Dear Mentor: Shall I leave my PhD studies for the real world?

Dear Mentor,

I am in my third year in a PhD program in the social sciences. From the start of graduate school, I was unsure if I wanted a career in academia, and over the past few years I’ve become increasingly sure that I do not. I would rather work in the nonprofit sector — not just doing research, but running programs and that kind of thing.

I am wrestling with whether or not I should quit my current graduate program, either to get a job or to enroll in a different program. Doing so might require moving; I have a great church community in my current town, and I’m reluctant to leave, but there are few job openings around here in the fields in which I’m interested.

Real-life mentors have encouraged me to stick it out and get a PhD. Some of them seem sure that this is a way for me to embrace my vocation. I moderately enjoy my graduate work, but it’s hard for me to see a PhD as a degree that will open up opportunities for me in the non-profit world. I’m afraid that I will finish graduate school without the skills to do what I actually want to do.

How can I better discern my calling and how I ought to follow it? Thanks.

From Dorothy Boorse

I want to respond to the idea that there is a real world you want to be working in, a world more meaningful than academia.

I know what you mean. In the social sciences you would rather work for a non-profit or for the government actually implementing research in the lives of clients than contribute to learning about how social programs work or fail to work. If you already know this and are convinced a PhD will not help you and you are not far along in the PhD, it may be wise to leave it.

On another level, what you describe is the universal human condition. Working directly with clients has an immediacy to it. You can see how what you do has an effect. It feels more “real world” than committee meetings, advising, writing, getting grants. It’s like doing dishes — you put in real world work, and the dishes end up clean.

But there is no perfect job. Whatever job you do, there will be a time when you figure out that your effectiveness is dependent on another sector. “If only I could make a real difference over there,” you will think. “Maybe there I’d make a real impact. I’m slogging here. Does it matter at all?”

This is because at the base of it, problems we are trying to solve are connected and more difficult than we wish. Every time we try to accomplish something, we can see some part which, if done well, would make the work easier or more effective. For example, I work with students. I teach biology and environmental science, oversee internships, advise, am writing a book. I do innumerable tasks at the institution.

All of these matter. But because I spend a lot of time talking about environmental degradation, I chafe at the way my days are spent. If I could just be OUT THERE, I think. I‘d be saving whales, stopping hunger, slowing climate change. I fantasize about inventing some green technology (but I am not an engineer), making public policy (although I have no policy background), solving a public health disaster…you get the drift.

Tony Campolo comes to speak at the school, and I wonder if I really ought to drop what I’m doing and move to the inner city to live in some type of intentional community. I wonder if God’s call includes moving to Africa to work on relief. At the end of the day, though, I am doing work that matters, that uses my skills, and that needs to be done so that others can do their tasks. There isn’t actually a part of the world that is more real than my world, although there are many parts where problems such as poverty or violence are more apparent.

When I advise my students, I often discuss the trajectories of careers. Early on you want to be right in there, making a real difference right away. As you continue, you may find that you see the bigger and bigger picture. You see the need for planning, you want to be a part of making the decisions that change the way whole systems are run, to prevent the problems. You may want to start a center, be in charge, evaluate the success of strategies being used.

In addition, it is quite common for the very activities that we are good at and excited about to wear us out after years. You can easily see this in careers such as nursing, teaching, social work, conservation, and public health.

These are the questions I would ask you:

  1. Who do you know who has done the type of work you are considering? What education did they need? If they had more education, would more opportunities be available to them mid-career?
  2. Does the work you want to do often wear people out? Are there natural places to move into should that happen? What position could you move into in a decade?
  3. Is part of your thinking a reaction to being at a university? You are surrounded by people who have succeeded in getting a PhD and are successful working at a large research university. If your goals are otherwise, it can feel like all day long every other life track is being dismissed, including teaching, non-profit work, governmental work, etc.

I want to respect your questions. They are valid. A PhD is a lot of work and in many fields, a PhD closes doors as well as opens them. It is possible you would be wise to leave. But a PhD also opens many doors you may want to go through in the future and there are many real world, necessary, and satisfying jobs that require one.

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