Thursday, December 27, 2012

You Will Do Impulsive Things--and that is OK!

When I reflect on the last month of deciding to leave graduate school, I realize I did some impulsive things.  I recognized it at the time.  In fact, I encouraged myself.  I had stayed in part out of a sense of inertia, so it seemed logical that if I was going to leave, I needed to shake up my life and do things differently.

Sometimes this has meant staying up late to watch a movie with my husband.  I also signed up on impulse for a five day online writing course that starts tonight, which while it cost some money got me excited.  This weekend, it involved putting off the grading of over 50 papers until Sunday night. Being impulsive has even been as simple as blogging (like right now) when I should be writing a paper that is past its due date. And recently, it has involved buying a sex toy.

See, I had a dream a few weeks ago in which a good friend casually gave me a carefully wrapped present that she told me "was just what you need:"  inside was a collection of sex toys.  It wasn't a sexual dream so much as a sort of to do list.  When I woke up, I puzzled over the symbolic meaning, then told my essential self, "Ok, I hear you."  I needed to get out of my comfort zone and do something different. I needed to let loose, and not be so uptight.  And apparently my brain was worried I wouldn't get an abstract message, so it  needed to hit me over the head in a literal way.  I decided that if I did what my dreams told me to do, I might have more dreams with equally practical instructions, on hopefully more helpful things like getting a job, or figuring out what I wanted out of life.  It seemed like a win win situation.

So I marched down to town and into my local lingerie shop.  I told her I needed a stocking stuffer, and examined the mini toys at the front check out.  When I didn't see anything I wanted I went up stairs.  The lady who worked there, all prim and proper,  realized “Oh, you meant a naughty stocking stuffer.”  Yes I did, I replied.  “Let me know if you want any advice,” she offered.  There were rows of huge vibrators and anal beads, and things I couldn't even figure out where they went, but I decided I would not be that bold.   I tried to see if I recognized any of them from my dream, and read the backs of the packages.  Phaltate free! They exclaimed.  I grabbed two contenders and marched back downstairs.  “Which one do you recommend?” I asked, “Well, that one has five settings, and that one is just the one.”  Great, ever practical I took the value pack. 

While this may seem weird, there's no one path to leaving graduate school. If it's by way of the sex shop, so be it. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Giving Notice: How to Gracefully Exit Graduate School

So I haven't been blogging lately, in part due to the whirlwind of activity that has defined my life in the past few weeks. First, I should announce that I officially gave notice just over a week ago. Second, I should emphasize that I did so without having a job lined up.  Third, I should mention that I have never felt happier, more free, or like life has more potential.  Ultimately, I decided that my desire to leave was strong enough that not having a secure offer was ok, but it tool a lot of work to get to that point.

How does one exactly give notice?  I had four nominal bosses in my program:  the department chair, with whom I worked closely on research; my adviser, with whom I am very close; my TA supervisor, who assigned us to courses and needed to be informed ASAP regarding my decision; and the department personal/secretary who seemed to have her hand in everything administrative.  Who I even needed to tell, let alone in what order they should be informed, presented quite the roadblock.

Ultimately, email seemed to make the most sense for me since my biggest fear was being talked out of leaving. This allowed me to carefully consider my reasons, and make sure I communicated them in a straight forward way that left little room for doubt.  I wrote a draft, then had a fellow grad who has contemplated leaving many times, but was emotionally removed from the process, edit my emails.  I also paid a visit to everyone I emailed, or talked with them by phone.  This allowed them to ask questions, but having already framed my leaving in the email, these conversations went much more smoothly.

Mainly I focused on the fact that my leaving had everything to do with my realization that my ideal job involved both a different path and different set of tasks than the Ph.D. provided.  While I valued my experiences and training, I realized I no longer wanted to do research.  This made my leaving a lot easier for the faculty to process.  Many of the people who questioned my leaving were not trying to undermine my decision, they simply wanted to make sure I had thought everything through.  Many felt shocked and surprised by my decision, and felt obligated to ask about how I arrived at my choice.  Several alluded to the fact that I was a successful graduate student, and seemed genuinely perplexed that someone who was not  having problems would chose to leave.

If you decide to quit don't be shocked or upset if people ask why.

Understand that questioning does not mean that you are being judged for your decision.  This was my greatest fear in leaving.  Meeting with my therapist the Friday before to discuss my leaving, my worst case scenario included being scolded, yelled at, and shut out.  Instead, I could not have scripted a better exit: my faculty were sad, but supportive, and even helped me look into how to structure my leave so that if I decide to return I can.  They told me they respected my decision (several even called it brave and courageous) and said that they would welcome me back with open arms if I decided to finish.  The encouraged me to look into various options, and supported my leaving in a way that provided me the most flexibility.  I will be working with several of them to finish publications over the next few months, and they have emphasized that I can continue to use my institutional affiliation for those publications.  I was even asked how they can support me in leaving (extended library privileges, Please!).

Part of my luck is a direct result of the fact that as a graduate student I went out of my way to talk to faculty, whether they were in my relevant area or not. I said hi in the hallway, volunteered for department service, and generally tried to engage with everyone, including admins.  Life is about relationships, and now that I am leaving I have a lot of people who are wishing me well.  Even when our graduate student life is unfulfilling and angst inducing, the opportunities we have to engage with others can also provide a ladder out, either through references or leads on other jobs.  It feels nice to leave on my own terms, and with the support of even those who while sad about my decision, want the best for me.  Even though I'm not finishing in the way that was expected, I still want to exit successfully: with grace, good will, and optimism.  If you're reading this because you are thinking of leaving, good luck!  If you are still questioning whether to stay, I want you to know there is light on the other end.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Quitting is a Pain in the Neck

Ever since I resolved to quit school in early November, I have felt an unbearable tension in my neck.  At first, I thought I must have slept on it funny.  Actually, if I am being honest, I think I leaned on it weird at the bar during a night of debauchery with another bitter graduate student friend.  While letting off some steam should have left me feeling great, the next morning my neck was killing me.  I have been in pain all month.

Normally, I would have treated this as a physical problem, but I have experienced this before. You see, when I get really stressed, my body rebels.  My back goes out, or I end up on crutches (really), or some other gnarly incapacity which invariably prompts everyone to ask "What HAPPENED?" To which I invariably have no answer except "Nothing, I woke up this way and think my body is just freaking out."  It's a seriously disappointing answer when  you essentially cannot walk and people have images of grand car accidents or a gnarly cliff diving incident.

So I knew that the neck thing was likely stress.  I tried to get my neck to cooperate.  I meditated, I started journaling again, I got into lucid dreaming. I tried stress reduction and listened to my body.  None of it worked.  I decided it was sitting hunched over my laptop, which I just can't avoid.  Finally, I called and made an appointment for my therapist.

I can't underscore the importance of a good therapist if you are considering quitting graduate school.  While friends and family are a great source of support, you need a safe impartial place to talk through the fears, desires, and issues you may be hiding from even yourself.   I scheduled my appointment for directly after a department lecture, perhaps presciently.  After a particularly brutal and appalling session (attack of the academics!), I rushed out early to make my appointment.   Most of the session was spent in tears.  The word "comprehensive exams" served as a trigger.  We couldn't even discuss my impending exams without my tearing up into a hysterical mess.  Everytime I thought about staying, I started bawling.  After mapping out various employment scenerios my therapist finally asked why I needed a job to quit.  She looked genuinely appalled by the situation I was in. I was doing catastrophe thinking, she said, and recognizing this would make things better.

She was right.  We talked honestly about my fears, the sources of those fears, and I heard myself saying things I didn't ever normally let myself think: like how I wanted to quit and walk away even without employment, and what I felt was holding me back.  For whatever reason I had decided that I needed my paltry, poverty level stipend, when the reality is that even working at Starbucks would pay better (and provide health insurance!).  Deep down, I felt it was only ok to leave for something better.

By the end of the session, I was a hot sniveling mess, but I felt free.  It was only driving home that I noticed I didn't have anymore neck pain.  And it hasn't returned.

There is no right or wrong way to leave.  There isn't even a right or wrong way for you to leave.  Be open to possibilities, but know that all doors are open.  If you are struggling and having a hard time, you may be closing doors on yourself.  Which is why it is such a good thing to have an outside person who can help you decipher the crazy mixed up feelings and legitimate fear leaving entails.

Repeating College When you Didn't Flunk

I am now three and a half years into graduate school.  For someone who graduated with a double major with honors while studying abroad (twice), I suddenly realize that I have now essentially doubled my college education.

Let me repeat that:  I have now spent almost as much time in graduate school as I did in undergrad.

Put another way, I have essentially doubled the amount of time spent in college. Compared to my friends who went straight into the workforce, it is like I went to college twice.  And I didn't even flunk!  In fact, I excelled in college.

While I realize that graduate school is completely different experience, and is not in fact like repeating the B.A. experience since you go so in depth in your subject area, and spend time TAing, researching, and really taking your research to the next level, from a raw time perspective it might be a worthwhile way of getting some perspective on the madhouse that is higher ed.

I know that when I think about staying (only!) two more years to finish, thinking about the fact that I have already spent as much time in grad school as I did in undergrad *which felt like a significant and formative chunk of time, I suddenly become much more protective of letting the system mold me any longer.  I've given the University enough of my life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What is it About Graduate School?

I LOVE this post about should I go to graduate school.  It's just snarky and bitter enough to match my mood.  It also talks about the insidious, totalizing aspects of graduate school that are often difficult to articulate. When I try to explain to people about how consuming graduate school is, they don't really get it.  At least not in the way that this guy does:   

"For all these reasons, graduate school is not something you want to experiment with. Think heroin--this is your brain, this is your brain on graduate school. Think Al Pacino in "Godfather 3"--just when you think you are out, you will l be sucked back in again. Academia, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, is a total culture. It colonizes most aspects of your life. You are never not an academic--the little mental tape recorder is on all the time, or it had better be if you want to be good at this life. Anything is grist for my mill as a teacher and a scholar, and that is as it should be. Graduate school is, if anything, even more totalizing than this. It gets into your pores.  Somewhere in the back of your head, your dissertation or your oral exams will be burrowing outwards through your brain tissue with incisors of fear."  

I can feel them! 

The notion of graduate school as so totally consuming is also part of what scares me about leaving.  Much like driving a manual car, then suddenly driving an automatic seems so stupidly simple as to be boring.  I worry that down shifting from academia to a regular job, even if it is a socially and intellectually stimulating one, will make me feel like something is missing: like it will forever ruin me. That I somehow have permanent head damage, and will never think the same way again.  That is likely true, so to get more specific, I'll go back to the previous author who put it so succinctly: "It changes your standards for what is good and what is bad, what is smart and what is dumb."

Of course, maybe what will be missing is the neuroses, the fear, the constant criticism and sense that I should be doing something (writing up an article for publication, attending another brain numbing panel session, etc.).     And that would be something to look forward to!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Spiritual Emergency

I haven't been blogging much in the last week, mainly because I haven't had anything to say.  The holiday and visiting family served as its own form of distraction, but I also have been struggling with how I feel about leaving. In the last few days I've vacillated between feeling trapped, angry, anxious, and upset.  Several nights I experienced full on panic attacks.  

I seem to have hit the bump in the road that some refer to as a spiritual emergency.  Despite expecting such set backs, they are strikingly disruptive.  In searching online, I stumbled across a post I thought really did a good job of giving voice to this crisis.   He also recommends a book by the name of Spirtual Emergency, a phrase that resonates with this stage in the journey. 

It can be tempting to view set backs as a sign you're on the wrong track, that life won't work out, and you are destined for failure.  Instead, I am trying to view this moment as a realization that my current stage is highly uncertain: whether I will have a job and be able to leave before next semester, whether I will have to sit for comp exams, and even whether I am truly ready to walk away are highly stressful to deal with.  Of course I am going to feel like having a nervous breakdown in the face of these challenges, but they are part of a process toward a a new life.  

As Jayson Gaddis wrote, "Yet, for the few of us who see a massive identity breakdown as a step toward wholeness, instead of illness, we can take the view that this is a natural stage toward genuine human health and expanded consciousness."

I like that sentiment, even if it is hard to remember in the grips of my panic. 

Graduate Student Exploitation

I'm incredibly lucky that in my own situation, I'm not dealing with a horrible adviser, or faculty who are stealing graduate student research.  I just don't like graduate school.

Yet the article referenced above really does reveal one of the challenges of graduate student life:  as a grad student, you are in a vulnerable position where the politics of your department and profession can make you feel powerless.  Interestingly enough, in the entire article about graduate students suing advisers and universities, the major reason a grad student may not come forward is ignored: it's not just that they think they can't win, it's that the relationship with one's adviser is what will result in a diss getting finished and approved, and the grad student getting out.  Often, it's the most poisonous people who control our destiny.  

I also don't think that these problems are rare. In my own experience, I know at least one student this has happened to, and in a very egregious way.  Several others had less severe experiences with it, all the same adviser.  But not a single one wants to say anything, and they all begged me not to either given the power this person has over their lives. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Listening to Myself

Regardless of what the future holds for me, I'm working on listening to myself.  It's not always easy.  One way I'm trying is by meditating.  I used to meditate when I was in college, but never very consistently, and I found it a hard habit to form and a difficult one to practice.

My new solution is both innovative and a bit weird   You see, I have decided the best place to meditate is on  the toilet.  Not while going to the bathroom (though it sounds like it works for this guy), but with the lid down seated in full lotus on the lid.  It's the one place in the house that people expect to be left alone, and it is not somewhere I routinely hang out with a wifi connection. The bathroom also offers the advantage that no matter where you go, a hotel on a trip, the in-laws, there is one waiting for you.  This helps considerably with consistency. 

So far I have been pretty successful over the past two days this method has been under review.  It really brings new meaning to the phrase "praying to the porcelain God."  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Quitting Grad School: A Whimper or a Bang?

Well, another job out of the running, so I am down to two (pretty good shot) applications, neither of which will get going with interviews for at least a week.  That means I continue in limbo land.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about how I actually quit.  Do I need to have a job lined up? I kind of feel like I should. It seems stupid to walk away from full funding and health insurance if my leads don't pan out, though I would have to stay through comps which I don't want to take if I don't finish. I also don't exactly live in an area with great local job base for my area of work, but I want to stay here where my family and my community connections are.

Job issue aside, do I walk away preserving my relationships with people, or go out with some snark and post a bunch of fake course listings?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Help! My Spouse is a Grad Student! A.k.a.To All the Long Suffering Spouses of Graduate Students

Dear Spouse/Partner/Husband/Wife/Girlfriend/Boyfriend/Significant Other/ lover of a graduate student,

You have our undying gratitude, love, and deep admiration.  As miserable as many of us graduate students are, you suffer mightily.  You have little to no control over whether or not we stay or go, and you don't always understand why we are so crazy over a job that seems quite flexible. You don't doubt the mental and psychic stress we are under, but you also don't understand it.

There are guides posted online for the spouses of graduate students, but I honestly don't think there is any significant way to improve the suffering and misery.  I don't want to be a pessimist, but I am going to validate the frustration of seeing someone you love suffer and continually go back to the source of their pain.  The spouses have every right to ask where's my diploma?

What Role Should Advisers Play in Leaving?

I stumbled across this great article about advising grad students who won't finish.  In it, Cassuto (2010) argues that faculty should do a better job talking to students about the possibility that they might not want to finish.  The academy needs to make clear to students that leaving is an option, and one that shouldn't be shameful. He writes:

"Not every graduate student will finish a dissertation. We know that truth to be self-evident. Nor should every graduate student finish. Some would be better off doing other things with their lives. Others simply can't complete the project."

My adviser and I have never discussed my leaving as a real possibility. I told her last spring that I was offered a job, and decided to turn it down, but only after I spent weeks interviewing, discussing details, and ruminating over my options.  As I've posted, I have had several breakdowns in which I openly question whether I should stay.  Despite all of this talk, we've never had a conversation about whether I should.

I'm not sure such a conversation would be helpful.  A relationship with an adviser is by definition unequal in power.  Graduate students are already insecure in their role as an apprentice, it would be hard to take discussions of leaving as anything other than an adviser signalling that they no longer believe in their student.  When I first was admitted to my department, the graduate adviser challenged me after a long admit weekend on whether I should even come to the program. I can't recall the exact language he used, but it was shocking at the time when he said he didn't see me here, and had a hard time seeing how I fit.  The fact that he questioned whether I even wanted this might have been prescient, but I wasn't ready to hear it.  It made me work harder, to prove him wrong.

Instead, the emphasis needs to be on what graduate students hope to get out of life, and whether graduate school and the Ph.D. will move them toward that.  This is what Cassuto (2010) means when he suggests advising the student and not just the dissertation.  We all need to do a better job trying to see the big picture.

An Ode to Joy

One thing about graduate school that really surprised me is the extent to which the whole experience can just suck any joy out of life.  Like a succubus perched on the chest of the sleeping Victorians, I felt my life essence draining away due to what I now recognize as situational depression.  While graduate school can be a time of wonderment and exploration for those truly suited to it, for me graduate school was like one really long illness that left me exhausted, numbed out, and emotionally drained.  I had a hard time leaving my work at school, and this interfered with my ability to do anything else, especially enjoy myself. 

This fall, when I finally gave myself permission to leave, doing things I enjoyed suddenly became possible again.  I’ve been listening to music, writing, and going on spontaneous outings with my husband that I normally would have turned down.  I’ve been less rigid with planning my day, and when things don’t go right, I just adjust rather than freak out.  As my therapist put it, I’m learning to live less on the edge.  In fact, I’ve been having so much fun that I have been staying up way too late and paying the price since I still get up early.

My favorite time of the year is fall: I love Halloween, Thanksgiving, and most of all Christmas.  What I love even more than the holidays is their anticipation.  I begin thinking about pumpkins and costumes in September, and listening to Christmas music in October, and I put my tree up around Thanksgiving.  This year, with all the emotional work of leaving, I threatened to put the tree up in September.  But I’ve made it until now in part because my husband bought me a new tree for Christmas, and I am so excited as I wait for it to arrive.

This tree is the opposite of the graduate school practical tree.  This tree is not what my social self says a tree should be.  Rather than a practical green tree, it is a riotous, fantastical indulgence.  My new tree is a champagne colored, pre lit 6.5 foot slim profile tree.  I fell in love with it last year as a display tree at a local coffee shop, and looked up the specs determined to get one this year.  This is the Liberace of Christmas trees, and I am going to throw every glittery glass ornament I have at it. 

As I deal with the hard stuff of leaving, my ability to enjoy myself and feel happiness is increasing.  In fact, I’ve begun to think that actively seeking out opportunities to experience joy is an important part of the leaving process.   For me, that is going to be giving thanks for the opportunities I have had and will continue to have, as well as for my family, and friends.  As well as the simple joy of really enjoying the holidays this year, one ornament at a time. 

Doubts on Leaving Graduate School

Lately, I’ve been having second (third, fourth, upteen) thoughts on leaving.  Part of me worries that I might regret walking away.  I still don’t want to teach, lecture, grade or attend socializing events.  I don’t even want to write my dissertation, or go through the stress of comp exams.  I just feel like I am prepared enough now that I have so much invested, that maybe I shouldn’t walk away.   

This is a concept known in economics as sunk costs, or the notion that when we calculate how much more we should invest, we think about how much we have already spent.  Economists think this is crazy, by the way, because it often results in people throwing good money after bad. If a gambler has already lost $500, the last thing they should do is throw an additional $100 after the bad debt.  Sure, they might get lucky, but what they have been doing isn’t working. 

Many of the bloggers who write about leaving graduate school have talked about sunk costs. The reason sunk costs come up so much is that quitting is uncomfortable.  While some quit in the first semester, most of us seem to be quitting further in, when suddenly all the time and effort we have already spent looms before us to become justification for devoting even more time.  For a really great break down on when to leave, check out this post on  While the author talks about leaving during a recession, if you scroll down you will find a prescient analysis of when you should leave graduate school.

I know that objectively if I stay through next semester I will be miserable.  I also know that I do not want to stay through the dissertation.  Even my guilt isn’t very logical since I am just talking about sinking more time, but not enough to finish.  So I don’t know that my concern is even about the sunk costs so much as the finality of leaving.  The fact that I have funding, and a fellowship in a top department means leaving closes this door forever which should be a good thing, but is still hard.

When I think about the fact that I have finished all of my coursework, it’s that no other University will ever recognize that coursework without making me jump through a bunch of hoops and even more coursework that it truly feels wasted.  I know that I really will never go back.   The fact that I have done all this reading for comps, and won’t even “do anything” with it, makes me feel like I should write my comprehensive exams on my own from my new job and send them to my (former) faculty.  Yes, writing that statement makes me feel crazy. 

The truth is that I am sorting out several difficult issues: the guilt of walking away from something that I should want but don't; the guilt of not finishing something I started (I can hear my dad's voice now); and my own personal foible of having a very hard time just being done with something.  I always think I am going to stay involved, and then I feel guilty when I invariably don’t, so I lose track of relationships and lose the connections to friends and people I really enjoyed. 

So I’m creating this as a challenge for myself: I will leave graduate school, and when I do, I will really leave.  I am not going to promise to submit articles, or do additional rewrites.  I am just going to be done.  I am going to walk away from a life that is not for me, and that means leaving all of its trappings and endless lists of unfinished things I should do. 

Because I am going to quit.  And I am going to let myself fully shut that door, and walk away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Should I Quit Grad School?

"Should I quit grad school?"  I can't count the number of times I have typed that phrase into Google, hoping for an answer that deep down I already knew.  "Quitting grad school," "Should I stay," and "I hate grad school" were searched so many times, that I often found myself reading sites and comment threads only to realize that I was rediscovering them. Years later.  My desire to leave, and my search for justification, validation, and some company in my misery was that bad.

They say insanity is doing the same thing, but expecting a different result.  It does seem a little crazy to be constantly searching and researching the same damn thing, but that is part of the process of leaving.  If you have found this post because you are a frustrated graduate student unhappy in your program, and uncertain in your future, know that you are not alone.  Know also that as you sort through everything you are going through, you are very likely to meet yourself again and again.

And that is ok.  Deciding to leave or to stay is a big thing.  The process takes time.  Be gentle with yourself, and realize that whether you stay or go, there you are.  You deserve to be happy, and you need to do what is best for you, and not anyone else.    

Networking: Your Ticket Out of Here

Now that I have decided to leave I'm getting ready to make the social rounds.  The reality is that many jobs never make it onto, idealistmonster, or craigslist, and many of the ones that do are posted by recruiting firms looking to build their search databases.  Instead, I'm looking to (quietly) get the word out to my friends and acquaintances, particularly those I have worked with on projects, campaigns, and other volunteer activities.

That means meet ups to grab coffee.  Or ice cream in some cases.  My calendar is starting to fill up with mini meetings and catch up sessions to put out the word on my search, and reconnect with friends and former coworkers graduate school has stolen me away from.  Already I've gotten some good suggestions and insight on certain jobs I am eyeing.

I've always been someone who networks for jobs.  My former boss told me that when she realized she wanted to leave her last job, she knew her only hope lay in networking her way out of it.  In her whirlwind social tour she went to 13 holiday parties: in one evening.  This was for a pretty high level job in Washington D.C., a city that loves its trade association events, and where cocktail networking parties (and advanced degrees for what it is worth) are beyond abundant.  While my efforts won't be this extreme, the point is that if you are looking for a job, you need to get out from behind the computer screen and start clocking some face time.

Even the academic literature supports the importance of networking to find a job.  Studies on unemployment have found that weak ties, or acquaintances, are more likely to lead to job offers (Montgomery, 1992; Grannoveter 1983).    Of course, there are also network implications for the turnover contagion that occurs when coworkers quit (Felps, et al., 2009).  Ever wonder when you finally quit who will join you?  You could start a mass exodus.

Photo credit: Pete Barr-Watson

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Life of the Mind F&%k

The biggest lie about graduate school and the Professoriate is the bull they feed you about what Benton (2010) calls the Big Lie of the Life of the Mind. This narrative paints a picture of the academy as the only worthwhile place for those who value intellectualism, and one worthy of so much sacrifice as to justify the lowest of salaries.  The academy is presented as a place of respite from a stupid, ugly world where you can go to ruminate on ideas.  While everyone else is proving themselves smarter than a fifth grader, or out grubbing for money, you are thinking peer reviewed deep thoughts.

I don't know where you are going to graduate school, but I constantly feel like I am in a cubicle with those guys at Inotech.  My department is all about increasing graduate student productivity, and running us through every benchmark of degree progress as quickly and efficiently as possible.  There is little time to explore ideas, follow your passion, or even develop your own work.  In my nightmares, I see Lumbergh hanging over Peter's desk asking "How's that conference paper coming?" and telling me "I'm going to need you to come in on Saturday."  There has been a speeding up of life as a graduate student. In scarce funding environments, increased enrollments, and budget cuts, graduate students are expected to work longer, harder, and faster.  We publish more, and fight harder for the jobs that are out there.  As one of my faculty observed (not with compassion so much as cheerleading) "Students are graduating with the CVs of second and third year Assistant Professors!"  I feel like an early 90s office worker whose life has been turned upside down by outside forces shaping society in ways we can only begin to comprehend.

How to Get a Job Out of Grad School

My entire graduate school career has been oriented toward keeping the back door open. Deep down I secretly knew that the odds of my putting up with this shit finishing were pretty minimal.  This was evident from a number of choices I made as I consciously straddled the world of academia and the outside world:

  • I kept my individual health insurance through my M.A., even though it cost me a chunk of change in case I left to go back to self-employment.  This was particularly important since at the time the economy was so bad that good jobs with insurance were hard to come by.  It was only when they jacked my rate, and I knew (ha!) I was staying that I gave up my insurance for my department issued health plan.
  • I worked the entirety of my graduate school career.  The reality is that I have never had less than two jobs: either some consulting work I retained from before I went back,  a part time super flexible job I picked up before I went back to school doing grant writing, and occasional paid research assistant positions, fellowships, etc.  This is all in addition to my working as a teaching assistant 20 hours per week, making normative progress on the insane time table mandated by my department, and doing research and course work. While it made me something of a crazy person, between all these jobs, I essentially doubled my yearly salary as a grad student, didn't take any loans, and got great additions for my C.V.  For JC of From Graduate School to Happiness, a part time job simply became the first post academic job.
  • For me service meant work outside the department, as well as within it.  This is important since your department will likely completely discount outside service, when in reality it is your golden escape hatch.  While I have served on various volunteer committees and positions at the University in case I wanted to pursue an academic job (again, ha!), I made sure a lot of my volunteer time and energy went into work that would be relevant outside of academia.  Particularly, I looked for volunteer opportunities that would translate to contacts in fields I wanted to work in, and filled holes in my resume.  I actually pulled job postings for the types of positions I thought I wanted after I finished the Ph.D. so I could prepare to be a good candidate.  In fact, enough people knew about my background that last spring I was actually recruited to a job that I turned down (but told them I might accept after I went ABD) which I am now reapplying to.
  • I kept my resume current, and added new details as they developed. Writing a resume from scratch is excruciating   I know because as an undergraduate who hadn't kept good track of my volunteer work, and didn't have any sense of what gaps on my resume I still needed to address, I ended up listing course work and saying things like "I'm an outgoing person who likes to talk to people."  I cringe typing that.  Not only did I really do that, but I have received resumes from other people who have done that.  It happens--but one way to avoid it is to create your resume as you go and check postings so you can give yourself the time to get the relevant experience you need, even if it is as a volunteer.  Plus, as every teaching assistant stresses to their charges, you must write in drafts and time gives you the perspective to organize your resume so you can fully leverage your experiences in ways that make you stand out to employers. 

Now that I am planning on leaving, these things make my job hunt much easier. I haven't yet gotten my first job on the outside, but I do have four really good leads that are in my interest area and would be great fits.

And not a single one requires an M.A. or a Ph.D.

A lot of this probably sounds really annoying.  "Great," you are thinking, "lucky you having the foresight and the ability to spend all this time preparing."  The reality is that most of us who leave spend months if not years preparing to exit. The nagging doubt in our mind grows to a voice we cannot ignore, which eventually turns into racking sobs, which finally gives way to sighs of relief (and maybe even shrieks of terror because let's be honest, leaving graduate school is hard). If you found this post because you aren't sure about your program, start preparing now.  Even if you finish and decide to go for a tenure track job, these strategies will make you a more interesting person more likely to get access to community sample.

If you are one of the unfortunate many who has been cut loose from funding by your department and are now scrambling to fend for yourself, start working on your resume and think about how to frame those volunteer experiences.  Pull some job listings and see where the gaps are in your experience, and even if you have to take a job for now that isn't that great, at least devise a strategy regarding how to get the experience you need for the career you want.

Sunshine and Unicorns

Emotional work is hard.  Being in the early stages of leaving graduate school is bringing up a lot of emotions for me. Just when you think everything is ok, something new hits.  These revelations are painful, but are also necessary. Each day brings up more issues, but each day also get me closer to the source of my problem.  Today I realized that a big reason I don't like being in graduate school is how constantly critical it is: your work is constantly critiqued, criticized, scrutinized, and torn down.  That's not mean--it's just the process.   But under certain circumstances and for certain people that process is death to creativity.

This type of criticism is not new, and its not confined to the profession. I recognize it a lot from my childhood, where fairly or not I constantly perceived my mother's critique in every response.  It's particularly harsh when I want approval and a safe space to share and create, but don't seem to get it.  I have a very difficult time putting my emotions and my creativity out there.

Where is the Green Grass?

Since I decided to leave my program, I've felt moments of soaring freedom, alternating with worry, fear, and concern for my future.  The other day I confined to my husband I was scared I wouldn't be brave enough to leave.  "Brave?"  he told me, "What exactly is brave about leaving?  This is a sinking ship, leaving is a GREAT thing!" Staying would be brave, he implied, only because it would be so foolish in face of the odds.

I'm a Type I leaver.  I don't like teaching, don't want to do research anymore, and just don't fit in the university system.  However, I recognize that academia is broken in ways that extend beyond my own personal dislikes of the profession.  For the Type II leavers who came to graduate school because they wanted to be a Professor, the market is increasingly tough for a variety of reasons.

As many have pointed out, it's a terrible time for new Ph.D.s.  Only seventy percent of current jobs are now tenure track , and the experience of tenure is increasingly brutal.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Leaving Graduate School--the Soundtrack

So one way I have been trying to reconnect with my interests, passion, and sense of self is through music.  My favorite song right now is "I am not a Robot," by Marina and the Diamonds.  It speaks to the ways in which I have walled off my emotions to get through the day.  Very robot-like!

Some of the lyrics I can really relate to... 

You're vulnerable, you're vulnerable
You are not a robot
You're lovable, so lovable
But you're just troubled

Guess what? I'm not a robot, a robot
Guess what? I'm not a robot, a robot

The video is kind of cool, too.   You can watch it here

In fact, her star body paint reminds me of sparkle pony, so for good measure I'm linking to that awesome clip from Portlandia, too.

A Little Passion for a Project

Now that I have starting moving toward the exit, I find it harder and harder to focus on the work I need to finish up.  Realizing you have no passion for the majority of what  you do makes it difficult to keep slogging forward.  There's one project on my plate that I took on when I still thought I wanted to go the research route, and I am actively avoiding it. Today I cleared my schedule to work on it, and I just can't concentrate.

Part of the challenge is that I spent all day yesterday grading undergraduate essays. That kills both brain cells and soul cells--it's all I can do to mark margins in an exercise I no longer believe in. More and more my comments veer toward: 1) general, useful writing advice that will carry students beyond a course assignment (two page paragraphs, really?); 2) elaborate drawing illustrating my comments, such as "hit me over the head with your argument," complete with stick figure and mallet (will my point get through?).  This can't be my only creative outlet.

Things got so bad regarding my inability to concentrate on grading that I resorted to writing my essential self a letter:

Dear Essential Self,
I hear you loud and clear--and I totally GET IT!  You hate school, and you want out. While I facilitate our exit (escape?), please have some patience.  We really need to finish this damn grading!  We need to walk away from school into gainful employment, not slink off with a box full of our office belongs and a big fat FIRED stamped across future references.  Health insurance remains a valuable tool to access all those mental health services we need!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Leaving Academia--or Getting Out While You Still Can

I've spent the last several months reading and rereading leaving academia blogs. In fact, I have been lurking in comment threads, escaping into the fantasy world of leaving, and mentally and emotionally checking out of my life.  This is my coming out post.  I think I am finally ready to leave.   But I didn't get here overnight.

First, there was this classic piece from Professor is in. It IS ok to quit, and graduate school is a psychological prison of our own making:

"It is ok to decide that’s not what you want.  It is ok to make another choice.  There is life outside of academia.  But academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.  You will be judged harshly by others and, to the extent you’ve been properly socialized into the cult during graduate school, by your own inner voices.  Making the decision to leave involves confronting that judgment, working through it, and coming out the other side.  It is long and hard and involves confronting profound shame.  I went through this.  I know."

Of course, Leaving Academia (with its promise of "From Grad School to Happiness") served as my guiding light for months.  During dark days and nights, I would read and reread the posts and comments, emboldened by the idea that there is employment, a life, and a future out there. I admit to sitting in a huge lecture hall as a TA (in the back dark corner so students couldn't see my screen), reading blog posts about getting out.   JC has been like the graduate student mentor and friend who wants you to know that it will be ok.

JC also introduced me to mama nervosa, which spoke to a whole other dynamic of my wanting to leave: my desire to start a family and move on to having a life.  I struggled with whether graduate school would be a more forgiving place to get pregnant and have my first child, but the reality of graduate school as a parent on TOP of the experiences of these ladies in dealing with an unrealistic job market, low pay for adjuncts and TAs, getting through comps, and the bullshit suckiness of graduate school has been illuminating beyond words.

During fantasy escapades through blog land, I luckily stumbled across Plan B Nation's recommendations for advice books and quickly snapped up Martha Beck's Finding Your Own North Star.  This book speaks to me in a way that no book has in a long time:  her concept of the essential self and the social self has helped me strip away the bullshit I routinely fed my therapist and myself to get clarity on what it is I really want.  I hate teaching, hate grading papers, hate writing papers, hate sitting alone and isolated in front of a computer, and hate going to lectures, and academic conferences (where great titles hide horrific and unwatchable panels).  I realized that getting the PhD and walking away to a non academic job would essentially assure me of having to write papers, and sit alone in front of a computer, when I could quit now and do something else.  Why was I staying again?

In my moments of rage, I found Penelope Trunk's hilarious and brutal take down of graduate school, which lifted my spirits and helped me feel ok about walking away from a program even though it is paid.  As she points out, the lost opportunity costs, and lack of benefit to staying are just too much.

So where does this leave me?  I feel like after several false starts (I even interviewed for a job and almost left  last spring), the reality of my situation is apparent.  There is no longer any rational for staying beyond fear and ego, a fact that I admitted for the first time a week ago.

I'm terrified of getting a job and worried I won't like my options. I am also terrified I will not get a job and be stuck here writing my comps next semester.  Now that I have decided to leave, I resent all the more every paper I have to grade, while still meeting with my committee about exams I hope never to take. I don't want to tell my adviser in case I can't get a job, but need to get the word out I am looking.

But mostly, like an addict, my deep-seated fear is that I won't and can't change: that I will stay, and still be here even though I know it is the wrong thing for me.  Now that I have started down this path, I hope I am brave enough to continue.

photo credit: temporalata

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dreams of My Future

A few weeks ago  I woke up from a strange dream:  I have been logging into student health lately to follow up on my physical, and in my dream our former Department Chair contacted me to say that he had received a notification from the system that I had dropped out of the program. Everything was fine, I should just turn in my key.  

Apparently I had pressed the wrong button, and inadvertently unenrolled from graduate school.  I couldn't believe such a snafu had occurred, and explained to him, “No no, I’m not dropping out.  I must have hit the wrong button.” He  didn’t try to argue with me, and didn’t even feel we needed to have a discussion.  Just like that, he alerted me that the system had informed him of my decision and by clicking a button by mistake, notice was considered given. 

In my dream I kept explaining to him it wasn’t intentional, that I had just accidently pressed the wrong button.  I was neither relieved nor upset, just surprised at the kafka-esque notion that a button pressed by accident and without any intention on a seemingly unrelated website had been interpreted as my leaving.  Leaving seems like such a big, hard, challenging and dangerous taboo prospect: this was anti climactic to say the least. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Insanity is Doing the Same Thing and Expecting a Different Result

"These people are lunatics!"

They certainly are.  Sometimes, we get so immersed on our own brand of crazy that we lose sight of how insane the world swirling around us has become.  The frog in the pot doesn't realize the water starts to boil--or a watched pot with a frog--hell, I can't remember! Bottom line, if you are a frog, stay the hell out of pots!

Hands down, the craziest time in a PhD program is comprehensive exams.  In talking to fellow grads in my department, advice given out for passing and coping is particularly revealing of the stress and crazy endemic to my graduate program. I have spoken with ten students about the comps process, and through informal survey research, and open ended interviews I can report that only two answers consistently emerge

To pass quals, you need:

1) Drugs (preferably RX) and Alcohol
2) To give yourself up to a higher power, a.k.a. God

That's right, the prescription is basically an all inclusive ticket to a 12 step program.  First, you have to horribly F&5k yourself up, and then you need to give yourself over.  The cycle is complete.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I Just Can't Take It Anymore

Entering my fourth year of graduate school, I just don’t know if I can do it anymore.  I look at the draft of research questions I wrote for my project, and the lines mean nothing to me. I stare at words on the page and they stare right back at me.  They seem to have discovered the secret invisibility of ink so boring you won’t notice it is there.

“What am I doing?” I think to myself.  Why am I still here?

I’ve wanted to drop out of graduate school since I arrived.  My first day of class I was late, and showed up unprepared having not done the reading.  To be fair, it was a surprise.  My department likes to start classes before the official start date of the semester, tacking on an extra session because “a semester is just too short to get it all done.”  I thought I was coming for orientation, but got a surprise lecture on epistemology instead. (Side Note: surprise epistemology, episiotomy, why are the words and their meanings in that context both so painful?)

I’ve always been the reluctant graduate student.  Maybe that should tell me something. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Emperor has no Epistemological Clothes: Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace inductive reasoning

Most stories like mine refer back to early childhood—like the kid who knew deep down he was gay, or the friend who was a late talker that turned out to be partially deaf. A "diagnoses" would suddenly bring everything into clarity, long forgotten experiences suddenly strung out like a strand of awkward pearls of self wisdom that hinted all along at what was wrong.  There was the inability to deal with mathematical concepts which found me applying a semester's worth of tactics that fruitlessly led nowhere as I explored across the page, rather than systematically following the steps to solve a problem in a logical and deduced way.  My lack of a favorite movie, food, band,  The fact that every time I rewatched a film was like seeing it for the first time.  My interest in replaying the same experiences over and over again. My brain felt fuzzy, a feeling that didn’t go away until I had spent considerable time in my graduate program.  I would read accounts of students finally diagnosed with dyslexia decades after the start of their problems in school.  Their struggles of not being able to wrap their head around the problem, of their own brain getting in the way, and the marked differences in how they saw the world compared to their peers resonated with me in a deep way.  But I had no such label—and while their struggles were mine in many ways, they understood the origin of their difference and for that I was jealous.

For months I joked that I was going through an epistemological crisis, and unloaded such onto a poor, overwhelmed PhD in the counseling department.  I felt more removed from graduate school, and more frustrated.  There was even the misguided day I marched into a committee member's office and declared that I was no longer an empiricist, and that the only research worth doing involved socio historical qualitative case studies or ethnography.  This constituted blasphemy in my department, but was met with a chuckle and a hearty "no you're not."   I left amazed that anyone could drink the kool aid so completely that they would refuse to believe me. 

One night, late at work on a paper it suddenly dawned on me.  I started my research on the wheel of science in the inductive rather than the deductive portion of the wheel.  My sense of sickness lifted and I had a label: the reason for my ill fit wasn’t just epistemological, it came down to my starting point.  My “learning disability” wasn’t a disorder at all but simply a reflection of how I saw the world and approached my research—differently form my department., and it explained why I did not fit.  This was a process issue.

I had been accused my entire graduate career of being too interested in the context of what I studied, and not focused enough on the underlying phenomenon.  I wanted to take personal experiences and observations and work toward exploring larger level phenomena.  I had spent the first three years desperately scanning text books for a theory, any theory, I could accept and stake my entire research agenda around.  Or a concept even, that could underlie my research.  My program wanted me to think logically and theoretically about a phenomena, and reason out from there. 

"You do know you are not really an inductivist?"  My husband asked that night, after I had burst into the room to unload my newly found knowledge.  He protested.  "You ask empirical questions, you just don't buy into how restrictively your program embraces deductive research.  They need to be more flexible."

He was right.  It still gave me comfort to recognize the source of my frustration, but it also reinforced one of the most important lessons you learn in graduate school.  That the world is not black and white, but a thousand shades of gray, and everything is nuance.    

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why Permanent Head Damage?

When I was but a a wee one, sitting in an undergraduate intro course that I somehow ended up taking my senior year of college, a very wise Professor launched into "the talk."  This wasn't about the birds and the bees, or even the gentle conversation with struggling students about switching their major to something easier.  No, this was the graduate school talk.

"Take a good, hard look," my Professor warned, "at what graduate students coming out of your intended program look like, because graduate school is all about breaking you down and molding you into someone new.  You want to make certain that you want to be the sort of person that comes out on the other side."

Graduate school, he intoned, was a process of production. It did something to you, trained you to think a certain way, broke you down and built you back up.  And as a graduate student you needed to be intentional about that.

Graduate School is like a Bad Zombie Horror Film

The other day as I was riding up to campus on the bus with too little sleep at the end of a long semester.  Despite struggling to stay awake, I started fixating on all the ways that graduate school is like a bad zombie flick.

A scene from a bad zombie movie flashed before my eyes:

"Don't you get it!?  they are trying to eat our brains!  they are zombies!  Their definitional operation and epistemology might be better, but they are trying to accomplish the same thing.  well be like the living dead!"

"I don't know..."

"Remember John?  He was like the living dead when they finally passed him out of here with his dissertation!"

"Dissertation," he responds in monotone,  his eyes glazed over with a vacant look. 

"They got you too!  Dude we have to get out of here!"

Alas, like most things academic someone beat me to it. But the beauty of academia is that someone has almost always invariably gotten started on your idea, and you get to build off of their hard work.  So I am happy to reaffirm that some scholars have asserted surviving your first year of graduate school can be likened to surviving a Zombie Apocalypse(Meyers, 2011). 

And you know you are PhD when you search your computer files for the rest of that zombie screen play, and it returns the Zimbardo prison study.  SIGH.

Prepare to have your brain eaten, and your head PhDed (a.k.a. permanently head damaged).

Welcome to Permanent Head Damage

This blog is about all things PhD:
  • The debt
  • The drama
  • The training, process, and experience, all of which will leave you with lasting and