Grad School Quittas: What To Expect When You’re Quitting

“I kept looking for clues and for permission. I wanted stories about graduate students in anthropology who had left their programs. Where did they go? What did they do? How did they do it? I did not find these stories. Here and there, I found books, articles, and websites that helped me and I have included them in my essay. In the end, I had to make my decision, for the most part, on my own. My narrative, a collection of personal essays on my time in and my leaving graduate school, is the kind of writing I searched for during that last semester, the kind of narrative I did not find. It is a narrative that is by no means complete but is one that explores the numerous things that shaped my journey through graduate school and my leaving.” (Viola Allo, Leaving)

I mentioned the other day that I quit grad school. I thought I’d talk a little about what it feels like when you do that. As Viola Allo writes in Leaving, there aren’t many stories that really go into how it feels and what it means to quit. There are advice columns; questionnaires; discussion boards. There are summative reflections about whether or not leaving was a good idea, but not often do you find narratives that walk that line and admit to the strangeness and ambivalence of life after grad school. I hope my entries on this topic can console or offer help to some poor bastard googling “should I quit grad school?” in the middle of the night. Sometime, I’ll get into my experience as a student and what led me to leave (and almost leave, a dozen times before). But right now I want to tell you about what it’s like to sit in this space of having quit but not quite being gone.

The first thing I did when I decided to quit was sob loudly on the phone with my sister. I was sitting in my daughters’ unused bunk beds (we’re still in transition there), with the window open to the frigid January air. The wind cooled my chapped cheeks. I’d had an awkward and uncomfortable confrontation with my adviser. I was embarrassed and upset. I knew I wanted to quit but I was afraid to even say the words aloud. It took three days to be able to simply state to my husband, “I want to quit grad school.” Not “I think I want to quit” or “I’m considering leaving” or anything that softened the reality of what I was doing. If I stated it in the subjunctive, someone might trick me into coming back.

And almost universally, people will try to get you not to quit. OK; that’s not true. I’m exaggerating. People will react in one of three ways:

1. Fuck yes, finally, grad school sux, this is the best decision you will ever make.

2. Dear God, don’t quit, try this, try that, change programs, take a break, talk to your adviser, reconsider; if you could just pull together a committee, take your comps, and write a dissertation you’d be done and you will be so glad, don’t live with regret, don’t quit, don’t quit.

3. I support you in whatever you decide.

Let’s make that four ways.

4: I’m thinking about quitting (or “I wish I had quit”), how did you decide, how did you talk to your adviser, here’s my situation, what should I do?

Almost everyone will try to work their own issues out through your decision-making. Any conversation about you quitting grad school becomes a conversation about the other person’s grad school experience. Not on purpose; grad students aren’t universal dicks, it’s just such an intense, taboo, personal topic that it inevitably becomes about Grad School and What Grad School Means. People will project on you, argue through you, define themselves with or against you. Sometimes these conversations are really helpful, illuminating, and significant in the same way good talk therapy is. Sometimes they suck.

So be ready for that, my late-night googling friend. Your peers and mentors are especially likely to want you to re-invest yourself in academia in some way, in any form, just as long as you don’t quit. And you can’t blame them; anyone quitting throws into relief all the bullshit and chicanery that makes up grad school life. As Dorothea Salo writes in “Tales of a Grad School Burnout,”

“Graduate school can be a very isolating experience, and failing graduate school is worse; failures are pariahs, often because those who aren’t failing are justly terrified of failure and need to believe that they are different from those who fail.”

The less well you know someone, the more judgy they will probably be. Your close friends and colleagues know you; that one guy at the departmental Happy Hour will want to lecture you about what you should have done or why your experience is so vastly different from his pragmatic, insightful approach to academia. The worst are people on anonymous boards. Fellow quitters will judge you for your idiotic decision-making, foolish illusions about what grad school would be like, and generally make you feel like the failure you are convinced you are. Do not. Do not. Do not go to internet boards to discuss quitting.

Some people will step back from you as if grad school quitting is catching. You might get invited to fewer parties, if you ever were invited at all. (This isn’t a problem for me; I had already alienated myself by having kids.) There’s a saying in recovery groups that when you sober up, you are like a puzzle piece and your shape changes. People have to learn new ways to fit with your new shape. Some people will accomodate that; others will not. You don’t need the ones who aren’t okay with that change.

Fellow embittered grad school quittas (not to be confused with Flagpole Sittas) will rejoice in your decision and you will probably spend hours talking shit about grad school and all the bullshit and how it’s an evil Ponzi scheme and how deluded the entire Ivory Tower is. And some grizzled dozenth-year-super-senior dissertators will also be happy to sit down with you and do a post-mortem on your grad school career.

“Graduate students are the worst.”

This is totally fine, and you are all totally right. But it oversimplifies things, and it allows you to sidestep the painful reality of your own complicity in the bullshit, how enmeshed your own identity is in the bullshit, and all the people you know and care about who still live in that world. So, enjoy this, but understand that it won’t ultimately help you feel better about yourself or the complicated experience of grad school and grad school quitting.

The people who love you the most and understand the best will be fine with whatever you decide. Most of them probably have no idea what grad school is like, anyway; they will probably have an easier time understanding quitting school than they ever had understanding what you were actually doing in grad school. I checked in with my parents, my in-laws, my kids, my husband, my sister, and numerous friend-colleagues before I gave myself permission to quit. It amazed me, but it really was true: They loved me for who I am, not for what I do. They would still love me, even if I quit graduate school.

Quitting is thrilling. Think of the books you will read. The marathon you never ran? Check. Think of the creative projects that have lay dormant that you can now take up: finish that half-knitted shawl, start that podcast, join that improv group. And the TV: MY GOD THE TV YOU CAN WATCH NOW. I gave my students extra credit to carry stacks and stacks of books back to the library for me. I went through my personal book collection and got rid of any book that did not bring me joy. I listened to a wonderful podcast from the Freakonomics team about the Upside of Quitting. I signed up for a writing class and decided to write only about things that were messy, subjective, and fun. I bought a domain.

I was running errands a few days after quitting: I’d just wrapped up a class, and our family needed some staples for dinner and the girls were out of pull-ups. I rushed pell-mell through through the aisles of Target with this sense of fear and worry.  I had been frantically trying to calculate the unit price per diaper in the baby aisle, and I couldn’t get my thoughts straight. “OK, so the Pampers are on sale but there are only 63 per box whereas Target brand is regular price but hey, there are 71 per box but is that actually cheaper and I need to figure this out and get out of here and why math whyyyyyyy” Then I realized, in an orgasmic epiphany: I have nothing to do. I have no need to hurry. I have nowhere to be.

In that moment, I was doing exactly what was necessary for that day. Getting food to nourish my family; taking care of our daily life. Determing that in fact, that is a damn good deal on paper goods for my children to shit in, and stacking green boxes in my cart. THIS IS MY CALLING IN THIS PRECISE MOMENT. I felt euphoric. I practically kissed the checkout guy. “I’M GREAT!!!” I crowed in response to his routine greeting. I was living in the expansive present, the beautiful nowness. I was liberated from that constant feeling that there was something I should be doing, some project I ought to be working on, some CFP or proposal or chapter or reading I was avoiding while doing anything un-grad school related (even though I barely ever did those things, anyway). In grad school, you have no free time. But now I am free!! I AM A GOLDEN GOD!

But, freedom is terrifying. Freedom is formless. I’m so used to the stress, the pressure. I feel like I need to be doing something, anything, more than whatever it is I’m doing. Even though I’m plenty busy with teaching, meetings, cleaning, and parenting, I’m convinced I am not doing worthy work unless I’m maxed out and exhausted in every way.

Although I want to enjoy the little things, the quiet and still moments of joy with my children, I am often grouchy and irritable. There’s terrible whiplash when you go from grad school time to regular time. You invent enormous tasks to undertake. You feel a need to fill the void with something as comparably Significant and Meaningful and Important as grad school, like Writing (not just an article or short story; but a novel, an opus, a play) or Having Another Baby or Getting a Real And Important Sounding Job (something other than “customer service level III”). Newly turned from the womb of grad school, we flail like newborns, seeking those firm and reassuring boundaries. We squint in the bright light and turn away, grunting.

As difficult as it is, I am trying very hard not to fill the void. I am resisting the urge to replace the work and stress of grad school with new work and new stress. I am forcing myself to adjust to regular time, regular life, the quotidian rhythms most people take for granted. Grad school drills from you the ability to stay in the present. You are always having to think ahead: from coursework to comps, from comps to diss, from diss to book, from book to tenure. Do you ever savor the moment in grad school? I can’t think of a single, quiet, triumphant moment. I don’t want to miss out on those any more, so I am sitting in this discomfort and letting my body and mind get used to the expanse. I’m closing the laptop instead of obsessively refreshing my inbox. I’m avoiding job postings. I’m thinking about today, not tomorrow or next year (ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES I AM AWAKE AT 4 AM THINKING FUCK). But I trust that this will pass. I trust that by this summer, I’ll be able to sit on the porch in the evening and just listen to the cicadas and talk to my kids about what kind of brains cars have and which Gabbaland character is their favorite, and be totally there. Even if it’s a Tuesday. If I can learn to love interminable, free-form anxiety and endlessly deferred gratification; if I can take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt for the sake of a nearly worthless degree; if I can sacrifice time with my luminous and extraordinary babies for the sake of scholarship; then I am sure that I can learn to love my freedom.

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26 responses to “Grad School Quittas: What To Expect When You’re Quitting

  1. I love this post. Congratulations. 🙂

    • Thank you, Emmy! I made broccoli cheddar soup because I couldn’t get that cauliflower recipe out of my head (and my fam is just not into c-flower, unfortch).

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  3. I love this entry and I sure as hell hope that I was one of the people in the 3rd category of reactions. 🙂 Love you, lady.

  4. CONGRATULATIONS! this post is brilliant, honest, complex, truthful, and enviable.

    i only wish that back when i’d voiced my desire to quit, someone had said to me, “i will support you in whatever you decide.”

    ❤ kats

  5. to borrow your words, luminous and extraordinary. thanks for writing, opening this whole can of worms and calling it what it is. you’ll be listening to those cicadas sing and savoring it in no time.

    i know i was in the 4th category, so thank you also for listening in the midst of your own struggle. even now, i’m reading in the middle of a class and continuing the convo in my head! and, i always thought i wasn’t invited to anything b/c i didn’t have kids! must not have been much going on. 🙂

    • Thanks, Marie — I think we all have internal dialogues about why grad school accepts or rejects us and what others’ motives are. I’m always glad to listen to you and glad you weathered the comps storm with grace!

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  7. I didn’t quit grad school. Sure thought about it a lot of times, but ultimately, I defended a dissertation that neither nor anyone on my committee particularly cared about by that point and went on to a research career of banging my head against a wall trying to convince journal referees that the subjects I found remotely relevant were also of interest to anyone else. I never did find an audience for my research. And when I resigned my tenure track position to take a full-time post teaching at a community college, I was very very happy. And I’m sure I freed up a faculty line for someone else whose burning passion to do research was a far better fit for that line. Win-win.

    So it took me longer to drop out. I neither regret nor particularly endorse the path I’ve followed. Some of my current colleagues have those magic letters PhD; others don’t. But figuring out what isn’t working for you and moving on is a good, healthy thing. Congratulations on making a decision that seems to have worked for you, and best wishes. Also, thanks for this fascinating blog. Whatever you are or aren’t studying, you’re clearly a writer with something to say, and making the world a better place by sharing your writing.

    • D., thanks for your thoughtful comment. Jen and I both teach in community colleges and really value that work, so it’s great to read that you found a position and love your work. Thanks for saying my writing is good, that means a lot to me.

  8. D, I’m so glad you’re reading! I think what I wanted most when I was struggling in grad school was for somebody to say, “look, there are a lot of options. Here are some different paths you might want to pursue, and here are the first steps on those paths.” Maybe that’s asking too much? It just all felt so one track, like if I didn’t stay on that road I was just going to be left in a ditch in the wilderness. People find our blog every day by googling some version of “i want to quit grad school” — and i dont know how helpful finding this blog is, but if nothing else, I hope they realize that the world outside grad school isn’t actually a desolate landscape of shame and isolation. It’s okay to let go, move on, find a different path. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to see that.

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  10. I think you are particularly right to say “Almost everyone will try to work their own issues out through your decision-making.” I quit one program, and felt like quitting was the most taboo thing you could do as a grad student. Get into transgressive sexualities or heavy drugs? Nah, that’s great! That’s subversive! Quit? What??? It forces others to confront and legitimate their own experience. I get that some people love it, some people thrive in it, whatever. Some of us just don’t.

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  13. What a fantastic post. I love it! I’ll write up some of my own thoughts about it and link my readers to your blog later this week.

    In the meantime, congrats on having the courage to leave, and welcome to the postacademic world. It’s lovely out here!

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  15. I loved your post! I am one of the late-night-google searchers. The books, running a marathon, and unfinished knitting project (in my case a baby blanket) all apply to me. I have been considering dropping to a masters for some time now and I can honestly say reading your post made me feel more comfortable about my decision. Thank you for sharing.

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  17. Great post! And indeed wonderfully written. My story is a bit different but in many ways also the same. I finished my PhD (just defended this month) and I never questioned my desire to finish and defend. I actually LIKE my work and my diss (a rare unicorn of grad school?) and I wanted to see it through. But I also had a child before finishing and even prior to getting pregnant, I was heavily questioning the traditional academic route that was to come post graduation.

    Having my daughter and finishing while living away from campus brought up a host of questions regarding how I wanted to structure my life after finishing. I knew I wasn’t going to go on the traditional job market and I had no desires (although some regrets, maybe in a different life? One where I wasn’t a mom?) about not throwing myself full force into the academic profession after graduating. I don’t have all the answers but I do know that I love being a mom, that I want to be with my daughter as much as possible, that I love writing and research and am still interested in my scholarly work, and that I enjoy teaching and would love to do it again at some point. What I don’t want is the stress, the paralyzing stress, that you so adequately describe. I don’t want to teach a 3-4 load, have to attend a ton of meetings, advise students, pour out research and writing, and get home exhausted with no joy or desire for those moments on the porch with my family and the things that truly are the most important to me.

    So I guess the thoughts you raise are not just specific to grad school but to the traditional academic track in general. Thanks for a great post and a space for talking about this.

    • Thank you so much! I agree that this discussion could include anyone getting out of academia at any time, not just GSQs (we just happen to be two GSQs). I love your blog!

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