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.