This is a typical Ph.D angst question! I’ve always known I’d get a graduate degree and classics was all I ever wanted to do, and now I’m here and I’m ok at it, but am also miserable and have anxiety and hate everyone and there are no jobs, but am I a failure at life if I quit?
Nicole: Get out now. I almost mean it! I do mean it, but with an awareness of the importance of the academy and your own agency and so on and so forth. But I have to believe that you need to have a CALLING to be in grad school. Grad school, or, well, academia, is something that you must believe you are drawn towards with all of your soul and heart and being, like a NUN towards the CLOISTERED LIFE, or you’ll be miserable. It can never be the default, like “well, I guess I’ll just keep going to school forever, then” because the sacrifices and torments will not seem worthwhile when they happen. And there are paths out which do not only include grimly finishing your dissertation, which I think is difficult to see when you are in the middle of it. I would try to talk candidly to your friends in academia about their lives and happiness and regrets. I know blissfully happy academics and I know blissfully happy people who bailed out of academia halfway through their PhD OR immediately after and are living full and rich lives.
You may, too, realize that you are better than okay at it. I read a few chapters of a friend’s dissertation–which had become, to her, like a word you’ve looked at for too long that no longer makes any sense–because she had become concerned that she had written the worst dissertation in the history of the world, and it was BRILLIANT and now I know everything about Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death. It made me wistful for four seconds about the path not taken.
Also, I would consciously try to figure out how strongly your miserableness is correlated with your job/field of study. Not to answer every query with: “are you depressed, possibly?” but if you are, you will still be depressed if you leave your program, so let’s do our best to find out now.
Second, and more important also: When in Academia, the finest academia-related Tumblr.
Mallory: This is a difficult sort of question, I think. Give anyone enough time after they’ve made a decision and they’ll generally find a way to justify it; if not in a deeply specific way, then at least in a generic sort of “well-my-choices-have-made-me-who-I-am-today-so-non-je-regrette-rien” way. It’s the rare person who’s objective or bitter enough to say “I shouldn’t have done that and I hope you don’t either.” Neither Nicole nor I are in grad school (obviously) and both of us are, I think, fairly pleased with our current careers (I hope! Nicole, how are you doing over there?) (Right as rain –Ed.), so it’s relatively easy for me to sort of reflexively glance at your question and say “Yeah, get out of there, you crazy kid.”
One thing you should do if you are a classicist (if you have not already) is read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. I don’t know if it will help you make a decision, but you should absolutely read it.
“But I’d be a year behind in my major, if I decided I didn’t want to switch to Classics,” said Janet. She thought it over. Something about Melinda Wolfe put her back up; she hoped it wasn’t just that Wolfe made her feel grubby. She asked, “When’s beginning Greek offered?”
“Well, that might work. Because I want English 11 from Evans, too, and he only does that in the spring.”
“I really hate to see you kids limiting your choices so soon,” said Melinda Wolfe.
Janet discovered in herself a desire not to disappoint her advisor. She wanted to seem intelligent, not stubborn. She took a deep breath and said, “But if I can start an English major my sophomore year, why can’t I start a Classics one then, if I decide I don’t want the English?”
“True, O King,” said her advisor, with perfect mildness.
All of which is to say: being miserable and anxious may be a condition of your present academic state, or they may be a condition of being 27, or living in the last stages of a decadent capitalist society, or you may have unintentionally angered a powerful wizard who lives in the ash tree outside of your apartment. You might quit your program and after the initial rush of relief find yourself still miserable, still anxious, still jobless, and qualified for nothing. That is a theory you can test!
But if you’re fresh out of graduate school and a bit adrift and not sure what you’re qualified for, the first big chunk of post-graduate school life is probably going to be full of unemployment and underemployment and shitty jobs with too little training and too much supervision, and it will take a few years, not months, to figure out the Venn diagram of what you’re good at and what you enjoy and what you are capable of learning and what will make you money. And these jobs probably will not be about something you love as much as you loved Herodotus when you first start Classics-ing. But you will slowly find something that sucks less, and do it more and do it better, and eventually you may develop a career that surprises and pleases you.
A last thought. I have friends who stayed in academia, and I have friends who have quit academia. And some of my friends who stayed are happy, and some of them are miserable and know it, and some of them are miserable and don’t know it. Everyone who left, though, they only wish they had left sooner. I don’t know anyone who’s left it and regretted it.
Anyhow, you should definitely read Tam Lin and you should maybe leave graduate school.
I have two jobs, one at a tiny arts non-profit, and one riding and grooming horses at the boarding/training stable where I keep my horse (poniieeeees). I got both jobs right around the time I moved back to this area two years ago and was originally part-time at both, then eventually full-time at the office job and part time with the ponies. Then I turned 26 in June and it became clear my full-time office job was not going to be able to offer me health insurance, and after a month of stressful scrambling and 5 gray hairs I ended up in this situation: part time at the office, full time at the barn (with a very generous raise that allows me to afford an individual insurance plan) both riding and teaching beginner riding lessons.
I am hitting the point of total frustration with my office job. I don’t agree with the way the organization is being run, I am annoyed that I have been here for 2 years and still make a tiny wage and have ZERO benefits, and generally find myself arguing with my boss every step of the way. Meanwhile, I LOOOOOVE working at the barn. I can set my own schedule, love getting to ride and be active all day, I really like teaching (which I did not expect at all), and I have on more than one occasion spent a 12 hour day there and been sad to leave at the end of it. BUT: I can’t help but think it would be irresponsible of me to quit my office job. Working with horses is lovely, but I have worked at barns on and off since I was 16 and know how easy it is for a great barnwork situation to fall apart. Also there’s the whole Any Day Now One Of These 1200 Pound Beasts Could Horribly Injure Me And Then What Would I Do factor.
Nicole: Oh, wow, a question I can help answer by being marginally more informed than the general population! HORSES! I edited out the part of your question which involved rejecting Option C: finding a better office job, but I think you already know that you will likely have to pursue that option and will not further hammer the point.
People who spend their lives working with horses are not like the rest of us. One of my dearest friends is a horse trainer (she trained my own mare) and she is very clearly different from other people, in a way which has been emphasized further by literally every woman (and the two dudes) I have ever encountered in a training capacity. It’s a hard, physical job. It’s a dangerous job. It pays almost nothing, unless you are working with Olympians or spend 40% of your time taking commissions for selling one client’s horse to another client. The clients are rich (usually), the trainers are poor (most of the time). I know a trainer who came off and broke her leg, had no insurance and no money, and a client’s orthopedic surgeon dad essentially jury-rigged a cast for her because she couldn’t afford surgery, and now she’s fine and only limps a little bit. She is one of the most emotionally fulfilled people you will ever meet.
I spoke to a very talented young rider and trainer a few years ago who said to me: “What you have to understand about people who train horses is that we are not psychologically capable of working in an office around people every day. If we could do something else, we would.” Is that universally true? No. It’s not. You seem like you can do something else, even if it’s frustrating. You love horses and teaching, but you’re not all-in yet.
Should you be? Well, you’re very young. You could do full-time at the barn for a few years. But the long-term prospects, as you know, are rocky. Barns get new owners. Barns get drama. Middle school? Hah. EVERYONE, if you miss middle-school dramatics, please go hang out at a lesson barn for an afternoon, it is a telenovela. You’ll get hurt. I feel comfortable saying that, not as a BEWARE! but as a simple fact: I am sure there is someone who has had a full-time horse job for more than ten years without a major injury, but I’ve yet to meet one. Then your insurance premiums go up, and you can’t afford them anymore. It is a job which cannot offer you security, but it is also a perfect job for those who have actually been granted the extraordinary gift of being able to do it well and can throw caution to the winds. Is that you? If it is, godspeed, and if it is not, I strongly strongly urge you to aggressively seek out a better office job. Or not in an office, there are many kinds of jobs a person can do.
To work with horses full-time is, like academia (see what I did there!) more like choosing a whole life than taking a job. What life do you want? If you think you can be satisfied spending a few hours a day at the barn and having the meat of your time elsewhere, do that. If you can’t, you have your answer.
Mallory: There’s a scene in Party Down–which was maybe the best show on television about self-delusion and bitterness and giving up that has ever existed–where Ron asks for life advice from two of his co-workers.
Ron: “Constance, you’ve experienced a lot. What in life matters?”
Constance: “Oh, Ron, that question is as vast and wondrous as life itself–”
Lydia: “I’ve experienced a fair amount.”
Constance: “Ron, in all of life, the one thing that matters is that you follow your heart.”
Lydia: “I’d say three things. Paid rent, some form of insurance, and TV. Preferably cable with DVR.”
Constance: “No, you’re wrong, it’s love.”
Lydia: “Oh. Well, being practical is my experience.”
Constance: “Well, your experience is probably wrong. Follow your heart, Ron.”
Lydia: “Right. And the next thing you know, you’re sleeping on your friend Peg’s couch, drinking vermouth all day, and crying until you pull a muscle in your face.”
Get a better job (LOL “just get a better job!”). But get a better job where you don’t fight with your boss every day. I can’t imagine having a job where I fight with my boss every day. That sounds exhausting! Are you exhausted? I would be exhausted.
The thing about horses is, you can go do barn stuff once in a while if you want to, no matter what job you have. You can’t work in a barn all day and then occasionally pick up a full-time career with a bright future and a pension plan on the side. Horse People terrify me. I used to ride when I was a kid and I remember feeling relentlessly intimidated by these wide-stanced women who had samplers in the front office that said things like “I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow is not looking good either” and meant it. That’s a very specific way to live your life, my friend.
This is turning into a very conventional advice column! “Be practical. Don’t work in non-profits or barns or a graduate school. Get health insurance. Slowly become great at something, like medical billing.” But not having health insurance and needing it is horrific. The bills terrify you. The numb, cold feeling in the pit of your stomach when you think about having your same shitty job on your next birthday is awful.
But if to do anything else would break your heart, then take yourself and your heart and get a job at the Marlboro Ranch. They’re always hiring.