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Should I drop out of my PhD program?


HJones95
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Please help. In the spring 2017 application cycle, I applied to 7 programs. 4 were MA programs in Medieval Art, and 3 were PhDs in African art. 3 MA programs accepted me and 1 PhD. I chose the PhD. I have a BA in Art History and I did not take time off before starting the program.

(Can anyone see problems already?)

Obviously at the time I was conflicted about what I wanted to study, and also had no expectation that I was capable of gaining entry to a PhD program. (Self confidence isn't my strong suit.) Somebody should have told me that such a state of indecision was no time to be applying to graduate school, let alone commiting to a PhD program.

I am not happy here. I have a tolerable relationship with my advisor but it has been fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding, as I am her first graduate student. The larger problem, however, is how much I miss medieval art, and wish I could be studying that instead. African art has not inspired the kind of passion in me that I expected or that is needed to successfully continue as a researcher and a scholar. I find myself constantly jealous of friends who are studying medieval or Renaissance art history and spending time in Europe, berating myself for not having the foresight to understand what I truly cared about.

I am now in the thick of my second semester, struggling through coursework and making incredibly expensive summer travel plans to the continent that I should be far more excited about. My question is: should I pour more time and energy into this program in the hopes that I will become more invested in African art over time? Or should I drop out of the program? 

I'm quite concerned about the latter because I doubt my reputation could be recovered from such a thing, and my chances of applying fruitfully to a new program would be extinguished. It seems that I am trapped in this position and my only option is to keep going and hope that I get some modicum of enjoyment out of it. Let me know if I'm wrong.

Thank you very much to anyone who responds. I feel that I have nowhere else to turn. 

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You know, what you might be able to do is, first, drop out, then spend a couple of years working / doing something else to make sure that grad school is where you want to be (or build up your skills in medieval / renaissance meanwhile), and then reapply to graduate programs. You might be able to simply leave this grad program off your resume, assuming you don't reapply to the same university (and preferably keep up your contacts at your undergrad for letters of rec). If you aren't happy there and you'd prefer to be studying something else (which your post really seems to make clear), why put yourself into a corner so early in your career? Best cut your losses and run before you get too bitter. Before reapplying though, you should make sure that you would actually be happy doing all that work for medieval art. Sometimes the grass only seems greener on the other side. I'd suggest, drop out, get a job, and try writing a 25-page research paper on something medieval/renaissance in your free time. If you like it after that, reapply with your shiny new writing sample. And come on--you are coming straight out of undergrad, making you presumably not older than say 23/24. Which early-20-something hasn't made a mistake (or a many)? You are allowed to fuck up. There's no way you're the first art historian to have gone though this...

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I'm sorry to hear about your predicament. First thing's first, a PhD is a long road, and writing a dissertation is grueling, lonely, time-consuming process. If you're miserable now, I don't see how sticking it out and hoping that things "get better" could make you anything but more miserable. In order to be successful, you need to be wholly committed to and passionate about your work. That said, what is it about medieval/renaissance art that you find so much more interesting? Do you really think switching will solve all of our problems? Remember, the grass is always greener on the other side. Perhaps because you're feeling down, you've latched onto the idea that switching fields will solve all of your problems, but it sounds to me like there are deeper issues here. You need to get to the bottom of what's really going on here.

So first thing's first: you have to decide whether you really want a PhD and why. There's no shame in dropping out if you're not wholly committed to it. In fact, it would be a very sane position. Now, if you decide that you wouldn't be happy doing anything else, you need to think more about your field. A few thoughts. First, what got you interested in African art in the first place? Perhaps you can get in touch with your initial passion. I should say that if trends continue the way they are going, you'll have better job prospects as an Africanist than a medievalist/renaissance specialist. There's a growing demand, and the field remains small. Now if you feel like you need to switch fields, you have a couple options. First, maybe you can combine the fields and work on a cross cultural topic, like African-European exchange in the middle ages or early modern period. With the global turn now in full swing, this would be an eminently reasonable topic. Second, I don't know about the structure of your program, but in most cases you are not wedded to the topic or field you proposed in your application. You're still in your first year of coursework. Presumably you have one more year left. Take classes with the medievalist and the renaissance specialists in your department. Plenty of people switch fields. People grown and change: that's fine. Your third option is to transfer. It's not the best option, but your reputation could certainly "recover." People do transfer programs. Whatever you do, I you need to have a frank discussion with your current advisor and DGS. This may feel uncomfortable, but it's the professional, adult thing to do, and will be the best for you in the long run. If you're having problems, they can't read your mind; remaining silent will only create more problems and misunderstandings. Be frank but respectful about your issues and explore options with them. They do not want to see one of their students flounder. Trust me. Good luck!    

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All good advice above! 

I agree that switching may not solve the issue. Are you comfortable saying why you applied for MA's in Medieval but all PhD programmes in African Art? Or did I misunderstand that? What about the current programme has not fulfilled the expectations you had when you applied?

I think what @Bronte1985 suggested about taking more medieval/renaissance classes and developing an interdisciplinary approach may be the best idea for now. From your post, I'm not sure withdrawing from the course would be as good for your self confidence as holding out to finish the MA portion and then entering the job world until you have a better grasp on your true passion. There is also the option to change fields if your university will allow that. 

If you do decide to withdraw now, however, you absolutely cannot beat yourself up about it. There is no point pushing yourself to go through the whole thing, when if leaving and returning to grad school with a firm passion for your topic will actually make you a better scholar in the end. The two most important things for a PhD are your passion for your topic (not only the broad field), and your supervisor, as you are stuck with both for several years!

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I know it may not seem like it but you still have quite a few options open. Have you taken seminars on medieval art while at the university? If it really does appeal more to you and you’ve developed a good relationship with a professor you trust who specializes in medieval art, you can talk to them about the possibility of studying under their advisement instead due to a change in interest. My advisor switched from a Renaissance specialization to a Baroque specialization while completing her PhD program. Her change is more subtle than yours, but think about the possibility of studying under a different professor. Changing specializations doesn’t mean you need to drop out of the program completely.

 

There’s also a PhD student at the University of Chicago who specializes in African art but is doing her dissertation on the cultural and material exchanges between Italy and countries in Africa during the Renaissance. Perhaps you can combine both of your interests in a similar manner.

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Other people have covered the academic part really well, so I am going to put in a serious plea for counseling. The first thing that concerns me is the catastrophizing: you doubt your reputation could recover from changing fields or programs? people do this all the time, and still become respected professors or top-flight curators. I hear you that you've gotten yourself into a sub-optimal situation, but the degree to which you're beating yourself up about it worries me: everybody makes mistakes, even major ones, and usually a whole lot more than once. So, entering your PhD program now seems to have been a mistake. But you didn't know it was a mistake when you started, so please be kinder to yourself about it. Nobody has enough 'foresight' that they can avoid ever making a mistake: it's part of being human. You're only human, too, so I hope you can forgive yourself for this one.

From your post, it sounds like you're doing that thing, where you've gotten yourself trapped in a tangle of emotional thorns, or a pit of life-circumstances quicksand—because your PhD program as it stands is, in fact, not right for you—and now you're thrashing about because you're in pain and you just want to be out of the circumstances that are hurting you. As with the thorns or the quicksand metaphor, that's either dragging you down further or, at best, keeping you stuck in the quagmire of suck. As I think the other posters have made clear, you have tunnel vision about the options available to you. You have many more, much better options than you acknowledged in your first post, and you can start taking steps towards a happier, more positive life today. To recap, some of these are: to investigate switching topics within your PhD program. To take a semester or a year off and work or woof (when I had a couple friends sound like you do right now, they did the thing where you work for room and board on an organic farm or Zen retreat type place, and it helped them a lot) before you decide whether to continue with this program or to apply to different ones.  To get a master's in African art history and then to apply to different PhD programs in medieval European art (which, even if you never do any research in Africa again, will still make your teaching profile more competitive than the average medievalist art historian). 

The lack of energy, motivation, and joy at things you used to like are textbook red flags for depression. A single post is very much not enough to suggest a diagnosis, since it might not be representative of how you feel day to day...but this post is suggestive enough that I really suggest you get screened. As a PhD student, you should have access to the campus counseling center. Please go ASAP! You do not sound like you are happy or doing well, and you deserve and can get help to do better.

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On 2/17/2018 at 4:49 PM, badartist said:

I know it may not seem like it but you still have quite a few options open. Have you taken seminars on medieval art while at the university? If it really does appeal more to you and you’ve developed a good relationship with a professor you trust who specializes in medieval art, you can talk to them about the possibility of studying under their advisement instead due to a change in interest. My advisor switched from a Renaissance specialization to a Baroque specialization while completing her PhD program. Her change is more subtle than yours, but think about the possibility of studying under a different professor. Changing specializations doesn’t mean you need to drop out of the program completely.

 

There’s also a PhD student at the University of Chicago who specializes in African art but is doing her dissertation on the cultural and material exchanges between Italy and countries in Africa during the Renaissance. Perhaps you can combine both of your interests in a similar manner.

This in particular seems like a good idea to me. Unless your advisor is firmly rooted in contemporary African art , the possibility of bringing in a second advisor who specializes in Medieval European art and rejiggering your dissertation to look at the intersections between Medieval European & African art would seem to be a good solution to the incompatibilities in your current course of study.

 

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On 2/12/2018 at 10:34 AM, HJones95 said:

I am not happy here. I have a tolerable relationship with my advisor but it has been fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding

I think this is the most important part of the post. It tells me that the OP is not going to fix the situation by adding another field or tweaking her field. Relationship with your PhD adviser is one of the most important things in graduate school. My advice is to contact your undergraduate adviser, who presumably set you on this research path, and ask about some possible ways forward. She/he would be in a good position to advise. Also if you really loved the promise of some of the MA programs that accepted you previously, maybe contact the professors in those and see if they might still  be interested in working you in the future. Like someone above said, everyone makes mistakes, and you are probably very young and have everything ahead of you! 

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