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.