When Lauren and I met at a writing workshop a couple weeks ago, it was immediately clear that we were soul mates. Not only had we both traded tapes of jam bands and hung out in sketchy houses with hippie boys we only sort of knew, we had also both started and then left graduate programs, and had, against all odds, gone on to live moderately successful lives. We raise daughters, we sometimes wash dishes, we are productive citizens!
And so when Lauren wrote her amazing, hilarious, ripped straight from my soul post about being a grad school quitta, I knew I had to write at least a little about my own journey out of the trenches of grad school.
See how I didn’t say quit there? I almost never put it that way. I like to say I left. And unlike Lauren, I didn’t really agonize or deliberate or try to draw friends and family and internet strangers into heart wrenching conversations about the pros and cons. I just wandered away.
In the beginning, it all looked very auspicious. I went directly into the PhD program from undergrad: graduated in June, packed my stuff, spent a couple weeks at my parents’ house, then packed my car and drove to Iowa. My parents drove with me to help me move in. My mom ordered curtains for me at JC Penneys.
I started in a PhD program because I felt a calling to teach. I know that sounds cheesy and New Age, but it’s as true and simple as I can make it. I sat in undergraduate classrooms with amazing, thoughtful, powerful, inspiring professors and I knew I could, would, should grow up to be those women.
I did not know that you should not tell your graduate school professors that you came to grad school because you want to teach. I cannot count the number of times that faculty said to me, “Oh, you’ll grow out of that.” Like teaching at the university level is a pair of childhood overalls, destined for a garage sale. You’ll grow out of that. You’re so young.
That burned a little, then and now, but it’s not why I left.
What I tell my students now about grad school is that the key to grad school success is building a relationship with a mentor who understands and respects your work AND understands and respects you as a person. I did not know how to cultivate these relationships, and that cost me dearly.
I struggled to write in a voice that was appropriately, academically obscure. I got feedback like, “This reads like it should be published in a popular magazine.”
In grad school, THAT IS NOT A COMPLIMENT.
I discovered that I had strong teaching instincts, that I felt comfortable in front of a classroom, that students listened and responded to me. I worked hard to build a classroom presence that combined all the elements of my best undergrad profs: nurturing and respectful but challenging, with high expectations. I grew into my desire to teach, not out of it. And I found teaching mentors who valued my skills and my desire and kept pushing me to read and think and talk about pedagogy.
In the end though, I left because the dissertation monster I had created (and for grad school insiders, I left ABD, meaning that I had passed comps and written a dissertation prospectus) was eating me alive. I ignored most of what I knew about myself when I wrote the prospectus. I developed a project based largely on ethnographic fieldwork—interviews—without ever taking a fieldwork methods class or practicing interviewing anyone. I created a committee of anthropologists when the people I was fascinated by but afraid to approach were in other departments doing very different kinds of work. Having children has forced me to develop all kinds of interpersonal skills, but at the time, I was basically terrible at talking to strangers. Why did I think I would be able to do fieldwork?
The core of my fieldwork was supposed to happen on an East Coast Phish tour; I was supposed to be interviewing women who were members of a women’s fan organization, trying to get them to talk about feminism, if they identified as feminists, what they thought about feminism. Not long after I bought my tickets, Phish announced that they were breaking up and that these were the last shows they intended to play together. This changed my plans considerably. We scrambled for Tyler to get tickets to come with me, we traveled the coast with a rag tag bunch of hippies, we had epic adventures that I will save for another post.
And I came home from that tour knowing that whatever I was going to write about those experiences, it was not going to be a dissertation.
I talked to Tyler about my decision to leave; he worried about how I would find a job. In retrospect, this is kind of hilarious. A PhD in women’s studies is not exactly an employment fast track.
In the end, I emailed a favorite professor from undergrad who confirmed that I would still be a worthwhile person if I left with an MA, and then I emailed my committee and said I was done. No fuss, no fanfare, no drama.
One committee member emailed me back to attempt to dissuade me. Her email actually included this line: “NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”
My advisor wrote a short, polite email saying she wasn’t surprised.
One of my teaching mentors, who I trusted enough to have confessed my misgivings about the project, wrote a kind, supportive note acknowledging that the prospect of writing a dissertation I didn’t love was perhaps inhumane.
And that was it. My MA came in the mail. I had a lot of conversations that went like this:
“What happened to your dissertation? Did you just stop working on that?”
In the early days of my quitting, I felt like I had to explain a lot of things about why I left. (I still sometimes feel this urge with people I meet in a university setting.) I felt like I had to describe in detail the strengths and weaknesses of my program, my advisors, my committee, my prospectus.
The hardest thing to learn about being a grad school quitta, in my experience, is also the most freeing: nobody cares about your story. It turns out that once you’re outside academia, people are familiar and comfortable with the idea of leaving one thing in order to do another, giving up something that makes you unhappy in order to try to find something more fulfilling. People move, switch jobs, look for a new church, try a new gym. Imagine my surprise when I realized that an MA is not actually evidence of failure to most people.
I don’t regret starting grad school, and I don’t regret leaving, though I do sometimes imagine how it might have played out differently if I had the personal and professional strengths I do now. What do I regret? That I quit writing. That I lost touch with friends who stayed in the program because I didn’t know what to talk to them about anymore. That I let myself feel like a failure for so long.
Because I teach adjunct at a university, I still get asked if I’m planning to finish the PhD. In that space, it can be hard to convey that my life does not feel like unfinished business. I read, I write, I teach, I garden, I agree to let the girls ride their scooters around the block and spend 45 minutes traveling 100 yards while they bump slowly from one side of the sidewalk to the other, I play air guitar to the Fresh Beat Band. Just because it’s still unfolding doesn’t mean it’s unfinished.