This blog has been created entirely by grad school quittas.

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.”


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.




14 responses to “This blog has been created entirely by grad school quittas.

  1. We are so soulmates!

  2. Also, Jen, you have a talent for awesome closing lines. Just sayin’.

  3. My talent for closing lines is especially funny because in real life I am TERRIBLE at ending things.

  4. I SO love this Jen. Perhaps because I was there with you for a bit. Maybe because I dug in and refused to quit (like so many things in my life) and in the process ripped out a big part of my soul. Or, and yes, this is it – you inspire me. I walked out with a PhD and a spanking about caring too much, writing too close to the bone, being over personal and too invested in my topic. And by the way, no job. Because there aren’t any!

    And now, paying 800 a month in student loan payments for a piece of paper that didn’t mean as much as I hoped, thought, planned, while I cry for time to write and time with my girls, I wish. That I had quit a long time ago. But I didn’t know I could do it without proving a whole bunch of people right, and that pissed me off. I was/am just to stubborn. Thank you and Lauren (!) for being there to share the other side of this experience. It feels like the sun coming out.

    • Well, everyone on the planet is going to feel the sun come out when they read your fantastic memoir, Shell. ❤

      • Oh, Shell, I feel you. The two things you’re never supposed to talk about in grad school are time and money, and then it turns out that these are the defining factors in our lives and we have no actual way to make it all work out, whether we quit or finished.

  5. Oh, I empathize so much with hearing over and over again that a passion for teaching is the folly of youth. I seek out opportunities to work with developmental writers, and when (some, luckily not all) of my professors hear that, they respond with varied levels of shock and disgust. One professor went so far as to tell me that I was “selling myself short” and that I had a greater responsibility to the woman’s movement than that.

    Because what could be worse than having the instructors teaching some of the people who need teachers most actually care about what they’re doing? Isn’t it much better that we reserve those positions for the rejected and dejected?

    I didn’t leave the PhD–I’m still trucking away at one part-time as I work as an educator full-time–but I almost did. I still appreciate the chance to get into a seminar and discuss, to connect with fellow students and bounce ideas around. I am almost out of coursework, and I plan to finish, but if I don’t, I will not be a failure. I very much enjoy my life. I am very fulfilled without that piece of paper.

    • Thanks, Jane. I work with developmental readers/writers, too. Jen teaches at a CC. Great minds!

      • I actually teach at a university, not a CC. But nonetheless: The devaluing of teaching (at the university level, but also increasing in public debate as unions are demonized) is so frustrating to me. It feels classist and misogynist to me. I am really lucky to have landed at a university that values teaching and devotes a lot of resources to it. I hope the grad school experience continues to feel worthwhile Jane! And I hope you’ll keep reading!

  6. Pingback: 4 Roads Not Travelled: What I Should Have Done Instead of Going to Grad School | mama nervosa

  7. After announcing my decision to quit my first PhD program, I also received the “short, polite email” from my advisor, “saying [he] wasn’t surprised.” At the time I thought nothing of it, it was polite at least, but after reading your post my brain started buzzing.

    On the one hand, I think it’s good that our advisors were not surpised. It means, at least, that they were paying attention. But on the other hand, if there are clear signs that a student is thinking of quitting, or is moving in that direction, then isn’t it incumbent on the advisor to say something about it beforehand? To anticipate that decision and at least address it, even if to say “you know, it’s ok to quit,” rather than sit back and wait and not be surprised?

    It also strikes me now as not very caring and perhaps even accusatory, a way of evading responsibility. As if to say “I’m not surprised – that *you* are quitting.” More meaningful would be “I’m sorry that the program did not work out for you,” or “perhaps I could have stuck up for you more at your qualifying exam,” or “well, it was fun for the first two years!” The short, polite email feels more like a bureaucrat’s “this is to inform you that your services will no longer be required” or a reminder that you’re a month behind on your loan repayment.

    • You know, in the moment, I mostly just felt relief at the short polite email: we were all acknowledging it was over, I had already disinvested emotionally, I wanted to be let go. But do I wish I had been able to develop a mentoring relationship with someone who could have anticipated, intervened, nurtured? Yes. absolutely. I’m sorry that wasn’t present for you in your first program either– but it sounds like you were able to find a better fit, even if you are doing field work with teenagers ;P

  8. …and let me also add that I completely sympathize with your fieldwork dilemmas. When I started my current program in education, I said (at least to myself) that the one thing I did *not* want to do – absolutely not, no way, no how! – was interview teenagers. And yet, the core of the methods section of my dissertation proposal is…interviewing teenagers. Add in IRB paperwork delays, non-responsive teachers and administrators, and you have a recipe for a unfinished dissertation.

  9. Pingback: Google Diaries: We know you quit grad school. | mama nervosa

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