The short answer, and one that might surprise you given my recent exhortations to avoid the PhD altogether: probably, yes, you should. I think you should, if it is at all feasible, even if you have become disenchanted and disillusioned with academia. Let’s back up a little first.

Souring on Academia While Still Dissertating: IT’S TOUGH, and it happens.

What are the reasons we become disillusioned and disenchanted even before we finish (and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t become either of those things until about halfway through my postdoc)? Just because I’m late to the party doesn’t mean I am not familiar with its greatest-hits reel: maybe you figured out academia is not the meritocracy you thought it was (spoiler alert: IT’S CAPITALISM); maybe your advisers have stopped providing support because you decided to take your research in a different direction and they took it personally; maybe you’ve seen too many of your battle-worn friends come back from another job market season with yet another VAP or lectureship, which will mean yet another year they have to move somewhere completely new, likely alone, and take on the mammoth responsibilities of a new institution with little or no support; maybe (and this is most common), you are painfully and legitimately stuck and see no way out. Speaking as someone who is about to “use” her PhD to try for like seventeen “alt-ac” careers at once, each more awesome than the last (check out the Versatile PhD for some of the really interesting possibilities), I know that, weird as it may sound, even if you are not planning on going into academia (and good for you for being smart if you’re not!), you should probably finish your dissertation if it is feasible for you to do so.

What does “unfeasible” mean?

In some cases, it is very unfeasible to finish—for example, and this happens far more often than most entrenched academics will ever admit (they are fond of saying “well, the Life of the Mind isn’t for everyone,” to which I always want to respond, “yes, but going and fucking yourself is DEFINITELY for you!”), when continuing in your graduate program for even one more second will result in serious damage to your psychological and/or physical health. I know more people for whom this was true than I can count, and for them I would say they did the right thing, and to let the healing begin.

But how? I wish I knew—the first step is to get as far away as possible from the toxic environment that did this to you, I know that much. The second step is—if you can—to reach out to friends and family who are not in academia, and attempt to put your self-conception back together again. This isn’t even easy to say, so it is nearly impossible to do, and again, if I had any concrete help to give in this instance, I’d be all over it. I’m going to devote some of the now-voluminous free time I’m going to have post-postdoc to talking to counselors and trying to put together a good clearninghouse of resources, but for now I know that some of the happiest recovering academics I know have become teachers, or are in the process of doing their postbacs or credentials. This is something that I am considering, too, though I am first going to see what kind of K-12 positions I am eligible for with the PhD but no credential. Which brings me to: again, if it is at all feasible, I would recommend finishing your dissertation.

So what does “feasible” mean?

All of the following scenarios apply only if your PhD program environment is not toxic to you as a human being. If it is: GET OUT.

It is feasible to finish your dissertation if you already have a good portion of your research done, and a strong outline. That’s most of the hardest work, right there, and there are resources that can help you with the actual writing of it (not write it for you, but help you manage your time).

It is feasible to finish your dissertation if you know your committee really wants you to, and will almost certainly provide you with a good path to passing your defense (this is the case in most cases, luckily).

And, finally, it is feasible to finish your dissertation if you have all or part of a draft of it actually written, no matter how bad you think it is. It is always, always better than you think it is. Always.

So, you’re saying I should finish a dissertation that isn’t my absolute best work and is not immediately publishable into a great book that’s going to change the field?!??

Yes, that is exactly what I’m saying. Your dissertation does not have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good. It has to be passable, and that is all. Nobody besides your committee will ever, ever read it. Even if it gets turned into a book (as mine did), almost no material from the original diss will make it into that book, because dissertations and books are different. Nobody but you will ever really know if your dissertation wasn’t your “best” work—and really, it shouldn’t be.

Your best work is still to come, and will be done in one of any number of industries that may or may not be academia, and will have an actual audience of actual people who care about it. The dissertation is a formality, and if you are ambivalent about finishing it, my only advice is: let go of all pretense that it needs to be “special” or “great,” just get words down on paper until your adviser says it’s good to go, defend, and LITERALLY NEVER THINK ABOUT IT EVER AGAIN (unless you get a book deal about it, in which case then you’ll have ample time to figure out how to make the shitty parts less shitty, or, in my case, replace them entirely with better parts).

Why should I listen to you? You’re a loser.

That may be true, but I’m a loser who wrote her dissertation in record time, with precious little drama, and passed defense with flying colors, and got an advance contract for a book and everything, and would have been able to keep herself afloat in academia had she been willing to take one VAP after the next forever and ever, amen, and destroy her personal life.

ANYWAY. I finished my dissertation, and this was possible largely because I tried very, very hard to take the pressure off the dissertation itself, and was pretty OK with large parts of it being iffy.

I may not have rocketed my way to tenure-track fame and fortune in the hinterlands (where all tenure-track jobs now are), but I have a bright and interesting future, just like every PhD does, as long as they are able to extricate themselves from the hive-mind of the false “meritocracy” of academia. The reason I caution against doing the PhD to begin with is that as long as the status quo stays in place, the indoctrination and subsequent feelings of worthlessness and failure will continue to pervade the academy and prevent dissertations from getting done.

It takes a really iconoclastic spirit to be able to ignore the voices that are going to tell you, implicitly and explicitly, that you failed because you were not good enough. But I don’t think a PhD is a direct conduit to unemployability all around, really, it’s not, as long as you are strong enough to brush the heaping scorn of your “betters” off your shoulders. So, again, I would say—and this is in answer to the dozen or so kind souls who wrote to me after the Slate article went up, saying “But I did it ANYWAY! Now what do I do?!?”—if it as all feasible, and whilst simultaneously girding your loins from the hive-mind, finish your diss. 

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12 thoughts on “Should You Finish Your Diss?

  1. Yes, I agree, finishing is a good idea, even if you don’t plan to use the PhD for an academic career. I decided to finish (after years of being ABD) in order to wrap it up and have something (a diss, a degree) to show for those years. And then, after having decided to opt out of academia, I got a tenure track job.

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    1. AWESOME story (that probably won’t happen to me after what I did, but good to know it does happen!). For me finishing was worth it because it took a huge weight off my shoulders. No matter what happens to me in my life, I know I managed to bury that beast. But, like I said, I had a very favorable set of circumstances. For many, that is not the case–but if it is at all feasible, I do think that it is psychologically good for you to finish, if you can. If it’s unfeasible and the environment is toxic, though, then ABD is still an amazing achievement. Or an MA. Or starting a program at all.

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  2. I don’t understand this notion of unemployability as a PhD (or any degree). Even if you can’t get a tenured professorship, surely you have an advantage in getting all the jobs available to those of lower degrees (assuming equivalent experience). I see it as a kind of insurance policy in that way. The job market isn’t any better for BA holders…

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    1. The notion of unemployablility is false, but the sad reality is that in most “serious” academic PhD programs (NOT ALL!), while you’re there you get it drilled into you that you HAVE to become a tenured professor or you are an abject failure. This is definitely a huge lie, but when you’re surrounded only by people who say this for eight years, and these people have control over whether you succeed or fail, you really internalize it. It is very hard to understand, because it is an absurd notion when you really think about it, but that doesn’t stop it from being the prevailing attitude with entrenched academics.

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  3. WORD. I was ABD for about 7 years, then flat out quit. Just wasn’t worth it esp without any departmental support. Seven years after that, I went up into the attic, took down all the boxes of articles and notes and drafts and finished. Knocked that baby out like it was my job. But just my job, not my raison d’etre or my singular sense of self-worth, just a task to complete. Best thing I ever did. Defense was a love-fest (not because the work was particularly riveting, but bcause the department could claim me as a completed Ph.D) and now I have all kinds of head space available that I never even realized was being occupied by the unfinished Ph.D. My mantras all the way through were “schnell, not well,” and “it doesn’t have to good, just good enough.” It isn’t good but its DONE. And no matter how crappy a day I ever have, at least I can take solace in the fact that my dissertation is done. So, yes, if at all humanly possible, finish. You will never regret it. (though you very well may not get a job that has anything to do with your degree.)

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    1. WORD BACK AT YOU! I think you’ve pointed out a painful truth, which is that committees can be monstrous as long as they think you will remain in their thrall (and again, I am not talking about my own committee; I had a tremendous one, and my diss adviser is among the people I admire most, but my case is far, far from universal)–but once you peace out on them and move on with your life and DON’T die engulfed in flames as they imagine you will, having forsaken the True Path, YOU have the power over them, for exactly the reason ahphd says: any time you have attrition in your program, shit looks bad to the admin and in the field! The problem is, academics are people just like everyone else, and many have inflated senses of self and deflated senses of reality, so if you bail on them, they are deeply and personally hurt, and will lash out at you by saying things like, “Well, academia isn’t for everyone sneer sneer sneer,” and that can be absolutely destructive. AND YET, as ahphd has just pointed out here, should you actually want to return and finish after you’ve given them time to lick their wounds and gain new sycophants, a few years away might be JUST the ticket to you realizing that writing a diss does not have to be your Gesamtkunstwerk–just a Werk. In conclusion: WORD!

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      1. I should clarify – my committee wasn’t monstrous, just completely negligent. Not that that is much better. My advisor surmised pretty quickly that I wasn’t likely to go out in the academic world and make him look good, so he stopped giving a crap early on. In the end I think he realized that if he had given a crap, I might very well have gone out into his little world and made him look damn good.

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  4. I was struggling to write my diss and was feeling disillusionment creeping in when BAM, the 2011 quake and tsunami hit while I was doing research in Tokyo. In between all those aftershocks it became clear to me that a) I wanted to finish this damn diss and graduate NOW, and b) I didn’t want to seek an academic job. I basically wrote 2/3 of my diss (in the post-research phase) over a period of about a month. In a weird way, NOT having the idea of “marketability” hanging over my head actually freed me up to write something that I wanted to write and that I was proud of, rather than just what I thought I needed to write to get a job. It was kind of liberating. And luckily I had a very understanding committee who were supportive of my decision not to seek an academic job and just wanted me to finish in a timely fashion.

    So, I guess the lesson there is…when in doubt, wait for a natural disaster to make the decision for you?

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