Your tuition is paid. Your books for the semester are purchased. You’ve arranged your schedule so that you never have to start a class earlier than 11am. Outwardly, you’ve got everything all set to continue your education… so why do you feel like something is seriously stopping you?
Guest writer Taryn McMillan found herself in exactly that situation. She was a few years into a PhD program when she realized that it wasn’t taking her where she needed to go. Taryn shares her story—and the lessons she learned from leaving grad school—in today’s post.
As a first-year student, I fell deeply in love with academia. The halls of a university were quaint and enchanting, like something right out of a fairy tale. I was more than happy to spend my time studying in the library, writing essays, and attending class. Late one evening after a lecture, I remember sitting on the bus home thinking, “This is it. This is what I’m meant to do.”
Understandably, the thought of graduation filled me with dread since I didn’t believe any job could be better than school. So when a professor suggested I apply for my Master’s, I jumped at the chance. Spending another year as a student seemed way more appealing than filling out job applications and paying back student loans.
The first term of grad school was exciting, although the learning curve was steep. Suddenly, there was a lot more pressure to read, write, and get published in an academic journal. Words like “tenure track” entered my vocabulary, and slowly but surely, began to fill me with dread.
Still, I liked my program enough that I decided to roll over into my PhD. And to kick things off, I got to spend two months researching in France at a local archive. It was my first trip to Europe, and it was pure magic. Between the hours spent reviewing manuscripts, I feasted on croissants, cheese, and brioche.
Looking back, it’s also when things started to change. Since grad school began, I hadn’t really looked outside the ivory tower for any kind of inspiration.
But in France I saw it. On the long lunch breaks practically mandated by the French, I realized what life would be like lived at a slower pace. I became fascinated with the artisans, shopkeepers, and waitresses I met who had perfected the art of simply enjoying life. They weren’t consumed with the pursuit of success, or the “publish or perish” mantra I’d learned to live by as a grad student.
Looking at my own life, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right. Was I really going to be happy forever in the high-pressure world of academia?
There was a part of me that began to wonder if I had made the wrong choice.
What had started as a nagging suspicion became a full-blown realization by my fourth year. Yet I enrolled full-time in the fall term, determined to make it work and finish off my dissertation.
Besides, what would I tell people if I quit? That I couldn’t hack it? That I’d spent three years doing my PhD for nothing?
The fear of being labeled “grad school dropout” for the rest of my life was overwhelming.
But after one more year of agonizing self-reflection, I could no longer deny the truth. I didn’t want to stay in academia, and I wasn’t going to finish my degree.
After that, things started moving fast. I’d always thought that deciding to quit would set off some cosmic event, like the Big Bang or a star going supernova. So imagine my surprise when quitting was actually no big deal.
I told my supervisor I was leaving, signed some official-looking forms, and that was it.
The real hard part came later, when I was trying to figure out what to do next. For the first few weeks, I holed up in my apartment playing World of Warcraft, which is what I tend to do when I’m feeling out of control.
Most of that time was spent deep in thought. For six years, grad school had been my life. I needed to make that count somehow, even if it meant writing a silly list of all the lessons I’d learned.
Eventually, I did make that list (it’s still stuck to my fridge today). Here are some of the highlights.
Lesson #1: Life doesn’t end after university
For years, the fear of being an ex-student had consumed my life. It seems silly now, but back then I was worried that there was no “me” outside of grad school. What helped was reading the success stories of other ex-grad students. I was relieved to discover that they’d found fulfilling careers and many had even started their own companies. Over time, I realized I could do those things too, and that I didn’t need to be defined by university for the rest of my life.
Lesson #2: Quitting one thing isn’t an excuse to give up entirely
If you fail at one thing in life, it’s so easy to believe you’ve failed at everything. After I left my program, I spent way too much time blaming myself. In my mind, all of the various mistakes in my life were connected, from the time I accidentally rear-ended someone to the epic blowout I had with a friend.
Initially, this line of thinking stopped me from trying new things. But once I got past it and started researching a new career, I learned not to let my fear of failure hold me back.
Lesson #3: Your dreams are going to change—and that’s okay
When I was five, I wanted to be a ballerina. When I was ten, it was a teacher. After a few years of grad school, my priorities changed again. As you can imagine, this was very frustrating since I had already poured so much time and effort into my degree.
In the present, I’m much more open to the fact that dreams change. And yes, that sometimes makes life messy. You might have to switch majors, take extra classes, or go to another school altogether. But it’s worth taking the risk if you can end up doing something you love.
Lesson #4: When you get a wake-up call, make sure you use it
During that period of inertia after quitting, I think I was waiting for some sort of sign. When you do something drastic, you expect your life to immediately change. But most of the time, the one who’s in charge of taking those first crucial steps is you.
Once I realized this, I stopped waiting around for something to happen and got to work. I sent out job applications, attended career fairs, and did everything I could to connect with other writers.
These days, I spend my time as a freelancer and while I’m still growing into my new career, I couldn’t be happier. I’ve learned that quitting grad school wasn’t the end of the world for me—it was only the beginning. And even though leaving was a scary and life-changing decision, I’m so glad I finally had the guts to make it.
Homework time! Go out there and quit school. JUST KIDDING! Taryn’s story is a reminder that things don’t always work out exactly the way we planned, but that’s okay. Are you facing a tough decision like whether to quit grad school or a job that’s not a good fit? Seek out people who have been in similar positions and get their advice.