…and I still don’t regret my decision.
Don’t get me wrong, leaving my PhD program was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It produced an existential crisis that I’ve only recently begun to recover from and has had a host of consequences that are still developing even seven months on. Most significant of these repercussions was the fact that I withdrew from the program in December 2019, having no clue of the economic and public health crisis just on the horizon. Yet at no point have I felt remorse so acutely that I would consider a return to grad school (if, hypothetically, I had the option).
Part of what made me confident about my decision were the soothing words from former PhDs who wrote about their own experiences leaving their programs. (Just Google “leaving the phd program” and you will get TONS of results.) Their stories helped me feel less alone, like I hadn’t lost my mind for contemplating a break with the academy. That’s why I want to share my own story about leaving academia, so that if there’s someone out there who’s considering leaving their program, they too won’t need to feel so alone.
The existential crisis of leaving grad school
That one December night, it felt as though I had abruptly erased my entire identity — since that’s what academia does, it makes you believe that you have no existence outside your course of study. Since I was about 19 years old, I had been telling myself that I lived and breathed history, and that I would only be happy if I one day became a history professor. For most of my twenties, I was convinced that I was willing to submit completely to the demands of graduate school because there was nothing else for me in life. So when I suddenly decided that pursuing a PhD in history was no longer making me feel happy or fulfilled, what do you think the result might have been? It was like my entire adult life had been a lie. It was like the biggest part of me had died.
You must not delude yourself into thinking that the only people who leave grad school are the ones who were never really that serious about it in the first place. I know from firsthand experience that a lot of PhD students adopt this attitude; it plays a considerable role in the tension that pervades departments all over the country. Nobody wants to be outed as the slacker in the cohort who’s less committed than everyone else, so we all constantly one-up each other, sharing stories about how we’ve been consuming history books and documentaries since childhood, how we used to love it when our parents would take us to museums, or how we would stay up all night crafting the perfect paper about the French Revolution rather than partying with friends the way a normal college kid might. We lie to ourselves and to others about our steadfast determination to go on with the program not because we intentionally want to put people down; rather, we find it a useful coping mechanism for dealing with the psychological damage that grad school inflicts on us all.
When the day finally comes that the lie can no longer be maintained, it inevitably produces a catastrophic identity crisis. I will never forget the way I sobbed uncontrollably on my yoga mat after I meditated and made the decision to leave the program, or again the next morning when I emailed the Director of Graduate Studies. The emptiness inside of me was unbearable. I felt no desire to get out of bed, no interest in bettering myself or making healthy decisions. I did, however, have a strong urge to tear to shreds the Foucault books on my shelves and the departmental documents piling up around my computer — that was about the only energy I could muster.
Initially, I started overcoming the severe depression that my decision caused by making a list of all the reasons why I left the program. I came up with at least 16 unique reasons. Doing that helped me realize that, despite the short-term pain, this was obviously something that needed to be done for the good of my mental well-being. I also started thinking beyond my immediate suffering and into the future, imagining a better life for myself later on because of the sacrifices I was making now.
Those coping mechanisms I devised for myself were helpful, but it didn’t mean that I had definitively restored balance inside of me. In fact, if it weren’t for the much bigger crises of COVID-19 and the death of my mother, I would probably still be confronting the gravity of my decision in a much more emotional way. Because of those far greater tragedies, though, leaving the PhD program feels like very small potatoes indeed.
Like so many others right now, the hell of 2020 has forced me to adopt new perspectives on life. Now, I no longer construct my identity around things that I do, but rather around the things that make me who I am, because now I realize that, when everything goes to shit, my basic humanity is the only thing that I have control over.
The consequences of my actions
The emotional repercussions of leaving grad school are, I think, the most important to address, but there are a slew of practical concerns you’re forced to contend with as well.
In December 2019, I left my PhD program knowing that I wouldn’t be able to predict all those consequences, but BOY HOWDY, I never expected 2020 to be the year that it’s been. Like many people who keep up with the news, I’d had a hunch that there was some sort of minor recession on the horizon, but otherwise the job market looked pretty good. I had no illusions about how difficult it would be for me to find a job after dropping out of the PhD program (“mastering out” is the polite term), but I didn’t expect to be entering a frozen economy.
But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself. Because initially, things didn’t look quite so bad. At first, it seemed like at worst I might need to pick up a serving job to cover the bills. Since I’d already had a robust working background as a server, I didn’t see this as a problem — which isn’t to say that I wasn’t dreading the prospect of returning to the restaurant industry, I just didn’t think it would be impossible to do so.
In my search for a full-time job, I imagined employers would have lots of questions about why I left my PhD program. In fact, this has basically been a non-issue. Sometimes employers will express confusion when they see that I have two Masters degrees, but often times even that doesn’t come up! The fact is this (and this is absolutely critical to keep in mind if you’re thinking about leaving your program): outsiders don’t really know what goes on in academia. It sounds obvious enough, but when you’re cloistered in a university you tend to forget that it’s not the center of the universe. In reality, though, the vast majority of Americans don’t have a graduate degree, so they wouldn’t be able to intuit that if someone has two MAs then that means they were on track to earn a PhD but then “mastered out.” My best guess is they think you just really like school. And so I have been pleasantly surprised to find that my status as a PhD dropout carries little stigma in the job market. Nobody really cares.
And there’s the not so pleasant surprise: the fact that nobody really cares is a double-edged sword. Because most Americans never attend graduate school and therefore have false assumptions about what graduate students do, employers aren’t necessarily going to be impressed when they see a resume decorated with so many degrees. Unfortunately, we live in a society in which most people only value education insofar as it can be used as a tool to unlock job opportunities. The pursuit of knowledge in and of itself does not seem to be highly valued outside academia. We need only look at the current state of the humanities during the pandemic to see where our country’s priorities are. As a result, I have had to find creative ways to pitch my advanced education as an asset to employers — and this, as it turns out, is a hard sell.
The unfortunate truth, one that I really didn’t see coming, is that in a lot of ways my two Masters degrees are a liability, not an asset. Here’s the main reason why: if you’re transitioning out of a PhD program and searching for careers completely outside your field, you will most likely have to start at the bottom because you lack the necessary skills and experience. For me, this has meant applying for a lot of low-level admin assistant type jobs that I’m hugely over-qualified for in terms of my education but hugely under-qualified for in terms of work experience. Yes, I have tried to pitch the things I did in grad school as representing transferable skills (constructing a thesis became project management experience, fulfilling TA duties became administrative experience, etc.), but the fact is that most employers don’t want to waste their time wrapping their heads around how being a grad student is a full-time profession (and a difficult one at that), and they don’t want to risk hiring a candidate who is “too educated” for the job. To them, someone with that much education probably won’t last — either because they’ll get bored or because something better will come along. In sum, if your background is anything like mine, you’re probably a little too qualified for entry-level jobs but not quite qualified enough for anything beyond that.
That’s been one of the biggest unforeseen consequences: a job search in which I’m putting all my energy towards trying to secure a job that really shouldn’t be that hard to get, performing all sorts of mental gymnastics to contrive a way to convince just one employer to take a chance on someone who left academia to pursue a different kind of life. We ex-academics deserve to be treated like any other person who’s made a career change, but somehow we’re a class apart, because in our society there’s just something inherently off about someone who wastes so many years in the frivolous pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. As I’ve already suggested, we live in a time and in a country where intellectual life is often viewed with disdain.
In hindsight, would I have done anything different?
If I knew what I know now, would I have seriously mulled over leaving my PhD program…but then blinked? Probably not. I was suffocating. The feeling was overwhelming — I had to get out. It’s too bad that things got to such a boiling point when it did. Due to the poor timing, I unwittingly entered an extremely tight labor market in which employers are particularly risk-adverse (and therefore even less willing to look at candidates with unconventional backgrounds). On top of that, I don’t have the ability to collect unemployment. I’m also facing the prospect of losing health insurance next month during a pandemic.
Even so, I wouldn’t take it all back. It says something about how miserable I had become that I still don’t regret leaving despite the precarious position that doing so has put me in.
That said, there were certain benefits to being a grad student that I miss — specifically, the monthly stipends, the health insurance, and having my student loan payments defrayed. You don’t know how valuable those basic protections are until they’re gone. (I should acknowledge that not all grad students get all these perks; some grad students actually have to pay to be in their program.)
So, my suggestion to you is this: if there’s any way you think you can grin and bear another several months of grad school, during which time you would secretly be looking for a way out while you continue to collect a steady paycheck from the school, I would strongly encourage you to do so — especially during this prolonged period of crisis. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but several months ago I didn’t even consider this possibility. So obsequious was I that I believed it would be unethical to lie about my continued interest in the program just so that I could collect the benefits. But hey, this is the kind of servility that grad school breeds; while some professors and administrators do fight back against this toxic culture, it remains an overwhelming force in most departments. So, if you’re anything like me in this respect, remember that, in the private sector, people do this all the time. We can all name at least one friend who secretly hates their job but stays with it until something else comes along just so they can pay their bills. So long as they’re still doing their job, nothing about this seems even remotely unethical, does it? If you still don’t feel right about taking advantage of your program like that, I’ve got news for you: your school takes advantage of you all the time.
All this is to say that in hindsight I do think that abruptly leaving your program — the way I did — can be a bit foolhardy. Nevertheless, if there is any part of you that feels like you can’t endure even one more day of graduate school, then you should get out as soon as you can for the sake of your mental health. It might comfort you to know that my department was extremely gracious with me when I left the program. At the same time, I fear that this isn’t the case for all PhD students who choose to withdraw. If you do receive any kind of blow-back from your department when you decide to quit, you should know two things: 1) Nobody knows what’s best for you but yourself. 2) Once you’re out in the wide open world, there’s probably very little your former professors and colleagues can do to detrimentally impact your future. This, I guess, is one silver lining to the fact that much of the public (your future employer included) cares little about the opinions of academics.
Final thoughts, words of advice
I am by no means a career coach, but it should be obvious by now that, through a lot of trial and error, I’ve learned a thing or two about what happens next when you leave your PhD program. Some of this I learned on my own, and other things I’ve learned from reading Susan Basalla’s and Maggie Debelius’ “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia. (If you take anything away from me, it should be to read that book.)
My other piece of advice is this: in your job search, cast a wide net, being as open as possible to any number of opportunities you think might be a good fit with your values, skills, and interests. Beyond the obvious fact that doing so will up your odds of getting a job, you might also find it liberating that your life can go in a lot of different directions. After so many years of being on one very narrow track, your life can finally start to feel boundless again.
Also — and this is a point that Basall and Debelius make in their book — you need to get comfortable with completely reworking your professional biography to make it fit with the norms and standards of the non-academic world. You are no longer trying to get a professorship, so it’s not helpful to talk about your teaching experience or pedagogical theory. Instead, think about how your teaching background gives you the necessary skills to train and supervise people, or to lead presentations. It’s also not appropriate to give potential employers the finer details of your thesis or dissertation research, but it is important to mention how that research background gives you incredible project management skills, a meticulous attention to detail (God, employers love this), and the ability to rapidly assimilate new knowledge.
But in the final analysis, the most important question is still the existential one. Who are you if you’re not an academic? For most people, this is a really tough thing to address, and ultimately everyone has their unique way of dealing with it. No matter how you choose to work through this deeply personal inner struggle, though, remember that you were always more than just an academic; at the same time, you will probably never completely stop being a scholar — and that’s okay, too. In fact, when the dust finally settles, you’ll likely find yourself wanting to engage with scholarly debates again, and you have every right to do so. You are still free to read and critique books, share your deeply informed thoughts about pressing issues with friends and family members (if your uncle tries to talk over you, just shout louder!), or blast politicians for making dangerous, unfounded claims — all of this you still get to do despite the fact that you made the perfectly rational decision to leave the academy behind in order to build the best possible life for yourself.
This was originally posted to Medium back in July of 2020.