When to give up

Jun 6 JDN 2459372

Perseverance is widely regarded as a virtue, and for good reason. Often one of the most important deciding factors in success is the capacity to keep trying after repeated failure. I think this has been a major barrier for me personally; many things came easily to me when I was young, and I internalized the sense that if something doesn’t come easily, it must be beyond my reach.

Yet it’s also worth noting that this is not the only deciding factor—some things really are beyond our capabilities. Indeed, some things are outright impossible. And we often don’t know what is possible and what isn’t.

This raises the question: When should we persevere, and when should we give up?

There is actually reason to think that people often don’t give up when they should. Steven Levitt (of Freakonomics fame)recently published a study that asked people who were on the verge of a difficult decision to flip a coin, and then base their decision on the coin flip: Heads, make a change; tails, keep things as they are. Many didn’t actually follow the coin flip—but enough did that there was a statistical difference between those who saw heads and those who saw tails. The study found that the people who flipped heads and made a change were on average happier a couple of years later than the people who flipped tails and kept things as they were.

This question is particularly salient for me lately, because the academic job market has gone so poorly for me. I’ve spent most of my life believing that academia is where I belong; my intellect and my passion for teaching and research has convinced me and many others that this is the right path for me. But now that I have a taste of what it is actually like to apply for tenure-track jobs and submit papers to journals, I am utterly miserable. I hate every minute of it. I’ve spent the entire past year depressed and feeling like I have accomplished absolutely nothing.

In theory, once one actually gets tenure it’s supposed to get easier. But that could be a long way away—or it might never happen at all. As it is, there’s basically no chance I’ll get a tenure track position this year, and it’s unclear what my chances would be if I tried again next year.

If I could actually get a paper published, that would no doubt improve my odds of landing a better job next year. But I haven’t been able to do that, and each new rejection cuts so deep that I can barely stand to look at my papers anymore, much less actually continue submitting them. And apparently even tenured professors still get their papers rejected repeatedly, which means that this pain will never go away. I simply cannot imagine being happy if this is what I am expected to do for the rest of my life.

I found this list of criteria for when you should give up something—and most of them fit me. I’m not sure I know in my heart it can’t work out, but I increasingly suspect that. I’m not sure I want it anymore, now that I have a better idea of what it’s really like. Pursuing it is definitely making me utterly miserable. I wouldn’t say it’s the only reason, but I definitely do worry what other people will think if I quit; I feel like I’d be letting a lot of people down. I also wonder who I am without it, where I belong if not here. I don’t know what other paths are out there, but maybe there is something better. This constant stream of failure and rejection has definitely made me feel like I hate myself. And above all, when I imagine quitting, I absolutely feel an enormous sense of relief.

Publishing in journals seems to be the thing that successful academics care about most, and it means almost nothing to me anymore. I only want it because of all the pressure to have it, because of all the rewards that come from having it. It has become fully instrumental to me, with no intrinsic meaning or value. I have no particular desire to be lauded by the same system that lauded Fischer Black or Kenneth Rogoff—both of whose egregious and easily-avoidable mistakes are responsible for the suffering of millions people around the world.

I want people to read my ideas. But people don’t actually read journals. They skim them. They read the abstracts. They look at the graphs and regression tables. (You have the meeting that should have been an email? I raise you the paper that should have been a regression table.) They see if there’s something in there that they should be citing for their own work, and if there is, maybe then they actually read the paper—but everyone is so hyper-specialized that only a handful of people will ever actually want to cite any given paper. The vast majority of research papers are incredibly tedious to read and very few people actually bother. As a method for disseminating ideas, this is perhaps slightly better than standing on a street corner and shouting into a megaphone.

I would much rather write books; people sometimes actually read books, especially when they are written for a wide audience and hence not forced into the straitjacket of standard ‘scientific writing’ that no human being actually gets any enjoyment out of writing or reading. I’ve seen a pretty clear improvement in writing quality of papers written by Nobel laureates—after they get their Nobels or similar accolades. Once they establish themselves, they are free to actually write in ways that are compelling and interesting, rather than having to present everything in the most dry, tedious way possible. If your paper reads like something that a normal person would actually find interesting or enjoyable to read, you will be—as I have been—immediately told that you must remove all such dangerous flavor until the result is as tasteless as possible.

No, the purpose of research journals is not to share ideas. Its function is not to share, but to evaluate. And it isn’t even really to evaluate research—it’s to evaluate researchers. It’s to outsource the efforts of academic hiring to an utterly unaccountable and arbitrary system run mostly by for-profit corporations. It may have some secondary effect of evaluating ideas for validity; at least the really awful ideas are usually excluded. But its primary function is to decide the academic pecking order.

I had thought that scientific peer review was supposed to select for truth. Perhaps sometimes it does. It seems to do so reasonably well in the natural sciences, at least. But in the social sciences? That’s far less clear. Peer-reviewed papers are much more likely to be accurate than any randomly-selected content; but there are still a disturbingly large number of peer-reviewed published papers that are utterly wrong, and some unknown but undoubtedly vast number of good papers that have never seen the light of day.

Then again, when I imagine giving up on an academic career, I don’t just feel relief—I also feel regret and loss. I feel like I’ve wasted years of my life putting together a dream that has now crumbled in my hands. I even feel some anger, some sense that I was betrayed by those who told me that this was about doing good research when it turns out it’s actually about being thick-skinned enough that you can take an endless assault of rejections. It feels like I’ve been running a marathon, and I just rounded a curve to discover that the last five miles must be ridden on horseback, when I don’t have a horse, I have no equestrian training, and in fact I’m allergic to horses.

I wish someone had told me it would be like this. Maybe they tried and I didn’t listen. They did say that papers would get rejected. They did say that the tenure track was high-pressure and publish-or-perish was a major source of anxiety. But they never said that it would tear at my soul like this. They never said that I would have to go through multiple rounds of agony, self-doubt, and despair in order to get even the slighest recognition for my years of work. They never said that the whole field would treat me like I’m worthless because I can’t satisfy the arbitrary demands of a handful of anonymous reviewers. They never said that I would begin to feel worthless after several rounds of this.

That’s really what I want to give up on. I want to give up on hitching my financial security, my career, my future, my self-worth to a system as capricious as peer review.

I don’t want to give up on research. I don’t want to give up on teaching. I still believe strongly in discovering new truths and sharing them with others. I’m just increasingly realizing that academia isn’t nearly as good at that as I thought it was.

It isn’t even that I think it’s impossible for me to succeed in academia. I think that if I continued trying to get a tenure-track job, I would land one eventually. Maybe next year. Or maybe I’d spend a few years at a postdoc first. And I’d probably manage to publish some paper in some reasonably respectable journal at some point in the future. But I don’t know how long it would take, or how good a journal it would be—and I’m already past the point where I really don’t care anymore, where I can’t afford to care, where if I really allowed myself to care it would only devastate me when I inevitably fail again. Now that I see what is really involved in the process, how arduous and arbitrary it is, publishing in a journal means almost nothing to me. I want to be validated; I want to be appreciated; I want to be recognized. But the system is set up to provide nothing but rejection, rejection, rejection. If even the best work won’t be recognized immediately and even the worst work can make it with enough tries, then the whole system begins to seem meaningless. It’s just rolls of the dice. And I didn’t sign up to be a gambler.

The job market will probably be better next year than it was this year. But how much better? Yes, there will be more openings, but there will also be more applicants: Everyone who would normally be on the market, plus everyone like me who didn’t make it this year, plus everyone who decided to hold back this year because they knew they wouldn’t make it (as I probably should have done). Yes, in a normal year, I could be fairly confident of getting some reasonably decent position—but this wasn’t a normal year, and next year won’t be one either, and the one after that might still not be. If I can’t get a paper published in a good journal between now and then—and I’m increasingly convinced that I can’t—then I really can’t expect my odds to be greatly improved from what they were this time around. And if I don’t know that this terrible gauntlet is going to lead to something good, I’d really much rather avoid it altogether. It was miserable enough when I went into it being (over)confident that it would work out all right.

Perhaps the most important question when deciding whether to give up is this: What will happen if you do? What alternatives do you have? If giving up means dying, then don’t give up. (“Learn to let go” is very bad advice to someone hanging from the edge of a cliff.) But while it may feel that way sometimes, rarely does giving up on a career or a relationship or a project yield such catastrophic results.

When people are on the fence about making a change and then do so, even based on the flip of a coin, it usually makes them better off. Note that this is different from saying you should make all your decisions randomly; if you are confident that you don’t want to make a change, don’t make a change. This advice is for people who feel like they want a change but are afraid to take the chance, people who find themselves ambivalent about what direction to go next—people like me.

I don’t know where I should go next. I don’t know where I belong. I know it isn’t Wall Street. I’m pretty sure it’s not consulting. Maybe it’s nonprofits. Maybe it’s government. Maybe it’s freelance writing. Maybe it’s starting my own business. I guess I’d still consider working in academia; if Purdue called me back to say they made a terrible mistake and they want me after all, I’d probably take the offer. But since such an outcome is now vanishingly unlikely, perhaps it’s time, after all, to give up.

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