer some ideas for how to handle them.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list. You will always get unexpected questions. The trick is to take a deep breath and let go of the anxiety that you need to find the “right” answer. Interview questions have countless plausible and convincing answers, but what sets good candidates apart is their ability to deliver structured answers, to articulate their thinking clearly, and to speak to the concerns of their interviewers.

1) Why do you want this job?

It’s amazing how many people struggle to give sensible answers, which creates a dreadful impression – particularly if it’s the opening question. Prepare your response, which needs to be confident, specific, and well structured. For example, “There are three main reasons why I see myself as a good fit for this role”.

When it comes to the content, avoid being generic (saying the same as everyone else). And don’t sound selfish: the panel want to know how they will benefit from having you on their team as much as, if not more than, how you will benefit.

2) What’s your best paper?

This might be your highest-impact paper, but it doesn’t have to be. What counts is that you give a sound rationale for your choice. Perhaps you’re proudest of the paper which marks a transitional moment in your research or your career. Or perhaps it’s the paper that you know had a direct, positive impact on someone else’s work. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’ve thought it through.

3) Why do you work on X? Surely, Y is more important

Try not to interpret this sort of question as an attack. Fundamentally, interviewers want you to address their concerns. You work on gibbons – I work on gorillas, so how is your work relevant to mine? You study Shakespeare – I study Marlowe, so what can I learn from you?

Take a structured approach: “Let me break that question down into two. The reason why X is an important topic is […]. I understand that what Y is trying to achieve is […]. What I think that the two studies have in common, therefore, is […].”

4) What will you do if something goes wrong?

What happens if your hypothesis is wrong? Your experiments fail? You can’t get access to the archive you need? Your grant is unsuccessful? Don’t pretend that your research is impervious to failure. Doing so will probably come across as denial or, worse, a lack of self-awareness. What matters is how you handle setbacks, and how you plan to overcome predictable hiccups.

5) Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

Lots of people tackle this question by naming the job title which they hope to have attained, for example: “10 years from now, I want to be a professor.” This is OK (provided you can explain how you intend to get there), but it’s awfully predictable. Think about achievements rather than status. This question also gives you an opportunity to show that you have a vision for where your field is going. What’s the next big question that, in a decade’s time, you expect to be working on, or even to have solved?

6) How does your work fit with the group/department/university?

Interviewers don’t recruit candidates who see themselves in solipsistic isolation. So, based on all your preparatory research into this employer, identify the specific ways that your work aligns with their needs and priorities. Think about: particular specialisms, research clusters, possible collaborations, undergraduate or graduate curricula, interdisciplinary links with other departments, outreach initiatives, etc. Don’t turn this into a conceptual answer – ground what you say in a couple of specific, tangible examples.

7) Describe a course or topic that you would teach

Too many candidates talk about prospective teaching as if its value were entirely self-evident, or they simply lean on the intrinsic intellectual interest of the topic. Instead, think in terms of outcomes and learning objectives, because evaluation is integral to good teaching. What will the students get out of the course? What work will you set, and how will it be assessed? What skills will they acquire? How will it complement the rest of their studies?

8) What does collegiality mean to you?

Panels are recruiting someone to work alongside themselves or other members of their institution, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that working relationships are on interviewers’ minds. In truth, some people are simply not good colleagues. So, what kind of a colleague do you intend to be? How are you going to help others to be successful?

9) If we offered you this job, would you accept it?

This isn’t a trick question, and the best response isn’t necessarily just to say yes, without hesitation. There are innumerable factors that could have a bearing on what you might say, not least the vexed issue of waiting to hear back about other applications. But let’s not assume that being honest is always a bad thing. The crucial point is that, before you get in the room, you should take time to think through whether you would accept the job, and to discuss it with peers and mentors.

10) Do you have any questions for us?

This will almost certainly come up and is generally taken as a measure of how interested you are in the role. You should therefore be prepared with a couple of questions. Bad types of question to ask are: essentially selfish (e.g. asking about benefits, annual leave, sabbatical entitlement); ill-informed (i.e. things you could have found out for yourself if you’d spent a few minutes on the employer’s website); or downright naive (e.g. “Would you say that the Research Excellence Framework is important to this department?”).

Me and My Shadow CV

Author:
Original: Chronicle of Higher Education


This fall I’m serving as the designated coach for doctoral students in my department who are on the academic job market. They’re a talented group, with impressive skills, hopes, and dreams. I’m grateful to be guiding them, as they put their best selves before search committees. However, one part of the work is not all that pleasant: I also need to ready them to face mass rejection.

Regardless of any happy outcomes that may await, they’re about to endure what may be their first experience of large-scale professional rebuff. Before, during, and after college, they sought part-time and full-time jobs and applied to graduate schools. They didn’t get hired, or they didn’t get in to some of those schools, naturally. But now they’re putting themselves in line for 40, 50, or more rejections within the space of weeks and months — on the heels of a grueling, humbling few years of dissertation writing.

I feel their pain, to some extent. Those of us on the job market a decade or more ago got our mass rejections in thin envelopes or via email in May or June, after we’d had a few closer looks and maybe even a job offer. Today’s candidates learn they’re out of the running for coveted jobs much sooner, and secondhand, by confronting another candidate’s report of an interview or an offer on the Academic Job Wiki.

That then-and-now difference got me thinking about how we teach graduate students to face academic rejection. Of course, we largely don’t. Rejection is something you’re supposed to learn by experience, and then keep entirely quiet about. Among academics, the scientists seem to handle rejection best: They list on their CVs the grants they applied for but didn’t get — as if to say, “Hey, give me credit for sticking my neck out on this unfunded proposal. You better bet I’ll try again.” Humanists — my people — hide our rejections from our CVs as skillfully as we can. Entirely, if possible.

That’s a shame. It’s important for senior scholars to communicate to those just starting out that even successful professors face considerable rejection. The sheer scope of it over the course of a career may be stunning to a newcomer. I began to think of my history of rejection as my shadow CV — the one I’d have if I’d recorded the highs and lows of my professional life, rather than its highs alone.

More of us should make public our shadow CVs. In the spirit of sharing, I include mine here in its rough outline, using my best guesses, not mathematical formulas. (I didn’t actually keep a shadow CV, despite predictable jokes I may have made in the past about wallpapering my bathroom with rejection letters.)

  • What my CV says: I have published many articles in refereed journals. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that 3x to get the approximate number of rejections I’ve received. Earlier in my career, it was more like 4x; now it’s closer to 2x. That does not count “revise and resubmit” letters. Fortunately, the rejections do seem to get nicer, as I learn better how to present work for publication and to select journals that are a good fit for my work. I also receive more invitations to contribute, providing better odds for acceptance.
  • What my CV says: I have published books at a great university press. What my shadow CV would say: My first book was rejected six times at the proposal stage before it found a home. One of them was a report so nasty it made me question my will to write another sentence.
  • What my CV says: I’ve edited several collections of essays. What my shadow CV would say: One collection was rejected 12 times at the proposal stage. Another collection almost imploded due to conflict among contributors. A savvy press editor smoothed the ruffled feathers. That’s not all. I co-wrote a book that was under contract but was canceled by the university press’s marketing department. That book never saw the light of day. And another co-edited book, commissioned by a professional organization and some distance along, was canceled by the press and then by the organization.
  • What my CV says: I’ve received some grants and fellowships. What my shadow CV would say: Multiply that total 5x to get the number of grant rejections I’ve received — with, again, the most depressing rates of rejection coming earliest in my career. Early on, I would apply for four to eight grants or fellowships, and receive none or one. I applied for one grant eight times before receiving it. I like to think the organization finally awarded it because they were tired of hearing from me, but maybe my application actually improved.
  • What my CV says: I’ve taught at five fabulous institutions. What my shadow CV would say: This one is the worst. In the process of trying to solve a two-body problem, I was on the job market a lot. I think I’ve been rejected for nearly 400 college teaching jobs and postdoctoral fellowships. In other words, I got offered less than 2 percent of the jobs I applied for, and I’m by no means among the hard-luck cases.
  • What my CV says: I have won elections to office in my professional organization. What my shadow CV would say: I have lost about half as many elections as I’ve won. I’ll take those odds!
  • What my CV says: I have some great recommenders. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. I’ve cried in front of a few them. Academic life has been stressful. (Also, thank you for those hundreds of recommendation letters. They made everything possible.)
  • What my CV says: I have had some great students. What my shadow CV would say: They are great. A few have cried in front of me. Academic life is still stressful. (And you’re welcome for those hundreds of recommendation letters. I may still owe more to the universe than I have given.)
  • What my CV says: I have published in and been quoted in popular media. What my shadow CV would say: You can’t really count the number of times that The New York Times didn’t call you for a quote, so no formula there.

I made many failed attempts at getting my work in print, while learning how to write for new audiences and building relationships with editors. Let’s call this rejection factor 4x, on average, although many of those rejections were not of pieces that eventually saw print but those that never did.

In total, these estimates suggest I’ve received in the ballpark of 1,000 rejections over two decades. That’s 50 a year, or about one a week. People in sales or creative writing may scoff at those numbers, but most of my rejections came in the first 10 years of my academic career, when I was searching intensely for a tenure-track job. Very few came during the summer, when academic-response rates slow to a crawl. I remember months when every envelope and every other email seemed to hold a blow to the ego. My experience was not unusual. Unfortunately, a multiyear job search is, if anything, more common now for would-be academics than when I was on the market.

Most of us get better at handling rejection, although personally, it can still knock the wind out of me. Usually in those moments, I recall something a graduate-school professor once said after I railed at, and — much to my embarrassment — shed a few tears over a difficult rejection: “Go ahead,” he said. “Let it make you angry. Then use your anger to make yourself work harder.”

It sounds so simple. Whether any single rejection is fair or unfair doesn’t ultimately matter. What matters is what you do next. You could let rejection crush you. Or you could let it motivate you to respond in creative, harder-working, smarter-working ways. (I’m convinced, though, that rejection is particularly tough to take in academe because so much of our work is mind work, closely tied to our own identities and sense of self-worth.)

A CV is a life story in which just the good things are recorded, yet sometimes I look at it and see there what others cannot: the places I haven’t been, the journals where my work wasn’t accepted, the times a project wasn’t funded, the ways my ideas were judged inadequate. I’ve started to imagine my CV as a record of both highlight-reel wins and between-the-lines losses. If you’re lucky, you will, like me, also one day come to recognize the places where the losses — as painful as they were at the time — led to unexpectedly positive things. Slammed doors, it turns out, may later become opened ones.

When I was meeting with my department’s academic-job seekers recently, one of them asked me about the last time I was rejected.

“My last rejection was one week ago,” I admitted to them, feeling uncomfortably like someone introducing myself at an AA meeting. “I got two rejections, in fact. One was really, really hard to accept, and, I think, wrong. But I’ll take it for what it’s worth and try again.”

Increasingly, I see rejection as a necessary part of every stage of an academic career. I remind myself that the fact that I’m still facing rejection is evidence that I’m still in the game at a level where I should be playing. I’m continuing to hone my skills and strive for better opportunities — continuing to build both my CV and my shadow CV. Each version is necessary as we seek to advance our research, teaching, and service, the activities to which some of us — and I wish there were many more of us — have the good fortune to devote our professional lives.

On Critical Abyss-Gazing: Depression & Academic Philosophy

Author: Jake Jackson
Original: PhDisabled


Content note: This post involves frank discussion of the experience of depression and includes reference to the recent suicide by Robin Williams.


A few months ago, the night before a conference in which I was participating, I let slip to the Chair of a philosophy department that I often have trouble sleeping. He asked why.

Realizing I may have revealed more than is perhaps savory for having just met, I stammered: “Why, I’m an existentialist!”

The catchphrase fit. After all, the next day I was presenting a paper that dealt with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche on (un)certainty and faith. He then laughed, made a joke of it himself, but gave a knowing-yet-compassionate look.

I was safe. Even in the form of a joke, this was perhaps one of only two instances where I have openly implied the presence of my lifelong depression to a tenured faculty member in my field without regretting it or worrying about how it might affect their perception of me.

This post seeks to question the way that academic philosophy perceives depression. I am not writing this with statistics or numbers, but instead from the subjective phenomenological perspective of someone who has depression and who works in – and aspires to build a career in – academic philosophy.

I seek not to grind an axe against any particular persons or institutions, but instead want to focus on the sort of social context confronted by those with depression, based on my lived experiences.

Depression is an alienating illness, especially when coupled with anxiety, as happens frequently. In my experience in academic philosophy circles, that alienation is amplified since mental health is not spoken of as a real entity. It is instead catalogued and discriminated by logic and reason as something other, an outside factor. The depressed are outsiders.

Depression is treated with a deafening silence, both inside of the academy and outside in society at large.

There is a social unseemliness to discussions of depression. Mental illness is a two-fold problem, private and yet public: private in that it is often suffered alone, public in that its effects reach out further than just the atomized individual.

Social behavior is socially determined, or at least, prescribed. This naturally turns the personal experiences and troubles of every private individual into a public concern. When someone admits to experiencing depression, whether chronic or a phase, this fact becomes a public concern. We look to role models, finding only a public-shaming of role models who suffer mental illness. Public figures who admit to mental illness are asked rushed questions on the intimate details of their struggle. Everyone has an opinion on mental illness, and most of them are not only wrong but directly harmful to both individuals who suffer silently and society at large.

We are not beyond a society that sees mental illness as a stain within one’s soul, some present-age demons who continue to torment mortals. Mental illness still stands as something to be ashamed of because we want to believe in karma or something similar. We want to believe that the ills that we suffer are somehow dependent upon something we deserve.

Those of us who are more scientifically inclined want to believe that we can redeem and fix mental illness, as if it were machinery. If we could only figure out the brain, then we believe that we could “normalize” it, or better, “cure” it.

We wish for so much that it blots out the actual condition. All this wishing and hoping is a flight from the actual day-to-day concerns of depression. As Nietzsche states “Hope is the worst of all evils, for it prolongs the suffering of people.”

Anything that disturbs a social norm makes everyone uncomfortable or at the very least brings up strong opinions. The recent suicide of Robin Williams has shown us yet again that the public doesn’t like talking about depression, certainly not in honest terms. Any suicide, but especially one of a public figure, becomes hyper-moralized. Now is the time for people to condemn Williams with words such as “cowardly” or “selfish” for taking his own life, but then also “brave” for struggling with his depression for so long. Other foolish moralists will say that depression is a divine gift as it comes along with comedic ability, hand in hand.

These moral arguments come out again each time in vain. They are in vain since they try to rationalize the brutally irrational. The overbearing social stigma of depression makes a lot of sense at times. It is very uncomfortable to think that one can be one’s own worst enemy, that the mind can so pessimistically stand against reason or external pleasures. It is, indeed, unseemly.

However, it is this very unseemliness that is the reason that depression should be more openly discussed. It is constantly suppressed socially into restrictive norms that only exponentially increase depression’s own horrid effects of alienation and resentment.

Having high hopes for a radical social change regarding mental health is perhaps going to be nothing but a disappointment. This, however, does not mean that one should give up hope for change and radical action.

I think it should be the job for philosophy to demand that society’s discourse regarding mental health gets less awful. Good philosophy should offer alternatives for social problems, or at the very least scold the often careless ideologies that cause social problems.

But first, academic philosophy itself needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks. We treat it with silence. No one finds it polite to speak on it, unless talking about the personal lives of the dead or as a dry systematic theory. We philosophers prefer to hold depression at arm’s length, even though it often lives so close within our chests as a tightening knot limiting our actions.

Depression is brutally irrational. It does not care for one’s successes, relationships, or anything else that is valued for a so-called good life. No matter how much one moves towards eudaemonia in one’s life, depression is there, lurking. As Winston Churchill described it, depression follows one around like a big black dog ever obedient to its master.

Depression drives me to gaze into abysses.

My philosophical interests rest at the intersection of ethics, phenomenology, and existentialism. I work heavily in Nietzsche and late Husserl, but have recently expanded into working on Kierkegaard and Sartre. None of these historical figures are light reading in any sense of the term. Nietzsche was clearly the king of the abyss and suffered a horrifying debilitating illness which destroyed his mind and his body. Towards the end of his life, Husserl lost a son to the First World War and witnessed his rights dissolve as a Jewish intellectual in Germany. Kierkegaard struggled with his faith and anxiety throughout his life’s work. Sartre fought in the Second World War in the French Resistance and was notoriously bitter in his personal relationships. None of these figures are happy role models. A certain sadness produces good work, it would seem. That same certain sadness reflects on the page. I could, perhaps, “lighten up” and go towards lighter fare, work on thinkers who don’t reach such sad depths, but I don’t find much interest in such things. I instead stay the course in developing an ethics that looks right into horrible things that people do.

My depression drives me towards a weighted sense of responsibility and is the reason I work in philosophy and ethics.

But we do not want to talk about it in the Academy. Despair and anxiety are seen as more suitable on a dissection table in a sterile setting. Even if depression is what drives us towards prolific writing, we stay quiet on its daily presence. We speak instead of depression as the motive for past generations, holding off from any honesty about ourselves and our motivations today.

In my MA program, I had several interactions with other graduate students in philosophy with different approaches towards depression, but universally, it is treated as a shameful subject. Many act horribly insecure about their mental health, either secretive or, worse, bullying others who show any sign of depression, perceiving it like a weakness and those who evince it as prey.

I did speak with colleagues about my depression and anxiety. It hardly went well. One especially insecure classmate spoke with a nostalgia for the days when depression was called melancholia. In other words, he pined for the ‘good old days’ of misdiagnosis and mistreatment at the hands of deliberately ableist pseudoscience. Another former classmate who studies the intersections of psychoanalysis and philosophy quite hypocritically mocks anyone who is honest about their feelings. So moving forward, I buried mine.

Consequently, I let my depression take too much hold over me during this program. Things got particularly low when I faced a major setback in my studies at the very same time that I had a dramatic falling-out with some family members. My worsening depression alienated me from friends and colleagues. It fed itself. At the insistence of my spouse, I finally sought professional help which allowed me to put my depression and anxiety into a much more manageable condition. Even so, I stayed ashamed of my condition throughout my MA program. I avoided talking to anyone in my department about anything at all, let alone my depression.

At the point where I began antidepressants and laid off of drinking for a couple weeks to regulate, one of my classmates noticed. I mentioned that I was on a new medication; I did not mention what. He too gave that knowing and understanding look.

Both of us looked at each other knowing that we were struggling with the same condition, but saying nothing. Never did we say a thing about it.

There’s a certain intersubjective co-understanding here: the depressed recognize the depressed easily. But ashamed, we say nothing in fear of outing ourselves, admitting anything in honesty. Perhaps it was the program I was in, but insecurities ratcheted up and became more secret, more insecure and ready to explode.

Instead, I spoke to others outside of my department through internet communities that understand and employ an important sense of honesty regarding disability. It just wasn’t ‘proper’ to talk to those who I knew in my program.

All of this shaming stigma needs to stop. Academia, academic philosophy particularly, can get bad enough as a stressful environment. All of our insecurities already rest within the Ivory Tower itself, let alone even trying to stay within it. Impostor syndrome is rife, yet shame in mental illness is pervasive. At the very least, all this mental illness-shaming seems like a waste of time and energy. At the very worst, it creates a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another, or their own attempts to see the strength inherent in the hard work they invest in living – surviving – with depression.

Soon after the First World War and losing his son, Husserl wrote to Arnold Metzger that:

“You must have sensed that this ethos is genuine, because my writings, just as yours, are born out of need, out of an immense psychological need, out of a complete collapse in which the only hope is an entirely new life, a desperate, unyielding resolution to begin from the beginning and to go forth in radical honesty, come what may.”

Mental illness must be treated with a collective commitment to radical honesty that comes from recognizing our shared responsibility to ourselves and each other.

We academic philosophers must pick up this radical honesty when it comes to mental illness before collapse.

We need to look into our motivations more critically in order to live more ethically together. If we are to claim ourselves as a higher critical institution of people, we must open the discourse on mental health. This is not a call for sympathy, but for honesty among all parties involved in academia. Now, as I start a new PhD program, I am hoping to overcome oppressive silence with radical honesty, staying open before others and combating shaming stigma whenever I find it.