Should one choose a career for the love of the work or the money it provides?
Should one choose a field for the love of that field or the doors it opens?
Should one choose a dissertation topic for the love of that topic or the opportunity it provides?

I’ve been thinking about all of these questions lately as I’ve been questioning my pursuit of the PhD. 

I went back for a PhD in part because the idea of going to the same cube in the same bland office building working with the same dumb tasks for the next 30 years scares the crap out of me.  I hate the 50 weeks at 40-50 hours per week lifestyle.  I wanted more freedom and opportunity and variety in my work.  When I looked at careers the one that seemed to give me that while still challenging me was an academic career.

I choose education because, frankly, the business school wouldn’t let me in if I was planning to work outside of their pittance of an assistantship.  But even THOSE choices were made with the knowledge that what I would love to study (history) has a pitifully low job placement rate. 

Now I am wondering if I made the right choice. 

I am still terrified about spending another 30 years going to a cube somewhere, but I am realizing that fighting the uphill tenure battle in a field that is interesting but not all-consuming, about a dissertation topic at which I am skilled but not passionate, may not be right either.

Can I complete it?  Of course.  I’m smart and stubborn and confident in my own abilities.  I can complete the program, get my degree, and get a job.  I can do the right things to get the level of distinction necessary to teach at a decent school. 

But I am starting to wonder if the 19 year old me was wiser.  I used to say that I would never get a PhD because I was too much of a generalist.  What this really meant was that I like to know more than most people about a whole bunch of things.  But I’ve never had the urge to know everything about one thing.

Now I’m wondering if that isn’t somehow what I will have to do; learn everything about one thing to the exclusion of all the OTHER things I’m interested in, at least for a while.  It’s  unclear to me if that while ends before or after tenure, but I’m getting the sense that it is after.

I love solving problems.  I love looking at a situation and understanding it better; finding the links that others don’t find and highlighting them, or breaking the ones they do find.  But frankly those problems can be in almost ANY field.  And that’s what is killing me now….

I don’t know.  I’m down right now.  This could be because I am not adjusting to the full time day job PLUS school responsibilities well.  My first class of the semester isn’t even until tomorrow and I’m already dreading the entire semester.  I know that I still don’t FEEL like much of an academic because I’m so scattered; I can’t put any kind of energy toward my research because I’m beat at the end of the day.  I’m not getting to the gym for fear of getting home at 7pm and still needing to make dinner, try to do some work, whatever. 

But I still wonder if I made the wrong choice. 

  • I picked the field that would let me work, not the one I was passionate about. 
  • I picked what I study because that is what Adviser studies; it’s a current area (although maturing and not cutting edge) for which we have data (for this state). 
  • I’m afraid to leave that area because I would have to start over in terms of knowledge about the current literature and the big players, likely with only minimal help because no one at my school really does what I want to do.
  • When the time comes (6 months) I will walk away from a 6 figure job with a profitable company for work that is more interesting in some ways but every bit as stressful and will pay half as much.

Is this a mistake?