Going public with my decision to leave academia

Today I officially announced my plans to leave academia after the PhD.

By “officially announced,” I mean “told my thesis committee as a group and not in a wishy-washy I’m thinking of leaving academia way but a definitive I’m never applying for postdocs way.”

“Academia is not a healthy place for me to be,” I told them.  “And I’ve learned that I’d much rather mess about with code than come up with big-picture science questions.”

So I’m kind of freaking out a bit about that now.  Not as much as I was freaking out about it last year, when I was afraid to tell anyone that I was even thinking about exiting academia.  But a little.  Because it feels kind of permanent now, you know?

Still, I’ve made my decision, and academia is not for me.

Last year, I was worried that I might fall back in love with my field of study if I somehow figured out how to overcome the depression and anxiety that had become closely linked with it.  This year, I know I won’t.  Maybe someday, from a distance, I will learn to be excited again about cool related science in the news.  Here, though, in the daily grind of writing and stressing and making plots—no, I won’t love it.  This year I was fortunate enough to produce some really interesting results, and it helped, but it didn’t help enough.

I’ve come to properly realize that although anxiety and depression are parts of me that will follow me everywhere, they are made enormously worse by the environment of academia.  Isolation, lack of help, intense career pressure, an almost total lack of positive feedback: those things all feed the brain monsters and send me into places I cannot control.  I don’t expect that another career path will be all sunshine and roses, but it will be different and it will be outside the cult-like insularity of the ivory tower.

Of course, I still have to finish my PhD, which is freaking me out A LOT on a daily basis.  My thesis committee was divided between those who thought I was making good progress and those who didn’t believe I could do it in a year.  Not exactly the most encouraging of situations.  Still, I think if I can force myself to bang out the text of another paper by the end of the month, I might be able to convince myself that I can do it.  So that’s the current goal.  Expect to hear lots of complaints about writing.

Choices

My advisor offered me an unexpected choice this week: stay another year as a PhD student.  To clarify, I’m already planning to graduate in a year or so; he means stay another year after that.  “Don’t worry about funding,” he said.  “And don’t worry about whether your committee thinks you ought to graduate by some arbitrary deadline.”

He made the offer because, in following an offshoot branch away from my main thesis topic, we’ve discovered something really cool.  Cool enough to generate interest from local press, and cool enough to keep me motivated through the hard times.  There’s more we could do here, but it would take more than one year.

I am torn.  On the one hand, this is a wonderfully kind offer.  I have always appreciated that my advisor—my current advisor, not the awful one with whom I started out—has never put pressure on me to go faster, and has always seemed genuinely excited by the science I could do.  In his offer, I heard, “You are doing good work and I’d like you to keep doing it.”

And the science is really very cool indeed.  Significantly more interesting, frankly, than the analysis remaining on my primary dissertation topic.  I care about it, and letting it go seems a terrible shame.

But.

But I’m ready to be finished with the PhD.  With a bit over a year to go and some writing progress being made, I can see the end.  Putting my completion date off another year feels a bit like pushing it out of reach.  The farther away that date gets, the harder it is to believe I can actually get there.

And despite my advisor’s reassurances, another year would make me a very slow finisher.  This is my Nth year as a PhD student, where N is a number between 5 and 10 and is also the typical time it takes for students to finish.  I am on track now to finish in N+1 years, which is not uncommon.  Half the students who started at the same time as me are staying for that (N+1)th year.  Another year would mean N+2.  Not unprecedented, but rare.  I’m not sure my ego can take that.

There are also many personal matters at play.  My closest friends are already starting to graduate and depart.  My husband is not terribly enthused about staying in this town for additional years, although he supports my choices either way.   The house we rent may not be available to us for that long, and I very much don’t want to move and then move again shortly after.

Finally, there’s the question of a second kid.  I can’t let the idea go—and I know that the best time for us would be shortly after finishing my PhD.  We’d like Little Boy and his hypothetical sibling to be no more than about 3 years apart, though; another year after next would be too long.  It’s not impossible that I could take a few-month hiatus from research to give birth and then come back for another year, but that would mean paying for two small children in daycare, and that’s not really affordable on my grad student salary.

I know which way the decision is going on this—no—but not without a little bit of heartache.

Enrolled at daycare

We’re very fortunate: daycare wait lists are almost non-existent in our city.  We didn’t have to pay any registration fees during pregnancy, nor worry about whether any infant spots might open up in time.  In fact, when I called around over last few weeks, all four of the centers I contacted had openings for an eight-month-old.  Whew!

The original plan had been to keep Little Boy home for a year, trading baby care shifts between parents throughout the day.  Both my husband’s job and my grad-school “job” can be accomplished remotely and at odd hours, and nobody bats an eye if I bring a cute little baby to the office with me from time to time.

Like most plans made by new parents, this one didn’t fully mesh with the realities of caring for a tiny human.  Hauling Little Boy to campus turned out to be way more work than it was worth and has thus been reserved for only very particular situations.  My maternity leave was only half the length of the need-intensive “fourth trimester,” so we struggled to find time to work and sleep and stay sane until our son developed a more consistent sleep schedule.  But we managed.

Now, however, we’re ready for daycare.  Little Boy is down to two naps a day and my husband’s boss has started dropping passive-aggressive hints about “face time.”  What’s more, I think Little Boy has reached a stage of inquisitiveness and interaction where he will benefit from some new people, new toys, and new activities.  He loves his Mommy and Daddy for sure, but we sometimes run out of exciting and fun baby games by the end of the day.

As lovely as a one-on-one nanny would be, we can’t afford one.  And I’m extremely uncomfortable using an in-home daycare without knowing the caregiver personally.  That leaves daycare centers, where at least I know there’s oversight, training and backup plans.

We ended up touring three such centers.  The third was struck from the list immediately after the tour: although in a prime location, it had a run-down playground with a swingless swing set and rough AstroTurf.  The sole caregiver for five infants spent part of her time washing high chair trays, her back turned away from the small baby sleeping on the floor while others crawled around him.  (This makes it sound really terrible – it was OK, but we’d seen better.)

The remaining options both had definite positives.  Daycare #1 was a nationwide chain with a sparklingly clean center, close to home, with large playgrounds and attractive wooden toys.  But the infant care ratio was still 1:5, and their full-time cost would be a serious strain on our budget.  Daycare #2 was a local place, close to work, with an older building and a religious bent.  Their classrooms lacked the neat uniformity of the other place, but they put 2 caregivers in a room with 8 children (caregivers working on early childhood degrees, I might add) and you could just feel the increased level of personalization.  Moreover, several friends highly recommended Daycare #2, and the center offers a 3-day-a-week plan that we can afford.

So Daycare #2 it is!  Tomorrow we take Little Boy for a visit; next Monday, he starts his new adventure.  Like every parent before me, I’ll miss him when he’s gone, but for now we’ll still have two whole days a week together by ourselves (plus weekends as a family).  Plenty of time for him to practice those hugs he’s recently learned how to give.

Readers with kids – what did you choose to do for childcare?  Was it an easy decision or a hard one?  If you went with daycare, did you have any trouble finding an open spot?

Processing a conversation with my advisor

I did it.  I faced my fears, admitted my limitations, and had a serious conversation with my research advisor about my progress in graduate school.  And it went well.  There was none of the criticism I dreaded; he was encouraging and straightforward and altogether non-judgmental.  There were some tears on my part, as I knew there would be, but I’d brought along a box of tissues and said up-front that I was probably going to cry and not to worry.  Relieving myself of the struggle to not cry (a struggle I always lose anyway) was beneficial.

It wasn’t a tidy back-and-forth conversation.  I basically just blurted all the important stuff out at the beginning, and we went from there.

Here’s what we talked about:

I’m painfully aware of how long it’s taking me to produce results.  It’s embarrassing and it makes me want to avoid talking to anyone about my research.  It feels like everything takes so long to get done.

My advisor really didn’t seem worried about my progress.  He didn’t try to make me feel better by offering excuses as to why I was slow – and I likewise didn’t try to make excuses.  He was simply unperturbed.  We discussed how to keep moving forward, including how to get some short papers written to build momentum.  He seemed to think that once I had some results to talk about, it would get better.

We also considered how to touch base more frequently, with me gently pointing out that he’s terrible at responding to email.

I feel like I’ve had to pretend that everything is fine in order to prove that I was worth taking on as a student.

He never outright contradicted my fear that I wasn’t living up to his expectations, but he did something better: he just kept advising me.  There were a few compliments on my potential, but they were not said in a way that me feel like I was fishing for compliments, nor (thank goodness) in a way that put more pressure on me.

But I have a confession: I don’t love [this subject].  I also don’t want to move around multiple times and not have a permanent job for a decade, so I don’t think academic jobs are for me.  I do want to finish this thesis project, because I’m committed to it, and, well, I want to, but …

This was especially scary because my advisor is somewhat of a big name in his subfield, and, like most professors, he tends to assume that a postdoc position is the default next step for a PhD candidate.  But it was OK.  Maybe he was a little taken aback, but he was very understanding; professors, he said, don’t really talk about other jobs because they don’t really know about them.  He’s under the belief that there are lower-profile permanent jobs still available in this discipline, which I somewhat doubt is the case nowadays – but it was still reassuring to hear that such jobs wouldn’t be considered a failure.

Rather surprisingly to me, he admitted that he wouldn’t really want to be a professor at an even-bigger-name-than-ours university; while he loves the work here, he’s busier than he’d like to be.  (This coming from a person who appears to never need to sleep.)

He encouraged me to finish the PhD, mentioning that it would be a sign to any employer that I can apply knowledge to new problems and complete independent projects.  While I’m aware that overqualification can be an issue, I think that “spent N years in graduate school with no degree” probably looks worse on a resume.

I have to have a thesis committee meeting soon and I don’t know what I’m going to tell them about my progress.  

I still don’t know exactly what I’m going to say, but we commiserated about how thesis committee meetings are kind of useless (and the faculty as a whole send very mixed messages about their importance and function), and he gave me permission to keep it short.

I’m worried that folks are going to expect me to apply for postdoc jobs in the fall (when the academic job cycle begins anew) and I don’t want to take the time to do that.

“There’s no point in applying for jobs with no papers out,” he said.  Stated the wrong way, this could come across as quite harsh.  However, it was stated the right way, and was a huge relief – he’s not expecting me to spend a month writing applications.  Apparently a previous student received the same advice, applied anyway, didn’t get any offers, and was quite discouraged; the next year, with more publications, she was awarded a fellowship at a great school.

Moreover, my advisor told me that it was OK to take N+2 or even N+3 years to finish (where N is the number of years I’ve been in grad school, and N+1 is the number of years most students in the department require to graduate).  Turns out that a visiting speaker this week was someone who’d taken N+5 years.  That was a bit long, but it hadn’t hampered this person’s career.  My advisor himself spent a relatively long time as a postdoc before finding a job as a professor, and he sympathized with the feeling of watching other people advance more quickly.

So.

I’ve made as much of a decision as I need to, for now.  I’ve decided not to quit grad school.  I haven’t quite decided to leave academia afterward, but I’ve put my feelings about that out in the open, and the world didn’t come crashing down.  There is still a never-ending pile of work to be done (free-writing is helping), but maybe I can put the angst aside for a while.

For those of you who’ve been reading along: thank you.

Decision roadblock #3: admitting it

This is the third in a series about the issues that have been preventing me from making a decision about what to do with my life.  My alternatives are: (1) quit grad school now, which I’m leaning against doing, (2) finish my PhD but look for jobs in industry, or (3) finish my PhD and apply for academic jobs.  Roadblock #1 was fundamentally about my fear of change.  Roadblock #2 was the concern that my dislike of academia is really a defense mechanism (see also this post).  Roadblock #3 is about talking to other people – and about admitting some things to myself.


I have always been a golden child when it comes to academics.  Great grades, positive feedback, and the kind of reference letters that get you in to any graduate school you choose.  The department where I chose to pursue my PhD helped me out in several ways that made it clear they really wanted me to attend.  They clearly had high expectations for me.

I have let them down.

There is a thing often spoken of in academia called “imposter syndrome,” in which a person who is in fact very accomplished believes that he or she is secretly a fraud.  I have seen it in others, including a friend who became quite unhappy after reading a year’s worth of grad school applications – she couldn’t understand how she could possibly have been considered good enough for admission compared to those people.  That’s not me.  I do believe I deserved admission; vain as it may sound, I had a pretty glowing resume then, and I am a smart and capable individual.

But my resume is faded and dusty.  I have managed to publish exactly zero peer-reviewed publications by a point when most of my peers have several, and publications are one of the primary ways your worth is measured in academia.  There are no more scholarships or fellowships or grants.  Every year, I have to fill out a survey for the department that asks for my accomplishments; every year, I grow more surprised that no one scolds me for having nothing to list.

As long as I hold any thought that I might consider an academic career path – i.e., taking some postdoctoral positions and eventually trying to find a professor job – then I have to maintain the facade that I have everything under control.  To admit otherwise would be to reveal that I’m maybe not very good at this, and that could sink my chances.  Even just admitting that I’m considering alternative career options could cut off my academic future.  It’s a very competitive field.  We used to have an annual career advice lunch for grad students in which the speaker’s advice could be summed up as, “Be awesome, and you will be awesome.”  I’m not awesome.  I’m not sure what I want to do next, and I can’t let anybody know.

Even worse than limiting my career choices, though, is how painful I know it will be to admit that I fell behind.  I can’t imagine how that conversation with my research advisor will go, except that I know I’ll burst into tears the minute I start trying to speak.  Surely he must be displeased with how slow I am; perhaps he regrets taking me on as a student.  Maybe he will give me ultimatums and deadlines that will make me stressed and terrified.

I have never (at least not with academic subjects) been in this place before, a place where despite all of my best efforts, I’m coming in last.  I suppose it has to happen to someone.  My first year running cross-country races in middle school, I was the third-from-last kid to cross the finish line.  It hurt my pride, but I was pretty realistic about my running abilities at the time, and so I quickly got over it.  Here, now, in graduate school – I know I could do this.  Except… I guess I can’t.

Deep breaths.

I have to do something.  I can’t continue acting like everything is coming along just fine.  For one, my thesis committee is bound to chastise me the next time we meet.  A year ago, I could already feel that I was skating on thin ice with no papers published.  I still don’t even have a reasonable draft of anything for them to read (not that they would have any useful advice, but that’s another story).

Today, one of the professors on my thesis committee asked how things were going.  I couldn’t muster up a perky “good!” or even a jaded “they’re going.”  And I am good at perky lies of that sort.  I have been practicing them since I was ten, when I needed to hide my real feelings from the adults because their intervention would only make the bullying worse.  Answer with enough positive enthusiasm and they’ll believe you.

I need to just do it.  Rip the Band-Aid off.  Tell my research advisor that I know he’s probably not happy with my progress.  Tell him that I feel responsible for finishing my dissertation to the best of my ability, but that I don’t know where I want to go from there.  It is going to be incredibly painful, but maybe there will be some relief in being able to stop pretending.

I am afraid.

Defense mechanism

Over on Tenure, She Wrote today, Rotem Ben-Shachar writes,

I wondered if her description of her lack of passion is a defense mechanism she uses as a reason to leave academia. […] The more we have at stake, the harder and more personally we take failure.

She is referring to her friend, a fellow PhD student who expresses like but not love for her (the friend’s) research.  The story is in the context of a broader message about implicit gender biases and how the stereotypes about men and women affect the ways that each group responds to setbacks.  She goes on:

So do we try to convince ourselves we are less invested in our work to protect ourselves from future disappointment? Is it easier to believe that we are simply not as passionate in our work rather than confront that fixed mindset of ours, that we simply don’t have the innate ability to do the work? And how do we truly decipher to what extent passion and to what extent self-defense mechanisms characterize our feelings toward our work?

THIS.  This is why the question of whether or not I might like my field of study again poses such an obstacle to deciding whether or not to leave academia.  I don’t like my research now, but have I really lost interest or have I simply spent years constructing a defense mechanism to protect myself against future failure?  After all, if I don’t like it, then won’t hurt so much to see the other students in my year graduate before me.  It won’t hurt so much if my committee tells me I haven’t made enough progress.  And it won’t hurt so much if I decide that I need a job where full-time means 40 hours a week instead of one where it means twice that.

This is why when a therapist says to me, “Are you listening to yourself?  You seem really unhappy in grad school,” I immediately start backing away from the suggestion to leave that I know is coming.  It’s not that simple.

A major commitment

Part of the Writing 101 assignment for today is to “commit to a writing practice.”  Specifically, they recommend taking at least 15 minutes every day for free writing.  No editing as you go, no stopping to re-read what you’ve written, just writing what comes to mind.  If you want to polish it up for a wider audience, you do that later.

This sounds like a really good idea.  When forced to do academic writing, I have found that the most important step is to just get something – anything – out on the page.  Large chunks of that rough draft will be crossed out and completely rewritten, but it’s somehow easier to write out a new paragraph when I have the old one physically in front of me.

At the moment, I’m not really interested in adopting a daily habit of pure free writing.  When it comes to just getting thoughts out of my head and into words, blogging has helped a lot, but I want to keep blogging as a fun hobby for now.  If I don’t have anything to say on a particular day, I don’t want to force it.

However, I do have something very big and very overwhelming that needs to be written: my PhD thesis.  What if I were to commit to 15 minutes of thesis writing every day, following the rules of free writing?  (Wait, isn’t there a book about this?)

No second-guessing my sentences, or worrying that a phrase is too cliché.

No pausing to look up citations.  No falling down the rabbit hole of reference after reference.

No messing about with formatting.

I could do all that later, once I’ve broken down the start-writing barrier.  Sources will have to be checked, graphs made, sections rearranged, and chances are that very few of my free-written words will make it into the final thesis.  But I have to start somewhere.

It’s a scary thing, making that kind of commitment.  I think I could maybe do 15 minutes a day – just sit down right when I arrive at the office and write – but officially declaring it a goal opens me to the possibility of failure.  If I don’t try, I can’t fail.  If I don’t try, I don’t have to face the guilt and stress and anxiety that comes with attempting to succeed.

But if I don’t try, I’ll never finish.  Maybe I’ll never finish anyway – although I’m leaning towards not quitting the program before graduating, I’m still undecided – but this is as good a time as any to try something new.

And so, as extraordinarily anxiety-inducing as it is, I make this commitment to myself before the entirety of the internet:

I will spend 15 minutes every weekday writing my thesis.  Just writing, no stopping to edit or thinking too hard about my words before they get to the page. 

To make this practical and feasible, I will allow myself exemptions on days with unusual circumstances.  If I have to stay home and take my son to the doctor, for instance, it’s OK that writing doesn’t get done.  Or if it’s the day before a major deadline and I’m feeling so stressed that I can’t concentrate on anything but the deadline – that’s OK too.  The key for me is to be consistent, not perfect.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Crap, that means I have to go do this today.  Ugh.  Wish me luck!

Decision roadblock #2: what if I like it again?

This is the second in a series tackling my “decision roadblocks,” the obstacles standing in the way of resolving my paralyzing issues with graduate school and beyond.  I’m faced with three options: (1) quit grad school now, (2) finish my PhD but don’t apply for academic jobs, or (3) finish my PhD and do apply for academic jobs.  Roadblock #1 could be summed up as “life’s OK right now, so why rock the boat?”  Roadblock #2 is about the fear of closing doors.


I am supposed to be head-over-heels in love with my field of study.  This is not a case of me projecting something based on my own anxieties – it is an idea endlessly repeated by nearly everyone around me.  I have heard it spoken, seen it written, and observed it in action.  I have friends who post excitedly on Facebook about new discoveries and interesting research papers.  I am supposed to be able to think of nothing else, with the promise that it will make all the unpleasant aspects of the job completely worth it.

I don’t love it.

Most of the time, I don’t even like it.

I deliberately don’t think about my research outside of work hours.

I find 98% of research papers to be deadly dull, and I hide those posts on Facebook because they trigger nothing but anxiety and disappointment in myself.

Then why don’t you just quit?  Why subject yourself to more years of low pay, minimal feedback, and a subject you have to actively force your brain to think about?

That would make sense, right?  But even aside from the logistical and pride concerns dissuading me from quitting right now, I’m afraid to commit to quitting academia in the future, because what if I like it again?

You see, I constructed this mental block.  I have been to that place where I think about my research all the time, and down that road lies madness.  On the surface of it, this would seem to be another point in favor of quitting.  Perhaps my personality just can’t handle the weird world of academic research.

However, there were other factors that made life difficult back when I used to want to think about my work.  There were classes with snooze-worthy instructors and time-consuming yet poorly-conceived homework assignments.  There was an idiot of an ex-advisor, whose research incompetence really got me off on the wrong foot when it comes to research productivity.  There was improperly-treated depression, and a new world of adulthood to which I was trying to adapt.

And so I think, maybe if I could just fix all those things, I would like it again.  If I could just finally publish a paper, if I could overcome my perfectionism, if I could see that I could do it, if I could find someone with which to have interesting conversations about the subject… I don’t want to give up while there are still factors that I might fix.  What if I commit to quitting, but then finally figure it out, start to care about the subject again, and am sad to let it go?

It occurred to me as I was writing the above paragraphs (and hey, that’s why I write these posts) that that’s not how it’s supposed to work.  Love for the subject is supposed to carry me through the hard times, not be something I search for in vain.  If I can only enjoy research when everything is going well, then the stress of being a professor is probably not for me.

At what point can I give myself permission to say, well, you gave this a fair shot, but it didn’t work out?  I didn’t give up when things first got really tough – if anything, I hung on with Dr. Incompetent for at least a year too long.  But then I found a new advisor and a new project, which helped… but not enough.

As an aside, part of me really wants to blame Stupid Ex-Advisor for ruining my experience in the field.  We’ll never know if I would be in a very different situation today if I’d done my initial graduate work with someone who had a clue and who’d kept me excited and motivated about the research.  However, if I really reflect on it, there were signs before she came along.  Boring course after boring, poorly-taught course in college – that wasn’t the subject’s fault though, was it?  At that point, I still cared enough to teach myself the material outside of class, and I didn’t think it was so bad.  There was an increasingly-frustrating summer internship project that went nowhere – but that was just bad luck in mentors, wasn’t it?  The previous summer’s internship had been much more productive.  There was the secret daydreaming about becoming a park ranger during my senior year – but that was just stress about the GRE and grad school applications, right?  Right?

My curiosity is nearly insatiable.  My husband lovingly teases me about knowing random facts about a huge range of topics.  Before Google, my family answered those “huh, I wonder” questions with a decade-old encyclopedia.  With near-constant internet access today, I get caught up following links about strange little topics all the time.

But I’m not curious anymore about the subject to which I have supposedly devoted my life.

I can be sometimes – “ooh, I wonder what this paper has to say” – but the reference list grows with exponential speed, and I always run out of time and brainpower before I can get to the end of the list, and so I have to move on.  Occasionally I have ideas for new research I might do, but I rapidly lose all hope of ever finding the time and resources.  Every time that happens – every time I think I might be on the verge of happily re-immersing myself in the subject, but I fail – when that happens, another little piece of my hope gets chipped away.

All right then, how can I use this roadblock to inform my decision?  I have tried to like the field again.  I really have.  I have given it many years of my life and an enormous amount of angst and effort.  And I still like lots of other topics, but not this one.  It is not wrong to commit to being done with it, not wrong to say no, I don’t want to apply for those academic jobs when I know I will not take them.

And yet… I really do want to finish the PhD, in order to prove to myself that I can.  If I actually can do it but still don’t find myself joyfully obsessed in the topic, then I will truly know that I gave it my best shot.  Saying this, I’m still quite worried that the level of intensity required to complete my thesis will inevitably lead to joyful obsession, which will make me regret having publicly declared my lack of interest in an academic career… but no! I just spent 1000 words trying to convince myself otherwise, and I’m tired of thinking in circles.  All that gets me is more depression.  Also, part of me believes that the only way to actually finish the PhD is to remove the pressure of a future career and allow me to enjoy the parts I enjoy.  Even if they’re not the “right” parts.

Maybe it’s OK to stop looking for the missing piece and reach for a new puzzle instead.

Decision roadblock #1: the familiar is comfortable

As I discussed ad nauseum in 1500 words of grad school angst, I’m at a bit of a sticking point when it comes to deciding my post-graduate-school future.  I’m not really sure where I want to go from here, only that it doesn’t seem to be where everyone else I know wants to go.

For the past few weeks, I’ve employed my top strategy for dealing with my difficulties; namely, I’ve ignored them.  This is actually a fairly reasonable strategy when it comes to surviving day-to-day, because it honestly isn’t healthy for me to be constantly obsessing about my (non-)academic future.  But as useful as blocking it out might be, it doesn’t resolve the issue – and so when something makes me remember it, the associated anxiety hits me with a wave of tension and fear.

The only path to resolution, in the long term, is to just. make. a. decision. and move on from there.  I’ve identified several “decision roadblocks,” things that are holding me back from choosing any particular future, and I want to tackle them individually in an attempt to climb over each one.

The way I see it, I have three options.

Option 1:  Quit grad school now (well, at the end of the spring semester) and find another option for paid work.

Option 2:  Put the effort into completing my PhD, but leave academia immediately thereafter.  Do not apply for postdoctoral positions or fellowships.

Option 3:  Complete my PhD and apply for postdoctoral positions with the intention of taking one if I receive a reasonable job offer.

The first obstacle to choosing between these three options (not necessarily the most important roadblock, just the first one I’d like to approach), is that life is mostly OK right now, and change and unfamiliarity are frightening.

For the past two nights in a row, I’ve had a dream about moving.  In both dreams, we’d chosen to leave a house that was, at least in the weird world of the dream mind, similar to the house we currently inhabit.  In both cases, the house we were moving to was supposedly better, bigger, or a step up in some way – in last night’s dream, we were literally going from a guest house to the main mansion on a property.  But then I’d realize that I didn’t want to leave.  Something about the new house wasn’t as good as it seemed, and appeal of the old house (airy, bright, spacious) suddenly loomed large.  I’d start arguing against the move, trying to stop it somehow – and then I’d wake up.

I don’t put much stock in complicated theories of dream symbolism.  Sometimes, however, there’s clearly something going on in my subconscious, and I think this is one of those times.  To some extent, it’s literally about the house – I really, really like our current house, and the thought of having to pack up and move somewhere with a higher cost of living (and thus a less-agreeable abode) is unpleasant.  And we did recently go through a move and all the decision-making that involved, so I can see where that would come from.

On a deeper level, these dreams are my fear of change.  My fear that a decision I make will be turn out to be the wrong decision, but irreversible, and so I will lose the good parts of the life I’m currently living.  The high-powered academic career path is a step-off-and-you’re-out-for-good situation.

A further component of this mental obstacle is that my husband is, if anything, more afraid of change than I am.  Putting off my own decision allows me to avoid upsetting him and dealing with the fallout of his own anxiety about future and career.

Well then, how do I move past this roadblock?

First, I need to recognize that change is inevitable.  There is no way to stay in grad school forever.  Either I leave now, leave with my PhD later, or stretch it out so long that someone eventually catches on and kicks me out.  Pretending that I’m headed for option 3 (staying in academia) has allowed me to postpone a decision as long as possible, but come next fall, folks are going to be prodding me to submit those postdoc applications.  We don’t own this beautiful house (although I suppose we could decide to buy it when the owners put it up for sale in a few years), so I should focus on enjoying it now rather than preemptively mourning that I won’t be able to enjoy it forever.  And I am not to blame for forcing a decision on my husband: time and life are at fault here, not me.

Second, leaving the familiar isn’t always as bad as it seems.  When we made the decision to move, I was all for it – until we actually officially decided, at which point I was overcome with nostalgia for our crappy apartment.  The same thing happened when I was forced to move offices at school: I was greatly upset at having to leave the office I knew and liked, but have now realized that the new office has some serious benefits.  I might lose the comforts of my current life by changing, but I might not. There might be new advantages that I hadn’t even considered.

Third, I need to use these feelings to inform my decision rather than postpone it.  The enjoyable parts of my current situation suggest that option 1 (quit grad school now) is perhaps not for me.  Wouldn’t “I like this” be an argument in favor of option 3 (staying in academia)?  Maybe – except I like the life I’m living precisely because I refuse to buy into the work-non-stop, life-encompassing culture that is the hallmark of postdoctoral and professorial success.  I’m OK because I don’t think about my research.

I wish I could say that just writing down those three things is all it took to move past this roadblock, that I’m now driving down the metaphorical road of life with a tipped-over construction cone in my rear-view mirror.  It’s not, and I’m not – but I’ve put my shoulder to a giant concrete barrier and I think I’ve maybe felt it move an inch.

And that’s progress.