Why I Quit My PhD Program: Suggestions For Improving Graduate Programs (Pt. 1)

Image source: PHD Comics.

Image source: PHD Comics.

In this anonymous guest post, the author reflects on their decision to quit their doctoral program, offering a few suggestions to vastly improve graduate education.  Be sure to check out the second part of their essay on Thursday!

Stuck In The Past (Part I)

As soon as someone learns that I have a Master’s degree, invariably they will ask why I don’t have a PhD. Depending on the situation – and who’s asking – my answer varies. In truth, there are many reasons; some are personal and I don’t share those readily. The rest…well, that’s why I’m writing these posts.

Since I’m writing this post anonymously, I’m aware that I need to establish some sort of credibility with you. My Master’s degree is in a field that falls under the broad “Arts & Humanities” heading, from a nationally respected institution. Not quite Ivy League level, but many from my cohort went on to top-rated programs in our field. I completed several semesters of coursework in a PhD program in a slightly different field (also in Arts & Humanities) at the same institution. Leaving the PhD program was my choice: I had a perfectly acceptable GPA, a dissertation topic, and funding. In other words, I was not asked to leave nor did I fail out. That matters, if for no other reason than to reinforce that leaving was my choice. You’re asking yourself, why, then, did I leave? And why haven’t I tried a different program or university? In this two-part post, I look at some of the reasons for my decision not to finish the PhD.

Comprehensive exams

Source: iupac.org.

Source: iupac.org.

Comprehensive exams is the first reason that comes to mind for choosing to leave my doctoral program. In both fields of study in which I have participated, the exams have been described (verbally by students who have gone through them, instructors in passing, and in written departmental manuals) as a multi-day exercise in writing detailed answers to questions formulated by the student’s dissertation committee. Any topic within the field is considered “fair game” for inclusion in the questions, even if it is outside of the student’s primary or secondary areas of research. Depending on the department and dissertation committee members, students may or may not be allowed to use a handful of index cards they’ve prepared ahead of time for reference. Students are expected to prepare for these exams more or less on their own, without much guidance from advisors on how to direct their study. I am aware that the format I have described may be specific to the academic disciplines in which I’ve studied, and so my comments should be read as talking about that particular model of, or approach to, comprehensive exams.

Yes, I’ve had people laugh and look at me incredulously when I list comprehensive exams as a leading reason for my disinterest in pursuing a PhD. Surely, they say, you’ve spent how many years in higher education and you’re afraid of a few exams? No. I am not afraid of them. I think they are a pointless exercise, a waste of time, and a throwback to a much earlier model of education. When I’ve expressed this opinion, the person with whom I’m speaking generally tries to convince me otherwise. I’m reasonably open-minded. If you could come up with a valid reason or purpose for comprehensive exams – that is, not some variation on “it’s tradition” or “it’s the best measurement of knowledge” (both of which make me think the exercise is a thinly-veiled form of academic hazing) – I’ll listen. No one has yet been able to convince me.

While each discipline and program handles comprehensive exams differently, in my experience there appear to be at least two common components: one semester (or more) of intensive reading, and multiple days of writing essays in response to exam questions crafted by the student’s dissertation committee members. It’s rumored that some professors purposefully choose obscure points on which to base their questions as a way of really “testing” the student’s knowledge. It’s optimistic of me to hope those rumors are the university version of an urban legend.

There are a couple of things to consider about comprehensive exams. First, there are costs to the student. I’m referring to not only the literal, financial cost to the student – as funding becomes more scarce, how many PhD students are taking out loans to cover their expenses during the semester(s) spent reading? Further, what about the psychological health effects stemming from the stress and pressure of trying to prepare for these exams? The student has already demonstrated their “value” to the program and field in a number of ways before they get to the point of taking exams through coursework, teaching assistantships, research grants, presenting at conferences, and so on. What functional purpose does it serve to insist that the student must then spend months preparing for the grueling ordeal of writing essay after essay that will most likely never be used for anything else? What does that demonstrate?

In case you think that I am merely a disgruntled former graduate student, let me propose an alternative:

If you, as the student’s dissertation committee chair or member, think that the student absolutely must read [insert list of 300+ books here] before being able to move on to the next stage in the PhD process, I’ll accept that for the moment. Instead of testing the student on the supposed knowledge gained by trying to absorb that much information in a short period of time, what if the student is required to write a one page (500-700 word) summary of each reading, which would then be reviewed in a meeting between the student and advisor? (This might have the pleasant side effect of trimming the reading list rather substantially.) In this summary, the student is required to identify the author’s thesis and main arguments, then provide a short commentary on the work (i.e. the student agrees or disagrees for x reason, thus-and-such was well argued or poorly argued, etc.). If putting scholars, trends, or ideas in dialog is part of the purpose of the exam, then divide the readings into thematic units and after each unit is finished, have the student summarize the school of thought, trend, or theme.

The purpose of having the student and advisor meet about each reading is to guarantee that the student has acquired the necessary information. A secondary purpose is to make sure the student is doing the reading and summary-writing. Once the meeting to review the readings is done, the student puts the summary into a folder (digital or physical) to be kept for later reference. That way, five years down the road when the book comes up as potentially useful for a new research project or preparing to teach a course, the student can refer back to the summary. In fact, this is a strategy that could be incorporated into all graduate-level courses, to better prepare the student for the task that lies ahead.

My suggestion isn’t perfect. It still requires a great deal of time investment by the student and committee members. But this alternative approach accomplishes the overall goal of holding student accountable for necessary concepts and material, while honing the student’s reading and critical thinking skills.

I can’t help but wonder, though, what the point of multiple semester of coursework is if there is still a list of several hundred books and articles the student must read on top of what has already been required along the way.


I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I received tuition credits, a monthly stipend, and health insurance as part of my doctoral program’s funding package. However, many of my fellow doctoral students were not so lucky, and I was not one of the lucky ones to receive funding during my master’s degree work. I know entirely too many graduate students who are mired in debt from their programs.

I discovered that even with my generous doctoral funding package there were many things it did not cover. Language study is a perfect example. My graduate programs required fourth semester proficiency in languages standard to the field, as well as additional languages relevant to my research. Because I tested out of my undergraduate university’s language requirement coming out of high school (something I’m not sure would happen now), I did not have a fourth semester of language on my undergraduate transcript. As far as the graduate programs were concerned, nothing on my transcript equated to not “having” the language. Graduate students, in theory, had the option to take an exam to demonstrate language proficiency instead of taking undergraduate language courses. When I attempted to pursue that option, I found that it was an option on paper only. Since I did not want to make waves (as asking about the option generated enough waves), I opted to take the required language courses.

For the language that I had previously studied, I was able to take the fourth semester as an online course through a community college for a fraction of what it would have cost to take it at my university. For another language – one that I had to start from the beginning – I was lucky enough to unofficially sit in on the first and second semesters that were being taught by a fellow graduate student who understood my predicament. Since I didn’t need the credits for those courses on my transcript, it wasn’t a problem. Had I continued in the graduate program, though, I would have had to register and pay full tuition for the third and fourth semesters. (At the time, those two courses alone would have cost around $10,000. Since graduate tuition credits only apply to graduate courses, I would have been responsible for that entire amount.) The best that the university could offer was to help me find a private tutor whom I would have had to pay entirely out of pocket. And, since I wasn’t taking courses at the university, how would I have demonstrated fourth semester proficiency…? Perhaps I was naive prior to starting graduate school, but these were things I had never considered.

As an aside, I discovered after I was accepted into the PhD program that a language necessary for one of my areas of interest wasn’t taught at the university. This narrowed my options for dissertation topics, and shaped my subsequent studies in the program. (Why didn’t I check if the language was available ahead of time? As it happens, I had checked and the language was listed. It was only after I arrived on campus that I discovered it wasn’t being taught anymore.)

Unlike the above section on comprehensive exams, I don’t have a suggestion for fixing the lack-of-funding problem in the arts and humanities. All I can say is: faculty, be aware of what impact departmental requirements have on your students. It would also help for written program descriptions to specify that language study is not covered by departmental funding, grants, or assistantships, and that students will need to either demonstrate that the requirements have been filled prior to beginning the program, or that they will need to seek alternative funding sources specifically for language study.

Teaching Preparation

Another reason I was dissatisfied with my graduate education is related to the funding issue: preparation to be a teacher. My undergraduate university was small enough that I never experienced a teaching assistant or graduate assistant from the student perspective. Before I started graduate school, I expected that the main purpose of a teaching assistantship (or TA positions) is to train graduate students in all the aspects of being a college-level instructor.

As I mentioned previously, I was not fortunate enough to receive a teaching assistantship for my MA program. However, my PhD funding included a teaching assistantship. My comments about teaching assistantships should be read as what I’ve experienced and not as a blanket statement about how funding is handled across the board – I know that each department handles assignments differently.

As the start of my first semester in the PhD program approached, I was getting nervous. I’d had no contact from the department regarding my teaching assignment; it wasn’t until the blur of orientation that I discovered that I would be the sole TA for an upper-level undergraduate course with about seventy-five students. (Another semester, I was sole TA for a class of almost 100 students.) By the time I left the doctoral program, I had been a TA for several courses. Each professor required something different: one professor didn’t care whether I attended the course sessions, but wanted me to grade and keep track of attendance; another professor insisted that I attend every session of the course, keep track of attendance, grade, and teach occasionally when the professor was out of town; a third professor had all of those requirements, and asked me to lead periodic study sessions for the students. My point is not that these tasks were unreasonable or onerous, but that there was no consistency within the department. Nor was there much (or any) guidance when it came to grading. This caused no end of problems. For example, I was often tasked with covering more material than the professor usually covered in a single class session when I was required to teach. Simply being a TA, which varied from course to course, was my sole form of teaching preparation.

There is something terribly wrong with this model. Teaching is the primary means by which people with their PhDs earn a living. Why, then, do PhD programs do so little to prepare students to be effective teachers? It is not only a disservice to the graduate students, but also to the students they teach. Some universities have teacher training sessions for graduate students. While a good start, these are often not enough. In terms of some of the more mundane aspects of teaching, my assistantship taught me those things. What was not taught were what I consider the more important aspects of teaching, namely, how to structure a course (from selecting a topic through selecting readings and assignments), how to craft an effective lecture or seminar session, how to evaluate student progress, and most critically, ways of keeping students engaged. In theory, a graduate student would be in a position to learn a great deal from the professors with whom they worked since each professor has their own approach and teaching style.

My suggestion here is to rethink the current teaching assistantship model (wherein the graduate student does little more than grade, track attendance, and lead the occasional lecture) and restructure it to be a teaching partnership. After the graduate student has been a teaching assistant for at least one semester (following an established set of departmental guidelines for what is required of teaching assistants, of course), the student would be assigned to teach an undergraduate course in partner with a professor. The graduate student would be involved in each stage of course preparation and execution: crafting the syllabus and choosing readings, teaching the course, leading study sessions, and grading, all under the direct supervision of the professor. An additional semester following this model would allow the grad student to take the lead in planning and teaching the course. And, ideally the two courses should be different types – for example, the first a lecture course, and the second a seminar.


Thus far, I’ve talked about aspects of graduate school that I found dissatisfactory in my experience as a student. In all honesty, I can’t say that the thought of writing a couple of hundred summaries on readings is vastly more appealing than taking comprehensive exams. However, with the changes I’ve suggested, there would be less stress, more engagement between faculty mentor and student, and a tangible outcome in the form of summaries that can be referenced later. The purpose of these posts is to suggest possible changes working within the current structure rather than proposing an entirely new structure for graduate education. I frequently consider what my ideal PhD program would entail if I wasn’t bound by the existing framework of coursework-exams-dissertation. That is a much longer question to tackle, so I have chosen not to go down that path here.

In the second part of this series, I consider three additional ways in which PhD programs (in my fields) do not adequately prepare students for a career in academia.

Adjuncting And Academic Freedom

Photo by Harper Root.

Photo by Harper Root.

In another post here at Conditionally Accepted, Eric asserts: “Our academic freedom is protected so long as it doesn’t upset anyone — an obvious contradiction that misses that much of what we do makes the public (and our students) uncomfortable because it challenges bias and conventional wisdom.”

Eric writes from the perspective of a tenure-track scholar, though he acknowledges that tenure won’t protect scholars if the institutions backing them withdraw support in the face of public ire. The question of institutional backing is even more hazy for scholars in adjunct positions, like myself.

Adjuncting In The Context Of Academic Labor

As Kelly J. Baker points out, “The reality of academic labor is the separation of those who can gain access to tenure from those who cannot.”  In order to give some historical context, Baker traces the origins of tenure as a protection primarily for teaching activities, not necessarily research ones: “The AAUP describes teaching as the main work of the university, and tenure became the mechanism to protect teachers from the whims of political leaders, the larger public, and their own institutions. Education was a common good that must be safeguarded.” She advocates for creating a system wherein contingent laborers, like us adjuncts, have both academic freedom and economic security. I would love to have both of these things, but I’m not holding my breath.

Generalizing about adjuncting is tough because we have very diverse experiences. I know that I am not the only one with academic freedom concerns; adjuncts who are also activists have been fired. And as Kate Weber points out, we’re hindered by having a repetitive, overly simplistic conversation about whether adjuncts are “good” or “bad” teachers, when a more apt assessment of the situation would be: “If #highered has to rely so much on underpaid labor, then its foundation is cracked — but not because #adjuncts are bad at their jobs.”

I am in the fortunate position of not letting myself be defined by my adjunct role (neither financially nor in terms of my overall identity).  In fact, it may be better for me to take chances with my public persona because that is the very expertise that I bring to the classroom as an adjunct. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t agonize over academic freedom, or whether blogging about a certain topic in my sex educator persona will be too much.

Controversy And Precarity

I teach controversial topics in my classes, employing what I hope are common sense and empathetic strategies to support students as they confront topics like STIs, sex education, sexual assault, and alternative sexualities. I also blog and tweet (@foxyfolklorist) about these topics in my capacity as a freelance writer and sex educator. My department chairs know that I do this work; my students know, too.  And, if anyone else’s opinion on it matters, it’s news to me.

Despite being a woman on the internet with opinions, I have yet to receive any death threats or rape threats. Maybe I haven’t written anything controversial enough yet, or maybe my writing simply hasn’t come to the attention of the right hatemongers. If and when it happens, though, I’ll face similar problems as the professors whom Eric discusses in his blog post – though without the safety net of tenure. There’s always the chance that my institution decides that the “all press is good press” axiom is not, in fact, their preferred policy when it comes to media attention for their scholars.

In one sense, I’m not in too precarious of a position because I have decided to pursue adjuncting the way it “should” be done (in my opinion): not as a stepping-stone to something better that will probably never materialize, but rather as a way to stay engaged in teaching and maintain institutional affiliation to help me continue to do research. I also don’t do it as a primary source of income. I bring real-world experience and expertise as a folklorist, writer, dancer, and sex educator to the classroom, which, again, is how adjuncting should work in my mind. The poor wages and job security aren’t quite so bad when adjuncting is viewed as something that a real-world professional does on the side in order to bring their experience into the classroom to benefit students. The sheer amount of work it takes to teach a class means that the pay scale remains on the degrading side no matter how you slice it, but since I shifted my view from wanting to eventually get a tenure-track full-time position to stepping back from full-time academia, my experience of adjuncting has been healthier and more realistic.

So from this perspective, it’s hardly a bad thing that I have strong opinions about the miserable state of sex education in the U.S., or that I reblog essays about polyamory at popular sites like YourTango.com, or that I’m interviewed as an expert in articles on how to incorporate BDSM in your love life. I maintain pretty clear professional boundaries by not talking much about my own sex life on the web or in the classroom, even though someday I’d like to see a world where no one is judged for doing or speaking of any (consensual) sex act.

On the flip side, though, the lack of job security that most adjuncts face makes it a bit scary to think and tweet outside the box. If tenured professors are facing more push-back when they exercise their academic freedom, what will happen to adjuncts when we do the same?

Scrutiny And Censorship

As an example, Laura Kipnis published an essay on sexual paranoia in academe. I didn’t care for the essay – but whatever, it’s free speech. Then I read about what she termed her “Title IX Inquisition” [paywall], which included mysterious phone calls, having to meet with people who wouldn’t tell her exactly what the charges brought against her were, not being allowed to have an attorney during these meetings, being taken to task for a single tweet, and so on. That was a terrifying read, and if it can happen to a full professor, what about the rest of us?

The censorship Alice Dreger has experienced (albeit as a part-timer) is also frightening (and relevant for me, since she became internet-famous in part for critiquing the terrible abstinence-only sex ed happening in her son’s classroom).  She astutely observes: “in my world, the fear of offending someone is reason enough to forget about academic freedom.” She asserts that if her contract is not renewed at the end of the next term, it won’t be because of the quality of her work; it’ll “be because what I’m saying is off-brand and might offend somebody.” Is this really how we want our country’s professional intellectuals to be operating? Worrying about losing a job due to their public-facing statements and research not fitting an institutional brand?

Further, it’s infuriating to see the amount of scrutiny that’s happening to professors who write and tweet in attempts to exercise academic freedom in contrast to the extreme oversights happening in Institutional Review Board cases. This NYT op-ede about the medical research mishaps at the University of Minnesota details multiple “ethical breaches, [which] university officials have seemed more interested in covering up wrongdoing with a variety of underhanded tactics.” This is uncomfortably reminiscent of how many universities handle sexual assault, which is to say, rarely, sneakily, not well, and sometimes not at all.

As the author points out, “In what other potentially dangerous industry do we rely on an honor code to keep people safe? Imagine if inspectors never actually set foot in meatpacking plants or coal mines, but gave approvals based entirely on paperwork filled out by the owners.” It’s bizarre to me that university review boards trust (usually tenured) researchers to carry out ethical research based on this honor code, but don’t seem to trust professors to be ethical in the classroom and in the public eye.

Perhaps what’s at stake is less a scholar’s ethics, and more the potential for unwanted attention based on not only lack of ethics but also anything controversial. After all, how many complaints from an unethical study will have to add up before it comes to the public’s notice, vs. how many student complaints, or tweets from the greater public, can make a scholar sound like a bad person or an unworthy teacher?

Staying An Active Scholar (At What Cost?)

I wish I had some suggestions for how to continue to be active as a scholar in the public eye when one is also an adjunct, but all I’m coming up with is trite advice to be so awesome that they’ll want to hang onto you regardless. At some point, the merit of the individual adjunct scholar ceases to be a factor in the decisions of large institutions, and negative press might be a factor pushing that process along. One thing that’s been helpful for me is affirming that my identity remains that of a scholar regardless of my institutional affiliation. I was recently invited to participate in a symposium on digital approaches to fairy tales, “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder,” which was a huge honor. To be deemed worthy of inclusion in a small working group of scholars doing cutting-edge research was great for my self-esteem. However, I haven’t told my institution about my participation in it yet because I don’t know whether they care about my activities outside the classroom.

In closing, I’m curious about whether other adjuncts have thoughts to share here. I know I’m not the only one who makes an effort to stay active in scholarship and the public arena while simultaneously trying to make sure I do the right things to keep my adjunct position for as long as it benefits me.

An Important Caveat About Self-Care For Academics

Grace CaleGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology (full biography at the end). In this guest post, Grace makes an important distinction between “self-care” and “soothing” activities, where the difference is long-term versus short-term benefit, respectively, to our health and well-being. Are your usual self-care strategies just momentary distractions? Or, do they promote long-term wellness and balance?  Read on to find out!


“Self-Care” vs. “Soothing”:

Not Necessarily So Warm And Fuzzy

Folks, it’s no secret: academia is not an easy world to inhabit. For many of us, while learning to navigate this unique place for the first time (or experiencing new difficulties), we often find that our usual mechanisms for coping with extreme stress cease to function effectively. This is the time where we give up trying to work for the day (or week), sit in an armchair cocooned in a blanket, and read articles on self-care. Self-care is important. It is a thing, which, to put it simply, allows us to keep going. Stress and work drain our little metaphorical bucket of energy, and self-care is supposed fill that bucket back up. This can be read on nearly any article on the topic. But, that is not why I am writing to you today.

Instead, today, I take issue with the content of many of these articles. For metaphorical-bucket-recovery, those who give self-care advice often recommend things like:

  • Bubble baths
  • Wine and a good book
  • Going for a walk in nature
  • Dinner with friends
  • Seeing a movie
  • Chilling at home with some Netflix

Some of these things work for some people, and that’s great. My long-time escape? Minecraft and comic-book-based movies and TV shows. But after a while of using this self-care strategy, I noticed something. These things served as a great distraction, but after several desperately-self-caring hours of such activities, I felt no more prepared to tackle the endless pile of work. As stress levels grew high enough to affect my physical health, I explored our university counseling services, where I discovered the difference between self-care and soothing.

Clearly these things won’t fit all readers. But if I have had this issue, I imagine some others may have, as well. I discovered that the activities that I enjoyed, while pleasant, served almost as a security blanket. They soothed my anxieties in those moments, but did nothing to alleviate the problem of overwork. When a therapist first told me this, I panicked. Self-care has to solve my problem? My problem is too much work! The only way to make it go away is to work, but it never ends, and I can’t work 24/7, and and and … and figurative hyperventilation ensued. Luckily, eternal work was not the solution. Instead, to make a long story short, through various programs and meetings, I learned a valuable lesson: Self-care is vital, but is not always soothing, nor must it be.

So, what does soothing actually refer to? When my therapist mentioned it, I was somehow mildly offended, as if someone had told me that I rely on a security blanket to get by as an adult. However, the metaphor is somewhat apt. Soothing behaviors, in this case, tend to be those things that, in the moment, calm your anxiety or worry. So, in my case, I was relying on distractions and entertainment to make me feel better, but these things did not actually provide any long-term healing, and did not strengthen my ability to cope with stress. It traded long-term growth in resilience for temporary soothing of discomfort.

What we are left with, then, is the imperative to find some way of taking care of ourselves, which may or may not also soothe our stresses and anxieties, which actually provides for our longer-term health, well-being, personal growth, and so on. As academics who may or may not have these skills, we need to have methods of self-care which serve us and the careers and lives for which we aspire. But these necessary means of self-care may not provide momentary relief.

Now, of course, if you find something that you enjoy and it actually refills your metaphorical energy bucket, by all means, do that. And it is certainly unwise to engage in “self-care” behaviors that are necessarily dangerous, painful, or so stressful that they are counterproductive. But I had believed that self-care must be something distinctly pleasant, enjoyable, or fun. For me, the magical solution ended up being two things I flatly disliked, and one thing I liked: yoga and mindfulness meditations, and studying a language (which happened to help my dissertation). These things may not work for everyone, but they did for me. Yoga provided low-social-pressure physical exercise (good for the bucket, and health in general), and required focus because of its difficulty (which helped keep me from expending energy thinking about work that I should be doing). For 10-20 minutes at a time, I would do guided meditations, which also helped me to divert my mind away from the energy-waste of constant work-oriented thoughts. It also turns out I loved studying a language, and the joy of learning helped remind me (in part) why I decided upon a career in research. It didn’t fix everything, but I did experience some improvement in my ability to function, and came down from the ledge of an overwhelmed breakdown.

However, as we consume the nearly countless offerings of articles on how to be kind to ourselves in our lives and careers, let us not forget that while self-care might sooth our stresses in the moment, many soothing activities do not necessarily constitute real self-care. I write this long, winding story to remind folks of two key things: if you have a self-care routine that works for you and you enjoy it, by all means, do that. But if you’re still struggling to fill your little perseverance pail, try out some of those things people say you should do, even if you don’t love them. If you can stand it, give it a thought. Exercise. It doesn’t have to be public, easy or hard. But do anything that you can actually keep up regularly. I do yoga video podcasts in my home office. Try meditation (some of the benefits are supported by research), or creative writing, or whatever you feel gives your brain a break from its constant processing.

We all signed up for this academic life. While we sometimes question those decisions, three things are for sure. It’s a ton of work, it’s exhausting, and we’ve got to keep our wells of energy full. We have to prioritize self-care in order to give our best to our communities, our departments, our students, and our allies in activism. We must, nay, we deserve to be well!



Grace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. She can be reached at cale [dot] grace [at] uky [dot] edu.

Dear Department, I Quit.

The following post is by an anonymous guest blogger, who writes about her growing frustration with her colleagues and the culture of her department.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski (http://bit.ly/1voIkjv)


Dear Department, I Quit.

Dear Department,

I quit.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t literally quit. You pay me a pretty decent salary. I’m not really trained to work in the real world. And for the first time in my life, I have dental benefits.

Don’t think that means, however, that I haven’t spent the majority of the past two years thinking about quitting. The fact that I don’t love my job – or even like it most days – as a professor has been one of the biggest shocks of my professional life.

In retrospect, the revolving door of junior professors who filled my position then abruptly left for the 3-4 years before I accepted it should have been a warning sign. As should have been the sheer number of new colleagues who stopped by my office in the first three months of my job to reassure me that we weren’t that dysfunctional – we were just experiencing some challenges.

I can’t actually quit. But here is my notice that I figuratively quit. I will give you the work that is required of me – the courses you assign me to teach, and the one committee on which I am required to serve – but that’s it. No more volunteering for extra committees. No more organizing events. No extra assistance for the graduate students you send my way for just a bit of extra help. No more consoling the ones who feel abused. No more listening to gossip in my office, helping to smooth hurt feelings, or nudging department politics.

Instead, you get the bare minimum. Like so many of my senior professor colleagues before me, I have decided to make my career all about me.

I quit because the burden of teaching necessary to effectively run our program falls on me and my other junior colleagues. I am sick of being part of a college where teaching is valued only as lip service, one where the reality is that everyone seems to expend more effort trying to figure out how to get out of teaching than that actually exerted in the classroom. I used to love teaching, but your hatred of it is bringing me down. It is spilling into my experience and ruining one of my favorite things. I refuse to let this happen anymore.

I quit because of the burden of service and administration that has been place on me. Or rather, I quit because of your lack of gratitude for the service that I provide when ostensibly I am protected from such service until tenure. A simple “thank you” or “good job” would go a long way, probably with colleagues of all ranks. I am sick of receiving no mentorship in how to perform these tasks, but then being criticized for doing them “incorrectly.” Last, I am sick of being told that I have no idea how good I have it as an assistant professor, and how this is the best phase of my career.

I quit because of the condescension I receive toward my rank from those above me. I acknowledge that I don’t know what it is like to be a senior professor. I would appreciate it if my senior colleagues would acknowledge that they don’t know what it is like to be a junior professor in 2015. Tenure is no longer guaranteed. Grant success rates for my field are at an all time low. My interdisciplinary research (allegedly all the rage right now) is difficult to publish, but my tenure expectations are the same as my colleagues with more traditional research programs. The administrative burden for professors is higher and higher as work gets delegated to us from above (but the administration bloats at the same time). My tenure standards don’t take this into account either. I will spend one-third of my career paying off the student loan and credit card debt I incurred in graduate school. My stress over this environment is dismissed as me being silly.

I come from a generation that increasingly values a life beyond my career. This does not mean that I am less dedicated than the (mostly white men) colleagues who have historically walked these halls before me. Academia as a profession, like many others, is suffering from an epidemic of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Being shamed for looking after myself is not only inappropriate, but also disgusting.

I quit because of the everyday sexism I have to experience. Including that from senior female colleagues. I am so fatigued by this that I don’t even have the emotional or mental energy to say more.

Last, I quit because I am sick of the politics. I knew that academia was cut-throat business. I knew it valued the individual over the team. What I didn’t know is that I would be surrounded by coworkers who seem to spend a substantial proportion of their time endeavoring to screw each other over. Who create back-room deals that serve to exacerbate the gross inequities of academia. Who, then, act as though my junior colleagues and I are naïve when such deals (which usually only benefit senior colleagues) upset us.

I quit. I am tired of forcing myself to engage in a system where the only path to personal happiness and health seems to be to disengage. So I give in. I disengage. From now on, you only get the most basic things I have to give, and nothing more.

I don’t know what my long-term future entails for my career. Maybe it is time to start looking for a new job. I see so many academic blogs and Twitter accounts describing how terrible academia is…. It is nearly impossible to believe my situation could be any better somewhere else. Perhaps the one advantage to this experience is that it leads me to consider new career opportunities post-tenure. For now I’m going to focus on my own little world, and making it as positive as I can. What do I want my research to look like? What kind of instructor do I want to be? Who do I want to be, beyond a professor? Now that I’m (figuratively) quitting, I should at least have a lot more time on my hands to figure this out.

Introducing: Write Where It Hurts

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On June 2nd, three sociologists — Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers (see their biographies on their site) — launched a new blog, Write Where It Hurts, that will feature blog posts for and by “scholars doing deeply personal research, teaching, and service.”  In this guest blog post, Xan, J, and Lain describe their findings from an informal study of scholars’ sense of personal connection with (i.e., subjectivity) or detachment from (i.e., “objectivity”) their scholarship.  These findings led them to create Write Where It Hurts (WWIH), which they describe in more detail below.  Readers are encourage to submit their own guest blog posts to WWIH (wewritewhereithurts [at] gmail [dot] com).

Write Where It Hurts

Like every scholar we have ever encountered, the three of us were initially drawn to teaching and research in hopes of understanding experiences within our own lives. While we have met people focused on lab treatments of biological material, evaluations of organizations, social inequalities and patterns, and survey design, in each case we came upon people who sought to make sense of things that were relevant to their personal lives. Through casual conversations with our colleagues, we noticed a discrepancy among their stories. Some of these people admitted this aspect of their life course by telling others and us directly how aspects of their life led to their work. Others, however, often claimed the opposite; for example, some people we met claimed to be “objective” despite making claims about elements – like race, class, gender, or other social issues – that influenced their social lives. As a result, we decided to explore this discrepancy further.

The Sources Of Scholars’ Research And Teaching Interests

To further our casual observations, we began directly asking fellow scholars how their personal experiences influenced their teaching and research at conferences, in departments, and on online forums. After learning in graduate programs that we were expected to attempt to be “objective” and pursue science from a “professional distance,” we sought to find out whether people actually thought such a position was actually realistic. We learned very quickly that the same discrepancy we saw in personal relationships and official training programs existed in the response of academics in various fields. Some of them quickly noted how, for example, a fascination with animals as a kid, a search for truth as a church member during childhood, or an experience of marginalization shaped their interest in academic work. Others, however, found many ways to argue that their own focus on this or that subject had nothing to do with their personal life, and was rather simply a “creditable” and “important” area of work. Not surprisingly, these informal conference talks revealed some interesting patterns in who said what about “objectivity.”

Digging deeper, we found three patterns in our informal study. First, most of the people who claimed “objectivity” or a “lack of emotional investment” occupied privileged social locations (e.g., white, male, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, cisgender, religious, or normatively-bodied). Yet, most of the people who admitted the “subjective” nature of academic work and disclosed the “personal” experiences that fed into their research and teaching interests occupied at least one marginalized social location. Second, the people who claimed “objectivity” tended to be doing work in mainstream areas of scholarship long defined as politically and academically legitimate, whereas the people who were most often open about the “emotional” aspects of their work typically worked in newly emerging, controversial, and/or emotionally charged areas that conflict with established political and academic traditions. Finally, we noticed that academics in mainstream fields and privileged social locations often made claims about personal aspects of their lives without ever being accused of doing “me-search” (i.e., heterosexuals using lab samples to make claims about sexual norms, or religious people using surveys to talk about religion), while these same people used “me-search” as a type of slur targeted at anyone doing innovative work or occupying marginalized social locations.

Along the way, it became increasingly clear to us that academic programs, departments, and traditions encouraged people to pretend they were “objective” or “rational” despite the “subjective” and “emotional” aspects of all teaching and research. In fact, we listened as countless people in varied academic fields explained the ways that talking about emotions or personal experiences were devalued, marginalized, and attacked within their training programs, tenure-track positions, and academic organizations. Familiar with long traditions of critical pedagogy and scholarship, we began to recognize this culture of silence as a way to maintain academic hierarchies concerning who could speak, what could be said, and what “counted” as legitimate teaching and research. As many activist and academic communities have done throughout ourstory – including Conditionally Accepted in relation to marginalization within the academy – we sought to find a way to pull the emotional and personal elements of teaching and research out of the shadows and into the light of day.

To this end, we began hosting panels at conference meetings wherein people were encouraged to share the personal and emotional side of their research and teaching experiences. In so doing, we realized very quickly that many people longed to have space for sharing these stories, building community around these issues, and gaining resources and support for doing emotional and personally relevant work within and beyond the academy. As a result, we decided to create such a space in hopes of providing an opportunity to discuss the emotional and personal aspects of our work and in so doing, begin dismantling the myth of “objectivity” promoted in our disciplines and used to marginalize many academics and fields of study. Last week, we launched such a space in the form of a blog community entitled Write Where It Hurts, and we invite all interested parties to become involved in this conversation.

WWIH Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Write Where It Hurts Editors: Xan Nowakowski, J Sumerau, and Lain Mathers

Creating A Space To Write Where It Hurts

Write Where It Hurts serves as a public forum for discussions about the personal and emotional aspects of teaching and research. Specifically, we offer and collect contributions from scholars in different fields teaching and doing research in areas that are personally relevant to them, emotionally charged in relation to academic and broader social norms, and/or marginalized or defined as “me-search” by people attempting to enforce notions of “objectivity” predicated upon privileged social status and approved areas of study. Further, our site offers resources, tips, and strategies for navigating emotional and personal tensions, traumas, and concerns we face as teachers and scholars facing systemic inequalities within and beyond the academy, and critiques of “objectivity” claims made by members of privileged groups to justify hierarchical notions of what “counts” as legitimate teaching and research. Finally, our site displays both open and anonymous examples of these dynamics and the ways people manage them in hopes of providing a supportive community and public dialogue about these issues, which may be used when scholars attempt to disrupt the culture of emotional and personal silence promoted throughout academic operations.

We chose to call the community Write Where It Hurts for three specific reasons. First, it is noteworthy that people are only accused of doing “me-search” or “subjectivity” when they study things that are controversial or innovative, and thus these people are subjected to painful experiences with other academics simply for daring to be different types of teachers and researchers. While white males (or members of other privileged groups) who use surveys to measure gender or race are also doing personally relevant research based on their own emotional and social experiences, for example, they are freed from such critique due to their privileged social positions in ways that minority scholars are not. Minority scholars and those utilizing non-standard methods must therefore subject themselves to pain (or write where it hurts) to build careers within inequitable academic traditions. We thus focus on Writing Where It Hurts to draw attention to this imbalance, and begin the process of dismantling these inequitable patterns of academic interpretation and practice.

Second, we recognize long standing traditions wherein revealing marginalized narratives, experiences, and ways of knowing disrupt the silence necessary for maintaining inequitable systems.  Following Feminist, Critical Race, Queer, Interactionist, Nonreligious, Indigenous, and other Critical traditions, we thus recognize the power of expression to disrupt existing norms and patterns that serve to marginalize and silence some preferences and peoples for the sake of the elevation of others. In such traditions, there is a long tradition of writing about the pain, sharing the hurt, and expressing the struggle to build community, facilitating recognition of unconventional practices and beliefs, and finding support in the face of dominant ideologies and structures. We thus encourage others – both within and beyond the context of our blog, Conditionally Accepted, and other forums seeking to better our current academic structures – to Write Where It Hurts to both allow others to recognize the existence of such pain, provide support for those who have been convinced they suffer alone, and establish narratives and resources for challenging the inequalities at the heart of such pain.

Finally, our experiences (both informally and formally) offering panels on the emotional aspects of teaching and research have shown us that there are many people wrestling with these issues on a daily basis. In many cases, people are facing and navigating personal trauma, experiences with harassment and discrimination in varied forms, and other difficult life experiences in an attempt to further understanding of understudied aspects of this social experience that effect multitudes of people. In so doing, these people are drawing on their own pain to teach the world about sensitive and controversial realities, but in so doing, they face their own pain and trauma in every aspect of their professional lives. As such, we call our project Write Where It Hurts to celebrate their efforts, and create a community where these efforts are validated, recognized, and given voice in ways that are often to hard to find in existing academic programs, departments, and traditions.

In closing, we invite all readers to check out our blog community, and contribute in any way they see fit. Write Where It Hurts is committed to inclusive and supportive dialogue where all people are recognized and respected regardless of perceived difference in social location, and where the only requirement for membership is supporting the equitable treatment and affirmation of all people seeking a more just and egalitarian world. As fans and supporters of Conditionally Accepted, we are delighted to have the opportunity to share our project on this platform and with its readers and contributors, and we see our own project as an emerging complement to the work done by this site. To this end, we encourage all readers to consider Writing Where It Hurts on this site, our own, and others while doing your part to affirm others who openly engage in emotionally and personally relevant teaching and research geared toward the betterment of our shared social world.

Invisibly Ill: Notes on Being Academic and Bipolar

sethSeth is a PhD candidate and adjunct professor at a large public university. His research lies at the intersection of feminist, queer, and affect theories, exploring the emotional experience of reading. He has taught classes in feminist theory, American sexuality, and gendered violence. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder six years ago.  In this guest blog post, Seth reflects on navigating graduate school, the classroom, and academia in general with bipolar disorder.


Each night before bed, I pack my school bag. I carefully place the next day’s lesson plans, papers, and books inside, propping it on a certain chair at my work table all ready to go.  The routine calms me. Two minutes later I retreat to my bedroom and take my now-reflexive drug regime of mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and sleep medication that will allow me to stand in front of my class and critique the very systems (big pharma and the mental health industrial complex) that have saved my own life.

However, my students and most of my colleagues will never know this about me. In fact, from childhood and up to the point where I started writing my dissertation, I racked up several suicide attempts and had willingly overdosed twice. Some of this occurred while I have been in graduate school, but I have taken great pains to keep this information quiet. I know that I am privileged to have gotten emergency treatment on those occasions, to have insurance for my medications, and to be able to go to ongoing therapy even if it is extremely expensive on my adjunct salary. But most of all, I am fortunate have an accepting partner and chosen family. I am thankful for these things everyday; without them I would not be alive.

Navigating Academia With Bipolar

I am a walking contradiction. I teach my students about celebrating difference, but I actively hide and conceal this part of my “difference.” Sometimes it is scary for me to even wear short sleeves during the summer because I worry my students will notice the self-inflicted scars on my arms while I am handing back papers. It’s not that I do not spend hours thinking about telling them. I constantly wonder if speaking about my invisible disability could serve as a transformative teaching moment. But I resist partially because I am afraid, and partially because I want privacy and to keep my dignity intact.

Interestingly, I am out to my students as transgender; they know both my preferred and birth names due to the school’s computer systems and we talk about it in class. I feel no shame about my transition, social or medical. They have seen me physically change, pried apart my body with their curious eyes, heard me talk about my boyfriend as well as various ex girlfriends.

But, I have never spoken publicly about having bipolar disorder or how this diagnosis, which came suddenly during my master’s degree, was devastating. I rarely tell people that during my initial episode: when I brought him letters documenting my disability and the accommodations I needed in order to merely survive, my Latin professor told me that my illness was just a sign I was not strong enough or smart enough for graduate school or academia in general. In that moment I learned that silence was the unspoken rule to sneaking through the maze of graduate school with mental illness. I never spoke about it again, until now.

When I defended my master’s thesis a year later, it did not feel like a celebration of my achievements or scholarly future, but more a militant statement of productivity in the face of hate and discrimination. I showed up at the door of my doctoral institution refusing to register my disability with the campus disability office, knowing that the more that I could “pass,” the better. I now believe this was wrong and the result of an academic climate that values robotic productivity and turns away from any difference, physical, mental, or other.

At my university, as with many universities in the United States, in order for a student to get accommodations or recognition for having any type of disability, they must register themselves through a disability services office that uses various criteria to determine what, if any, help to which they are “entitled.” For example, students with ADD might be given extra exam time, which the office decides on based on the students’ medical files. The problem with this model is that these offices run via a complex mixture of gatekeeping and fear. And with mental illness, something so personalized and dynamic, the situation is infinitely more complicated. Students needing accommodations due to mental illness first have to find doctors or therapists willing to meet them and then ultimately write on their behalf, all in a potentially new city and while on their own for the first time, sometimes without parental support or even understanding. Plus, this requires time, knowledge of insurance companies, and money. Yes, there may be a free counseling center on campus, but appointments can be booked months in advance (as with my university), so students often suffer in shame and silence.

Given these barriers, faculty are faced with the difficult task of deciding whether to give accommodations to “undocumented” student. Often, these students will explain to their professors that they are coping with a challenging situation, but found the disability services office too scary to navigate, or that counseling services was full and they did not have a car or funds to get to an off campus therapist. For example, I’ve had students tell me they were mourning the loss of a parent and that they needed extra time for assignments because they were depressed and at times could not handle their homework. Some of my colleagues choose not to give any accommodations to these students unless the depression is a registered “reality,” because they say students lie. But, I always treat these afflictions as tangible and serious. To give up privacy in this way usually means something is truly happening. Even if the university processes students and their individual affective problems as broken worker bees who ruin the hive, I refuse. I always think about my Latin teacher and how he processed me.

Bipolar Disorder As A Disability In Academia

As someone with bipolar disorder who is heavily medicated, I consider myself to have a disability. I know this is not the case for every non-neurotypical person, but it has helped me mourn the loss of a certain type academic life I know that I will never have due to the limitations of both bipolar and its accompanying treatments. I am currently writing my dissertation, but it is taking me longer than other students. I go to conferences, but maybe only one major association a year and one smaller one. Every step I take, paper I grade, or time I set up a student appointment is influenced by bipolar. For example, I have had to cancel class numerous times when my medications were adjusted because I could not mentally focus on my course material; I cannot schedule exams too early in the morning because sometimes I am shaky or too tired to leave the house; I flinch and become jarred when my students scream out during class because loud sounds scare me. And sometimes, even my huge arsenal of medications and various treatment team fails me. But, that’s the nature of this illness: I get manic or depressed, which leaves me hoping I will not have to go to the hospital. Bipolar is always a student in my classroom every semester; I always wonder how much he will join the discussion.

In an academic climate that favors unparalleled perfection and rewards those who reject affect-based learning, it would make sense why I have remained mute to my students (and lots of faculty) despite teaching classes on disabled sexuality and writing a dissertation focused on psychiatry, sexuality, and affect. I fear that I will be exposed as unproductive, incompetent, or weak. From Day One of graduate school, they told me the best scholars wrote the most books. With a life-altering illness, it is hard to think of myself as ever having that ability to compete on that level even though I technically haven’t even centered the arena because I am still in graduate school. Bipolar has taken so much time from me and I mourn it everyday I see yet another colleague publish an article or win a fellowship. I simply cannot do all of the herculean academic tasks demanded by the current state of affairs. I can do some and try to modify, like when I went to an Ivy League summer school and snuck away from several of the large evening lectures to rest in my dorm room and call home for some grounding. Humanities jobs are scarce (like we all know) and I am already at a disadvantage because of my health. I know that I need to adjust my idea of success and what it means. I am learning that this adjustment does not equate me with failure, just difference.

Mostly at this point, at a time that I feel stable, I worry for my students who are learning that silence is the only way to get through college, that is it is better to fail a course than to tell a teacher about one’s anxiety or depression because the stigma of mental illness is worse than the stigma of perceived laziness. To those students I say: I may never see you and you may never see me, but we are not alone.

“I Am A Skeptic” by Dr. J. Sumerau

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities.  In this guest post, Dr. Sumerau reflects on zir academic and social experience as a skeptic, or one who sees all “truth claims” (even those ze makes) as arguments to be critiqued, discussed, and debated rather than “accepted” or “trusted” in relation to binary notions of “right” or “wrong” and “true” or “false.”  Instead of suggesting other people’s “beliefs” or “truth claims” are right or wrong, the following post thus seeks to share the experience of a skeptic experiencing academic and social life within our contemporary (and often faith based) world.


I Am A Skeptic

While I was raised in a religious home, religious belief never suited me even though I tried to believe for a few years. I was unable to “have faith” or “believe” in any thing I could not directly experience with my own senses. Since I have never felt the presence of a supernatural force, I do not believe there is one even though I remain open to the possibility that I may be proven wrong at some point. I also have trouble imagining a supernatural being or force that would create a world filled with so much pain, suffering, discrimination, and violence without thinking said being or force should be fired for negligence at the very least. I just always thought that if I (a simple human being as far as I can tell) was capable of caring for others when I wasn’t forced to and able to make every effort to avoid hurting others, then certainly a supernatural being or force could at least do as well.

Since religious belief never suited me, I spent time with freethought and atheist groups as a teenager, and have both studied and interacted with both since. In so doing, however, I ran into similar problems with these groups – the ones I met “believed” (and expected me to believe) in things that could not be proven. Most of the nonreligious people I met, for example, believe deeply in science (e.g., they define it as a form of truth rather than a method limited by human assumptions, biases, and interpretative abilities) and often sound much like their religious counterparts in the process. Some others in these groups explained to me that while it was silly for religious people to “believe” in an unproven supernatural, they were “certain” there was no supernatural even though that can’t be proved either. Since I am unable to “believe” that there isn’t or is a supernatural for sure (after all, neither assertion can be proven) and since I have read widely enough to realize that “scientific” findings are produced by humans with biases, assumptions, and prejudices, I could not adopt the nonreligious “faith traditions” I found either.

The nonreligious “faith traditions” I found did, however, give me an idea – maybe I would find a haven for skeptics in scientific communities. Alas, I was once again mistaken.  (As readers have learned from this very blog, academia tends to enforce its own set of beliefs and values about what constitutes “normal” or “acceptable,” but even this blog has sometimes included religious and spiritual references without critique.)  Instead of skepticism, my seven years (10 counting undergrad) of scientific practice have shown me that most of the scientists I meet also carry around a lot of “beliefs” and have a lot of “faith.”

Despite the preponderance of statistical analyses in our journals, for example, most scientists I’ve met take these findings for granted even though replications are rarely done to verify claims. Similarly, I have noticed (and been explicitly told) that theoretical (i.e., possible explanations) and psychic (i.e., predicted probabilities that show what “might” happen in a given circumstance) contributions are granted much more value than concrete statistical or qualitative observations of the world we actually live in everyday. Further, I have been amazed to learn that most scientists I meet refer to findings as “facts” or “truth” despite the fact that (1) all such findings come from human “interpretation” of data (especially in the physical sciences where our data cannot generally talk back to tell us if our interpretations are incorrect or incomplete), and (2) scientific history is littered with examples of things the humans doing science have gotten wrong. Especially as a bisexual raised in the lower-working class who was transsexual as a teen before transitioning into a genderqueer identity rather than another sex (i.e., a member of three groups historically denied access to the academy and voices in science), I have thus realized that I also lack the “faith” necessary for properly fitting into “scientific faith traditions.”

I have thus come to realize that at present “skeptic” is likely the best way I can identify myself, but this leads me to wonder if there is space in the academy (and beyond it) for skeptics. While I have been lucky enough to find other skeptical folk (some that have “faith” in some of the above and some who, like me, are skeptical of all truth claims they have thus far come across even any we make at specific times), I wonder about other skeptics surrounded by those who develop “faith” in the truth claims of other human beings. I thus thought it might be useful to announce my presence in this space in hopes of both letting other skeptics know they’re not alone, and asking is there a place for skeptics among the religiously, nonreligiously, and scientifically “faithful.”