I’m a grad school dropout.

A little over a year ago, I left my full-time instructional technolgy gig at Queens College. At the time, I cited my languishing thesis as one of my reasons for leaving. Through the summer and fall of 2010, I put in an honest effort toward my dissertation. It was certainly my most sustained and serious effort since finishing coursework a couple years earier. But I couldn’t figure out a way to enjoy it. I found myself far more productive in other areas of my life, which had the dual effect of taking the joy out of my academic work, and also demonstrating that I no longer had any career-related reasons to finish the PhD.

So, a few months ago, I counted my losses and withdrew from the program. I use the word ‘losses’ with some trepidation, as I don’t feel like I lost much, if anything. In the philosophy program, I learned a lot about philosophy, got some nice teaching experience, and met some good friends. And being in graduate school had a huge number of indirect professional and personal benefits for me. Except for the academic work, I enjoyed being a grad student. If, in quitting, I’m losing anything, I’m losing face. But, to be perfectly honest, if there’s anyone who thinks less of me because I didn’t finish my PhD, that person is more than welcome to kiss my ass.

What excites me most about formally giving up on the PhD is leaving behind the guilt associated with the unfinished dissertation. Many times in the past couple of years (and increasingly so, as time has gone on) I’ve been approached with an offer or an idea about some new project – writing, coding, eating, etc. Time and time again, I have turned down these kinds of projects, because I’d end up feeling overwhelmed by the guilt of working on something other than my dissertation. To tell the truth, I had even stopped reading books for pleasure, because I felt so bad about it. I’m looking forward to feeling more freedom in this respect. (Also, the baby’s coming soon!)

I’m not writing this post because I’m looking for any validation of the decision; I feel good about it already. I’m also not really interested in starting a large discussion about the value of graduate school or a graduate degree; my decisions are specific to my situation. I mainly just want to get it off my chest, so that I don’t have to have the inevitably awkward conversations about it. To wit: I was chatting with some academic friends at THATCamp and I told the group that I’d dropped out, which they took as a cue to rationalize and support my decision. It was, of course, very well-intentioned. But from a certain point of view it suggested pity, which I neither need nor want. I may be a grad school dropout, but I’m a happy one!

20 thoughts on “Dropout

  1. Matt

    It’s kind of scary to think about what you’ll be able to accomplish now that you have the weight of the dissertation off of your shoulders (I suspect it will go beyond additional pleasure reading). You’ve found work that you enjoy doing, you are enormously successful at it, and you are happy. Congrats!

  2. John James Jacoby

    Good for you my friend.

    When my car was stolen back in 2009, I felt a similar relief. Owning that car meant owning the anxiety that came with it. A constant worry about it getting stolen, dented, or wrecked. 10 years worth of labor went into making something that eventually turned into an anchor. Every vacation was spent worrying if it would be where I left it; every day I didn’t drive it made me feel all that worry was wasteful. The day I woke up and it was gone, I wasn’t even mad… Just, relieved it was over.

    What always leaves me puzzled is when people offer up unsolicited advice or opinions about the decisions of others, particularly when those decisions don’t directly impact them, and when it is of a somewhat personal nature outside the social norm of what is considered fair play.

    Congrats on cutting loose your anchor. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. amelia

    As a fellow grad school drop-out (left a little over a year ago and haven’t looked back), I’ll simply say good for you that you could assess your situation and make the right choice for yourself. Leaving my PhD program was the best thing I’ve ever done. I’m not suggesting others should do as I did. I’m just saying that I understand the frustration of having people treat you like you need pity or support in the decision you’ve made, as if you lost something wonderful and need to be buoyed up as you navigate the grief. My best friends recognized that I was making a good decision and that it wasn’t about settling for something less, but instead about choosing a different Good Thing. And my happiness this last year has reiterated to myself and others over and over that I did in fact choose the right Good Thing for myself.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Matt – Thanks for the kind words.

      John – Thanks for the story. I was pretty worried leading up to the official withdrawal about feeling bad or regretful afterward. But then I quit, and none of those feelings came. It’s a pretty good sign that quitting was the right decision.

      amelia – I almost didn’t want to write this blog post, for some of the reasons you allude to. Even among academic folks who would (rightfully, in most cases) be considered progressive, there is a highly conservative undertone when it comes to assessment of someone’s worth as an intellectual. Traditional measures of success – PhD, the prestige of your institution, your publications, etc – are really deeply entrenched in the psyches of academics. It’s a kind of tunnel vision. Having spent a decent amount of time over the last two years doing work on the fringes of academia (and even wholly outside of it), I’ve been snapped out of that tunnel vision. But a lot of my friends never will be. In any case, I didn’t want my post to come off like I was fishing for pity or something, or that I was secretly subscribing to the “losing something wonderful” theory of intellectual value ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Luke

    As your homie, I’m psyched you’ve made a decision you’re happy with, and if for some reason a guilt gap opens up in your life it will no doubt be filled by the exigencies of parenting.

    As an academic, honestly, I’m a bit saddened that this decision makes less likely your elevation to a position of power in the academy some day, because universities need more people like you struggling for change from within. Our loss. Nevertheless, I’m psyched to watch your journey….

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Luke – I explicitly avoided making any general statements about the nature of the university (and employment within the university) in the main body of my post. I didn’t want to evoke sour grapes. That being said, in light of your comment about my future within university structures, I’ll say that this is something I’ve thought carefully about, and ultimately decided I don’t care that much about. I like universities (or, at least, I like a lot of things about them). But I’m not sure that I want to devote my career to trying to force my way into a system where there may not, in fact, be a role for someone like me. I know that there are a lot of people fighting really hard to change this fact about the university (viz that it only recognizes narrowly circumscribed career paths), and I respect the work that they are doing, but I’m not certain, at this point in my life, that it’s a war I want to wage.

      Matt – Everything I ever needed to know I learned from that movie.

      D’Arcy – I’m lucky, in that my albatross was related to philosophy. A big part of philosophical training is learning how to construct and apply theories about value (moral value, aesthetic value, scientific value, rational value). So, in a way, I was in a pretty good position to step back, look at the things that the academic life had to offer me, and look at some of my other achievements and contributions to the world, and to make a fairly dispassionate judgment. In this sense, being trained in philosophy helped me to leave philosophy behind ๐Ÿ™‚ But that decision-making procedure works differently – and must work differently – for everyone.

  5. Jim

    Grad school dropouts rock!!!

    I know you didn’t want to hear that from me. Hard choice, I made it too but never looked back—and my shoulders seem so much happier for it ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Aimee

    I’ve had mixed feelings over the last few years after withdrawing formally from the cuny English program sans diss, but just the other day I was cleaning out the cellar and came across a batch of grad school papersโ€”and looking over them made me feel right again, as if for the first time, about dropping out. I enjoy being myself. (Just met you with Zach in April and wishing you well.)

  7. Michael

    Congrats on re-enrolling in your self-directed life. The guilt of not working on your dissertation can easily turn into guilt of not doing enough research post graduation. You have effectively ended that cycle and can now set your own priorities, guilt free. I offer my heartiest best wishes to all future endeavors. Big decisions take a long time to settle in your soul, but I admire your resolve to make a difficult decision and follow your heart.

    The world does wonder what effect this will have on the future of pizza, however.

    1. Boone Gorges Post author

      Jim – I’d be lying if I said that you hadn’t sprung to mind multiple times during the last year or two of agonizing over this. There are few general truths that can be put forward about the question of quitting grad school – these decisions have to be made from within a particular situation. But one certain fact is this: you should be levelheaded in your assessment of how much good you can produce (for yourself, for your loved ones, for the world) inside as well as outside the traditional academic path when thinking about these decisions. Your story, and the amazing work you have done, are (to me, anyway) the quintessential proof of how one can do good things in somewhat unexpected ways.

      Aimee – Thanks for stopping by. I’m only a few months into my life as an ex-academic, and already I can feel a bit of the perspective toward my work that you talk about. I hope that this perspective continues to grow as time goes on!

      Michael – Thanks for the kind words. Fear not: I will still be eating a lot of pizza. Maybe I should have written my dissertation on that.

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