Why Quitting Grad School Isn’t the End of the World

So you want to quit-
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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.

T McMillan

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.

Taryn McMillan is a writer and avid coffee drinker from Toronto, Ontario. She can be found on Twitter as @gamesfemme or on her blog, www.lostandlearned.com.

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11 Responses to “Why Quitting Grad School Isn’t the End of the World”

  1. Roose

    “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”

    This post made me realize I was falling into this exact same cycle of self-blame and self-loathing as I move towards quitting grad school. Thanks for writing this post.

    Reply
    • Melissa Suzuno

      We’re so glad to hear that this post helped you! Just because you don’t succeed at one thing that doesn’t make you a failure in all areas. Congratulations on being brave enough to take the next step!

      Reply
  2. Kristina

    I am so happy to see this post. I am in the process of moving on from grad school without completing my masters. Lately, I have been really feeling that I am just failing, and that had been eating me apart.

    Reply
    • Melissa Suzuno

      Hi Kristina, We’re so glad that this post helped you. Taryn’s story is proof that there is life after leaving grad school. We wish you the best of luck on the next steps of your journey!

      Reply
  3. Anna

    So true. I didn’t quit but instead changed to Master’s, as my program was definitely NOT what I had expected…. and hoping now to make that ‘life after change’ happen. Overcoming the feeling of guilt and own insecurities woken up by the process is not easy… Hopefully it’s possible, though!

    Reply
  4. Daniel C. Riley

    Undoubtedly, quitting graduate school isn’t the end of the world! Last Fall (ca. October 2014), I was working for a telecom construction supplier and the work had dried up. Consequently, I asked my boss to lay me off. During this period of mid-twenties soul-searching and collecting unemployment benefits, I decided to give graduate school a shot. I already had a B.A. in English Language/Literature, and I often thought about pursuing a Ph.D.–at the least an M.A. I applied last minute to my alma mater’s English Literature M.A. program and jumped into the deep end after being in the working world for almost three years now. I should have considered the how far removed one can be from academia after 2-3 years in a business/operations setting. I thought my return to academia as a grad student/tutor would be the world I’d romanticized as an undergrad. Instead, within a matter of weeks, I realized I had made a colossal mistake. I spent the last few years of my life supplying material/programming radios to deploy the 4G LTE networks of the greater NY area. I finally felt like I was contributing to the world in some tangible way. However, arguing about sexual preferences of characters in a Cristina García or Louise Erdrich novel or listening to an “author” classmate engage in shameless self-promotion no longer applied to my reality. Granted, I was in and at the heart of literature, theory, and linguistics as an undergrad, but we tend to be more idealistic in youth and later on considerably more practical. I just wanted to tell the author to not feel bad about splitting from her Ph.D. program; it was probably the best decision she ever made. I left graduate school and less than a week later, I went back to my old job, got a new car, and now I am working on developing my career and moving forward.

    Reply
  5. fedx8

    I’ve completed 2 years of a phd in chemistry, and just never hit my stride in research. For the past several months I’ve been finding it increasingly hard to go into the office and even harder to go into the lab. About a month ago, it hit me- I’ve fulfilled my requirements to get a masters, and there are jobs that I qualify for that will give me stability. In the sciences, getting a masters is often seen as failing a phd, and I didn’t want to be a failure. Finally, I decided that it’s my life and not forcing myself down a track of misery is not failure.

    Reply
  6. Mary-Celeste

    I’m only halfway through my first semester of grad school and I already feel like my soul is being sucked out. It is not a difficult program in and of itself, but it’s truly difficult for me because, again, I feel like it’s sucking out my soul. I feel no joy in it. I’m not even interested in it. It is very, very difficult for me to force myself to study for it at all. I may be a novice, but I feel like that is a bad sign. What’s worse is that it’s a fairly technical degree leading me toward a specific set of careers. A set of careers I’m not so sure I even want to go into anymore. What EVEN worse is that I adore school and academia and all that, and my job right now is willing to pay for roughly 70% of my tuition in this program. It’s such a hard decision to make! It all sounds so obvious on paper–just suck it up and do the program! But . . . I hate it. That’s just the truth. I love my professors, love my classmates, love the idea of the field, and I even love the idea of grad school . . . but I can’t picture myself giving my all to this profession. At the end of the day, I think it’s still something I’d rather dip my toes in than sell my soul to. Getting the degree just because it’s part paid for seems like going out to a black Friday sale and buying some enormous thing you will probably never use that takes up an entire room in your little house. If that house represents the time I have in a day . . . is it really worth it to spend all this time, money, and effort on something I can’t bring myself to be devoted to? It doesn’t seem fair, either to me or to the profession.

    Reply

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