“I’m Glad I Quit My PhD”– 4 Permissions I’ve Learned to Give Myself


Jessica recently wrote to me and shared her story of quitting her PhD and finding career happiness outside of academia. This is a guest post by her. I found her story very interesting and realized that I need to allow myself her 4th permission at least a few times per week. 

It’s hard to say exactly when I stopped wanting the PhD. I’d been ambivalent about grad school throughout my master’s program, feeling depleted by academia’s insistence on fueling its members by a relentless sense of inadequacy. I thought that might go away in a PhD program. It didn’t.

By the end of 2012, I was on-track to becoming a scholar of Russian History. I passed my Qualifying Exam last fall and defended my dissertation proposal to my committee shortly after. I had a fellowship lined up for next fall, which would allow me to spend the next year in Russia completing archival research.

And I didn’t want any of it.

Still, I waited for someone to tell me it was ok that I didn’t want to become a professor anymore. My advisor was incredibly supportive, selflessly encouraging me to leave if I wanted. But it was harder than I expected to just walk away from the career I had already invested five years in.

It took me far too long to understand that ultimately I was the only person who could give myself the following four permissions I needed to change my life:

1. Permission To Change My Mind About What I Wanted To Do

Just because you are good at something, doesn’t mean you like it.

The life of a scholar wasn’t for me. They have to prioritize their own research and publishing, whereas my favorite part of the PhD program was working as a Teaching Assistant. I know —who says that?! I wanted to work with students full-time on their writing while pursuing my own, without worrying about my interests being judged as not scholarly enough.

After leaving the program I launched my business, Aim High Writing. Now I work as an Applications Coach with high-performing students on preparing competitive applications for college, graduate school, and funding. In growing my business, I’ve had to actively work against the negative voice that used to follow me around doggedly while I was making my way through grad school.

I like what I like. It’s not the most glamorous position in the world, but it makes me happy and feels purposeful.

2. Permission To Disappoint Others

I have the type of parents who wanted to know what happened to the other 2 points when I brought home a 98% on a test. I think they liked the sound of a daughter with a PhD, although my father kept asking me, “When are you going to be done with this thing, and get a real job?” He didn’t understand that this thing — i.e. grad school — was at least a five-year commitment. He also once pointed out that I wasn’t going to be a “real” doctor, since a PhD “doesn’t count.”

Still, I knew he would be hideously disappointed if I left.

Sure enough, he walked out of the room when I told my parents I’d left the program and didn’t speak to me for a week. Although my husband, advisor, former professors, and classmates all understood and wished me the best, I was hyper-focused on my parents’ response. Their disappointment threatened to crowd out all the other support I received, and I knew I had to recalibrate our relationship if I wanted to move forward.

I had to stop assuming my parents’ expectations as my personal goals.

They got over it, by the way, and today my father actively supports my business venture.

3. Permission To Enjoy Little Luxuries

Let me tell you a story.

I had just finished my first year in my PhD program, and was trying to find work until my stipend resumed in late August. Guess what? Nobody wanted to hire me for two months. (I know — shocking.)

My advisor, the loveliest woman on the planet, asked me if I would like to make a little money being her petsitter for a month. Sounded easy enough. Every day for the rest of July I had to drive over to her house, let myself in, put out two tins of food for her cat, and scoop the litter box. Cool.

But it was not cool, guys. It was thoroughly depressing when I found myself hunched over a litter box and thinking to myself, “I have a master’s from Harvard and I’m scooping cat shit for money.”

Because of what little money I had, I didn’t feel entitled to any luxuries. For too long I had been wrapped up in the mindset of saving up every penny, scraping by on a paltry stipend that meant I qualified for food stamps year after year. After enough time, I started to embrace my identity as a suffering martyr of academia, wearing my poverty like a badge of honor. What says “Serious Scholar” more than the person willing to eat an exclusive diet of canned tuna, eggs, and oatmeal and walk everywhere to avoid paying for gas?

So when the time came that I got married, left the program, and began making a living wage, I still felt like some kind of brazen spendthrift if I bought grapes that weren’t on sale. It took a long time for the guilt to loosen when I spent any kind of money. To be honest, I still agonize over most purchases. But I did stop feeling like some kind of sell-out for at least wanting to be able to afford some of life’s little luxuries.

4. Permission To Have Free Time

When I left the program, my advisor said encouragingly, “Hey, now you’ll have time to actually do things!”

I don’t think graduate school me feel guilty about free time; I’ve always been compelled to stuff empty minutes with some kind of purposeful activity. And that’s probably why I was a good fit for academia, at least initially. That kind of work ethic is the norm, and even expected.

But then I burnt out. I was envious of my husband’s ability to detach from his work when he was home. I studied how he could spend an entire Saturday in pajama pants, drinking coffee, and taking a mid-morning nap on the couch, followed by a post-lunch siesta without any guilt.

Meanwhile, I rose at 6:00 a.m. and did a little research, wiped down the kitchen counters, took the dog for a walk, went to the gym, ran errands, and returned to my computer.

First, I took up powerlifting, and trained for eight months before entering in a national meet. Powerlifting required a different kind of energy, where mental strength counts far more than physical prowess. As my coach said, “The minute you doubt being able to get the bar up, you’ve already failed the lift.”

In other words, there was no room for self-doubt.

Then, I started painting again. I hadn’t painted in over a decade, but the instant I did, I knew I needed to continue. I never considered myself someone with the ability to just zone out, but my mind was pleasantly blank when I painted.

Now I make time to paint regularly, even though it serves no larger purpose beyond making me happy.

A Final Note

Whether you’re contemplating leaving grad school or have already left, I encourage you to give yourself these and other permissions. I spent way too long confusing my life’s work with my life’s purpose. That’s why it took me so long to leave; I had to change the way I identified myself and what made me happy.

It turns out working with students makes me happy, as does painting, lazy Saturdays, full-priced grapes, and the knowledge that I am finally living a life which I am actively participating in, rather than merely enduring.

Find out more about Jessica at Aim High Writing.


Related reading:

PhD in English? What the F&%*K have you been doing for the last 10 years?

How William Pannapacker destroyed my PhD and saved my life

PhD in English useless destroyed my life: a Sell Out reader writes in

The 9 most useless things I learned at grad school

  1. Good read. I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in computer science and I am beginning to think it is not for me. I already have a job and I am good at it, and admired and respected for it, Whereas in academia I never have free time, nothing I do is good enough, and all the courses I take have no real world application or use what so ever. I also discovered that teaching students barely out of highschool who can’t wait to leave class is not as fun as I thought. I am only in my first semester and thinking if it does not work out well, I will leave and not look back.

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