Monday, August 22, 2011

If I Hadn't Gone to Grad School...

1. I wouldn't feel embarrassed about going out in public because I can't afford to replace most of my clothes and shoes that have holes in them. Then I wouldn't have to tell people, "Didn't you hear? The ripped jeans look is back. The mohawk is coming back too. You should totally get one."

2. I'd be able to write fiction without feeling guilty about using up time that could have been spent on my graduate work instead.

3. Maybe my hair wouldn't have started turning white when I was still in my twenties. And then maybe I wouldn't have learned that dyeing one's hair should probably be left to the professionals, especially when one is too impatient to read all the instructions beforehand.

4. People wouldn't make comments like, "When are you going to grow up and get a job?" and "You've been in school forever! You're a professional student!" and "I know all these people who earned their graduate degrees in just one or two years. You should work harder so that you can finish sooner."

5. I'd have more money for the essentials, like rent, groceries, and Britney Spears' albums.

6. I wouldn't feel so lost and scared sometimes, because graduate school is extremely difficult. I've never felt like I belonged there.

7. I could have gone into politics instead and made it illegal for people to talk on their cell phones at the movies, in church, and on long train rides. The penalty would be to make their cell phones malfunction every time they entered a public space, so that they would lose the will to annoy people.

8. I could have accepted one of the job offers outside of academia that I had when I graduated from college. I could have started earning a real salary with health insurance and benefits, and I could have had just one job instead of two or three. Maybe I could have had a job that actually ended when I left the office each day, rather than have to face a stack of papers to grade and several books to read every night after a long day of teaching and office hours.

9. I wouldn't have wasted all that time poring over the dictionary before I finally realized that many scholars make up multi-syllable words to make themselves sound, to explain their ideas and theories.

10. I would never have taught any of the undergraduates and high school students who taught me more about life, myself, and what I'm capable of than I ever could have learned anywhere else.

Being in graduate school means making a lot of sacrifices, many of which I never expected to make when I was younger. I didn't think that I'd still be a student at age thirty. I didn't think I'd have to stay at home most nights while my friends went out, because I didn't have enough money to join them and I had too much studying to do anyway. I didn't think I'd have to work two or three jobs and still earn thousands of dollars less than most people my age. I didn't think that there'd be way too many Ph.D.'s I'll have to compete against when I start looking for a full-time teaching job. I didn't think that there's always the possibility that I might not get what I've spent years working for.

I've wanted to drop out of graduate school a thousand and one times. But I haven't given up yet, because I feel like I'd be giving up a lot more than just my degree if I did. Teaching is the one job I've ever had that I actually liked and was good at. I feel more at home in a college classroom than I would have felt in an office, a hospital, a bank, a law firm, the stage, etc., etc.

What about you? When you think of a choice you've made, whether it was a career that you decided to pursue, a place that you chose to live in, or a person that you chose to spend your life with, did you ever think of what would have happened if you hadn't made that choice?


  1. I freaking love this post. I'm still not sure if I'm cut out to be a teacher, but I never would have found out how much I like editing without the opportunities grad school has given me. I never would have found out how much I want to write, and I never would have finished my first book (let alone start the second or the third). I'm not convinced I want to be a professor anymore, which is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I'm hoping to get into the diss and get out in one piece.

  2. Dropping out of grad school was the best decision I ever made in my life. Tossing out old journals, old exams, and old papers was as liberating as getting fitted for a bra. I can teach without a doctorate. I can watch Hell's Kitchen without feeling guilty because I'm behind in grading/writing/reading journals/sending emails/going to conferences/meeting my advisor/whatever. My husband has been on the academic job market, PhD in hand, for two years, and just started as an assistant professor. While he's happy, I am SO glad it's not me.

    There is life beyond grad school if you decide you want it. You can still teach. You can still be smart. You can still be involved in your discipline.

    If you want it, go get it. But there's no shame in leaving.

  3. This is so true! And it applies to the other people you're living with; what I mean is my husband is almost done earning his MBA and the last two years have been rough on our whole family. Really rough. I'll be so happy when it's over! Good for you for going to school! More power to you!

  4. Obsessions of a Workaholic, this post is full of thought and passion (at least to me). I think that at the end of the day, as long as you can justify to your own self why the path that you've chosen is the most suitable one for you, it does become a lot easier to not worry about what others think. Obviously, we're still going to be subjected to external influences that may cause us to question our decisions, but that's only natural...what others think and say can have an effect on our judgment, to say the least.

    Personally, I did 3 years of a Physics specialist at my university before choosing to drop out just this past school year. I'm 23 right now and I'm entering a 4 year biomedical engineering program from scratch...people don't really give me too hard of a time for my decision because of the practicality of my program, but I do have a lot of people say to me that I should've entered an engineering program in the first place...but if that were the case, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have done well because coming out of high school my math and science skills weren't exactly sharp. But after completing 3 years of a Physics specialist, I've done so many math and physics courses that now I really have a good chance of easily striking an A in this sense, I'm ultimately very happy with the path I'm currently on (even if it means doing more school).

  5. Hi Anna,
    I will be very happy when I finally finish the dissertation, but that is going to take a while. Being a scholar has always been a struggle for me, because I've always been more interested in teaching.

    Hi NGS,
    Thanks for the advice! It's hard to picture life beyond grad school, because I've been in school for so long. I thought about becoming a high school teacher so that I wouldn't have to go to grad school. On the other hand, a lot of high school teachers have graduate degrees now.

    Hi E.R. King,
    Thanks! I can only imagine how my family would be affected if I was married with children. There are other grad students with families, and I can't help wondering what's going to happen when they start their job search. It's possible that they will get job offers from schools in different parts of the country, which would mean that their families would have to move.

    Hi William C.,
    I was never very good at math, so I wouldn't have been able to become an engineer. I wish I had done better in science, though, because there are so many interesting careers for science majors.
    I think that teaching is suitable for me, which is one reason I've stuck to it for so long.

  6. I could've written this list, except for the part about Britney Spears.

    Did you see The Simpsons episode where Marge tells Bart not to make fun of graduate students just because they made, "poor life choices."

    Unlike med school, there's no big prize at the end, except to say, "I'm done."

    And as far as fiction writing guilt, we all have it. Unless we're getting paid to write, there's always something or someone we're ignoring.

    Did you feel the VA earthquake by you? I did in MA. I felt like you. First I thought it was a truck passing by, but it went on too long. Then I thought it was my new upstairs neighbors. I thought, "Inconsiderate." Imagine that was my last thought as my house caved in on me?

  7. GREAT post! I can definitely relate to a lot of what you're saying--because I went through a lot of that stuff when I was a grad student too (and sometimes similar things as a lowly adjunct instructor). However, I don't regret it because getting my MA allowed me to discover I liked teaching and that led me to my career in the present day. Sure there were times where I cursed, but it was worth it overall :)

  8. Hi Theresa,
    I didn't even know there was an earthquake. I also don't know what I'm supposed to do if there is an earthquake. I'm going to have to do some research on that.
    I wish there was some kind of prize when I finished grad school, because I think I'll have earned one by then. (Perhaps a nice vacation?) But it would be enough just to find a full-time teaching job at a good school. It's just difficult because every other Ph.D. candidate wants the same things that I do, and there aren't enough jobs for everyone.

    Hi Catherine,
    I think most grad students have doubts at one point or another, especially if they're not sure what's going to happen once they finish school. I've been thinking "what if" lately because I'm thirty now. I keep wondering what my twenties would have been like if I hadn't gone to grad school. Maybe I would have spent less time working. Even though I will always be a workaholic, I know that I don't want to spend most of my time working in my thirties

  9. I'm still in college but I know I'll still be doing a graduate degree because I love learning. I wish I could earn money from learning.

    Oh, nothing stands in the way of purchasing Britney's albums :)

  10. Oh, God, all the time. I've made so many wrong decisions when it comes to career. The right one was when I started writing full-time. Not a day goes by that I don't thank my lucky stars that I'm not sitting in some office.

  11. Regarding the mobile phones, it would be helpful if they stopped working as soon as students entered the classroom, too. I don't know if you have the problem, but I had it every day.

    I was in grad school, and I made the decision to leave. Technically all I have left is the qual exams and the dissertation, but since I don't love it the way I love writing, and I don't have the fire for the work anymore, I'm comfortable with my decision. It took me four years to really be comfortable with it, but it came, and now I couldn't be happier spending my days writing about people who don't really exist :) (oh, I guess there's the part-time job, too. Yeah, yeah)

  12. I found your blog via Theresa. I love this post and I can truly relate. Looking back I would have chosen going to grad school for a MA in teaching, but chose something else, but it all turned out because I ended up going back to my first passion teaching.

  13. So related to this post, especially (6). It is hard! Hang in there. And I don't mean with the program, necessarily. I think that this stage of life, perhaps especially for women, is tough.

    As for me, I have a PhD (not in English or creative writing though), and now I am basically a stay-at-home mom, because I was completely unrealistic about both the job market (not actually willing to move to South Carolina from the west coast for a one-year position, for example), and also about the compatibility of being in academia and mothering small children the way I wanted to.

  14. Hi missPicture,
    Grad school would be a lot easier if I could earn money from learning. But I'm spending money instead, sighhh...

    Hi Talli,
    You're living the dream of most writers, and you've definitely succeeded by writing and publishing great books. (I can't wait for your next novel to come out!) I'd love to be able to write full-time someday, because then I wouldn't have to feel guilty about writing anymore.

    Hi RosieC,
    Several of my former students tried to use their cell phones in class all the time. They thought I didn't notice, but I did, and I always called them on it. How would they feel if I started texting my friends while I was teaching?
    Leaving graduate school is a difficult decision, but I can understand why you did. If you don't love it, then it isn't worth it. It's better to spend time on something that you do love.

    Hi Choices,
    I thought about getting a master's so that I could teach high school, but I ultimately decided against it. High school teachers have tough jobs, especially the ones here in Chicago; they're talking about lengthening the school days here.

    Hi Nicole,
    I spent the majority of my twenties focusing on teaching and school. I thought that I had plenty of time to get married and have children. But now that I'm in my thirties, I realize that I don't have as much time as I thought I did.
    The job market for Ph.D.s is tough. I'm not sure where I'll end up once I complete my degree. I wish I had a career that allowed me to choose where I wanted to live. But it doesn't really work that way for people with Ph.D.s, unfortunately.

  15. Neurotic Workaholic, you're suppose to head to a door frame.

    Yes, after the degree, there's a bottleneck. Hope you squeeze through it!

  16. Hi Theresa,
    Thanks for the tip! I hope I can get through life after the degree too. I've been in school for so long that it's hard to picture what it'll be like to not be a student anymore.

  17. Grad school's a tough gig but well done for sticking with it. It'll pay off one way or another :)

  18. Hi Rick,
    Thanks! I hope that grad school will pay off. One of the reasons I decided to pursue a Ph.D. was because it's easier to get a full-time teaching job at a good school with a doctorate. So I hope that having the degree will help me get what I want.