Google Diaries: We know you quit grad school.

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. 

13 responses to “Google Diaries: We know you quit grad school.

  1. I just had a conversation with a friend in the hallway of the EPB (as I was in the process of moving out) about how you get such tunnel vision in grad school that it is nearly impossible to envision alternatives for it. But they are out there, once you start looking. Versatile PhD is a great place to start.

  2. Oh — some of my other faves are “want spouse to quit grad school” and “quitting grad school without making anyone mad.”

  3. HI ladies! Instead of being an internet lurker, I’ve decided to tell you that I really appreciate your blog. There are quite a few blogs that address the topic of leaving academia but none that I know of that discuss doing so with children. Honestly, I’m at my wits’ end. I want to finish my dissertation just to finish it, but as far as teaching goes, I’m done. Having a baby has given me zero tolerance for stupid student excuses and laziness. But then again, I think that my career choices are pretty much limited because now I have a baby in tow and have no time or money to learn other skills. I’ll check out What Color is Your Parachute, if only for some self-affirmation.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I definitely would not actively discourage you (or anyone) from finishing if you have the desire and stomach to do so. But I wish I had known somebody, anybody, even a random stranger on the Internet, who had gone off the ranch, so to speak, and thrived. That’s the voice I’m hoping comes through: whether you finish or not, whether you stay in academia or not, you don’t have to be defined by the insanity of that system.
      I didn’t have babies till after I left, but Lauren has been a grad student mom and can definitely speak to that experience more substantially than I can.
      No matter what direction you go, good luck!

    • Hi and thanks for commenting. Like you, having kids really shifted my priorities and threw into relief what I was willing to put up with and what I wasn’t when it came to grad school (although teaching remains something I have a lot of fondness for; academic BS not so much). If you’re close to finishing and have that drive, go forth. Maybe you can get a fellowship or something that would allow you to bring it on home? I’m really glad the blog has been relevant for you!

  4. Great to read this morning. I’m at a crossroads. With small kids. And skills.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Whatever direction you choose, go with confidence! As Lauren points out above, Versatile PhD is also a great post-academic resource (and not just for those with PhD in hand). Good luck!

  5. Lauren and Jen, thanks for all you’ve written so far. Followed a link from JC at From Grad School to Happiness and have inhaled everything. I’m dissertating but have no plans to pursue an academic career; I’m 5 months pregnant with my first, and am happy and also clueless about what that will mean for my life; and I’ve even recently and somewhat begrudgingly relocated to OK’s southeasterly neighbor, having been born and raised in the Midwest. So almost every post speaks to me in some way (I’m not on Pinterest!). I’m so glad you’re putting your voices out there, and I’ll be checking back often.

    • Thanks and welcome! We never imagined Mama Nervosa would be read by anybody who didn’t lose an arm wrestling contest with us, so we are always thrilled when we hear that our writing resonates.
      If you’re interested, you can like us on Facebook or follow us via the little button at the top of the page.
      Best of luck with the baby and the diss!

  6. Dear Mama:

    I’m following you because soon I will finish a PhD in Women’s Studies in TX, and I don’t have any idea what to do with it after. My profs. are stuck in the second wave and are still talking about sisterhood and Donna Haraway, and frankly I don’t see the point of it anymore and it pains me to say that Gender Studies is just a way of thought and not the end of it all. I don’t love femenism the way I did it before, I’m burned out and I’m so tired of answering to people on the streets: What are you going with that? because… Frankly, I don’t know it either! When students asked my profs about jobs outcomes, etc. their answer is: “Dont worry, it will work out”, but how come it is bad to worry when you accumulate massive debt to pay their salaries and have a young daughter? Anyway, glad to know you are out there! I saw your link from JC.


    • Glad to know you’re reading! Thanks for commenting. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to worry about the future! Every women/gender studies grad student I know has struggled with those theory/practice, academia/activism divides. I hope you’re able to find a way to build a bridge that feels meaningful and practical to you. Good luck! I hope you’ll keep reading and commenting!

  7. Pingback: Milestones: Finding Time to Write | mama nervosa

  8. Thanks for writing this blog! I’m a parent of young children. A few years ago, I left a master’s program to pursue a PhD. Now at a crossroads (with frequent headaches, not much rest). Should I stay or should I go now? What’s it like to leave two degrees incomplete? (Lauren sounds fine without them.) How does it feel to be outside the ivory tower? I don’t remember!

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