The Sunk Cost Dilemma

I have been ambiguous and/or pissed off about academia for several years now, and yet it is this curious moment that I choose to start a blog.  By all means, I should have done it a few years ago, when I suffered a debilitating crisis that led to me “dropping out” for a year only to be pulled back in by academia’s “ghostly hand.”  More on that another time, no doubt.

I am plagued by the omnipresent academic guilt . . . I should be working on my dissertation right now!  That would be eminently more productive that churning words into the void of cyberspace.  And yet, since I can’t, here I am.  Despite that in addition to working on the dissertation, there are any number of other things that I should be doing, including the various side projects I do in order to pay the bills and/or provide for some sort of non-academic future for myself.  Or just doing my damn laundry.

And yet, and yet.  Here I am.

My main task for the dissertation now is to read the long-awaited comments from the advisor in order to transform the dissertation from the (apparently) utter shit that it is now into a document that is suitable of garnering me what will amount me to a useless degree.  And it is at this point that I have run into a wall so thick and so unsurmountable that I cannot seem to make myself do it. And that for the first real time since my first life-shattering epiphany, I think….maybe I will just quit.

There is a big good part of me that considers this absurd.  I am just a few months away, and it would be completely ridiculous to stop working on it now.  Surely I would regret it.  Surely it is a bad idea to come so far on a project simply because it has gotten too hard.  The part of me that screams quitter says I am tempted to leave because I can’t hack the difficulty of the revision process, where I have to go back and forth with the advisor over how to improve the piss-poor quality of the diss enough to jump over the last, most awful hurdle.

But then the other part of me is suspicious that the diss is little more than a big terrible sunk cost (I must admit I almost linked to a wikipedia article to explain this economic principle, then opted at the last moment to go with a sports article.  Why not).  The basic idea, as far as I can understand it with my addled humanities brain, is that the costs you have expended on something are basically irrelevant to your current decision of whether to continue pursuing it.  So, at this point, all the time I have spent on it shouldn’t make a damn difference in whether I keep going.

I am feeling that pretty poignantly right now and it is hard to make it go away.  I already regret the time and energy that I have spent on this thing.  I regret every single moment that I could have spent on something else.  The number of books read, projects completed, life moments experienced . . . I am horrified with the weight of the things that I did not do while frittering away time on this.  And so I’m equally horrified with spending another moment on this thing that could go somewhere else.

This has lead me to a moment of complete paralysis.  I manage to get a baseline of things done that must be done.  Then my brain enters this mode where I keep thinking . . . you can just leave.  Abandon it, cut the cord, and walk away forever.  Perhaps there are some bridges that are best burnt behind you.

There was a point a couple of months ago that I thought about continuing to pursue my work as an “independent scholar.”  Perhaps publish a few articles or go to a conference or two.  I like my topic and think I have something of partial (albeit highly relative) value.  Of course, at this point I was also happily planning what I thought would be a spring graduation, and day dreaming about what to put in my acknowledgements, what to wear to my defense, and what to have for my graduation dinner. Ahhhhh, sweet delusions.  Am now forced to rethink about how to best re-write my entire dissertation in order to make a summer deadline.  I had thought then that going to the graduation might be kinda cool.  My mom would certainly like it, and it would provide some “closure.”

But now that the tide has turned, and the paralysis has set in, I can’t imagine writing another word for the diss now, much less for some ridiculous academic articles in the future.  Particularly for no other reason than for some vague misguided pretensions towards the “life of the mind” which I’m getting to be convinced can be found just about anywhere else than in academia’s hallowed halls.  So maybe burning that bridge behind me would be just fine.

After half-heartedly deciding to go back, I plowed along more or less untroubled by the desire to leave.  My decision to not pursue academic jobs freed me from much of the tyranny I experienced through working in academia.  I thought that finishing the dissertation would save me from my fear of my future self regretting the decision not to finish.  I hesitated at the thought of being perpetually ABD and of thinking myself as a quitter and a failure.  These things are all tied to the cultish nature of academia, which many bloggers have written productively about (ugh–note my academic propensity for citations.  Alas I am too lazy now to search down all my sources properly.  Another day no doubt, when I talk more fully about the academicult).

So, that is all to say that I don’t know what to do now.  Now that I’ve had the “maybe I should just quit” thought, I’m having a hard time un-thinking it.  Do I stick it out and churn through another couple of months, just perpetually reminding myself that even this misery will soon pass into memory?  Or do I finally sink the dissertation once and for all, just a few months short of the finish line?  I don’t know.  Pushing through still seems most logical decision, but the act of opening the files and actually doing it provokes visceral horror.  This process I imagine as a lengthier, mental version of the unarmed Hawkeye walking through some angry Hurons who are beating the crap out of him in Last of the Mohicans (ah, I’m dating myself).  Needless to say, bailing sure as hell looks more attractive, especially when everything I really need and want is on this side of the gauntlet.

The Ever Moving Light at the End of the Ever Darker Tunnel

I have been driven to starting a blog.  Which in the modern, over-privileged condition is perhaps what you do when trying to deal with towering, impotent, and ultimately pointless rage.

My rage is predominately directed at my dissertation (henceforth am trying to refer to it as “the” dissertation as to hopefully evoke a more dispassionate, impersonal view of the thing).  But I also have a lot of leftover rage pointed in other directions as well:  academia in general, the advisor in particular, and myself for getting so deep into this thing.

How deep?  I am literally just a few months away.  The entire thing is more or less written, though after months of ignoring me, the advisor has been finally forced to read it, has concluded it is a giant pile of shit, and therefore needs to be revised, rewritten, and redone.  I thought I would graduate this semester, but needless to say, I can’t rewrite my shitty dissertation in a few scant weeks, so light at the end of my tunnel has moved farther away, yet again.

I came damn near quitting a few years ago.  I looked at the job market full in the face and the abyss stared back.  I realized I would never get a job and knew that finishing the dissertation would be more a matter of personal accomplishment than a stepping stone to a career.  I almost left then, and for a variety of reasons decided to stick it out and finish it–mostly so I could never feel regret over not doing so.

Now though, my regret is over not dropping it then.  The last few months that I have left should seem like a mere drop in the bucket given the amount of my life this thing has already sucked away.  It should be so easy to just put these next few months in and be done with it.  And yet, I can barely open my computer.  The thought of looking at pages of my (the!) work bleeding with snide comments and revisions and hoops to jump through makes me want to set fire to the whole thing and never look back.

rugen - sucked one year of your life away

How do you feel?   Source

I honestly don’t know how to force myself to finish it at this point.  The “just do it” + “get er done” adages aren’t working.  Sitting down to “just do it” fills me with violent rage.  It is like my subconscious has been screaming at me for years that this is just.not.working and that I need to just stop and after years of not properly listening, it is just stepping in and making itself heard.  I keep telling myself that it is just a few more months, and my self responds (quite rightly) “we’ve been hearing that for years.”  I’ve hit the point where I have to really listen, and I don’t know how to push past that point.

And so, I’ve started this blog out of some need for catharsis to help me get through the next few months.  Catharsis and participation in a conversation that has helped sustained me through some dark moments over the past several years.  In a moment of academic panic (and general self-doubt) I feel like I have nothing “new” to say, or wonder why I should bother in putting yet some more self-analytical musings on the internet.  But in some ways I just need to say it and work through it myself.  And given how important reading this online conversation has been for me, I’m ok with putting in my two cents, just to have another voice in a place where we so often feel very alone and alienated.


And yes, my blog name and subheading has two puns on the same thing AND two dashes all in short succession.  And since this is my blog, and not a dissertation, I will leave it that way because I can.