In defence of quitting: Letting go of my PhD was the best thing I ever did

For years, the idea of quitting felt like deciding to amputate a limb that had started to necrotise. I knew it had to happen eventually, but I couldn’t imagine what my life would look like when it was gone

Ryan Coogan
Sunday 18 September 2022 15:35 BST
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There’s such a weird stigma around quitting in this country. There’s no room to admit that the thing you’ve chosen to do with your life might not actually be for you after all. There’s a real sunk cost fallacy at play, where because you’ve dedicated the past however many years to this one thing, you have to keep doing that thing until the day you die.

Or we engage in “quiet quitting”, which really just means continuing to do your job as normal, but performing it at a level appropriate to your insufficient pay grade. Friends and relatives will tell you to “just keep going, you can do it” because they think they’re being helpful, when in truth they’re just reinforcing that itchy thought in the back of your brain that “if you fail at this point you’ll have let everybody down, and they’ll hate you for it forever.”

It’s a shame, because I found out recently that sometimes the best thing you can do is just quit, disappointment and dignity be damned.

I quit my PhD a few weeks ago, after dedicating the past decade or so of my life to academia. This article is probably going to be how a good number of my friends and family find out this information, so first of all: surprise! I did it! Or rather, I didn’t do it. And honestly, I’ve never felt better.

I’m not really sure how I managed to con my way on to a PhD programme in the first place. This isn’t an imposter syndrome thing, it really is a miracle. I grew up in a pretty deprived area of Salford, and attended a school which was consistently placed in special measures by Ofsted, and at one point was supposedly ranked the very worst in the country. It was an amalgamation of two extremely rough rival schools, and during the five years I went there it had five different headmasters, like if This is England starred the Defence against the Dark Arts teachers from Harry Potter.

University never really seemed like it was on the cards for me at all, but I met the right people in college and managed to (just about) scrape together the grades I needed to go to a decent university and study English. When I got there, it was like coming up for air after spending a lifetime underwater, and I realised for the first time in my life that I was actually good at something: talking bollocks about literature.

The thing about finally being told that you’re good at something when you’ve spent your entire life thinking that you’re below average at best, is that you’ll do anything to chase that initial high. I put my life on hold after I finished my BA, until somebody finally offered me a Masters scholarship, and when I finished that, I did the same thing again until I was finally offered PhD funding.

As the first in my family to go to university, never mind do a higher degree, I assumed that my entire life would just sort of work itself out once I reached that level.

The problem is that higher education isn’t really built with working class people in mind, especially at those higher levels. Even with a scholarship, I struggled for money every single day, and while it wasn’t a huge deal at first, as the years rolled on things became harder and harder.

There’s an implicit assumption in academia that the phrase “I don’t have any money” really means “I don’t have a lot of money,” but for me it was profoundly literal. Once my funding ran out and the project still wasn’t complete, I found myself working multiple jobs just to keep my head above water.

See that’s the thing: where I’d assumed that having most of a PhD under my belt – as well as the publications and teaching experience that I’d accrued during that period – would be enough to net me a decent pay day while I finished the thing, it turns out that most employers don’t really see it that way. When you do a PhD, you’re held hostage by the job market, and the only way to escape is to finish writing an entire book. It’s like that nightmare where you have an exam you haven’t studied for, but instead of waking up and realising high school ended in 2008, you wake up and realise you still have homework to do.

As the years ticked by the thesis became more and more of an albatross around my neck. It was a Sword of Damocles, hanging over me every time I tried to do something that wasn’t related to my project (these are the kinds of analogies half an English PhD gets you, folks). It magnified every mental health issue I’d ever struggled with: my anxiety felt like a physical weight in my chest, and my OCD tics became more and more noticeable. I lied about how much I’d gotten done, because the truth was I hadn’t done much of anything. The thought of opening a book or reading a PDF made me queasy.

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For years, the idea of quitting felt like deciding to amputate a limb that had started to necrotise. I knew it had to happen eventually, but I couldn’t imagine what my life would look like when it was gone. I thought it would be like starting again from scratch, and I’d put too much of my life into it for that ever to seem like a serious option.

Eventually I just bit the bullet and sent my email. “Dear university of X, I’m out, it was nice knowing you.” And I have to say, I feel 10 feet taller. I read books again for pleasure. I watch TV without feeling guilty. For years I thought that I’d lost the ability to write, but it turns out I love writing (just not about poetry). It’s been a total renewal, and I don’t regret it. Maybe I will one day, but for now, it’s the best decision I’ve made since my initial one to go to university.

I’d never try to discourage somebody from doing a PhD; especially working-class people (God knows we need more of those in academia). But what I will say is this: sometimes letting go of something that you’ve put so much of yourself into can feel like it means you’re losing that part of yourself. But it doesn’t. It means you’re getting it back.

There’s a whole world out there, outside of your self-imposed duties and obligations. Sometimes the only thing standing in the way of us and them – not always, but sometimes – is the fear that we’ll lose something we stopped wanting a long time ago.

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