Cards on the Table

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Yesterday, I left graduate school permanently.

I’m not finished with my work just yet. There’s still grading to be done, as final projects were due last night and averages will need to be up very soon. But I’m now also job-hunting.

Maybe I should back up a bit. I’m in—or was in—the throes of comprehensive exams. They’re a nasty, exhaustive sort of test over 3 different areas: a 100-year time span, a focus area, and a methodology. There’s a written component and an oral component. My chosen areas for comps and dissertation were decided on  too quickly, and I wasn’t invested in the way they worked together. Exams haven’t been going well partially because I have a project that is very much the Wrong Project for Me.

After passing comps, students move on to write a dissertation—so they must propose a study, sit a defense of that proposal, then write a large, research-intensive document, then defend it again before graduating. And there are reasons for this—I mean, after finishing a dissertation, a person is a doctor, an expert among experts. That means they need to know what they’re talking about. They should be coming up with new critical theories and methods, researching, writing, and presenting.

And generally, they should be teaching, too. PhD’s in English often teach. That is, in most programs (and definitely in ours), the expected path, and so activities focus on preparing graduates to get university positions in an ever-shrinking field and to keep those, to teach well.

But that’s something else that I realized. While I enjoy teaching my composition students, I’ve been reminded, over the last several years, that an academic career means a lot of things—ongoing publications, conference presentations, etc—that I find more stressful than is healthy.

In other words, an academic career isn’t for me, and neither is the project I’ve been trying to work toward.

Understanding those things allowed me to see more clearly that the time had really come to leave. Yes, I finished doctoral level coursework. Yes, I passed part of comps and was working toward the other. In some ways, I was almost finished. But in other ways, I’d only just begun. I can see value in what I was doing, what I had done, and I was—am—still interested in the topics themselves. But ultimately, finishing is not in my best interest.

I told all of this to my major instructors through individual e-mails yesterday. Out of courtesy, I wanted to tell them as soon as the decision was made. I have been on assistantship at the university and was scheduled to teach two classes in the spring semester, so there will be some schedule rearranging, and the  group of kind and helpful faculty who have helped with this project needed to know my decision.

So yesterday, I left graduate school permanently.

And everyone was wonderful. My instructors wished me well and said they understood my decision. They reminded me of the names of critics we’d discussed in case I wanted to keep up my reading. My friends and colleagues called me brave, though I didn’t feel it, and lots of people offered helpful, kind words. My husband, parents, and family offered me love and support, and they have since I started making this decision.

I laughed, and I cried, and I wondered what to do with my life. I read a whole book in one sitting, something that had nothing to do with Work. I started re-vamping my resume and combed through online job ads. I talked to friends about my decision.

Somehow I feel free, freer than I have in a long while.

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45 Comments

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  1. I heard about this around Christmas (since I’m not on FB and the end of the semester was its usual frantic species of insane activity). I can totally sympathize — the academic career path is a strange and demanding spirit animal. And the stress can be too much at times, and just enough to completely take up all your available energies at other times, even if, at yet other times, academe is such an intellectually stimulating place to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. And I was just not enjoying or stimulated by what I was doing anymore. It came to feel like drudgery in a wholly different way than it did before. It’s difficult to explain, but I just knew it was time to say goodbye.

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  2. I have a friend who left law school (to take care of her mom who was dying of cancer) and then later left a PhD program in Political Science to move for her husband’s PhD program in another state. She got a job there that she loved in Higher Ed admin and she is now pursuing a PhD in Education! So, sometimes it takes a while to find your place – nothing wrong with that or never getting a PhD (if it isn’t needed to do what you want to do). Have you thought about Community College teaching? If you like teaching, but not the research and conference presentation aspects, it may be a good option. It actually pays pretty well for academia and the job prospects in that area are becoming better as 4 year Universities raise their tuitions and drive more people into CCs first. Just a thought…

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    1. I actually used to teach at a community college. I did like it as much as I’ve ever liked teaching, but I’m just not sure (and never was) that I want to teach as a long-term occupation. I enjoyed working with students, but I enjoyed it much better in one-on-one writing center sessions when I tutored than when I was working with a whole class at once. The trick with any teaching position these days (above elementary/secondary, anyway) is that more and more places are hiring adjunct faculty to cover most of their classes, and adjuncting doesn’t pay the bills unless you work at multiple places and are willing to forgo benefits.

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  3. What a beautifully written post! I’m so excited for you at this decision and for what will come next for you. This is a new beginning and beginnings are always full of possibilities and dreams.
    At the same time, I’m in awe at your courage to be honest enough and brave enough to say, “This doesn’t fit for me” and honour that truth. Someone else might have kept going because they’ve gone so far and ended up unhappy. But you didn’t.
    And you’re right. You’re free now. Your next path is completely up to you. So exciting. I hope you share with us what that is when you find it.

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  4. Good for you. I have a Ph.D. in English that I received in 1997. The times were considered horrible then in terms of getting a tenure-track job. Back then, when I applied for jobs, I regularly received rejection letters saying there were 500-800 applicants per job. I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job. However, the job market has only gotten worse, much worse since then. It seems that administrators are more and more reluctant to hire any tenure-track professors. They think that adjuncts are just groovy; so what if they can’t make make a living at what they do. So when young students tell me they want to get a Ph.D. and eventually a job as an English professor, I can’t in good consciousness encourage them to go for it. It takes a looooonnnggg time to get a doctorate and then with such a small chance of getting a full-time job….it’s tough.

    All this is a way to say that your decision sounds like the right one for you.

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    1. 🙂 Thank you for your kind words.

      It is a really tough market, and I don’t think there are enough people who are willing to be frank about the job prospects and what a PhD in English really means.

      The adjunct question is a really difficult one, and I think that there are going to have to be some real decisions made about that system, because it’s unsustainable. That said, I think we should also start doing some practical things like recognizing all the possible things that someone with an advanced degree in literature could do outside of teaching and allow more room for alternate paths.

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  5. It’s a completely different decision but I’m starting to decide whether I want to go to grad school in my field, go to grad school in a different field, or hold off on grad school for a while (or forever). I grapple with what I’m studying so often that the idea of even getting the B.S. I’ve been working towards seems daunting–I know I’ll be finishing that because I kind of HAVE to at this point–but I understand that making these kinds of decisions are hard. Congrats on doing what is right for you. I’m glad you got to read a non-Work book and that you’re enjoying your freedom despite the stress of reevaluating.

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    1. It is really tough. I think it’s prudent to think about what fields of grad study are open to you and what you can do with those degrees. I didn’t have enough conversations with people about what an advanced degree in English would be training me to do, I think, and the farther into the program I got, the more stifled I felt by the pathway I was going down. It was so specific and so narrow, and it only got more so. More discussions about what the grad degree would end in and what specific things I’d be trained to do might’ve made me think of getting something like a communications degree instead.

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  6. I’m just coming by to give you the support on the blog. In the Sourcerer guise because I’m working. This is a nicely-done post, and I hope the writing and publishing of it did you some good. It’s pitch perfect, and I am very happy to see all the peeps coming out for you on this thread. 🙂

    I’m detecting a theme here, and that theme is “Liberation.”

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      1. I am just finding this. Haven’t been in this account since I left those comments.

        The reworking of the academic finance is something we should probably talk about, but Sourcerer is not really the best conversationalist.

        Sourcerer speaks. But responses? They are a little sketchy right now. Best talk to Gene’O if you want to have a conversation. 😉

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  7. I could very well have written this piece, although it looks as if you were a bit farther along than I was when I left– unlike everyone else in my program I chose to take my MA and run rather than continue on to doctoral work. That was what led me to teaching. I have yet to determine what leaving teaching will lead me to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When we first started blogging, I read a piece somewhere that referred to all of us who are in this position as inhabitants of “the academic underworld.”

      I had personal/family stuff that delayed me from going on to the next level until I was too old to ever recoup the money for it, is what happened to me. Those years while the personal stuff were horrific, but I’m glad I didn’t go for a Ph.D. three years ago and have nothing but adjunct work or moving to some alien state where I know no one to look forward to.

      And I’ve been making money all these years instead of borrowing it. There’s that. The finance side of things is broken. Not sustainable for a whole lot longer, I don’t think.

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      1. Yeah, there’s a real problem with the financial system in place for academia. The system we’re using to pay for it needs reworking from the ground up, I think.

        I have moments of wishing that I’d stopped at a masters, but I think I needed some of that PhD level work, and I don’t think I’ll regret the time I spent there, long-term, except that it gave me some debt to work off.

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    2. I taught for a year between my masters and working on the PhD, and I enjoyed it but wanted to keep studying. I’m not sure where the studying is about to lead me, but we’ll see!

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  8. Wow. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to come to this decision. I’m a firm believer that if you follow your instincts you’ll end up exactly where you’re supposed to be. Here’s to finding your place!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Best of luck to you! I can’t say I’ve had the experience of leaving a doctoral program, but as someone who’s agonized over whether to go back to grad school, I can understand a lot of your concerns about continuing in the program. I loved the time I spent as an MA student and feel it was invaluable in terms of my intellectual development (and, wow, does that sound pretentious), but I have real doubts about whether going on to a doctoral program would be the right choice for me. I enjoy researching and writing, but the academic job market today is just so competitive–quite apart from the practical question of whether you can manage to land a full-time position, the stress involved in preparing for the market must be crushing, and I’m not sure it’s worth it for me personally (that said, I haven’t been able to entirely let go of my love of higher ed, so I’m really hoping to find even an adjunct position at a community college). Anyway, your post gave me additional food for thought when it comes to my own decision; it obviously needs to be a choice made on an individual basis, but that said, I had encountered so much (well-intentioned) pressure from my advisers to go on in grad school that it’s always nice to hear another perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about the intellectual development. The time I’ve spent studying and close reading and writing for an academic audience have honed a lot of research and communication skills and have certainly changed the way I think.

      I’m glad that you got some food for thought here. I think it’s important to make your own decision, but I don’t think we talk enough in real, concrete terms about alternative career paths or about what the job market is actually like in higher education—-and those are really important things to discuss.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I had to get out of college with just my B.A. or throw up. Millsaps College makes students take the URE, write three comprehensive essays on given topics within 5 hours in a supervised classroom, and take Orals just for a Bachelor’s. I could not take any more stress. I did love teaching at the high school level, so that’s what I chose to do. I enjoyed it, but over the next 30 years of teaching high school, the pay was so horrible that I had various summer and night jobs in the exciting retail mall industry. I hope you are headed to a job that gives raises and promotions recognizing your skills! Go for it, girl!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Big hugs to you!! I completely understand what you’ve been feeling. I am going through the same process myself. I’ve been under so much stress with my Ph.D. and running the lab that I mentally fell apart. I have gone in to work maybe a handful of times this semester. I’m frozen in a place where I can’t push myself to keep going any more, but I am afraid to let it all go. You are brave. It has nothing to do with staying or leaving. You made a difficult decision and you acted on it. I admire that and I wish I could do the same. Enjoy your holidays and be proud of yourself. You deserve it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 Thank you. I can’t imagine going through that kind of exam process just for a B.A. I would probably have never gotten my M.A. if I’d had to do that as an undergrad.

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  12. I remember how I felt when I realized that the future I’d mapped our in academic would lead me to inevitably become a serial killer, and I smiled as I realized you felt the same exact thing: freedom. I have a lot of friends who are academics, most of them thriving, but the lives they lead aren’t for me–especially the adjuncts. Keep us posted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 That sounds familiar.

      Once upon a time, the life of an academic suited me. But I’ve done a lot of changing over the past few years, I just knew that it wasn’t for me anymore.

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  13. I’ve only recently become aware of the challenges involved in pursuing a PhD. I can’t begin to imagine the soul-searching that went into this decision and the very powerful mixed emotions.

    I read so much angst and pain in this post … but the last line made me smile. Enjoy your newfound sense of freedom 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The challenges are huge! I don’t think that I had a good enough idea of what they would be when I started working on this. And there’s certainly no way to anticipate all the challenges that arise outside of the school that also have to be tackled.

      It was difficult, of course, to decide to let the years I’ve spent studying go. But it’s also really relieving to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. That must have been such a difficult decision for you to make, but I’m familiar with the feeling of a weight being lifted (in entirely different circumstances) and it can be a momentous and energizing and – exactly as you have said – freeing opportunity. A present and future unwritten can be a very liberating thing. Take a little time to just be (it is nearly Christmas after all!) And good luck with whatever you decide to do next. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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