Tuesday, 14 August 2012

To quit (or not to quit)

Sometimes you have really good PhD days, and you marvel at your own wonderfulness. Sometimes (more often than not) you have bad days, where you can’t seem to do anything. Sometimes you wonder if you should be doing this at all.

Sometimes you want to quit the PhD. I wonder what would have been a good time. You might get the nagging feeling in your first year that this isn’t what you want to do, and that you should leave; you realize that you’re not enjoying writing the essays, and trawling through the books; but then, a voice in your head tells you that no, this is only the first year, and you haven’t really made a go of it yet; the writing of essays will surely get easier, the more you get into the swing of things. In your second year, you tell yourself: ah, I’ve made it this far. I should carry on, no?... By the time your third year comes round, you’re telling yourself: I really should have quit in my first year, because I am now more than two-thirds of the way through, and it would be ridiculous to quit now, after doing all that work. In the summer of your third year, as you’re sitting there trying to write it all up and it’s still hopelessly nowhere near being finished, you’re thinking: I really should have just quit back when I was two-thirds-and-a-bit of the way through

I have a vivid memory of the first time someone told me I should definitely do a PhD. I was working on my Masters when, one day, a current PhD student came up to me as I was sitting in the study room. I was just minding my own business, using the internet, when she came up to me and sat herself down on the edge of my desk. I knew her, vaguely. She was a nice girl.

‘Hello!’ she said. ‘I’m supposed to talk to you about doing a PhD, you know, I’m meant to be drumming up a bit of future business for the faculty. So I thought I’d tell you about doing a PhD!’
I listened with polite interest as she outlined my future career options. I hadn't really given my future a  lot of thought - apart from thinking things like 'I'm definitely not doing a PhD, because it sounds difficult and pointless.' 

‘Basically’, she told me, ‘you might as well just do a PhD. Because it’s just like having a job, really. You get paid to do it, and if you decide you don’t like it, you can just quit – and it’s OK.’

It’s just like a job; you get paid to do it, and if you decide you don’t like it, you can just quit. Whose side was she on, anyway? Who was this girl working for, exactly? I’ve remembered those words and they still make me grind my teeth and wave an imaginary fist at her imaginary face. That was a lie. Doing a PhD is nothing like having a job. You get paid, yes (well, if you’re lucky like I was, you do). But no, you can’t just quit. It’s not the same as having a job. Because if you quit a PhD, you have failed to finish it; you have basically failed at something. That is most emphatically not the same as quitting your job, and finding a new one. It’s nothing like the same thing.

And it's also not like a job because it follows you home every night for three years. You never have the Friday feeling. It's like Narnia: it's always winter, yet never Christmas. Always Friday 3p.m., yet never the Friday feeling...

I occasionally come across the girl’s updates on Facebook. I want to write to her and tell her what she has done. I want to send her hate mail. I want to tell her that it’s all her fault.

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