Tag Archives: Quitting

Let’s Talk about Debt, Part 3: Debt & Regret

(Read Part 1 and Part 2)

The long and short of it is that the culture of debt in grad school supported my dumb decisions. The problem is both individual and systemic. Because the system gave active and vigorous windmill high-fives to my desire to avoid adulthood or cope with poverty and bad choices, there was no pushback on my decision to subsidize my very long and mostly pointless degree(s) over and over again with government money. I had to force myself to lift that rock and peer at the gross stuff, on my own, and because human beings like to avoid pain and embarrassment, it took me a long time to have the guts to do that. As in, years. And when I finally decided to leave, some still encouraged me to stick with it, just for a few more years.

But, now we’re there: we’re looking hard at our budget, we’re coming up with a plan to reduce our debt and be able to afford things like, ya know, FOOD, and it’s very painful. Ask yourself the last time you looked up your outstanding balance on student loans, or did the math on how much interest you pay on your credit card every month. It hurts.

It’s very easy to say yes to loans when you’re 22. You think, I will be done in 5 years. You think, This is an investment. And you think, as I mentioned before, that at some point you hit a threshold past which the amount of debt doesn’t really matter (a mountain is a mountain, right?).

But it does matter. Everest vs Mt. Hood matters. K2 versus McKinley fucking matters. There’s a world of difference between 60k and 20k in debt; between 120k and 70k. (Even if you don’t have debt going into grad school, how many grad students go debt-free during the average 8.2 years it takes to complete a PhD?)

Let’s say you only have student loan debt when you finish your degree (no credit card debt, even!), and you decide to aggressively pursue debt-free status. You are a very, very lucky PhD and you find a job in the midwest that pays 45k a year. You’re single and don’t have kids (or pets): bonus! You pull a Joe and share an apartment with a friend and are able to live on 25k a year, doing the rice and beans thing and keeping costs low. Putting 20k towards student loans, which doesn’t include interest and all that stuff, it will take this much of your life to repay the loan:

  • 20k in loans = 1 year
  • 40 k = 2 years
  • 60k = 3 years
  • 100k or more = 5+ years

Really, let’s reframe student loans as a prison sentence. The higher your debt, the longer your sentence. And 5 years might seem like nothing at 22, but I’m telling you that ten years later, 5 years seems like a big chunk of your life, and that’s if and only if you are able to put a huge amount towards loans every year. Most people – like me and my family – can’t approximate that.

So you might say Fuck it, I’ll just make my minimum payments for 25 years or whatever and just count on having to pay it. OK, yeah, that makes sense (if you ignore things like the massive amount of interest you’ll pay); but really, think about what you could be doing with that $400 or $500 (or $1000) per month. You could… save for retirement. Get your kids the braces they need or help pay for your Mom’s nursing home costs. Go on a honeymoon in San Francisco instead of camping. Get your dog the surgery for his hip instead of putting him to sleep. Invest in the stock market, or buy a kickass car. Fix the car you already have. That kind of money, month after month? It can be a life or death, eat or go hungry difference.

Loans are only an investment if they pay off. Going into tens of thousands of dollars in debt for an advanced degree that is highly unlikely to get you a job that pays more than an entry-level salary is idiotic. We are crazy for thinking this was the right thing to do. Because we end up on food stamps. Or we end up realizing we should have gone in a different direction in our careers and go back to school, again, for a different, practical degree (I know PhDs who are becoming librarians, midwives, doctors, high school teachers: they could have saved years of time, effort, and money without the scenic route through a PhD, although few will outright say that they regret the PhD). I’m starting to agree wholeheartedly with the boom-and-bust “higher ed bubble” theory because my decision to go to grad school parallels so closely the heartfelt and utterly misguided desires of folks who bought houses during the real estate bubble and ended up with homes worth less than the money owed on them. A PhD is worth so much less than the debt incurred to earn it. The PhD, in most cases, will cost you way more than it’s worth in debt and regret. But when you are inside the system, it’s surprisingly difficult to see the writing on the wall. People are so certain that they will regret quitting more than anything else that they stay on even when the thrill is gone. This is bonkers. Quitting is awesome. Quitting is freedom. Debt sucks. Debt is prison.

I’m in my early thirties and I have two daughters, a house, two Master’s degrees and a ton of worthless graduate credit hours. I have dreams for my daughters that may never be fulfilled. I have dreams for my own life that will be on hold indefinitely, and may go completely unfulfilled because the next decade or more of my existence is dedicated to paying for mistakes I made when I was young and willfully ignorant.

What Lauren Learned About Identity & Work via a Craft Disaster (aka “Do it, start it, FUCK THIS IT’S NOT WORKING!”)

It’s time for me to ‘fess up: I did not do the Pinterest challenge assigned to me by Renee, the winner of the Pin Us To It prize at our 4K giveaway.

Now, I bet some of our newer readers, brought here by our connections to other post-academic blogs, are thinking “WTF is this Pinning shit?” So before I launch into a discussion of my crafting experience, let me say this about Mama Nervosa: it’s a non-niche blog. We don’t just write about being ex-grad students, or just write about being feminists, or just write about being Moms, or just write about secretly reading super goofy quasi-pornographic YA lit in sixth grade. We write about all of our experiences, and some of those experiences include stuff that’s very typically feminine or maternal. We simply aren’t interested in fracturing our identities into separate blogs or saying that how we feel about ourselves as brainy feminist women has nothing to do with being mothers or crafting disaster-ers. I’ll try to make some connections between this craft experience and some of the stuff I’ve been thinking as I quit grad school towards the end of the post, so stay with me!

From our inception as a blog, we’ve been preoccupied with Pinterest and lifestyle blogs because they’re such an integral part of the online mommying world (read this recent article from Jezebel for a taste of it). Jen is pretty ok with Pinterest: she recognizes its flaws, but overall, her experience with Pinterest is positive. I… let’s just say I feel differently. Continue reading

Moving Out of My Grad School Office & My Academic Home

In case you’ve ignored everything we’ve written so far, I quit grad school this semester. I mean, last semester. Because the semester is over, which means… yeah. I’m done with the whole thing.

Scheduling a somewhat spontaneous, short notice road trip during the final week of the semester meant that I didn’t have a lot of time for sentimentalism while wrapping up courses, packing up my office, and turning in my key. Nevertheless, I had a bit of a lump in my throat as I hauled out boxes of books, knowing that this was likely the last time I’d walk through these hallways.

EPB houses English, Rhetoric, Philosophy, and a couple other little CLAS departments. I moved into the EPB shortly after we moved to Iowa to start grad school. EPB stands for “English Philosophy Building,” but we more lovingly refer to it as the EXTREME PARTY BUILDING!!!!

EPB is rumored to have been designed to be riot proof[Isn’t that a campus legend at your school? I remember rumors about another riot-proof building at the University of Oklahoma (where I did undergrad), but they are nothing alike.] It has terrible air quality, terrible lighting. It’s industrial and cold. But, it’s right by the river, a quick jog to the library, and has it’s own parking lot.

Corridor of offices in the EPB basement.

Mystery button in the hallway. I wonder if anyone has had the guts to push it. It’s like that scene in Joe vs the Volcano when he finally cranks that wheel that says DO NOT TOUCH after waiting for YEARS. (I did not actually push the button.)

I remember picking up my key as soon as I possibly could, thrilled to find a mailbox with my name on it. I painted my first office a robin’s egg blue and brought in rugs, lamps, and candles to warm up the room. Because I’ve taught in the Rhetoric department for my entire tenure in graduate school, the EPB has always been my academic home, no matter what program I was enrolled in or crazy academic rabbit hole I happened to falling through at the moment. I taught my first class on the first day of my first semester in grad school in the EPB, and my last class on my last day of grad school was there, too. My best work as a grad student has been as a teacher and leader in Rhetoric in the EPB, and I have tremendous affection for this ugly mutt of a building, and the wonderful people inside.

My office has moved several times over the years, but since I’ve always been in the basement, and all basement offices are identical, I can picture an office amalgam and it pulls together eight years of teaching memories.

Packing up my office. You can’t see the taped up newspaper clippings about my students, art from my kids, or the stacks and stacks of books I already removed. And yes, that’s a diaper box I used to store old student portfolios.

I’ve also always taught in the basement, in a series of identical classrooms.

It’s boring, but it’s home! Plus, whiteboards! Plus, good tech!

As I was moving out, I ran into an old colleague friend and we had a long chat about how tough school is. He said I had guts for leaving and spoke of his own stall out in year 8 or 9. As we talked, I felt glad to be on this side of the decision. I will miss teaching and Rhetoric, but I don’t miss grad school.

But, the best part of EPB life has to be the graffiti in the first floor women’s restroom. Sex, drugs, Jesus, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Sherlock… you name it, it’s there.

This is just one of many stalls covered in graffiti. The bathroom was deserted when I took these, by the way.

“No one hits the bullseye with the first arrow”
–> Unless you’re Legolas.
Or Katniss! (I added that part!)

“Moriarty is real.”

“Lovers of English, understand.
There is a great difference between “God” and “A God.” The latter is too specitif
to allow the meaning of the word.
The first, encompasses the posibility (sic)
of ALL + Everything.”
–> and every religion and way of life
Can’t, too busy smoking weed!

Someone who loves me went to
Raxicoriphalipatorious (sic) and all
they got me was this lame
egg thing.
Bowties are cool.

–> Impossible sex=happy
–> Masturbation: best of both words!

Don’t have good sex until you’re divorced.

Bye, EPB. I will definitely miss you.

Out with a Bang: Exiting Grad School With Grace and/or Guts

If, like me, you’re quitting grad school after this semester, congratulations! I don’t know about you but I’m simultaneously freaked out by the end of my graduate life in a week, and extremely ready to move on. I’ve been thinking about the many ways one could end grad school on a high note.

Continue reading

Four Bad Omens

1. I got an email from the faceless bureaucracy of my institution that I’ve been listed for “termination” from my TAship starting May 11, so unless I email them and change everything, my university life will end in six weeks. And obviously I knew that would happen, but seeing it in black and white felt strange and sad. I feel like my departure is an unremarkable event: my students don’t understand that I won’t be back in their program next year, that a new teacher will teach their future teammates and friends. Every summer means a shuffle in the TA offices, so who knows if my officemates will realize or care that I’m gone (except R, my office BFF. Shout out!). The regular rhythm of school life means people won’t notice I’m gone until next year. But for me? This is it, and it’s big, and it’s scary. Lately, I feel like I’m in the middle of a dream and I’m about to wake up to some brutal reality.

2. That would be true if I had a chance to dream, but sleep has been a precious commodity in our house. My kids have never been good sleepers. They both nightwake long past whatever fool age bullshit websites say they should, no matter what advice book we follow, and my 2yo is an early bird (which is why MN is often updated at 6 am). After our 2nd was born, we did a divide and conquer thing that has been mostly good, but lately we’ve had a hankering to sleep in the same bed at the same time, so we launched a big “YAY LET’S SLEEP IN YOUR BIG GIRL BUNKBEDS PLEASE GOD” campaign and it went fine until it did not go fine and the past four nights I can’t sleep away from them because I’m not used to it, and I can’t sleep with them. I end up on the bottom bunk with my 2yo, then my 4yo starts crying and leaves to find her Dad. So we essentially end up in the same configuration we have been all along, in different, smaller, shittier beds. Please don’t offer me advice or admonish me for our choices: I am so beyond the capacity for polite disagreement right now. Truth is, I don’t want to sleep with anyone, ever again. I want to mummify my torso in duct tape and sleep in a dark, quiet place for 8 hours. PAST 5:30 AM.

Me & Holly at 6am

3. Typically, March is a blustery and sunny month in Iowa, but it’s been downright summery for weeks now. My yard is full of daffodils in bloom, and the hydrangeas and rose bushes are greening up. Last night, the girls and I walked around collecting magnolia petals, pinecones, and rocks. I went to my local garden center and bought packets of seeds to try and fill in the weird gaps and, ya know, parts of the yard I don’t want to mow, but the guy there warned be that this is just a phase, it’s bound to turn bad, it’s bound to snow and snap and frost and nip all this new life in its bud. So instead of enjoying this, I keep wondering, when will it change? When will it go bad?

4. This strange sense of paranoia reached new heights when my in-laws emailed us to ask if it would be all right if they arranged a place for us in the country in case of the apocalypse. They watched this History Channel documentary that connects what we feel are legitimate concerns about fossil fuels, industrial agriculture, and general American idiocy to other, less legitimate, more insane worries about artificial intelligence and terrorism. Basically, the film posits that very soon, we’ll run out of gas, our water supply will become so overpolluted that we can’t drink, and people will still be wandering around wanting their grande lattes, and then everyone’s HOUSE ROBOTS will take over the planet at the same time some terrorist decides to finally shoot off that nuclear warhead he’s been sitting on all these years. Just like the collapse of the Roman Empire.

In the most respectful way, they would like to “dialogue” with us about this because they have been, and are, “concerned about the world situation.” I just don’t know how to respond to this. These are people who prepared for Y2K by purchasing gold coins, a flourmill, and a generator. They’re serious. They mean it. And my first reaction is: absolutely not. Predictions of the world’s demise have been wrong 100% of the time. Is the country really the best place to be at the end of the world? It sounds lonely and hungry to me. Stay in town? Forage, loot, and squat? Plus by most peoples’ definition, we already live in the country, in a farm town of less than 2k. Is this country spot in Oklahoma (where they live) or Iowa (where we live)? It’s such an outrageously expensive way to show their love. Couldn’t they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on the girls’ education? Investing in a hope for their future, rather than the fear of Armageddon?

Yet I hesitate to reject it outright. I’m feeling rather desperate for a lifeline myself, and if you consider the way we’re squirreling away money “just in case” I don’t get work, lying awake at night doing mental math, and eating PB&Js at the office instead of Bread Garden or Thai Spice, our outlook is just as bleak, perhaps on an exponentially smaller scale. How can we refuse their offer to survive the end of the world, especially when it feels like everything that’s going right, right now, feels like it’s about to go terribly wrong (except sleep which is already at end-times misery levels)? At least they seem to care whether or not we’re sticking around.

If you’re interested in radical, beautiful plans for the apocalypse, consider backing The People’s Apocalypse, an anthology project by Ariel Gore and Jenny Forrester. It shall be superfun and there are rewards for every level of contribution.

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.




Radical Thing-Doing and the Opposite Day Rule

On Wednesday, I spent 36 hours completely computer-free. I had wasted the entire weekend obsessing over the possibility of a freelance writing career. My thought process went something like this:

I could definitely do this, holy shit, $150 for 750 words? I can write that in my sleep. Really, freelancing is exactly like school, its just homework and you have to figure out what the teacher wants and I can totally do that, I’m a professional student. I could write about disc golf, I could write stories about bugs for children; I could write about being a student-athlete; how about the science of tickling. I can interview everyone I know and use facebook to annoy my former students. I can definitely write erotic stories that don’t prioritize nudity for this lingerie catalog; I could probably throw together something about CSAs or some shit for this agriculture press, and is it unethical to write for the Boy Scouts? I’m going to spend my entire spring break downloading articles from the University library so I can have the latest research on hand and then translate it for the everyday mom, who wants a sassy friend to talk to her about life without judging her, according to these submission guidelines…

This is your brain on graduate school: you get excited about using a week off from teaching to do research, alone, indoors. Clearly, being a student for a quarter of a century has worn deep ruts into the pathways of my brain, and it’s quite a struggle to pop my wheelbarrow out of those trenches (as I have mentioned). I keep trying to find something to do that feels like it matters, and my brain is resistant to valuing the work I do as a mother as enough to count as that “something” (more on this later).

I read an article by Anne Lamott about “how to find out who you really are.” She offers this advice:

 We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be. The only problem is that there is also so much other stuff, typically fixations with how people perceive us, how to get more of the things that we think will make us happy, and with keeping our weight down. So the real issue is how do we gently stop being who we aren’t? … I began consciously to break the rules I learned in childhood: I wasted more time, as a radical act. I stared off into space more, into the middle distance, like a cat. This is when I have my best ideas, my deepest insights… Every single day I try to figure out something I no longer agree to do.
Read more.

I like this idea of “radical time wasting” but I don’t think it will work for me. Thing is, I’m already quite lazy. I’m already proficient at dicking around. This might surprise a lot of people who know me as one of those overachieving How Does She Do It? kind of ladies; but seriously, ask my husband or my BFF from 6th grade, whose nickname for me was “Lazy Bum” because I would rather sit inside reading stacks of Seventeen back issues than go for a bike ride.

I’ll tell you how I do it: I don’t do my homework. I’m smart, but I’m not a hard worker. I can talk the talk, but I do not walk the walk. I’ve been a hardcore dilettante, flitting from field to field and subspecialty to subspecialty without ever really digging in. I Google it; I master it; I write a seminar paper about it and then immediately get bored. I am a high-functioning academic: I hide my problem under a veneer of extreme efficiency and a steady stream of bullshit in my classes. Let me tell you about the privileged subjectivities and hidden curricula of the first-year writing classroom; let me demonstrate the ways in which the home pregnancy test interpellated women into technicians of the maternal self by bringing the laboratory into the private home.

Compound my inability to nail down a specific field of inquiry with a complete lack focus and a serious case of baby fever, and you have a student cruising for dismissal as early as my second year in graduate school. Reading through my journal, nearly every entry is a variation on the theme of I should be writing a 15 page paper and reading this giant text on post-nationalism, but instead I’m watching Veronica Mars and eating taco dip! And then the next, OMG I have so much work to do, I don’t even know what I did all day yesterday… oh that’s right, I spent the entire afternoon arguing with people about circumcision at Baby Center!!

My grad school time wasting became a cycle of self-indulgence and repentance: I can justify going down any rabbit hole, especially if it means signing up for a bunch of new mailing lists and reading pages and pages of Wikipedia entries. Bonus points if there’s a facebook group for it. BS carried me through coursework but it’s not enough to sustain me through comps and a dissertation, projects I am not remotely interested in pursuing, I’ve discovered.

So, it seems unlikely that radical time wasting might help me discover my true self, having BTDT. Instead, I will try Lamott’s broader argument, which is to go against whatever your pattern is; whatever you’ve been taught is necessary or right. To get the wheelbarrow out of the rut, don’t feverishly roll it back and forth and expect change (this is, disputably, the definition of insanity): “You take the action and insight follows: you don’t think your way into becoming yourself.” Instead of radical time wasting, I think I need Radical Thing-Doing.

Inspiration: Pippi Longstocking, Thing-finder

So, I’m instituting an Opposite Day rule. I’m doing the opposite. Whatever my habitual action is, I will do the opposite. (I’m differentiating “habitual action” from “instinct” here, although they feel very similar. It feels instinctive to try and fill the void; it feels like a primal and gut-level response. But I really think it’s just my wheelbarrow worrying those selfsame grooves, and that means it’s an action borne from fear, anxiety, uncertainty rather than insight, desire, or conviction. Beneath those habitual actions is my actual instinct, the voice that has been quietly cheerleading this whole quitting thing, encourages me to shut the laptop and pick up a book, and orders me to pick the girls up early from daycare instead of making yet another To Do list.)

Habitual Action: Spend all day trolling job sites, draft letters of application, update resume.

Opposite Day reaction: Delete files; fold laundry.

Habitual Action: Make a huge to-do list of a million things I will accomplish this week!

Opposite Day reaction: Do the dishes. They always need to be done. It’s not a fucking mystery.

Habitual Action: Write outlines for entire novels.

Opposite Day reaction: Write a blog entry; post it.

The more I try to mentally roadrun my way through this process, the crankier I am. I’ve been a total bitch to my kids for no reason, with the thought “Leave me alone, I’m working!” running through my mind, when in fact I am not doing a damn thing other than perpetually loading my inbox. On my day off from the computer, I found that the less planning I did, and the more action I took (towards accomplishments like Get all the gross leaves out of the peony bed because I think they need light to live), the clearer my mind felt.

I am actively questioning the role of online life in my ways of thinking and my deprogramming from academia. I want blogging to be a purposeful part of my rediscovery/self-invention process because I know I want to, somehow/someway, be a writer, and this blog has brought that to the forefront of my mind. But, I see how this is playing with fire a bit, and I need to cultivate some new ways of being online that mean more meaningful writing (drafting, blogging, thoughtful response to others) and less mindless reading (facebook, facebook, facebook). How do you handle this balance in your life?

By the way, thank you for all the comments, follows, shares, and positive feedback. It’s been so gratifying to be read and appreciated by people all over the world. — Lauren & Jen

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.