When Lauren and I initially created Mama Nervosa, we imagined a space where we could write about the whole, weird range of experiences that make up our lives and identities: watching tv, mothering, unsuccessful crafting, writing, teaching, and figuring out who we are and what we do beyond grad school.
It turns out that this question of figuring out life beyond grad school resonates with a large number of people, many of whom find us by searching some variation of the phrase “I quit grad school now what” on google. I quit grad school. I want to quit grad school. Should I quit grad school? I want my husband to quit grad school. How do I tell my wife I quit grad school? My personal favorite: quit grad school no job 2012. It’s a tiny diary entry, a moment of grief and hope and desperation poured out into the google search box.
We’ve both written about leaving grad school, but while Lauren is saying her goodbyes this week, I said mine a long time ago. Eight years ago, in fact, a number which completely shocked me when I did the math this morning. So what have I done since I sent that fateful email?
The first key point to know is that at the very beginning of those 8 years, after my dissertation prospectus was approved and my last set of grades was submitted, T and I packed up the tiny shack and moved back to West Michigan, where we both grew up and where our extended families still live. We felt confident that we wanted to live in this area of the country, and I was absolutely not interested in flinging myself onto the academic job market and dragging us around the country on the tour of one year post docs and visiting positions and temporary lecturer gigs that seemed to be the norm. So we were long gone from the university by the time I sent the thanks but no thanks email.
I got a part time job working in an elementary afterschool program, because I needed a job and I like children and my sister knew the guy who was doing the hiring. This job turned out to be tremendously fun, I got to work with my sister for a while, which was awesome, and working with children provided an entirely new set of challenges and joys. College students play with their phones when they are bored; children crawl under the tables or throw things or poke the kid next to them until she cries.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, and I was lucky enough that T had a full time job with health care, so I had some space to figure it out. I picked up a women’s lit class adjunct and then taught another lit class for the English department while still working at the after school program; this was like commuting between two different planets, but I liked the work in both places and I still had plenty of free time. I also had a complete lack of plan or purpose. A friend from undergrad recommended the book What Color is Your Parachute. I freely admit I did not expect it to be useful or entertaining, but I had a lot of time to fill and the one thing I knew I knew how to do well is read. So.
What Color is Your Parachute turned out to be incredibly helpful in that the activities help the reader shift your self-identity away from your previous job/degree and toward your skills and desires.
Grad school taught me how to define myself in terms of an obscure, highly specific research area: I was in an interdisciplinary PhD program, and my work focused on virtual communities, fan identity, and contemporary young feminist identities. That’s the start of a fascinating conversation, but it’s not the start of a promising career outside of academia. But I had no idea what else to say about myself on a resume or in an interview, and it seemed unlikely that I could rely on my immediate family to continue to recommend me for jobs. The Parachute book, cheesy as it was, gave me a new perspective on myself: I had actual skills, not just oceans of arcane knowledge. I knew how to guide a discussion. I knew how to give a presentation. I knew how to gather, analyze, and synthesize information, and then write or speak about it clearly to an audience who isn’t familiar with that topic. I knew how to create a syllabus, which isn’t so different from creating a curriculum or a professional development seminar or an orientation or any other educational event.
But the watershed discovery for me personally came when I looked at the 6 key traits that define your parachute color. My parachute is lavender, which means my key traits are Share it! Explore it! Invent it! What I’m not? Start it! Do it! Keep it going!
This should not have come as a surprise, given that I had failed to start, do, or keep it going when it came to my dissertation. But I really hadn’t realized how pervasive that pattern was in my life: I excelled (and still excel) when I can create and innovate within an existing, external structure. I talked and thought and fantasized about starting a blog for nearly a year without ever actually making any progress. Then I met Lauren, she had a domain name and a blog design, and I started writing for Mama Nervosa a couple weeks later. Lauren and I, for all we have in common, don’t have the same color parachute.
The ability to identify and communicate my skills and strengths was key to landing my next job post grad school. When the afterschool program implemented a garden program, I got to know the staff and director of a local non-profit organization focused on school gardens and getting kids to eat healthy by helping them understand the literal roots of their foods. I LOVED working with the kids in the garden, and landed a full time job at the non-profit.
I developed curriculum, hired, trained, and supervised AmeriCorps volunteers, did garden programs with kids, tracked budgets and grant funding, occasionally gave tours of a nature center. None of this was related to my grad school degree or experience. But all of it falls within the skills and strengths I identified: share it, explore it, invent it. Do the research, and communicate the ideas and information to a new audience. I wouldn’t have been the right person to start this non-profit, or to run the fundraising end. But the programming end? An absolutely sweet fit for me. That job was fun, and exciting, and challenging, and often straight up joyful.
When the non-profit ran out of money a couple years later, most of my colleagues and I lost our jobs. I was devastated, not least because I felt like I had actually succeeded at landing a full time job that I loved, doing meaningful work with amazing people, that had absolutely nothing to do with my grad school experience/degree, and now I was going to have to start over.
Also, I was 5 months pregnant with Lucy.
Also, Dorothy was 1 year old.
So now I was unemployed, pregnant, with a toddler. Back to the drawing board. It was spring. I planted my garden. We went for long walks. I sent out some resumes, trying to cast a wide net, focusing again on what skills and experiences I could transfer. No luck. And the more I thought about it, the more I missed being in the classroom. I emailed the chair of Women’s and Gender studies department and asked if she needed an adjunct. And when I wanted more classes that WGS could offer, I felt confident about approaching another interdisciplinary department and pitching myself as a potential adjunct there too.
Here’s the thing: if you’re reading this because you are secretly googling “I want to quit grad school but I don’t know how” when you are supposed to be grading essays or writing a 30 page seminar paper about whether it’s possible to argue that there is indeed regulon in the semiosphere of American Idol, you need to remember that not only are there other options, you have legitimate skills which you can use to find a job outside of academia. My weird and winding path is a product of my attempt to do that. Yes, I wandered around and then went back to university teaching. You don’t have to take that path. I’m not advocating that you try and get the jobs I got; I’m advocating that you take steps to identify your strengths, skills and desires, and learn how to communicate them clearly, and go confidently into job interviews that have nothing to do with your grad school endeavors.
Grad school taught me to define myself by what I knew. Life after grad school has been all about what I can do, what I want to do, and building the bridges that will get me there. You have to be open to the possibility that you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. You have to be open to the possibility that your life is going to go in directions you could not have imagined. It’s okay. Maybe you will start a non-profit. Maybe you will make pinecone birdfeeders with 4 year olds. Maybe you will be a freelance writer or a cheesemaker. Who knows? You’ve got to figure it out. And once you’re in that brave new world, your coworkers and friends and neighbors will not think of you as that person who quit grad school. They will think of you as a farmer or a baker or an educator or a business owner or a writer—you know, as whatever it is you decide to be.
There will almost certainly be heartbreak and low pay. But grad school wasn’t going to protect you from those things anyway. So go for it.
I haven’t read the newest edition of the Parachute book, so I can’t vouch for the content. But the cover looks pretty similar, and the amazon reviews are good.