Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

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AleksPro
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Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by AleksPro » Sat Mar 30, 2019 11:08 am

Hello Everyone,

I am writing to ask your thoughts. Basically, I am trying to make a decision about whether to take a break from my graduate studies to deepen my practice and grow as a person. I am struggling to find people who had similar experience or went through similar things and apparently that can be very helpful when making such decisions.

Long story short, I am in my second year of PhD at one of the major US schools. Since high school this has been a MAJOR focus of my life (I sacrificed everything from relationships to spiritual development). And now I am here. The incredibly stressful, competitive nature of this environment and the pressure of the work means I've been struggling tremendously. I feel like I am lacking the tools to deal with my defilements and I am just barely keeping it together. Instead of growing and developing, I feel (although that might be an illusion) I am just cultivating all my negative qualities instead. Of course it might just be an excuse but, because of the time and energy it takes to do this, I very much struggle with maintaining my daily practice.

I have been thinking about taking a half year/year break to go for longer meditation retreat. Or even just have the time to meditate on my own, learn more about Buddhism. I saved money so that wouldn't be a big problem. I don't know whether I would have to leave completely but I am pretty sure that if I wanted to continue with this career, I would find my way back. The thing I struggle with is whether it is an "easy way out". Some people say that we should be grateful for those hardships and difficulties as they are just opportunities to develop. But I just find myself "regressing".

Of course there is a lot of other things that I have to consider. But I wonder whether any of you have been in a similar situation. If so, how did you make that decision? Did it work out well for you? Would you be happy to chat with me? Of course, it will be entirely my decision but if any of more experience practitioners have any thoughts, I would very much appreciate them.

Thank you!

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Miroku
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Miroku » Sat Mar 30, 2019 1:28 pm

That sounds like quite a hard decision/situation you are facing. I am not even remotely where you are and might not be since my BA studies take twice as long as is normal. However, I'd suggest you to try some 10 day vipassana course. 10 days is not that much and you could try it without sacrificing anything or much, plus it reportedly helps people to deal with stress and other negative side effects of busy life.
“Observing samaya involves to remain inseparable from the union of wisdom and compassion at all times, to sustain mindfulness, and to put into practice the guru’s instructions”. Garchen Rinpoche

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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by stevie » Sat Mar 30, 2019 1:45 pm

When dependent on external conditions but in doubt then external conditions shouldn't be changed. Hope cannot replace certainty. Right decisions dawn but cannot be forced.

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Queequeg
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Queequeg » Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:29 pm

Talk to your adviser and find out if there are consequences to taking a break. Are you receiving funding? Will you lose funding? Sometimes you have a limited time from admission to complete the program with funding. If not, why not take a break? If you feel like you are burning out, take some time regroup.

Career-wise, I don't think the pressure lets up. After the doctorate, you'll be applying for post-docs and jobs, and then you'll be trying to make tenure... Its as intense a job as working in any high pressure career. Probably a good idea to learn how to deal with pressure ... that's where practice can help.

Keep in mind practice is a life time endeavor. Its like brushing your teeth - its something you'll be doing everyday for the rest of your life (granted you keep your teeth). If you can take the time to go into retreat and focus on practice, develop it so that you have the practice that will be with you going forward, that is wonderful.

Do it. You may not have the opportunity again for a long time.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.
-Ayacana Sutta

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justsit
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by justsit » Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:32 pm

PM'ing you.

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Nemo
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Nemo » Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:43 pm

Do you plan on inheriting a large amount of money?
Do you have parents or an annuity you can live off of?
If you answered yes to either of these questions run for the hills brother. :twothumbsup:

Let's face reality. if you stop the most common outcome by far is you will never finish. Even if you do practice Dharma as a vocation it is filled with arrogant pseudo intellectuals who won't listen or respect you without lots of titles and credentials. It might be regrettable you didn't bother finishing the degree.

If you don't dedicate your life to Dharma or need to make a living degrees are Golden Tickets into the great job lotto. They certainly help in making a living.

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Grigoris
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Grigoris » Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:56 pm

Personally my advice would be to suck it up, finish the course and then take a year off for some intense practice.

At the end of the year you will probably have a better idea about where you want to invest your time.

Depending on what sort of course you are doing (like health sciences, for example), you may be able to make your work your practice anyway.

Think long term: If you are not independently wealthy, full time Dharma practice can be REALLY difficult to support.

If you do not finish your studies what sort of employment will you be forced into (in the future) and will that work allow you time and energy to practice afterwards?

PS I am a clinical psychologist, so I incorporate a lot of my practice into my work.
"My religion is not deceiving myself."
Jetsun Milarepa 1052-1135 CE

"Butchers, prostitutes, those guilty of the five most heinous crimes, outcasts, the underprivileged: all are utterly the substance of existence and nothing other than total bliss."
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by DNS » Sat Mar 30, 2019 4:29 pm

All good posts above.

I'd recommend finishing it. There is a lot of stress and problems that come up with earning a Ph.D., sometimes so much so, that it seems to be a test in perseverance and determination. :tongue: I earned my Ph.D. way back when I was 26 years old and it opened a lot of doors for career opportunities and options in life.

If you leave for a long break, there is a very high chance, you will never finish it.

I met many people in life and I never met one that said "I regret getting my Ph.D." I have met many people who said, "I regret not finishing my _____ (fill in the blank with some degree or certificate program)" So many have told me "I'm doing this crappy job and here I had a chance to go to Physicians' Assistant school . . . " and numerous other examples of that. Some people say that "person ____ has a degree in ______ and he doesn't even use that degree." In most cases, it's sour-grapes. Even if you don't directly use the degree in your profession, it shows you have discipline, gained that knowledge, etc. For example, there are some professions that require a degree and they don't even care what the major is in, just that you had the discipline to finish. It's only for the best.

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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Simon E. » Sat Mar 30, 2019 6:15 pm

Another vote for finishing your degree here. :smile:

The time will pass quickly and you will always have your degree to bank at a future time in your life.

Unless you know for sure that you want to become a monk, always ensure that you have the means to widen your choices in the future in terms of putting food on the table and a roof over your head.

There is nothing particularly noble about poverty, even relative poverty. It merely narrows your options.
“Why don’t you close down your PC for a while and find out who needs your help?”

HH Tai Situ.

Bristollad
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Bristollad » Sat Mar 30, 2019 7:06 pm

And even if you know for sure you want to become a monk, as a westerner you typically will be expected to support yourself, which means amassing savings, a pension pot etc. first. Maybe take the time for a short retreat - one or two weeks. You can try to work some regular retreat time into each year rather than taking 6 to 12 months to go and lie on a couch, beach or travel around Europe etc. So, finish the course is my advice.

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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Arnoud » Sat Mar 30, 2019 9:45 pm

My wife was in your shoes. She was in a Tibetan Studies PhD program at a major US school. We had to move back to Europe because of family issues on my side. She never went back. I would recommend finishing it. What is your degree in? If you have an M.Sc. or M.A. already in something that can generate income in the future, it might change things. If however you have degree in liberal arts or creative writing or any other degree without income potential you will look at struggling financially the rest of your life. Which also doesn't help you to do retreat. Just a few more years and once you are ABD it will be much better anyway.

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well wisher
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by well wisher » Sat Mar 30, 2019 10:59 pm

Why not, any further practice in the noble Buddha dharma paths are excellent progress :)
If you want to deepen your practice (at reasonable and "safe" practical levels), then let nobody else and nothing stop you.

Sometimes I wonder if there is any real practical and beneficial use in some academic pursuits like PHD degrees, anymore for our modern age.
For example, when I took my bachelors degree in Computer Science, many of the advanced math / Calculus courses have absolutely no practical use for any local jobs near me in the private sector,
because advanced computer software have already replaced those needs anyways,
so its useless to try to pursue "big money" via those routes .. etc.

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明安 Myoan
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by 明安 Myoan » Sat Mar 30, 2019 11:35 pm

To me, this looks like a great opportunity.

I'm the sole provider for my family, and my parents both have health problems. I've never appreciated the teachings so much, never found practice so important to staying sane, as I have during this most stressful time of my life so far.

Things didn't begin to come into focus until I read Shantideva, found the teachings on bodhicitta, and scrutinized my behavior with the Precepts.

The good news is if you can read an internet forum or Facebook, you can read a few verses of Shantideva. There are some lines in there that changed me, on the spot.

If you have to interact with other people, you can find what "Right Speech Aleks" would say. You can rouse a positive feeling before the person even knows you're there.
If something upsets you, you can think "impermanence is not only an idea, this is what countless beings suffer."

The teachings on conduct and bodhicitta touch every moment of our lives, and they're foundational. They keep you from going off the deep end when you're close, and they make your life one continuous offering. Bodhicitta is always worth cultivating, even if you only do it once all day.

From a purely practical perspective, mantras and visualizations are both portable and private.

As one simple example, whenever you go somewhere, you can imagine you're circumambulating a giant jeweled stupa always on your right, or that you're driving to Sukhavati, or leading a caravan of beings out of suffering... And none of that requires an altar or solitude.

I hope you can fulfill your practice aspirations and until then, that you find what you need :thumbsup:
With a heart wandering in ignorance down this path and that, to guide me I simply say Namu-Amida-Butsu. -- Ippen

The Fundamental Vow [of Amitabha Buddha] is just for such people as woodcutters and grassgatherers, vegetable pickers, drawers of water and the like, illiterate folk who merely recite the Buddha's name wholeheartedly, confident that as a result of saying "Namu Amida Butsu" they will be born into the western land. -- Master Hōnen

AleksPro
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by AleksPro » Sun Mar 31, 2019 2:20 am

Thank you so much everyone! Really thank you to every one of you! You have no idea how helpful all the answers have been. They will actually be really useful in making the decision!

Couple of responses that I wanted to address.
Miroku wrote:
Sat Mar 30, 2019 1:28 pm
However, I'd suggest you to try some 10 day vipassana course. 10 days is not that much and you could try it without sacrificing anything or much, plus it reportedly helps people to deal with stress and other negative side effects of busy life.
I have done a couple of 1 week/10 days meditation retreats and they are actually the experiences which really gave fuel to my practice.
Queequeg wrote:
Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:29 pm
Talk to your adviser and find out if there are consequences to taking a break. Are you receiving funding? Will you lose funding? Sometimes you have a limited time from admission to complete the program with funding. If not, why not take a break? If you feel like you are burning out, take some time regroup.

Career-wise, I don't think the pressure lets up. After the doctorate, you'll be applying for post-docs and jobs, and then you'll be trying to make tenure... Its as intense a job as working in any high pressure career. Probably a good idea to learn how to deal with pressure ... that's where practice can help.

Keep in mind practice is a life time endeavor. Its like brushing your teeth - its something you'll be doing everyday for the rest of your life (granted you keep your teeth). If you can take the time to go into retreat and focus on practice, develop it so that you have the practice that will be with you going forward, that is wonderful.

Do it. You may not have the opportunity again for a long time.
This is my thinking as well. If there are no major consequences, I thought it might be the best time if I were to chose academia as a path that i want to pursue. It will be ~5 years to finish the PhD and then getting time off is actually harder (because of time restrictions when it comes to funding). It seems that, for break early on in my PhD, it would be a lot of paper-work but doable.
Nemo wrote:
Sat Mar 30, 2019 3:43 pm

Let's face reality. if you stop the most common outcome by far is you will never finish. Even if you do practice Dharma as a vocation it is filled with arrogant pseudo intellectuals who won't listen or respect you without lots of titles and credentials. It might be regrettable you didn't bother finishing the degree.

If you don't dedicate your life to Dharma or need to make a living degrees are Golden Tickets into the great job lotto. They certainly help in making a living.
I think I would love to continue in life sciences (which is what I am doing in my PhD) and I already have my BA (plus, if I were to leave permanently, I would end up with a master), so I don't think that would be a problem. But I wonder why you think that, after a 6months/year break I would likely not come back?
DNS wrote:
Sat Mar 30, 2019 4:29 pm

If you leave for a long break, there is a very high chance, you will never finish it.

I met many people in life and I never met one that said "I regret getting my Ph.D." I have met many people who said, "I regret not finishing my _____ (fill in the blank with some degree or certificate program)" So many have told me "I'm doing this crappy job and here I had a chance to go to Physicians' Assistant school . . . " and numerous other examples of that. Some people say that "person ____ has a degree in ______ and he doesn't even use that degree." In most cases, it's sour-grapes. Even if you don't directly use the degree in your profession, it shows you have discipline, gained that knowledge, etc. For example, there are some professions that require a degree and they don't even care what the major is in, just that you had the discipline to finish. It's only for the best.
Same question here, is it really that likely that I would not want to go back?

My ultimate goal would be to get the degree - I think though that, at the moment, I don't have the tools to deal with the stress and problems.



Again, all the answers are not only very useful in making the decision but also will be a catalyst for my practice

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Queequeg
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Re: Advice on whether to take a break from PhD to deepen practice

Post by Queequeg » Sun Mar 31, 2019 5:33 am

My wife took 2 years off from her doctoral program to work in a related field. She wasn't sure she wanted to complete it. She eventually continued and finished, but she is an extraordinary person who had a lot of support and an internal drive that even if she did not finish the degree would have done something else.

I also know quite a few ABD who will probably never finish. Some got jobs where the PhD was not necessary. Some, life caught up and things like being a parent got in the way.

You have to know what kind of person you are and what kind of circumstances you may find yourself in. Some people can take a winding path and still get where they need to be. The warnings about not finishing are all too true, too.
Those who, even with distracted minds,
Entered a stupa compound
And chanted but once, “Namo Buddhaya!”
Have certainly attained the path of the buddhas.

-Lotus Sutra, Expedient Means Chapter

There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dhamma. There will be those who will understand the Dhamma.
-Ayacana Sutta

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