Thinking about dropping out of your PhD? Not sure that graduate program is right for you? You’re not alone! Today, my friend Erin is sharing the story of dropping out of her PhD.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I grew up happy and reasonably well-adjusted in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, part of a fun, hilarious family who’ve always made me believe I could do anything.
I’m now 30, a huge comedy fan who enjoys lots of time with her friends and family, travels when possible and teaches ESL and Civics to immigrants for a non-profit organization.
When did you decide that you wanted to go to graduate school?
I was always a voracious reader and a very eager student, especially in literary and cultural studies. The first time I read a piece of literary criticism assigned by a high school English teacher, it was as though everything I’d always felt viscerally about what literary expression makes possible had been proven. That I had some sensibility for what I read gave me confidence as a teenager.
I knew that graduate study would be professionally advantageous and, y’know, I was a big nerd for school. But at that point it dawned on me that there was a whole field out there all about sharing insights into how we express our humanity with form and language and that I could be part of it.
I chose to pursue German rather than English hoping that the foreign language aspect would make my experience even richer.
Why were you interested in doing a Ph.D. as opposed to “just” an M.A.? Or self-study? Or working your way up?
I was planning to become a professor of German because that’s pretty much what you can do if you’re interested in teaching/working with literature as well as language. And for that, I needed a Ph.D.
I’m still struggling with why I saw no option other than this career to enjoy a lifelong relationship with books, why it seemed necessary to bind my professional efforts with this particular passion or I would be failing myself.
What did you imagine doing a Ph.D. would be like?
Arriving at this HUGE research university, I anticipated a liberal arts haven of critical thought and open mindedness, so I was crushed when I entered an atmosphere of self-serving negativity. My department had terrible, ongoing faculty collegiality problems that they chose to ignore, to the detriment of the graduate students.
I took fabulous classes in four other departments where I noticed grad students being properly trained to engage with various theories and methodologies; my profs didn’t bother with this. I saw so many student colleagues, brilliant friends of mine that I admired, transformed by faculty bullying into a shell of their former promising selves, and I was the same. This article covers the symptoms very well.
Unfortunately, the denigration seemed unconsciously targeted toward women in my department; it was sickening, very much along the lines of an abusive relationship. We were constantly made to feel that nothing we did was right, but were all convinced that we’d be left with nothing if we escaped the situation.
A few did; I stayed for four years past my Master’s, hoping I could improve things from the inside, but it was a sick system. So much happened that I couldn’t forgive, yet I gave them most of my 20s.
When did you begin to think that you were not the right fit for this PhD program?
I couldn’t perform any academic work. I stayed on top of my teaching, but I lived in terror of my own anxiety, which lead to continual procrastination.
My candidacy exams had to be rescheduled several times and in the end, I never took them; I couldn’t face the giant pile of books in my apartment, even though I was studying humor, my all-time favorite topic.
I slowly realized via counseling that I couldn’t surrender this exploration of what I love most to the approval of a faculty who had hurt and screwed me and my friends over year after year. To complete exams and a dissertation according to their standards would compromise my integrity.
Plus, my avoidance tendencies were creeping into every area of my life. So my leaving was more or less mutually decided upon; I was not succeeding in their program and I didn’t want to pursue it any longer if it meant risking my mental health.
How did the people in your life react to your decision?
I wasted so much energy worrying about this. I was sure my family and friends would be disappointed, that they wouldn’t know how to see me afterward and would expect less of me for the rest of my life. More or less to a person, that hasn’t been the case.
Virtually everyone gets it and virtually everyone’s been supportive. Some people even seem impressed that I moved on from that toxic situation. It was me who wasn’t sure what worth I’d have outside of grad school, without the prestige of a PhD.
I needed to have faith that other people can see who I am irrespective of my career choices. That’s still tough to remember; I often feel the need to explain in great detail how crappy things got in order to justify leaving school after six years. Ultimately, though, I’m just explaining it to myself.
What have been the biggest struggles of your post-Ph.D. life? And the best things?
Oh, my already depleted self-esteem just plummeted. I was broke, unemployed and had to move back in with my folks at age 28. My depression and anxiety took over for a while.
Therapy, anti-depressants and the people I love have been good to me, but what’s benefited me most was definitely finding a job doing something new that I’m good at, where people appreciate my contributions. I feel free now.
I love seeing my students and coworkers every day. I miss working with literature but engaging with it has become so fraught for me that I don’t know if I’ll ever want it to be my life again. There’s also the sweet, sweet honesty of considering what I actually do want from here on out.
What advice would you give to other people in academic programs they don’t like?
Trust your gut and value your abilities at all times, though insecurity is basically encouraged in academia. Grad school pressures tend to exacerbate our worst tendencies; if you’re suffering for any reason or feel you’ve lost your bearings, seek counseling at the university.
Counseling helped me immeasurably, most of all giving me back the perspective that my overall well being should always be the primary goal of my lifestyle, rather than my ability to succeed by someone else’s standard. At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, it’s hugely comforting to have learned that I don’t just get a chance at one awesome version of my life—we can always change course.
Have any of you guys dropped out of something big? Any questions for Erin?