My Top Ten Best Pieces of Advice for Surviving Leaving Grad School

by - Tuesday, February 04, 2014

In a few weeks, we will be a year removed from the big break from grad school. A year ago on the 25th, I sat in the office of my adviser, and she told me she did not want to advise my dissertation , and I needed to find a new one. I held on for a while, found a new adviser, etc, but the whole experience leading up to that moment took enough of a toll that a more substantial break (maybe forever) was clearly needed.

The truth is leaving academia will kick your ass.

Getting out of my PhD program at Stanford has been the longest, messiest, and most painful breakup of my life. The whole academia is traumatic and difficult enough that it has spawned its own subgenre of blogs and writing. I don't have it all figured out, but I did notice some things helped more than others.

10. Brace yourself. This isn't a bandaid you can rip off, they are stitches at best-Most days, I don't think about it all. Other days, a year later, I still think about that thing I would say to that person if I ran into them. Being where I can run into them exacerbates this problem. You want to bounce back right away, because it was your choice to leave, but it take a long time to untangle all the things you think and feel about yourself with your academic life. That's why you became an academic in the first place. When you feel insecure, you might think about it. When you find yourself being extremely territorial about your time, you might think about it. If leaving academia or your life there still occupies your thoughts now and then, it really is alright.

9. People will have lots of opinions about what to do "Quit!" "Don't Quit" "Have you tried...?" You will know it is time to make a decision when you have heard all of these arguments about a hundred times-Back when I was trying to decide whether to charge on at Stanford, or immediately move on elsewhere, or to become a traveling balloon artist, most people had an opinion on it. This was totally welcome, but it also could be very crushing, epecially from other people in my program who knew I could do it (though just because you can doesn't mean you have to or even should). A few months in, I could already understand how their opinion about my situation was about them, not me. My colleagues were so adamant that I go back, because they needed to believe it was life or death to push them through their own highly stressful, often miserable grad student situations. After enough time, people will chime in, but in your head, you will already know the answer. No matter what you hear, it's a good thing.

8. You are allowed to talk about all the ways grad school is the worst (I mean, in a lot of ways, you are right), but only if you can also keep sights on what you got out of it-Man, grad students really are the worst! And people's expectations are ridiculous! And it really is mostly a giant pissing fest between the most neurotic and delicate people in the world! Everyone is trying to build their own island of unique knowledge, then spend the rest of their career swatting other people away. How lonely. Academics are often so self-inolved that they are truly awful people and teachers. How sad. Still, you can write really well. And you got to do those 5 really cool things. And you can never not be in love with the thing you went there for, because you would never have done it in the first place if that wasn't true. The more you can see it as a step to wherever it is you are headed, not a precipice of narcissistic time-wasting bullshit, the happier you will be. You got what you needed, and you left. 

7. Be intentional in your thinking. Let go of the idea that you didn't love it enough. Get some help (no really, just do it)- The most common narrative I see in Post-academic writing is some variation on deep shame for not loving it enough. You showed up saying you loved (insert here) so much that you would sacrifice your personal life, your free time, your self-esteem, and so on for it. But now that you are leaving, you must not be as committed to it as that asshole who came in with you and wears glasses he doesn't need. This whole narrative is the same thing that will trap your colleagues in adjunct jobs that pay them nothing for years.

You are allowed to love yourself more. You are allowed to want a life with a family. You can still love it without crushing yourself under the wheels of academia. After I left, I started going to see a counselor to help me deal with feeling like a quitter, so I could move on. People who haven't been through this will not get it. They will say the best things they can think of, because they are wonderful and they love you, but you are going through a very particular kind of mourning. This part won't be easy, but it is worth it to push through it and come out the other end.

6. If you wouldn't call them for something not related to class, dissertations, fellowships, etc, they probably aren't a friendship worth keeping. Just move on- A lot of this will happen on its own. People you genuinely liked (or who came to your wedding) will drop you like hot garbage once you no longer have future networking potential. It's really ok. The investments you make in people during grad school are often bad investments based on convenience or career. Hide them from your newsfeed, and I promise, a year later you won't think of them until you write this blog. Put your energy into other things, and if anyone wants to stick, they will. Feel grateful for those ones, and feel sorry for the people who are stuck in those cycles of human connection for their whole life.

5. Redefine what "have to do" means- For maybe the first 6 months (ok, still a little bit), I would feel panicky and ANGRY (which is not usually my jam) when I felt my time was being wasted. Even though I knew, in theory that the dark cloud was gone, and I really didn't have to be working, I felt so much panic that I was wasting my time. I am sure part of that was also dealing with the idea that I just wasted most of my 20's in the basement of Cummings. It's ok to feel this way, but also take the opportunity to consider your priorities. What are things you actually have to do? What will you be sad you didn't do? Keep asking yourself these questions.

4. Don't stop reading, start writing however you want to write, and do something you have been putting off/ never thought you would have time to do- Getting out of a graduate program gives you an intense new freedom with your time, but this can be horrifying and problematic in all sorts of ways. First of all, you have used your graduate responsibilities to structure your time, from getting up til bedtime, for YEARS. You thought that would be your life. Suddenly having so much free time can be really scary because it is too free form. It can make you feel useless. Set some goals, even if they are fun goals. Let your own happiness be a goal and work toward it. Eventually, you will get a real person job, which is a whole new set of challenges (being a grad student= being a stay at home mom. You work all the time, but you organize your own schedule. Things get rough when people tell you what to do). Be intentional about your free time, but replace the work and stress with things that will not replicate the comfortable panic you have lived in for years. Be so happy to read those novels, or learn to knit, or start painting again (I did all of those things, and they were AWESOME).

3. Go spend time with people who aren't academics. People who will love you just the same. Bask in the happiness- You know what was a wonderful realization? Almost all of my favorite people in the world don't have PhD's. And I never thought less of them for it. Ever. Then, I got a new job working with kids. For the first time in YEARS, I worked with people I actually liked, who had priorities similar to mine, and who cared about the same things I cared about. It was wonderful to just like people and to make friends based on how you treat each other, not what they know. Also, you know who cares the very least about your academic credentials? Kindergarteners. Even kindergarteners from Palo Alto don't care. These simple realizations are about the most healing thing that will happen to you.

2.  Stop framing your thinking about it in terms of "failing" and not. They will think about it that way, but you already know things they don't-Yep, you are probably a cautionary tale in your program. You know what your program is? A cautionary tale in your life. You didn't fail. You chose another path, and if you are happier there than where you started, you did not fail. If you learned anything in those five years, if you have not given up, if you are hungry to put you learned into all sorts of crazy uses, you haven't failed. When you were a kid, you learned all sorts of subjects. Some of them you still use, some of them you don't. It doesn't mean you are a failure in something if you choose you don't want to use it, as long as you are using something. The less you think about it as "failing," the happier you will be.

1. Go volunteer. Get over yourself already-Go do something for somebody else. You will feel more useful  than you have in years. It will put your privilege back in perspective. Nothing was better for me after this than getting back up and putting my energy into other people. I think everyone should volunteer at least twice a week (can you imagine how great the world would be?), but if you are recovering from a grad school break-up, do it maybe 4 times a week? It can jump start your treks into new paths. It will give you courage and renew your gratefulness. I am scared to be leaving my two big volunteer jobs, because more than anything, they healed my broken heart. Go teach someone who otherwise might not get that kind of help. It will change everything.

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