On Being a Grad School Quitter, Part 1
Updated: Apr 18, 2019
When I was 5, I told my mom that I wanted to be an English professor. I imagined that being a professor meant that I would read and write constantly, that I would wear brightly colored, perhaps asymmetrical glasses (it was the 80s), and that people would really listen when I spoke. Since I was an extremely shy kid who already read and wrote constantly, I thought the latter two fantasy elements would transform me into someone glamorous and authoritative. When my mom told me matter of factly that being a professor meant that, after high school, I would spend more than a decade in yet more school, I was thrilled: I could do something that I was good at doing and that I enjoyed doing, and at the end of that would be a job where I could simply continue doing more of that. Perfect.
I went straight to a good four year college, and I graduated with highest honors in Art History, right on schedule. Immediately after graduating, I became a research assistant for my undergrad advisor, TAed in my department, even published some things. At 22, I moved to New York for a fellowship in Critical Theory at the Whitney Museum, co-founded a non-profit, and continued to write and publish. In short, I did all the things you are supposed to do to make yourself a great candidate for grad school; I never really considered any other path, even when there were red flags all around me.
When it came time to apply, I applied to all the “best” schools. At the time, I would not have put the word “best” in quotes because I was a true believer: I listened only half heartedly when people talked about the importance of “fit, and though I absolutely should have known better, I thought a big name school and a big name advisor was the most important thing. When I got an offer to get a PhD in Modern and Contemporary Art from UCLA with no funding guarantee, I didn’t hesitate. I moved straight to LA believing that this was the exact thing for which I had been preparing.
More or less as soon as I got there though, all hell broke loose: though I was academically and intellectually prepared, I was not culturally or emotionally prepared. I was intimidated by the other students, my advisor terrified me, and the general environment felt competitive and unwelcoming. It didn’t help that I was absolutely flat broke, taking out loan after loan while I frantically cobbled together part time jobs to pay the rent and feed myself. About one month in, I started experiencing symptoms from what I would only much later find out was an autoimmune disease. I was sick and beyond stressed, panicking my way from research paper to research paper.
I will say now what I’ve never said publicly before: though I ended up making some wonderful friends there, I hated my program top to bottom, and, though my primary advisor proved in the end to be a decent enough human being, the other one was such a nightmare to me that, when I think of it now, it is both hard to believe and almost funny. But not quite.
Despite everything, I made progress toward my degree and finished my MA on schedule. In my third year, once the fog started to clear a little from my illness and I started to get my financial feet under me a bit, I began to explore and eventually to accept the feeling that had been nagging at me since day one: this program just wasn’t going to work, for so many reasons. I still thought I wanted to be a professor, but I knew that Art History – the department, the discipline, the very framework it purports to provide for thinking about “culture” – was not actually for me.
I considered, very briefly, quitting altogether. I even applied for a couple of jobs. But in the end I just really couldn’t fathom a decision that would involve walking away from everything that structured my daily life: the reading, the papers, the classes, the people, the whole system that largely defined, I believed, who I was. After talking to some trusted mentors, I decided to formally apply to the Comparative Literature department at UCLA and to start over – another MA, another PhD program, but this time with a little more support and with full funding.
It was a great decision. My new advisor was a gem. Most people are being tongue-in-cheek when they say “he’s a scholar and a gentleman,” but in the case of my advisor, it was really true. As a mentor, his feedback was always warm and constructive, and he actively looked for ways to support me and give me more opportunities. The other faculty were on the whole also generally supportive, taking in someone with an unconventional background and even letting me incorporate my interest in visual art into my literary work. It was wonderful, a grad school experience diametrically opposed to the first one. I loved teaching, I loved writing, I loved my committee, and I advanced to candidacy in record time. I felt back on track and I was settled, if not happy, in my work for several years.
But during my first 6 months of dissertation writing, something strange started to happen. Despite having the best possible grad school situation – adequate funding, a great advisor, opportunities to publish and present – I was losing focus and motivation. Mostly, I couldn’t stop thinking about the job market. I had a list of unanswerable questions running constantly through my head: What kind of jobs could I even apply to? As someone with an unconventional background for Comp Lit, was I competitive? Was I willing to move anywhere? What about 1 year post docs? Would I do that? Wasn’t that risky? For every word I wrote, I felt like I was performing a double labor, first having to lift the weight of my own anxiety, and then having to lift each word itself to put it down on the page. It was exhausting.
One day, tired and frustrated by the whole thing, by my own looping, anxious inner monologue, I closed the massive document that was my halfway finished dissertation. I never opened it again. Seriously.
Continued in Part 2