What I don’t regret, #1.

Five years ago, I dropped out of a grad program in the Humanities after only two quarters (and I barely lasted that long).

It was a highly-regarded program; I had full funding for the first year; the faculty included many scholars working in my areas of interest; my fellow grad students were a congenial bunch, and the department and staff were very supportive. As grad programs go, I had it good–and I knew it.

At the same time, I was utterly miserable. Before that first quarter was half-over I knew it was a mistake. I felt trapped and suffocated and didn’t want to be there. Specializing in a particular field (which I had been so excited about when I applied the year before) now seemed like a dead end. I wondered how I was going to make it through the next two years of coursework, much less write a dissertation.

I wanted to quit, but gave it another quarter to see if things got better; I’d worked so hard to get there, after all.  The professors who wrote my letters of recommendation were also friends, and didn’t want to disappoint them. I dreaded telling my family I’d left, and explaining why. I didn’t want to be the first one in my cohort to drop out. And besides, grad students are supposed to be miserable, aren’t they?

I stuck it out through that second quarter because–on paper at least–all the long-term advantages of staying outweighed the immediate benefits of leaving. When I wrote them down, the pro side of the page had a long list of very good reasons why staying was the better option; the con side just said, “I’m completely miserable. I hate grad school. I want to quit.”

I’ve stopped making pro vs. con lists when I have a decision to make. Those lists might be worthwhile when deciding which of two similar products to buy, but for big life decisions, such as quitting grad school? Useless. Deep-down, I always know what I really want to do anyway, so now I just do it–because during that second quarter I learned that no matter how many entries may be in the pro column, they can never offset “I’m completely miserable.”

The day I quit was crap. It was pissing rain, I had a cat at the vet’s with a mysterious liver ailment, I had an intestinal bug of my own, and I got shit on by a crow as I trudged across the quad to see the department chair. And yes, I was grieving, too. I’d spent my final two years of undergrad high on the idea of grad school, a PhD, and a career in academia. As a non-trad student who had been a classic fuck-up and underachiever in my teens and 20s, only to discover in my 30s that I could be an outstanding student, I was determined to go all the way with it. So many of my undergrad professors urged me to consider grad school, and it was intoxicating to think that I could be a scholar and an intellectual–one of them!–instead of just somebody who read a lot of books and chose to live in college towns. I rode that high tide of ambition into grad school, so I felt pretty gloomy that day as I watched the tide recede.

When I left the chair’s office, however, I felt incredibly light for the first time in months. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next, other than perhaps write a novel (which remains unwritten), but it didn’t matter. As I walked back across the quad, I knew I’d made the right decision and that I would not come to regret it.

And to this day, I haven’t.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What I don’t regret, #1.

  1. I feel glad for you. I had the same experience when entering uni for the first time, though I had less pressure on me. I found out that humanities and language are not my cup of tea, even though they are topics I remain temendously interested in. I quit and am now preparing to enter a programm that will eventually allow me to study molecular biology, and I’m very glad I chose to try this rather than to listen to all those who told me to stick with my initial choice.
    In Germany the general attitude is that if you aren’t happy with what you do, do it anyhow and just “bite your way through” – completely ignoring that in doing so, one is mainly biting oneself.

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