May 22, 2014

Why I dropped out of a PhD program

As a rule, this is not a personal blog. I have only taken the liberty to talk about my own life a few times over the years. I’ve decided to make an exception here, to tell people why I dropped out of a PhD program in information studies.

I know a lot of people who are in PhD programs who think about dropping out from time to time, and I know people who are considering going for a PhD and want to think about their decision carefully. This is a pretty popular topic for people to blog about in academia, but every person’s situation is a bit different, so I don’t feel that another voice will be redundant. My issues taken together were unique to me as a student, but people might relate to some of them, and I hope that these reflections will be helpful.

First, why I decided to go for a PhD in information studies in the first place. When I was getting my MLIS in the late 90s, I thought that I would never want further schooling in the field. But working as a librarian was never completely fulfilling for me. I was unhappy as a librarian; over the years I made do by pursuing outside projects: publishing the Library Juice email newsletter and continuing it as a blog, starting Library Juice Press, being active in SRRT and PLG and serving on ALA Council. I consistently felt that the real life for me in librarianship was in professional activities outside of my actual job – working on committees, writing and reading about librarianship, publishing books in the field. So eventually when the time came to leave or die inside, taking the step into the “meta-profession,” the academic field of LIS, seemed like a logical thing to do. It would also allow me to explore some growing intellectual interests that weren’t directly about libraries, but indirectly related.

Fast forward to the Fall of 2011. I entered the doctoral program in information studies at UCLA. Back on the West Coast where I felt like I belonged, in a stimulating intellectual environment. In my courses I quickly found that my previous outside work served me well as a student. I was already familiar with most of the authors we read, and in fact had met many of them personally. I enjoyed many of the readings, and enjoyed what my fellow students brought to the discussion. Over the course of the first year, however, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my new life on a number of fronts.

First, it turned out to be not as ideal an intellectual fit as I had thought it would be going in. Despite having more room for humanistic studies in IS than many other schools, the emphasis in the program is still strongly on social science research methods. I wanted to apply post-Cartesian philosophical ideas to information technology and its role in society – looking at artificial intelligence, the role of algorithms, automated knowledge organization, etc. My perspective on these kinds of issues is informed mainly by the German philosophic tradition going back to the 19th century romantics and up through the phenomenologists and post-Heideggerian hermeneuticists. I also like Marcuse and Habermas and other people in the Frankfurt School, and I felt that their approaches to technology and system-versus-lifeworld could be useful as a way of pursuing my interests. There are people in the social sciences who have adopted related approaches to knowing about the world, but I had trouble finding a way of studying my topics in a social science context. I wanted to theorize philosophically. If I had stayed in the program, I would have found a way to do something along these lines, but it would not have been an easy path, because despite the great faculty, there is nobody there who is well qualified to serve as a thesis adviser based on this kind of approach. I learned also that there aren’t a lot of people in the field who share my interests or views, and in fact I encountered people who said that what I wanted to do was not information studies. I feel confident that it was, but at this point I would rather advance related positions as a publisher than as an academic.

There were other serious issues. I was an older student, and faced typical challenges. The main difficulty that older students face in doctoral programs is that they already have a life that leaves limited room for being a student. Younger students have the freedom to throw themselves into their studies completely. Often the outside commitments older students have are family or a job. In my case it was publishing books. Although my book publishing activities slowed down while I was a doctoral student, they still took much of my attention, and it was something I was unwilling to give up. Older students have some advantages as well, such as a tendency to be more organized in the use of time and less of a need to blow off steam. I had those advantages, but my life had competing demands that outweighed them.

The financial aspect of grad school and future career prospects are something it is unwise not to consider seriously. California faced a budget crisis while I was there, and we learned toward the end of the first year that funding would be tighter going forward. I had had fairly generous funding for the first year, but that was going to be reduced and eventually to end. Even if I won fellowships, I would need to take on student loans, which I did not want to do. Working more was a possibility, but time for studying was already squeezed by my publishing activities. Then there is the fact that faculty salaries in the field are not much better than what I had earned as a librarian, and the fact that the academic job market is tight, and would be especially tight for someone whose dissertation was outside the norm, as mine would have been. If I was not able to land a tenure track job in an acceptable geographic location, I might be stuck doing adjunct teaching, which pays poorly and lacks job security.

Grad school gives you a taste of academic life, an opportunity to ask yourself, “Is this the life I want?” Academic life affords a lot of freedoms, comes with a lot of perks, but comes with a lot of pressures, from different directions. You are always being evaluated as an academic – by your peers, by your students, by administrators, by reviewers at scholarly journals, by committees that give grants and fellowships, by potential employers, by audiences at conferences, and more. There is constant pressure to perform at many levels. You need to be a well-prepared and effective teacher. You need to publish frequently and in well-reputed journals, which means getting research grants, performing the research, doing the writing, getting the work accepted, revising it, and doing it all again. Many academics enjoy this work, but all are affected by the pressures it brings at the same time. Additionally, you need to serve on committees, deal with campus politics, write letters of recommendation, present at conferences, serve as a reviewer, write grant proposals; the list goes on. This is exciting work for a lot of people, but all of it is being evaluated, often by people with whom you have intellectual or political conflicts, and the opportunities for failure are many and not always possible to control. It is a tightrope walk. Often decisions that affect you will be made for political reasons. Egos are involved as well. Power relations are involved. Some people thrive in that environment. I found that in that environment I would always feel anxious and would not feel free. As much freedom and discretionary time as I would have in other ways relative to most workers, I would essentially always be on the job, would have little time for a life outside my work as an academic, and would have few opportunities to take a breath. As I was already in my mid-40s, I didn’t relish the thought of spending my later decades in that style.

More than most students, I was also aware of having other career options. My foray into book publishing had been a success, and I would have no trouble finding job opportunities with a publishing company, or in another academic library. I had also had enough experience as an entrepreneur to begin to do more in that regard. So I decided that I could do the PhD for my own personal enrichment and not for the purpose of advancing along a normal academic career path. But the expectations of academic life were a part of my life as a grad student already, and I found it mentally and emotionally taxing. I was also not earning much money and would soon need to take on debt to continue. So I began to question whether the personal enrichment of a PhD program would be worth the price to my sanity and to my bank account.

The question was not an easy one to answer, because I felt I had made a commitment to the program, and because I recognized that being at UCLA’s IS department was a great opportunity to develop myself intellectually. It would be a lot to give up. I struggled with the question in the back of my mind through the spring quarter of 2012, and knew that I would have to make a decision before the second year began. As it turned out, I was granted a reprieve by a health problem that left me bedridden through the summer, and allowed me to take a leave of absence for the fall quarter. While I was laid up with a herniated disc, I made plans for a business venture that would support me while I continued to study. I organized Library Juice Academy and got it off the ground in October. I quickly found, however, that running it left no time for school, and my decision was made. I dropped out of the program and found myself a full-time entrepreneur. I recovered from my back injury in the fall with the help of cortisone injections, and moved back to Sacramento in December to be closer to family in the Bay Area and to live more affordably.

I made the right decision – for me. I am my own boss, and I have a life that suits my temperament and needs. I gave up the path to an intellectual contribution that I feel may have been valuable, but the timing for it, and other factors, were not right in my life. And I am in a position to facilitate the contributions of others about whom I am enthusiastic, which feels very good. I don’t regret spending a year in a doctoral program; I grew during that time, learned about myself, and discovered new possibilities.

So what advice would I give to someone who is considering entering a PhD program? It is simply that whether or not the path turns out to be right for you, it is not a bad idea to give it a try in order to find out. If it turns out that you are not meant for an academic career in today’s university, it most likely will not mean that trying it out was a waste of time. It likely will turn out to have been a great learning experience. Give it your best effort and see what it feels like. Don’t be too open about this intention when you are applying to programs, however. They will not be interested in you if you tell them you just want to try academia on for size – they are considering making a certain investment in you, and want to feel confident that you have a good chance to succeed as an academic and promote their good name as your advisors and teachers. And keep in mind that you may in fact go on and do that. Make a sincere effort in that direction before taking stock. I would not have benefitted much from my year at UCLA had I not worked hard at it.

I hope this story is helpful to a few people.