As I’m sipping my iced coffee in the terrace of my dear friends’ beach house in Central Greece, quarter mile from the clear, calm waters of the Euboean Gulf, resting my weary legs that pedaled me back and forth on the surface of the sea not 10 minutes ago, not worried at all about conference and journal deadlines, it dawned on me how much of an outstanding career move it was to quit my PhD back in 2016. Not just a good idea in terms of physical and mental health, but also in terms of actual career objectives.
But how can this possibly be? I quit, and everybody knows that quitters are the worst people in the world! Screw those guys!
So let’s compare and contrast my situation along some parameters to see how much I messed up my life by daring to quit.
- Academic qualifications. I had a Master’s, I have a Master’s. Nothing lost, nothing gained.
- Computer Science qualifications. Improved during PhD, sky-rocketed afterwards. During my grad coursework I learned some new programming languages and paradigms, linear and non-linear optimization and mostly stuff about Machine Learning that became obsolete by the time I had learned it (who cares about averaged perceptrons and kernelized SVMs anymore?). I was selected to do a PhD in Computer Vision merely because my Probabilistic Logic Programming system was applied on an antiquated video dataset (it could – in theory – be applied anywhere we have uncertain observations). Ergo, I was supposed to do a PhD in an area that I had absolutely nothing to do with, and no real desire to learn anything about. I was a logician who cared about stuff like Prolog, Markov Logic Networks and MaxWalkSat. The hell I had to do with log-concave densities and background subtraction? How long would it take me to learn the things I needed to start writing papers that might one day be eligible for publication in some second-tier Vision conference? On the other hand, during my time as a lecturer I’ve learned (and re-learned) elements of algorithms, coding principles, compilers, distributed systems, functional programming, even hardware! I’ve had top companies knock on my door to interview me for excellent positions in excellent places. When a student asks a question that I can’t answer in lecture, I don’t rest until I find an answer, which is my own research, under my own terms. During my PhD, I was a nobody in line to be Dr. Nobody, in a counter-productive environment where I was constantly feeling lost. Because I was lost.
- Financials. From one day to the next, I quadrupled my income. Started parking funds into a retirement account. Was able to move into my own place which, you know, is something that you might need as an adult / eligible bachelor at 30 years of age? I have some money to send back home since my parents won’t ever get pensions in the failed state of Greece. I bought a car. Adopted a kitty that I’m taking care of with toys, good food, frequent vet visits. Those things help my quality of life and allow me to be happier, better rested, generally more wholesome person.
- Mental: No, it hasn’t been easy. Managing hundreds of students and dozens of TAs is not something everyone can or is willing to do. Nobody trained me to do this. I was thrown into a Discrete Math class of 430 people, split across three lectures Tuesdays & Thursdays, left on my way. With vague expectations about the quality of education expected out of UMD, or what was expected off of me, an essentially foreign person who now had to teach people from all over the globe. It took its toll. But come December and May 20th, I turn a dial. No more worrying about papers and deadlines. No more useless meetings that lead nowhere. No more Skyping, fruitless collaborations, reviewing draft upon draft upon draft. Reading dozens of papers hoping that an idea will somehow come to my head. No sir / madam; if I run out of ideas / inspiration for assignments, there are books that I can consult. I have direction and help. Actual concrete direction and help.
- Physical. Fact: in the US, if you’re outside NYC, you need a car. If you disagree, you’re wrong. No longer waiting on bus stops when it’s 90 degrees and ridiculously humid (that’s Maryland for you), or 10 degrees and… well, 10 degrees. No longer walking to the campus gym and back with my oversized rucksack under these conditions, making going to my workout…. a workout. In the car I go, toss the bag in the most geometrically obscene way possible, blast the A/C, hit my off-campus gym like a maniac, drive back in style. I have access to better food, with organic vegetables and fruits that actually taste like something. Because in this system and this country, a McDonald’s cheeseburger costs $1.50 and a Sweetgreen salad costs $10 (I wonder why there’s an obesity epidemic in low-income neighborhoods). I couldn’t even afford looking at those foods as a grad student. Now, on shopping days, I visit up to 3 different food stores to get what I need!
- Professional status. People are impressed by titles. I’m not, I don’t care at all (seriously, wtf is a “Solutions Architect?”), but people generally do. Whenever I’m asked what my job is, people think I’m a genius and published in every conference & journal there is. After a while, I stopped trying to convince them I’m not, and just smile and nod. Recruiter messages arrive at my inbox every day. When I was a graduate student, nobody cared. Of course, this has the benefit of not having to mark a ton of e-mail as “read” or avoiding awkward social encounters (yeah… uh… you know… a lecturer is not a prof… I don’t do any research…. not a bigshot of any kind… uh…. nevermind), but in the priority queue of problems, those are close to last.
- Social life. I have one!
- Music. Music and, in particular, the bass guitar, is important to me. A penniless graduate student can barely afford a Squier guitar and 50W practice amp. Also, the closest bass guitar lessons I could find are at a non-public-transportation distance from my area of work and (grad student – era) residence. It’s not that you can’t do it. You can. But after the umpteenth time that you get shat on by a pigeon waiting in the bus stop, or you get a nerve pulled trying to carry a 13lb 5-string Ibanez BTB in and out of the bus doors, well, that stuff wears you down, no matter what you want to do (exercise, music, anything). You want to maintain your passions without wasting time on useless procedural things (this is the chief reason I left Greece).
- Actual free time. I’m the master of my post-5pm life. This is huge to me. I no longer have to worry about not worrying about research. My goals are far more concrete, and I have a way of self-evaluating and evaluating my team. How did the students do in the midterm? They tanked it, you say? Well, is this perhaps on me? Did I perhaps assign a large point value to a problem the basics of which I didn’t cover well? Gotta curve appropriately. Did a TA or two fail to cover the same basics in their discussion sessions? Need to have a talk with those TAs. I have actual, measurable goals and concrete metrics / numbers that tell me how I’m doing. None of the haziness that I – honest a God -could not stand during my time in the PhD. Is this how I’m supposed to approach this… is this actual Zero-Shot Learning… what do I need to know to do this… No. Not for me, thank you very much. I need concrete, actionable feedback. Furthermore, it is up to me to do financial planning such that I don’t need to teach over the winter or the summer and I can go on trips instead! Yes, I could absolutely go ahead and sign up for a mortgage, but why? I don’t want to burden the next 15 years of my life with extra work so that I pay for a property I’m only likely to use as a financial commodity! My biggest financial commodity is my healthy body and mind. And why even enter the trouble of contacting appraisers, loan officers, property managers… I could give a crap about how sound of an investment it might be to own a house. It’s clear to me that nobody learned anything from 2008 and it’s gonna happen again and again and again. Why waste time being a cog in the machine when I could instead rent a cheap apartment in a non-gentrified area and eat an additional commute to work? After all, how bad is that commute when I listen to my favorite albums on the road every morning? I could give a crap about hardwood floors or laminated countertops. I can assure you my cat doesn’t care either. It only cares about being cute, eating and shitting. This isn’t Flip or Flop; it’s my life, and it’s ending one second at a time. The most sound investment I can make is to not make unsound investments and instead park money in retirement accounts for when I’m too weak to work (if I’m lucky enough to reach that age).
The majority of the 3 people who will read this post will undoubtedly go ahead and quit their jobs / marriages / whatever they think makes them sad, hoping that they are no longer sad, and once they realize nothing’s changed, they will wonder what that inflated bag of douche was saying on the internet and rage. This is of course not the essence of this post. The essence is that this whole “never quit” business can sometimes be lip service. Sometimes, the best thing to do is quit. Maybe the goal was BS from the beginning, or maybe the investment is no longer worth it. Maybe you’ve unearthed an alternative path in your pursuit of a goal that doesn’t seem that interesting anymore. In fact, this was another one of my own reasons. I can’t even describe how much more satisfying teaching is for me when compared to research.
But it’s not for everyone. Not everyone can quit. Especially when quitting means betraying all that you thought you were or you were gonna be, and also endangers the immigration status that is keeping you away from your home country which is enmeshed in a web of decades-long socio-economic fail. It takes courage to quit, and not everyone can do it.