A change of heart

Completing a PhD is an overwhelming ordeal for most, but an excruciating experience for some. David Conrad offers us a candid insight into his decision to move away from academia…


Sixth grade was when I first knew I wanted to be a professor, and I stopped wanting it sometime in graduate school. The reasons I wanted it as a kid are simple: I enjoyed my favorite school subject – history – so much that I couldn’t imagine a career in anything else. The reasons for my change of heart after so many years, and so close to the goal, are less precise, and too numerous to express simply.

I liked my topic, but somehow didn’t enjoy the work. I liked writing, but not the way I felt I had to write. I liked talking to students, but not the act of teaching. I liked the other students in my cohort, but I was never sure to what extent they shared my disenchantment, so I rarely spoke of it. I didn’t talk about my waning enthusiasm with my advisor, either, though he never gave me any reason to believe that he would have been anything but understanding and supportive. Same with my family and non-grad-school friends. Talking about the end of a longstanding career plan would have meant having to answer questions about what I wanted to do instead, and the answer to that was something I wasn’t yet ready to reveal, and that might have been even less attainable than a tenure-track job.

A professor once told a class that all academics have “side hustles,” and my last several years of grad school were spent finding mine. I got a part-time job writing clickbait ad copy, then another more fulfilling one writing movie reviews, which I’d been doing for fun for years. These side gigs didn’t pay the bills the way TAing did, but they kept me sane because they were an outlet to the “real world,” as much as that phrase always rankled my scholarly side.

While I found creative ways to spin my wheels, friends inside and outside grad school were buying houses and having babies and becoming established in their various “regular” professions. I wanted those things, too, and I began to feel very behind schedule, and dangerously old, even though I’m assured by everyone that 30-something isn’t old and I know they mean it.

I started my Ph.D. in 2009, and my hesitations began as early as the first year. I kept pushing through and was offered a wonderful opportunity in 2013. My response to it spoke loudly about my second thoughts. A university-funded year-long research fellowship to Japan, a country I’d lived in before and which I consider a second home, was something I accepted only very reluctantly, because it wasn’t a direct path to the new dream of fatherhood and home ownership – a dream I was barely vocalizing even to my wife, whose ambitions I knew lay elsewhere. Yet she was eager to quit her own unsatisfying job and go to Japan, so we went, and it was – unsurprisingly – the most enjoyable and academically-productive experience I had as a doctoral student.

It may have been the emotional rejuvenation of that year abroad that gave me the strength to tell my advisor that I wanted to quit. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and anyone who has actively quit a Ph.D. program has my respect, because for years I lacked the courage to try it. In my case, though, my advisor convinced me to stay, assuring me that the work I’d done (around 250 pages well-received by everyone but me) was essentially defense-ready. I was surprised he thought so, and disappointed not to have been set free, but I agreed to put the finishing touches on it and defend. Which I did in 2016.

Around that time, my wife and I could no longer avoid the fact that we didn’t share the same goals for the next part of our lives. I felt I was running two marathons at once, the end of my dissertation and the end of my marriage, and I reached both finish lines at the same time, feeling a bit like I’d lost both. I graduated with my Ph.D. despite trying to quit, and got divorced despite wanting a rooted family life. I wouldn’t wish either ordeal on anyone, but I wouldn’t change anything either, because I’m happy in my new staff job and my new relationship. Like my sixth-grade self, I know again what I want to be. But it might not surprise you that I’m not ready to say more.


Have you changed life goals while pursuing an advanced degree? Or found it difficult to talk about your feelings on graduate school? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


David Conrad has a Ph.D in History from The University of Texas at Austin. He tweets about movies, Japan, and anything but graduate school at @davidaconrad


Image: Courtesy of David Conrad – “Climbing Japan’s Mt. Fuji in 2014. It was easier than finishing a dissertation.”

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