My professors at Yale were a bit alarmed that I told them I wasn’t going to pursue a doctorate. Preparing to graduate in 2018 with a master’s degree, by then I had been published in three academic journals and had written dozens of essays and articles for public magazines and journals. They said I had a resume superior to most recent PhD graduates. They were perplexed why I wasn’t interested in a doctorate.
Academia, as most can feel, is a fraud. As someone who was walking and working through the Ivory Tower, including at some of the prestigious institutions of higher academia (like Yale), the stories you hear on the news about the dire straights of our academic institutions are far worse than what you hear. But the hypocrisy of higher academia wasn’t really the main reason I chose to forgo an academic career. I left the academy for one simple reason: freedom.
I didn’t want to spend the next six or so years of my life, just entering the prime as a male, wasting away at a university laboring for a doctorate. I had seen enough PhD candidates whose lives were miserable and I didn’t want to have the same life that they were living. Moreover, an academic life brings unfreedom to it. Bogged down by paperwork, publishing, and the cutthroat world of fighting for tenure, an academic career by 2018 seemed like something that would constrict me more than liberate me.
Unless you end up at a tenured position at an elite institution, the cost-effectiveness of a doctorate is also poor. More doctoral candidates, by the time their degrees are conferred, are often tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollar in debt with, essentially, a worthless degree that they subsequent enslave themselves to (I MUST get employed in X because I SPENT SO LONG acquiring it). Not only that, but then they fight for what shrinking job pools there are in their field. (And it isn’t pretty.) Only those who cycle in and out of the elite institutions to other elite institutions gain the benefit of a doctorate and the elite status club conferred to Ivy and West Coast tenured professors. Of all the students at these institutions, how many really stand a chance at receiving such a coveted seat? The average professor will graduate multiple students under their tutelage, each hoping for the seat their professor occupies, with the professor telling them that they are “exceptional.” They’re not. And it will often be years, if not decades, before those coveted few seats come open. If one is really, really, lucky, then they’ll get it.
I have found since my brushing away an academic aspiration that I am much happier and certainly much freer. I get to hike regularly, embarking on full day, sometimes multiday, road trips at my own discretion and will. I can simply wake up one morning, prepare for the day, and even before the sunrise decide to load up my backpack with hiking gear and drive to a peak or trail to spend the day on—stopping at a neat little diner for breakfast and meandering to a brewery or vineyard for evening refreshment and music.
In forsaking academic writing for public writing, I have found a greater freedom to write on whatever I want rather than writing on what specific journals and department reviewers want. In short, I can write on whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want. The more than two hundred essays, articles, and op-eds published at over two dozen newspapers, magazines, and journals—ranging from art, culture, film, music, literature, politics, religion, and current events—reflect the liberty I have in writing. Petty professors who scoff at public writers and intellectuals, as well as successful novelists, often do so out of envy. Guess what, hundreds of thousands and millions of people want to read a popular history. Only a few thousand, maybe ten thousand—often all within the confines of the Ivory Tower—want to read some technical history filled with a million footnotes.
Furthermore, the best part about giving up an academic career is that I can still have a relationship to the academy without all the baggage and red tape. Through editorial connections I am still networked with professors and what benefits they can bring. Through those relationships I still merit invitations for academic contributions—thus fulfilling an aspiration that has never died (to write robust articles/chapters that may, hopefully, impact future scholarship) while not being tethered to all the regulations that come with being a singularly academic worker bee. I can write an academic article and chapter a year, while writing 50-60 public essays a year, publishing a book or two a year for broad readership, and pursue my other loves in life without the worry of papers piling up, paperwork to complete, and being beaten down by the pursuit of tenure.
Academia, far from liberating people, often enslaves people. While I wouldn’t trade my experiences in university, I would also say that I made the right choice in not pursuing a doctorate. You won’t regret it. If you value your freedom, don’t pursue a doctorate and don’t pursue a “career” in the Ivory Tower. Embrace life instead.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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