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.