Grad School, Professional, Self-Care

I Broke Up with My PhD and it was the Best Day Ever

My name is Emily and I’m a PhD student…

Correction–My name is Emily and I was a PhD student…until today.

I like to turn my life upside down. I do it every few years or so. It keeps people guessing and, historically, steers my life in a more positive direction.

My mom will be the first to tell you that if I don’t want to do something, I just won’t do it. Long ago, I developed a nasty case of selective hearing where words flow in one ear and out the other, never to be filtered through the decision-making compartment of my brain. Often times, this is considered one of my major flaws.

After my sister and I became adults, my mom changed her tune, referencing how she raised “women with perseverance” rather than “stubborn-ass kids,” and speaking proudly of how her daughters don’t put up with nonsense. As Julia Sugarbaker would say, “Congeniality is not something the women in my family aspire to anyway.” That being said, this entire situation has been simmering since last autumn. And after an intensely stressful winter, I let the chips fall.

quit PhD best ever

After a major gap and delay in communication throughout the semester, I knew I would not defend my proposal and, as a result, I would not sit for qualifying exams in the spring. I’m not going to lie, I did not have a meltdown. I did not send frantic emails or stalk people in the halls of the department.

I let this play out.

Last fall, I would have sent stern emails, tracked people down, and turned into a maniac. But no, I remained calm, kept working my hourly job, and stayed busy. And about two weeks ago, I decided to withdraw from the graduate program. I emailed my adviser, I emailed the department, and that was that.

It was more anticlimactic than I thought it would be. I don’t know what I thought would happen, I’ve never known anyone personally who’s done the same thing (although I know they exist). Some might say breaking up with my PhD is an act of copping out, simply not wanting to put in the long, grueling work to achieve a goal. They would be wrong. Instead, breaking up with my PhD has turned out to be an act of taking control, taking back my life, and reclaiming my choice of where I want my career and my life to go.

I want a career in human biology. I want a career in research. I also want a family, a dog, and a new vehicle. I also want to make a decent wage with opportunity for career advancement, good benefits, a retirement account, and vacation days.  I want a nine-to-five job, dammit! I think all of these options exist together in the same universe. Actually, I know for a fact they do because I’ve already interviewed for some of them.

I don’t want to slog my way through years of research and writing (going into more debt in the process) and, afterward, deal with a job market that is collapsing as I type this. I don’t want to work twelve hour days because the job of an academic never stops. I want to come home at five and spend time with my family, read a book, work in my garden, have drinks with my friends, go hiking with my dog, or do some weird yoga I’ve never heard of that was made up by Kim Kardashian (that last part is a lie, but whatevs).

For the past couple of months I haven’t done anything academic and it has been truly eye-opening. I’ve read books for fun and I feel like I’ve transformed back into a real person. I don’t care about having my name on fifty articles or striving for prestige in the academic community. I don’t want to adjunct (ever) and I don’t want to live like a broke-ass student anymore. I just want to be the best at whatever job I end up having and continue growing personally and professionally.

Obviously, not everyone is having or has ever had this experience. It is mine and mine alone. I have encountered those who say, “But you put in SO much work!” Like it’s been wasted time. Aside from hemorrhaging tuition money, what I see is three years of work experience. I see research, analysis, writing, and project coordination. I see job skills that I have shaped and developed myself (because not everyone will help you realize them).

Some people who break up with their PhD feel shame, humiliation, and despair. Me? I feel like breaking it down in my living room to Jason DeRulo and Kevin Rudolf (or maybe I’ve already done those things…). Interestingly enough, I feel like a weight has been lifted and I have more options and possibilities at my fingertips than ever before. My close friends and family see a change in me–they have watched me maneuver this process, they have watched me tear myself apart, and they have offered me more support and encouragement to get out of academia than I could have ever imagined.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a rough semester. Personally and professionally. At times, I’ve felt like a walking motivational poster. It’s always darkest before the light. When God closes a door, He opens a window. But let’s be real, I don’t need the divine Windex as much as most people. I don’t have THAT many problems compared to most people on the planet. So I decided to leave my grad program; BIG DEAL. I’m healthy, I have a job, I can afford food, my rent, and even some good beer. I am extremely thankful.

That being said, I’ve also had my share of bad days and uncertainty. I’ve been exploited, talked down to, and been the scapegoat for the day just because I walked down the hallway at the wrong time. I’ve often wondered when I would get out and when I would catch a break. I’ve been applying for jobs, Stu’s been applying for jobs, we’ve both been getting interviews for really good jobs, but waiting is the hardest thing either of us has had to do. And it SUCKS. I now have the utmost respect for people applying for jobs. It’s not easy anymore. It’s hard work to get a substantial job and it takes forever to even engage in the interview process. Both of us applied, waited, interviewed, waited, rinse and repeat for five months until…

We didn’t have to wait anymore.

On Friday afternoon, a big, awesome place in Columbus, OH called up Stu and offered him a really good job. I went into work that morning wondering what my job security for the summer would be and I left that afternoon giving two weeks notice because we are moving within the month. Excited doesn’t even begin to describe it. Stu got an awesome job offer, we are moving to a city (full of breweries…) that neither of us has lived in, and the opportunities seem infinite at this point.

I am still processing all the developments that have occurred in the last twenty-four hours, but I don’t know why I’m so surprised. This is the general pattern of my life–when things seem really low and like they won’t ever get better, that means something is about to change in a major way. What’s better is that it happened to Stu. He’s one of the hardest working people I know and he puts in 100% at all times. I can’t even say that about myself. But again, I am not surprised. Our relationship grew out of trying to out-do one another intellectually…

In the coming weeks, we’ll be doing some major reorganizing and prioritizing (literally and figuratively); basically, restructuring and reinventing our life. And I am so pumped about it!

If this decision has taught me anything, it’s that you should never tolerate a situation that’s not benefiting some part of your life. Taking the first step to leave a bad situation can be one of the most terrifying things you do. However, it can be even MORE terrifying to stay where you are.

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