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Why I Finished My Dissertation, but Quit My Ph.D.

I’ve never been one to quit. Anything really. I mean sure, I quit pretending to be straight which caused me to quit my last marriage. I do, in fact, recognize that as a huge deal, but it took me 25 years to finally quit pretending to be straight. That’s the brut force of an ego that can’t stand to look weak if I ever saw one. I keep going and going, refusing to quit to a point that I’ve come to realize is to my own detriment and the detriment of those closest to me. But last month, after finishing my dissertation months ago, I quit my PhD program. Let me explain.

Jeanie WhittenJeanie Whitten

I received an email a few weeks ago reminding me that I still needed to pay tuition by the end of the month or I would be ejected from the program. “Okay, I guess it’s time to go back into scrappy hustler mode,” was my first instinct. I have always prided myself on my ability to ‘figure it out.’ Whatever ‘it’ is, I can do it and finding the money was no exception. I grew up in a extremely low-income single-parent household and if there’s one thing my mom taught me, it was the brilliance of being filthy rich in creativity and resourcefulness. It’s saved my ass so many times, not the least of which was when I had my first son at the barely employable age of 16 years old. It’s my survival strategy, my coping mechanism, my inherited genius, and I’ve always been proud of that. Hell, I’m still proud of that. After a few minutes passed though, and I allowed my body to feel her feelings, I realized that she was begging me to please stop.

You see, if I’m really honest with myself, a large part of my wanting to accomplish receiving the actual degree was to prove to myself and others that I could do it; that I was good enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, and worth being listened to. What I’m slowly beginning to realize, however, is that actually at this point I know I could get the degree. I’ve finished my dissertation. All I would have to do in order to successfully obtain the degree is pay the university $7,000 and kill myself for the next six months obsessively examining each argument I make in my writing, predict how it might be torn to shreds by fellow academics, and do everything I can to make it airtight. Making absolutely certain that I’ve successfully walked that very thin and paradoxical tightrope between making a unique contribution to the field but not saying anything that I can’t prove was said before by some old white guy who’s been deemed to have more authority on God and Theology than my small queer female teen parent voice. For a long time, I internalized that sentiment, believing that what I needed to do was prove to everyone that my story was worth hearing.

But these days, I know my story is worth hearing. And truthfully, I’m so so exhausted by the continual effort to try to prove it while putting myself under emotional stress and family under financial stress to do so. No more. It’s far more important to me to finish this project I’ve spent the last 5 years working on with my whole real and invigorated heart, instead of the heart of an exhausted student just trying to prove that what I have to say is worth listening to. Now, I want to be clear, I am not suggesting that degrees or education is useless or that the right thing to do is drop out of any academic programs you might be enrolled in. I am an educator in the depths of my being; I believe education is the key to true liberation and empowerment. I love education. What I don’t love is the academy. What I don’t love is the self-preserving models of our old institutions. What I don’t love is being told that I’m valuable because I paid someone else a lot of money so I could prove it.

The truth is, I’ve had an amazing dissertation experience. My supervisor is truly a dream and she has always encouraged the spark inside my guts to keep saying the things that need to be said, liberating my own soul and God/ess within her. The problem is not the education I’ve received. I’ve received a remarkable education. However, I also know the academy enough by now and ironically, the same critical lens I’ve developed through my educational process is the one helping me to realize that I need to quit the academy. I need to quit the sport of publicly tearing down colleagues, pretentious posturing, and criticism that goes beyond constructive critique into the realm of one-upping those around us for our own shallow reputations. Even in fields where we academics are already marginalized multi-fold. Even in fields like mine: Queer Feminist Theology. I don’t want that anymore. Participating in it only causes me to deny the divine inside myself and show up as a less fully alive human woman to bring home to my loved ones.

First and foremost, at the end of the day, what has consistently been so deeply important to me is the heart of the project I am working on and the relationships I’ve built in my program. It is no longer the degree itself, the external validation it might bring, or any potential career opportunities that it may offer. The truth is, there really aren’t many jobs in our home state that this degree would qualify me for and I’m at a point in my life that the external validation just doesn’t quite feel like a good enough reason. And so, after discussing with my family a cost/benefit breakdown of what finishing the PhD might bring… after hearing the beautiful people close to me remind me of all the hard work I’ve put into it… it has continued to become more and more clear to me from the depths of my guts that, the benefit of finishing the degree does not outweigh the costs of scraping up the money, going into more private debt, and tearing myself to shreds in my own head for the next six months. Not for me, anyway.

A tsunami wave of relief settled into my body the second after I hit “send” on the email to the university quitting my PhD. I’ve finished my dissertation, I intend to publish it, and the process of writing it has healed something deep inside of me. My work has not been in vain and it will not go to waste. I simply won’t have the respect that comes with a credential from people that wouldn’t respect me without it. And, you know what? I’m okay with that. That sacrifice is worth my renewed invitation into communion with my love for the work rather than the prize for doing it “right.”

Jeanie Whitten is the associate director of Together Lab and director of community engagement at Moreland Presbyterian Church in Portland Oregon. Prior to these roles she worked as the director of innovations in diversity for the Lutheran Institute of Theology & Culture at Concordia University. 

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