When to quit, and when to sit (still)

When I was in grad school, I lived in a continual state of existential crises. I realized that the career I dreamed about in undergrad – and practically killed myself for during the first few years of grad school – was making me miserable.

I had some high points and a few victories, but in general I took every failure or set back as a sign that science wasn’t for me. I wasn’t one of those kids who categorized bugs in their backyard for the pure thrill of scientific discovery. As an adult, I didn’t consume scientific talks or articles for fun. Nay nay, I went into science with a purpose – to help find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. When I discovered the chances of me breaking through the Alzheimer’s field were the same chances as me cooking a successful side dish for a family gathering, my purpose collapsed. So then came the dreaded question I asked myself pretty much every day – “Should I quit?” This question haunted me.

Eventually after a whopping 9 years of riding the academic wagon, I leapt off to try my chances in the wild plains of corporate America. Now that I have a little distance from this decision, I have graciously chosen to share the wisdom that I gained from my should-I-shouldn’t-I quitting saga.

I’m glad I quit when I did. I had a new job offer that was exciting and different and I was completely and utterly burnt out in academia. On the other hand, I’m glad I didn’t quit earlier than that. I hate quitting as an admittance of failure. It also would have been more of a tantrum than a rational decision at the time. I also had built up the academic career path in my head so much that maybe I needed 9 years to really convince myself that it wasn’t the best fit and not just me pitching a fit. Maybe most importantly, I didn’t have anything I wanted to run toward. I just wanted to run away. If I had quit too soon, it’s likely I would have waded through a series of entry level jobs that discouraged me and gotten me completely off course from any professional career that I hoped for myself. So by not quitting, even though I was quite distressed during most of my time, at least I was obtaining something that holds real weight – a PhD – and would perhaps give me a leg up outside of academia as well. If I had quit before I got my PhD, I would have far less to show for all the time I had already invested.

To summarize, here are some solid questions to ask yourself if you are caught up in a quitting quandary:

  1. Do I want to quit simply because what I’m doing is difficult? HINT: as opposed to truly not aligning with my long-term goals.
  2. Have I truly given this pursuit a true effort? Am I being too hasty?
  3. If not this, what do I want to do instead? HINT: recommend your alternative pursuit be quasi-realistic
  4. Is there anything I could gain by not quitting? HINT: doesn’t have to be a degree. It could be something as simple as learning how to face and resolve conflict or sticking a job out for a decent amount of time so it doesn’t raise a red flag with future employers.

Ask yourself these questions, and you can quit your quandary! BOOM!