I've been working my way through a PhD program for the past three and a half years. During this time I have often wondered why I am doing this, and I've thought about quitting. I know why I am doing it. I was feeling stale in my career and - in some ways - limited in my thinking. I've always like school so I thought another graduate degree would be a good way to expand my horizons a bit. I also wanted to develop skills in research and writing. Further, I believe the advanced degree will open some doors in my career that I am eager to go through.
But lately I am finding that I am really struggling with this program and thoughts of quitting keep popping into my mind. A good friend of mine (who wisely completed her PhD in her 20's BEFORE she had children) is a professor and department chair at a local private university. When I expressed my agony to her, she sympathized like a good friend. And then she startled me by saying, "Oh, but that's just how all people in academia feel. Academic types tend to be a pretty negative group of people."
What?! I asked her to explain further. She thought briefly and then said, "I think we are so negative because our work involves critiquing things. We are always looking at the details to find out what is wrong with something and it seems to spill over into our daily lives." She's right. Think about the language of academia - scholars decide what they want to write about, and then develop their "argument." They strengthen their own argument by critiquing the arguments of others.
Developing skills in logic and argumentation can be useful in many professional settings. It also makes for stimulating conversation at a dinner party with friends. But after nearly 4 years in an academic environment, I am beginning to conclude that "arguing" 40 (or 60 or 80) hours a week in a community of like-minded "thinkers" around the globe can be mentally and emotionally exhausting as life becomes one big problem to analyze and solve. And that, my dear readers, is DEPRESSING.
I'm the type of person that has to be encouraging. "You can do it!" is a phrase I use often...but sadly it's one that I hardly ever hear from professors and advisors at the University. More often I hear, "This is a good start but..." or, "You've failed to address prior arguments by..." Now bear in mind that I am a straight A student (except for one B+ in a stats class), yet I still receive far more criticism than praise. And according to my friend, this is just the nature of the environment.
What I find interesting is how many of my academic colleagues (who have no work experience outside of academia) criticize the capitalistic-minded business community for being harsh and unkind. I've worked in the corporate world for over 15 years, and that is where I have been some of the nicest, most encouraging people who have greatly influenced my life in positive ways. Of course I have seen my fair share of horrible bosses, for the most part the people I have met have been caring, hardworking individuals who are trying to do a good job and be kind to others.
I can think of at least three reasons why the corporate environment tends to be more encouraging than the academic environment:
First, the pace is faster. We don't have months and months to sit around nitpicking the minute details of a sentence in a journal article. Typically corporate work is related to a relatively immediate need in the market and we don't have time to sit around "admiring the problem" we need to get busy solving it.
Second, corporate environments require collaboration to get things done. People who have been in any company with any level of sophistication know that partnership - cross-functionally, with customers, with vendors, and even hierarchically through levels of authority, is required to succeed in todays business climate. We don't have time or energy - or frankly the interest - to pick each other apart.
And third, there is no tenure system. We know that how we behave towards our co-workers will be reflected in our performance appraisals and will ultimately impact whether we can stay employed. So we are careful to treat others well - if only on the surface.
I realize I am describing a more ideal corporate environment, and there are plenty of places that are difficult and stressful to work. But by and large, I think there is some truth to what I am saying.
What do you think?