Lacking a passion project was the very worst condition to be in as a graduate student. At first it’s liberating to be able to explore different concepts and areas of study. It’s like a dream for the intellectually curious. But soon the process of trying on and discarding topics gets wearisome. And then it becomes frustrating. And it isn’t too long before it becomes absolutely soul-crushing because all the books you’ve read (and you’ve read plenty), all the little ideas and pieces of knowledge you have rolling around in that expansive mind of yours—they all amount to a hill of beans.
What matters is having an idea that drives you, arriving at a unique vision, and finding your voice. What matters is producing material evidence of that singularity because you believe others would like to experience it. Sure, the world will keep on turning if you dropped out of grad school. But assuming you went into a doctoral program for all the right reasons, if you ask for my advice, chances are I would talk you into staying. Here’s why:
Writing the dissertation is the very best part of graduate school. If you’re seriously considering leaving academia, ask yourself when else will you ever have the chance of taking an intellectual walkabout. If you do it right, you’ll find that you’re not merely dabbling in different subject areas, but actively modeling yourself on those who have walked before you. Yes, this is how you find your voice: by reading people who think the way you’d like to think, and reading prose you wish you’d written.
Belatedness only seems like a curse to the green. More seasoned academics have made peace with the fact that “everything’s already been done,” but they continue to plod along because they know that the muse rewards those who toil against those odds. It won’t be easy, but that is the point. You will search for months (and for me it was years) for that One Big Idea that will call all the other little ideas you already have into formation. There will be many false starts. You might instinctively want to retreat at these stumbling points, but these are precisely the times when you need to reach out and talk to people. A trusted sounding board will be invaluable on this journey. Talking to others will not only save your sanity, but multiply your odds of lucking out with a Big Idea.
Once you’ve found that Big Idea, you will write and write and write, and one day you’ll notice that you are starting to sound like no one else but you. This will feel like heaven, but it’s only just a glimpse. Chances are your writing will progress in fits and starts, so drop everything when the muse deigns to visit, and be kind to yourself when she leaves.
You’ll probably experience a lot of mixed emotions when you finally finish. But months on out you will find that the dissertation writing process will serve you in post-academic life. On that walkabout you will have built up a defense against frustration. You will know that good ideas take time to form, that they demand patience and faith. You will have built up a frighteningly high tolerance for aloneness, but you will also have mastered the art of finding champions for your idea: people who get it, who get you.
It’s infinitely easier said than done, but write the dissertation. Do it for the experience. And who knows? It might even end up being exemplary.