Dear Prudence

Help! How Do I Know When It’s Time to Quit Grad School?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

Student looking anxious in front of pile of books.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Q. Sunk-cost fallacy: I’m in a grad program with two years remaining. My department is small and close-knit. The work environment is great. But I don’t feel passionate about my research anymore, and school stress is affecting my mental health. After much soul-searching, I’ve realized that I don’t want to be a career academic as I’d originally planned.

Rationally, I know it’s time to quit. However, I can’t find it in me to leave. I’ve been at this school for five years. Dropping out would mean leaving my entire social circle, getting a new job, and moving. In addition to anxiety over such a major upheaval, I feel ashamed for not being able to hack it. How do I grapple with these feelings so I can make the best decision for myself?

A: I can understand the feelings of shame you’re dealing with, but I think you should also give yourself some credit for looking at your situation with such clear eyes and sparing yourself another two—or five, or 10—years of frustration and stress. It’s difficult enough to survive as a career academic when you do have passion for your research and a strong desire to work in your field. This isn’t a matter of being able to “hack it,” this is a matter of figuring what you want out of life.

You can feel anxious and ashamed and still move ahead with your decision to leave your grad program. You’re doing your future self a great favor by not continuing to spend more time in a job you know you don’t want just because you’ve already spent five years there. If you’re feeling conflicted, it might help to talk to your chair/supervisor about your intentions, so you can get the support you need as you exit the program. Good luck—I think in two years you’ll look back on this moment with a lot of gratitude.

Q. Best friend breakup: I had a falling out with a friend over a year and a half ago. It was a very bad, hurtful breakup that occurred via text (because we live on opposite sides of the country). After all this time, I still can’t get over her. I think about her often, regret what happened, and get really sad when I think about what we had. We were like sisters.

How long is too long to get over a friendship? I’m not hoping to mend anything, especially since I was in the wrong, and pushing for a reconciliation feels intrusive. My brain knows it’s done, but it hasn’t felt that way. This makes me feel like a creepy ex. I blocked myself from visiting her social media profiles, and I deleted her number. I’ve been too scared and ashamed to keep in touch with our mutual friends since. How do I move on?

A: I don’t know that there is a statute of limitations on regret. It sounds like you’re doing everything right at present. You’ve accepted that you can’t force her to forgive you, no matter how sorry you are, and you’ve set up limits so you don’t waste hours scrolling through her social media and making yourself feel worse. I wish that immediately resulted in a sense of resignation, peace, and acceptance of the past, but that’s going to take time.

You lost a deeply important relationship—this woman was like a sister to you—and it makes sense that the regret and the pain have lingered. When memories of your friend surface—along with attendant feelings of longing, sorrow, desperation, shame, etc.—don’t try to push them away. Tell yourself, “This was an important friendship, and this response makes sense in light of what I’ve felt for her. This feeling will eventually pass without my having to do anything about it.”

If there’s any meaningful lesson you can take away from this breakup about how you behave toward your friends, that may go a long way toward finding a sense of purpose and clarity. If it would help you to talk about your regrets with some of your other friends (or, if the details are too confidential, a therapist), you might find that some of the shame dissipates with discussion and time.

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Q. To EuroTrip, or not to EuroTrip?: My boyfriend and I have planned a trip to Europe next month for our third anniversary. I took the initiative on booking and paying for our hotels (with his approval) a month ago, but he has yet to start his end of the planning. On past trips, I’ve planned everything—we save a lot of money that way—while his idea of pitching in is just signing off on whatever I want to do. As a result, I don’t feel like my efforts are particularly appreciated. I asked him if he could help me by making a list of things he wants to see. “Yeah I am,” was all he said. I also said, via text, “It would be nice if you planned something special for the both of us! Just so I know you’re excited as I am.” He took that as a personal attack—”The trip is in a month. You’re projecting your stress onto me,” he said—and we argued for hours.

I realize that every time I express a need for something, whether it’s more time, affection, etc., he deflects and says the real problem is how I communicate. When I’m gentle about it, as in, “I love getting flowers,” he doesn’t follow, and then says I’m too vague. But when I directly say, “I feel appreciated when I get flowers. Can you sometimes buy flowers for me?” he thinks I’m saying he never does anything right. In every conversation, I have to apologize for wording something wrong, and my needs still go unmet. I’m starting to think this trip is a bad idea.

A: If every time you attempt to have a conversation with your boyfriend about your needs in your relationship you end up apologizing and withdrawing your request, I think the problem is bigger than a single trip. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go, of course, especially if you still generally enjoy one another’s company, but it does mean you ought to have more of a meta-conversation about how you have conversations.

Ask him how you could word your requests in ways that would be helpful to him. You may come to realize over the course of this conversation that there’s no way you could communicate your needs to him in a way that doesn’t make him defensive and sidestep the issue; it may be that he simply wants you to stop communicating your needs entirely. If that’s the case—if it’s not simply a matter of expressing things differently, but the fact that you have requests or preferences in the first place—then you may have a bigger problem on your hands than a single trip.

Q. Moving on: My marriage of 20 years ended last year after my husband came out as gay. I stood by him for our three girls (19, 17, and 11), and to keep our extended family from ostracizing him. It worked. Our families have accepted the situation after the initial shock, and my older girls are OK, though my youngest is still anxious.

My husband has a new apartment, and he comes over for dinner most nights and helps me take care of the house. He is happier now than I ever have seen him, and he confides in me about his dating life. Listening to these conversations is like swallowing glass. I have asked him to stop—even begged him, once—and I walk away from the conversations when I can. However, most times I can’t walk away because our girls are there, and I don’t want to pull them into my pain.

I still love this man. Even though I know the truth, it kills me to think of him with anyone else. During our last big fight, I forbade him from bringing his new boyfriend to my house or around our girls. He accused me of being homophobic, and I snapped that he needed to think about someone other than himself for once and try to remember he is a father. He left, and I laid down and cried myself to sleep.

I don’t know how I will be able to keep this up. The last year nearly killed me. My older girls will be at college, but my youngest is very clingy to both of us. She hates change and is very anxious. How do I keep going? If I confide in anyone I know, I am terrified they will turn on my husband and then it will fall on my daughters.

A: Some of your limits are reasonable (not wanting to discuss your ex-husband’s new dating life while you two are making dinner for your children, not wanting to host him and his new boyfriend at your house), and some of them are not (wanting to dictate whether or not your husband introduces the children to his boyfriend when he’s with them). What’s clear is that your current arrangement isn’t working if it feels like “swallowing glass.”

Your goal should be to develop a custody agreement that facilitates a civil, nonconfrontational relationship between the two of you, not to become your ex’s confidant or have dinner together most nights of the week. You two have only been apart for a year, and you’re still devastated. Family dinners are great, but not when Mom is clearly miserable, and you should give yourself permission to treat your ex as an ex and a co-parent, rather than a best friend you’re unrequitedly in love with. You say you don’t want to pull your daughters into your pain, but I’m sure they’re just as uncomfortable watching you two fight as you are. They’d much rather see you two spend less time together if it meant fewer screaming matches and painful, forced smiles.

Q. Re: Sunk-cost fallacy: Two years seems like a long time. You need to think about two things—if you drop out without finishing the Ph.D., how will you explain that to prospective employers without looking like a quitter? And what are the nonacademic job prospects for you? If they are decent and no one is going to question why you spent the time you did beyond the master’s, then consider leaving. If not having the Ph.D. after all that time is going to raise eyebrows and follow you around professionally, then you should consider completing the degree and following your own path.

A: It’s worth, at the very least, considering the worst-case scenarios when it comes to leaving your program, although my inclination is not to let those scenarios dictate your choices.

Q. Re: Sunk-cost fallacy: Please leave your program. Speaking as someone with a Ph.D., having one overqualifies you for most jobs, and two years is a lot of time to waste on something that won’t help your career. Tons of people leave Ph.D. programs with a master’s—my husband did. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. A Ph.D. is a professional degree. You wouldn’t stay in law school if you didn’t want to be a lawyer, would you?

A: And here’s the other perspective! If having a Ph.D. wouldn’t help you any, and you’d still have to explain why you left the academic world anyways, then it’s better to leave sooner rather than later.

Q. Nonbinary in the workplace: I’m nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. I recently joined a progressive workplace with an environmental advocacy organization where I am not out to my co-workers (who are mostly other college students). There’s one woman, a supervisor, who I know is queer. I’d like to ask her about having people use my pronouns, but I’m really shy, and I’m scared of having people look at me differently. I’m also afraid that any misgendering afterward will hurt more, since it would be an active rejection. But I’m really sick of she/her! I’m not sure there are legal protections for gender identity in my state. What should I do?

A: It’s possible that your office does have corporate trans-friendly policies even if your state doesn’t, and it might be worth consulting with HR or familiarizing yourself with your company’s inclusion practices. You’ll have to weigh the potential benefits with the potential risks for yourself, because I think your anxieties about possible outcomes are fairly realistic, and it’ll ultimately come down to you and your comfort level. But you can certainly speak to your supervisor about it and, if she’s amenable, ask for support in letting your co-workers know about your pronouns. There’s not necessarily one right option, given that coming out at work can look different for everyone, but since you work at a progressive institution and have reason to believe at least one supervisor would be in your corner, I think you have some reason to believe you’ll be met with acceptance and support. Whatever you choose, I wish you luck!

Q. Sexual stalwart: Before my fiancé and I got engaged three years ago, he was diagnosed with a serious illness. While I am happy to say his illness is under control and will stay that way, our sex life has gone from twice weekly to once a month, maybe, if I beg. Viagra is not in the running due to interference with his medication, and my fiancé avoids any talk or expression of intimacy, including hugs and kisses.

I have tried to cope with masturbation and asking for oral sex for myself, since my fiancé doesn’t like me trying it on him anymore. It has been a losing battle.  The one time I brought up opening the relationship, my fiancé immediately brought up breaking up. I backed off and reasserted my love and devotion to him. I am 31, my fiancé is 30—I feel like we have skipped forward 30 years to our retirement years. I love and want to marry him, but I miss sex. What the hell do I do?

A: If you do marry him, I think you should be prepared for the likely outcome that you will continue to have an unsatisfying sex life with a partner who refuses to talk about why that is, not to mention refusing to hug or kiss you. If that doesn’t sound like a life you want, then don’t marry him. You’ve been engaged for three years and in all that time you’ve had to resort to begging for sex, going without nonsexual affectionate touch, trying to cope with masturbation (which doesn’t sound like it’s worked), attempting to open the relationship, and trying to talk about it—none of which has worked. I’m not optimistic that anything else will, either.

Q. Re: Nonbinary in the workplace: Don’t assume that people who continue to use she/her after they know your preferred pronouns are participating in an active rejection. Using gendered pronouns is ingrained in people, and even those with the best intentions may have a hard time making the switch! If you decide to let people know your preferred pronouns, please gently correct people who slip up. It may be an innocent mistake, and lots of us just have a hard time adjusting to change even if we wholeheartedly agree with it!

A: I think that can be helpful to remember! Being misgendered can be painful and frustrating regardless of the intentions of the speaker in question, so it’s worth working hard to overcome old habits, but it’s good to bear in mind that not everyone who slips up is doing so intentionally and in order to reject your identity.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone. See you next week!

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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Vintage Dear Prudence

“I get along really well with my wife’s brother and his spouse. Our families spend a lot of time together at dinners and on family vacations and it’s always pleasant. The only problem is I have a very strong desire to hurt their 3-year-old son. Don’t get me wrong: I would never, ever do it and he’s a sweet kid who has never done me any wrong. However, when I see him and hold him, I feel it deep inside. I want to hurt him and sometimes I have violent fantasies about what I could do to him. It came on so strong the first time I saw him that it terrified and overwhelmed me, making me feel sick for days after. I’ve never felt this way about any other kid and generally love spending time around children. Why do I feel this way and what can I do about it?

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