No Classrooms or Cubicles - A PhD in Transition

Tuesday, 20 September 2011 19:51

It is now a smidgen over a year since I defended my PhD thesis last September. I cannot believe how much change has happened (and most of it within the past three months). When I started writing for this blog, I was still dealing with my feelings of shame, fear, and failure. While it is certainly true that I still have moments of self-doubt, I no longer feel like I failed at academia. It has taken me a year to fully appreciate the depth of my unhappiness as a graduate student. I love the work of it (researching, teaching, and critical thinking), but I am not suited to the pressured environment of academe.

In retrospect, it is easy to understand how I believed that academia was the place for me. From the time I started kindergarten, school was a place of guaranteed attention and praise. The better I did at schoolwork, the nicer the teacher was to me. As I grew older, I figured out the most efficient ways to earn high grades and esteem. I was lucky that school skills came easily to me and I earnestly enjoyed learning. Moving on to university after high school was a natural progression. As an undergrad, it took me a couple of semesters to relearn the expectations and standards of work, but once I did, I again was in the sweet spot of “A’s and praise” that any high achiever knows and desires.

Approaching the end of my undergrad career, I really didn’t have any idea of where I was heading once I was finished. Then, in my final semester, the professor of an elective English course I was taking suggested that I apply for grad school. I can honestly say that I never considered pursuing an MA or PhD until then. In fact, I distinctly remember looking at the number of years involved in obtaining a PhD and thinking it absolutely ridiculous that anyone would stay in school for that long. I am practical person, but when I heard the words “you would make a great graduate student,” I forgot about all of my earlier reservations. With just that one phrase and resulting ego-boost, all my uncertainty about life after undergrad disappeared: I was going to grad school.

And in many ways, grad school was an amazing experience. I moved away from home and discovered that I adored living in Hamilton (which, I will admit, was a total surprise). I made friends who I now consider family. I fell in love. My mind was opened to new ways of thinking and being. I became a more patient, more open person. These experiences, however, were not dependent on my being in academia. Part of the problem, I realize now, is that I conflated being happy with my personal life with being in graduate school. Leaving academia, then, became an incredibly scary proposition: if I left, who and where would I be?

It turns out that I am actually far happier outside of the ivory tower than within it. This is still a shock. I always thought of myself as someone well-suited to institutions with their clear hierarchies and achievement levels. In hindsight, I simply did not have enough experience to know that I could excel elsewhere. The non-academic jobs I had while in undergrad were all office-work centered. I hated being in an office environment, doing the grunt work like data entry and cold calls. In my limited knowledge of the work world, I thought I had to choose between a cubicle and a classroom. Seeing that the classroom environment was far more engaging and rewarding than the cubicle, I could only imagine myself working for a university. Of course, once I was a grad student, the whole professionalization process took care of the rest of my career plans for me: MA, PhD, post-doc, sessional work, and finally, a tenure-track position. It was all laid out for me … and as I neared the end of the PhD, I began to feel trapped and resentful.

Leaving academia at the end of my PhD was difficult in a myriad of ways, but despite all the emotional turmoil, fall-out depression, and chronic pain caused by constant stress, I felt free. Free to pursue any job I wanted and free to reimagine myself as something other than “student.” I guess the point of this post is this: being in school from the ages of 5 to 30 stunted my ability to imagine myself in different work environments. I never had a guidance counselor in high school and I neglected to use the career services offered by my undergraduate university. It wasn’t until I finally left university that I began to do the hard work of asking myself: what do I want? If I had stayed in academia, I would be living a life that was familiar, but deeply unsatisfying. Outside of the academy, I no longer have a set career path ahead of me – and I actually like it this way. I feel like I am becoming something greater than what I was, than what I thought I could be. For the first time in my life, I have no clue what the next year will bring … and that is so damn exciting!

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