On Leaving Grad School

The decision that I felt I have made many times over has now been finalized.

Last year, I decided to take a year off from my PhD studies. Although I felt that I was most likely not coming back, I did not have to confirm my decision to my program until a few weeks ago. My department chair has reached out to me in mid-January asking for immediate response regarding my intentions in order to know how to allocate my funding: to me, in case I return, or to a new graduate student to be admitted into the program, in case I do not come back.

I have been imagining that my final answer to the department would come in a form of a letter explaining my decision in detail, but it ended up being a single line response via e-mail. And the deed was done.

I wanted a year off because I wanted time away from the program and the academic life in order to gain a new perspective. I knew it would not be a full year since I would have to start choosing my courses for Fall 2016 by March, which would only leave me with 10 months to decide. The fact that the department asked for an answer in January, has truly left me with only 8 months away from school. Considering that I spent some of those months moving across the country, setting up a new life, and looking for work, it only really left me with 3-4 months of the taste of life outside of PhD. I refer to the months when I had a steady income and was able to do some travel and enjoy the new city that began to become more familiar. Of course, the decision to move across the country and the resulting many turbulent months of planning, selling furniture, boxing our belongings, and figuring out the cheapest way to ship stuff was entirely of my own making. I wanted something really different: if I weren’t doing my PhD, I wanted to have something grand and exciting I was doing instead. Perhaps, this could be used as a cautionary story for others thinking about taking time off their studies: be realistic about how much time off you are going to get and whether that time will be enough to really get a feel for life outside of PhD.

I left of my own accord. I wasn’t kicked out of the program nor was I doing poorly in my classes. I chose to leave and I wanted to leave. But, I was surprised to find just how extremely difficult it was to leave. I grieved my parting with philosophy as one might grieve a loss of a dear friend. I felt cheated out of a promise for a life I once believed in and aspired to. The thing that defined my being and all of my efforts for the past three years was taken away. In order to go on living without it, I had to imagine a new, completely different life.

I remember seeing this quote by Thomas H. Benton in one of his pieces cautioning students about graduate school: “Some professors tell students to go to graduate school “only if you can’t imagine doing anything else.” But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor.” 

The passage really struck a cord. I couldn’t tell whether leaving academia was so hard because philosophy was truly a thing for me or because I simply haven’t had the chance to look for meaning elsewhere. I couldn’t tell whether I was holding on to it because I truly loved philosophy or because I was too afraid of life and pursuits outside of acadmia that at first felt so unfamiliar. I wanted to take a year off to give myself a chance to find out “what else is out there.”

The eight months away weren’t enough to give me a grand new perspective or to entirely transform my life, but it was enough time to give me hints of what’s possible outside of graduate school. I learned that life outside of academia is not static. It is as turbulent, as creative, and as uncertain as it felt when I was a grad student. Just because you gain the certainty of no longer continuing with your PhD, does not mean you gain certainty in other aspects of your life.

But, once the decision to not come back has been made, I felt a new space open up. Finally closing one door means I can allow myself to look for other, different doors to open. I can devote my time, energy, and focus to new pursuits. And I know that with time I will come upon a door behind which will be the new beginning that will shape my life significantly the way philosophy once did, while also allowing the freedoms I could not have as a graduate student.

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