Ask Polly: Should I Quit Grad School?

By
Photo: Maritz Verwey/Getty Images/Gallo Images

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

Dear Polly,

I’m writing from what feels like a place of despair and hopelessness. I quit my mediocre and extremely unfulfilling job several years ago and embarked upon a mission to land myself in a doctorate program — something I would have done years ago if I’d had more faith in myself (and fewer student loans). Somehow, I got in and am now partway through, and I’m never less than fully aware of how lucky I am to be here. The problem is that a lot has changed in my life over the past few years, and I’m no longer sure if this is really what I want to be doing. I can’t tell if it’s just because I’m anxious and depressed all the time (occupational hazard, probably) and am filtering everything through that, or if it’s just a function of a heavy workload and a high degree of precarity, or if this truly is not the great fit for me I thought it would be. Even in a best-case scenario, the job prospects aren’t great, and my financial situation has always been pretty tenuous. (Admittedly, I knew all of that going in and went for it anyway.)

Adding to this is the fact that my Ph.D. quest has already been disastrous for my personal life, especially where romantic relationships are involved. I’ve moved continents twice over the last four years, have endured the implosion of two long-term partnerships, feel disconnected from friends and family, and hate where I’m currently living but will need to be here for a while yet. On top of all that, I live in constant fear that I will be kicked out of my program and will have nowhere to go, and I worry that I’m starting to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy by not performing at my best.

I know that I should be counting my blessings and the fact that I’m here against all odds should be a source of confidence. I really want to be able to buck up and do the work, and I’m genuinely ashamed to think that I might just be a bleak, whiny, and possibly lazy person at heart. But I am honestly at the stage where it seems perfectly rational to think that this is as good as it can get for me — I’m hamstrung when it comes to other options and feel like I can only become unhappier whether I stay in my program or leave. And if I’m already this viscerally miserable, what’s the point?

I’ve always been a very determined person, good at achieving whatever I set out to do, but I feel unable and possibly even unwilling to tap into that right now. I have been in therapy for a while and started taking meds a few months ago. So far, neither has helped much. How can I keep hanging on to what I have when I feel existentially exhausted? How do I avoid losing everything I’ve worked for before I have a chance to appreciate (and actually want) it?

Yours in self-aware self-pity,

Window on the Void

Dear Window on the Void,

The problem with neurotic overachievers like you and me is that we take responsibility for everything, including our own unhappiness. This can turn a mildly “Meh!” mood into a three-week downward spiral. This is compounded by the fact that we tend to have parents who publicly chide laziness but privately feel guilty about everything they do, thereby creating little mini-mes to join in that eternal dance of conflicted, self-flagellating alienation. (It’s not a very lively dance. Audiences tend to sneak out the back exit during the first intermission.) Relying on your bad brain to solve this problem, mostly by asking big, important questions like “Should I really finish grad school?” and “Is this career meant for a lazy sack of shit like me?,” is destined to send your brain spinning in circles, buzzing and throwing off sparks until you’re panicked but no closer to an answer than when you started.

Your brain can’t do this job. It just can’t. And your brain also, very understandably, doesn’t want you to focus on your coursework or your research or whatever else you have floating in front of your eyes. Your brain says FUCK THAT! I’M WORKING HARD ENOUGH ALREADY JUST TRYING TO SORT OUT WHAT THE FUCK YOU WANT FROM ME! I’M FLAMING OUT, HERE! CAN YOU NOT SMELL THE SMOKE COMING OUT OF YOUR EARS, YOU MISERABLE FUCK?

It’s time to let your brain off the hook. Let’s imagine it as a Jell-O mold, melon-flavored with little red grapes jiggling and glistening throughout. Let it just sit there and jiggle, looking pretty. Give your sweet melon-flavored brain some credit for doing nothing. “You don’t have to work hard right now,” you can say. “Be gorgeous and empty for once.” Let your brain stop adding and subtracting and just lie like a glistening melon-hued jellyfish in the middle of the beach.

And once your brain is an inert gelatinous blob, listen: You’re going to be fine. You’ve made it this far. You have entered a period of questioning, that’s all. You are plagued by big, looming questions and small, chafing questions and irrational self-doubt and slow, sinking depression. It’s hard to separate these things from each other.

Start with the physical: Maybe you should adjust your meds or try something new if what you’re taking isn’t working. Maybe you need to eat more green things and get more sleep. Do you exercise? Do you allow yourself to ponder the same terrible questions all day long while eating badly, never moving, and sleeping badly? You won’t make any progress until you get very practical about how to take care of your physical self and let off some steam by sweating a little, eating good things, and sleeping a lot. If you mess with just one of these variables, everything goes haywire.

Academics and writers and other freelancers with relatively flexible schedules and big deadlines who work from home always have to keep in mind how fucking hard it is to live the way we do. Even though in some ways we’re very spoiled, in other ways our lives are structured to drive us fucking insane. Human beings don’t do that well with unstructured time. We eat ourselves alive whenever we have a new opportunity to do so.

Trust me. I have many, many opportunities every day to conclude that I am worthless and lazy and disappointing. If I don’t exercise constantly, in fact, my bad brain tells me that I am a shitty person who’s designed to fail at all things. Giant opportunities in particular can transform quickly into huge blunt weapons designed to bludgeon my sorry, overreaching ass to death. I’m starting two enormous new projects at this very moment, in fact, and the excitement and adventure of these challenges sometimes feels like it’s giving way to a crushing wave of dread. I am doing stuff that I haven’t done before. “This is fun!” I say to myself insistently. And it is fun, when I let my brain turn to jelly and just enjoy it. But other times, I’m also worried.

Why am I worried? Because I’m a fucking human being, that’s why.

You’re deep enough into grad school and this new town you live in now that you have some time to think about what an enormous mistake it all is. You probably don’t have that many friends in your town, and you don’t have a partner, and you have to face all of these huge decisions you’ve made all by yourself. You also have tons of free time (compared to many people with 50-hour-a-week jobs and friends and partners and families to see) — unstructured free time that can be quickly crafted into a mallet to smack yourself in the face with, over and over again.

Of course you feel like shit! And of course your shitty feelings are making your brain spin. What if you hate this program? What if you hate this field? What if you never get a job? What if you quit and you’re just as unhappy? Where will you go? What will you do next?

Every single human alive would be anxious and depressed if they were alone, in a crap town, with a scary-hard academic to-do list in front of them. Forgive yourself for feeling overwhelmed! You’re just exhausted because you’ve moved a ton, and you’ve been through a lot, and you want a break. You want to know that you’re in the right place. You want to believe. You want to feel good about the big picture. You want to be loved and supported. You want to live somewhere you like. You want close friends who tell you to keep going, you can do it, you’re the best.

But you don’t get those things. All you have is your own fucked-up brain. All you have is you. And even if you weren’t in grad school, I’m going to guess that you would’ve landed here. This is a place of reckoning, where everything feels worthless, a place you weren’t going to avoid. And it’s a place you’ll visit again, trust me. The kinds of people who become writers and academics and artists are often people who, consciously or not, want to interrogate and audit their lives. They need proof that what they’re doing is worthwhile. And they need to know themselves well and feel proud of themselves just to proceed.

And yes, that is a gift, and it’s also a MOTHERFUCKER. So accept that, first: This is a tough time. I’m in the dark. I feel discouraged. But anyone in my shoes would feel discouraged. The things I’m going through are not necessarily specific to me, and they’re not all my fault. This is just where I happen to be at this particular juncture in my life.

I would not decide to quit school right now if I were you. In fact, I wouldn’t make any big decisions while you’re feeling discouraged and depressed. I would adjust your meds, work out more if that tends to help, turn off your brain, and do your fucking work without questioning it. If you ask me, this is not your big moment to redefine everything you want and need in your life. This is your big moment to get ’er done.

My husband often talks about how hard it was to finish his dissertation. He was battling depression and lots of other suboptimal factors. But he forced himself to focus, push through, and get his degree, and he uses a lot of the methods he learned then to push through his work now. He knows how to push through, even when he’s not really feeling it.

There are times when we believe that giving up will bring us relief, because we were driven too hard (or drove ourselves too hard) for most of our lives. These times make our depression flare up. But they also test us. At times like these, our inner, pissed-off children, who always felt guilty for being sad and unproductive, come out of the dungeon to haunt us. They want us to baby them. They want us to tell them that they don’t have to work hard. “It’s OK, you can quit,” they want us to say. “You never really wanted this anyway. This was a bad decision. You’ll feel better once you quit.”

Those little bastards can be dangerous! They can really fuck up our plans. Because when we indulge them way too much, we end up giving up on ourselves.

You can tell your inner, pissed-off child, “It’s not your fault that you feel shitty,” and still say, “Now get out of my face, I’ve got work to do.” But you have to be firm. You’re not telling me you hate what you’re studying, and you’re not telling me there’s something else you want to do instead. You’re just saying, “I am doubting myself and I want to quit but I don’t think it will help anything because what then?” You’re just saying you like feeling inspired and you’re not remotely inspired by anything right now. Everything feels wrong instead.

In order to work harder, you have to take the question of whether or not to quit off the table. That’s what I have to do when I’m in a rough spot with my work. I don’t say, “I chose this, so fuck me, I have to finish it” either. I say, “I am going to question this every single day, naturally, because I question every goddamn thing, because I am a regular human being and we all do that. But I am going to work really fucking hard anyway and get this shit done. And not only am I going to GET IT DONE, I am going to hit it out of the park, too.”

That last part is important. It’s the part you forget when you’re procrastinating. You forget that your worries and your avoidance and your depression don’t mean that the best you can do is finish your work in the most mediocre way possible. They merely mean that you’re someone who is conflicted, like most writers and academics and freelancers are, day after day after day. This is how we live. You don’t get to create amazing things without ambivalence. It hardly ever happens. Artists and writers and people who want to do big things are almost always a little tortured. They are tortured not because they merely want to “write” or “study” or “create.” They’re tortured because they want to write AMAZING things and study and teach INCREDIBLE stuff and create PASSIONATELY.

The big myth about passion is that it’s there all the time or it’s not there at all. But passion comes and goes. If you want to feel passionate, you can’t take your temperature constantly. You have to just show up, start working, and hope that your hard work eventually leads you somewhere that feels passionate. When you’re inspired, sure, you run with that. But most of the time you’re just trudging along, putting words on a page, waiting for a light to shine through the darkness.

Try to enjoy the trudging right now. Once you power down your brain a little and tune into the misery of hard work, you’ll be surprised at how satisfying that blind misery can feel, actually. Conjure the melon-flavored jellyfish! Even though you’re using your brain to work, there’s a thoughtlessness to it, nonetheless. Getting into the zone brings a sweet melon scent with it, even when you don’t know where the fuck you’re headed!

Just trust me that as you start down the road of hard, hard work, in that shitty town of yours, with no friends and no belief in what you’re doing, if you try to tune into the feeling you have as you BEGIN to work, in earnest, in an absence of inspiration, you’ll notice that it feels good. I feel it every morning, in fact, when I put my cup of tea on my treadmill desk …

YEAH THAT’S RIGHT BITCH, I HAVE A TREADMILL DESK. You know why? Because I’m old so when I sit in one place for four hours, my back feels like shit and my head hurts. In fact, last fall I had a serious crisis, not unlike yours: I was in constant pain and I wasn’t writing well and I had to make some change that would set me down a new path. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decisions about my career, either. Everything felt a little arbitrary, and I wasn’t that inspired. Mostly my back hurt.

But in the morning, when I put that cup of tea on my desk, I realize: NOW YOU HAVE TO WALK AND TYPE AT THE SAME TIME. And I don’t want to do that shit. I want to sit down instead. But I know that if I don’t use the treadmill desk first thing in the morning, I won’t use it at all. And I also know that even though I feel blah about it, in a few hours, without even noticing, I’ll be into my work and I will have walked 4 miles, too, and I won’t get up from my desk feeling like I’m in traction and looking to murder the nearest person with my bare, broken hands. I’ll feel reasonably good.

My jellyfish brain likes to walk and type, once it starts. Writing while walking can feel oddly relaxing and mindless, once I push past the resistance and get into the groove of it a little. I don’t overthink things when I’m walking. I go with the flow. The words fall onto the page. New paths open up. Sometimes I feel inspired, other times I don’t. But I don’t feel flat and helpless and half-dead and discouraged. There is no space for circular thinking or big looming questions. There is room for faith.

People like you and me, we have to take extreme measures to really thrive and not just survive. That’s not a burden, once you accept it completely. It’s an opportunity. Because over the years, even though you might wish you didn’t hit the same wall over and over, you start to believe in your own ability to scale that wall. And you start to actually ENJOY that challenge, once your jellyfish brain finally accepts it.

Make some room in your life for faith. Cultivate it. Be kind to yourself, and let your faith in what you do blossom. Faith will grow out of hard work. When you avoid hard work, you lose faith.

For now, resolve to stop torturing yourself with big questions. Learn to live where you are. Learn to work hard in a vacuum of praise and love. Lean on your family and friends and therapist, but don’t tell yourself a story about how you’re too lazy to do this. You can do this. Find your strength. Find your focus. Shift into high gear. Do what needs to be done.

And most of all, learn to enjoy it. Trust me, you can enjoy this strange, difficult, dark time. You really can. Let go of old stories and old worries and old ideas of yourself that are no longer accurate. Your life is very hard right now, that’s all. You are doing your best. Power down your doubts and get to work.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Should I Quit Grad School?