On Being a Grad School Quitter, Part 2
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
This post is a continuation of my last post, where I started to talk about what lead me to quit grad school mid-way through my dissertation. You’ll want to read the first post for context before continuing on with how I transitioned from Comp Lit PhD candidate to the tech industry.
The same day that I closed my dissertation file for good, I started applying for jobs in the tech industry. Despite not at all having an abiding interest in tech at the time, I had a vague sense that “they” might welcome someone with an unconventional resume. I could lie and say that it was very difficult and I had to apply to a million jobs, but instead I’ll risk sounding immodest and tell a truth which I hope will be encouraging: I got traction pretty much right away. Though in the end I did apply to a a couple dozen jobs and it did take a couple months start to finish, it was nothing compared to the academic job search for which I had been steeling myself for years. I’ve now been at Google for 3.5 years. I’m a Program Manager and I work in internal education, and I love my job.
I think it’s important to say this very directly: I quit grad school. I didn’t hedge my bets and take a leave of absence, I didn’t move away and try something new while I pretended to make progress on my dissertation, I didn’t transition to a new field. Those are fine choices, of course. But hopefully it will be a breath of fresh air to some readers to hear that I happily admit that I am grad school quitter. Quitting is the word for it, and no other.
I also think it is important to say that I struggled with some shame around quitting for a time. I did go through a difficult period that I can only describe as melancholy, where I wrestled with feeling like I had lost an essential part of my own identity – that 5 year old self who wanted to really understand and know things, and wanted to be really listened to in turn – and then another period that felt more like mourning, where I was just really, really sad. It wasn’t at all easy. I had to do the unflattering work of changing my conception of myself, of acknowledging that the very idea of “following one’s passion” was privileged and problematic, that my dream of being a professor was couched more in a fantasy – a common, shared fantasy, but one that I had also deeply internalized – than in any experiential knowledge of the culture of academia or familiarity with what it really means these days to actually be a professor. I had to confront the fact that academia, the real version of it and not the one I had imagined, was not for me. I had to accept and eventually learn to be happy with being a quitter.
Now, when I talk to grad students or meet an old colleague for drinks, I’ll occasionally get nostalgic about what my wonderful undergraduate advisor liked to call “the life of the mind.” But then I remind myself: that was always already a myth. And then, even more importantly, I remember the long list of things I don’t miss, which was always so top heavy with the largest questions of all: will this degree that I’m putting all my intellectual and emotional energy into getting actually result in a job that feeds me and pays my rent? Is “being a professor,” whatever that means these days, worth all of that? To be free of that fundamental anxiety, to have quit, is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. It was a decision that filled a deep need for better self care and, paradoxically, felt less selfish than staying. It was a decision that allowed me to critically examine my own participation in academia and to understand that I felt that participation to be problematic. It was a decision that provided a deep sense of relief, one that has helped me to better trust myself.
It was also a decision that opened up real options. An investment in education and a love of teaching are fundamental to who I am, but quitting helped me to see that being a professor wasn’t the only or even the best way to engage in work that I care about.