I was sitting in my room chatting with my cousin Saket via facetime back in March with the window open and cold air filling my room. Earlier in the day, I had suffered the most awkward conversation with my research adviser.
I was full of emotion. Tired, sad, upset, angry, relieved and yet anxious all at the same time. The idea of leaving grad school had been in my mind for a long time (since passing my candidacy exam), but I couldn’t do it. And then earlier that week, I finally realized I couldn’t stay. Nothing could keep me in the academy.
I shared my sentiments with Saket (who incidentally is a top-notch engineer with an extremely pragmatic and optimistic view of life). He basically reacted by saying, ‘Get out, grad school isn’t making you happy, this is the best decision you will ever make’
Other people I talked to said one of 3 things:
My parents: “I support you in whatever you decide”
Higher-ups in academia: DO NOT QUIT. Try this or that, change programs, take a break, talk to the adviser, and write a dissertation, you’ll be glad you did. Don’t live with regret. Don’t quit.
Fellow grad students: “Do you think I should leave too?”
And then I realized that almost everyone was trying to work their own issues out through my own decision-making. It wasn’t until I made the decision to leave the program that I realized how enmeshed my own identity was in academia.
In any case, it seems as though the people who love me the most and understand me the best are most ‘okay’ with my decision. Most of these people have no idea what grad school is like. I checked in with my parents, cousins, mentors, and numerous friend-colleagues before I gave myself permission to quit. It amazed me, but it really was true: They loved me for who I am, not for what I do. They would still love me, even if I quit graduate school.
Quitting is thrilling. I think of the books I’ll finally have time to read just-for-fun. The marathons I will be able to run. I think of the creative projects that have lied dormant that I now have time to finish: I can finish that half-knitted shawl, start that podcast the Freakonomics team put out about the Upside of Quitting, and hang out with friends. It is like I finally have freedom.
But, freedom is terrifying. Freedom is so formless. I’m so used to the stress, the pressure. I feel like I need to be doing something, anything, more than whatever it is I’m doing. Even though I’m plenty busy with applying for jobs, meetings, cleaning, and finishing up my thesis, I’m convinced I am not doing worthy work unless I’m maxed out and exhausted in every way.
Although I want to enjoy the little things, the quiet and still moments of spring and warmth of tea in my hands, I am often grouchy and irritable. There’s terrible whiplash when you go from grad school time to regular time. You invent enormous tasks to undertake. You feel a need to fill the void with something as comparably Significant and Meaningful and Important as grad school, like running marathons, or climbing Mt. Everest. Newly turned from the womb of grad school, we flail like newborns, seeking those firm and reassuring boundaries. We squint in the bright light and turn away, grunting.
As difficult as it is, I am trying very hard not to fill the void. I am resisting the urge to replace the work and stress of grad school with new work and new stress. I am forcing myself to adjust to regular time, regular life, the quotidian rhythms most people take for granted.
Grad school drills from you the ability to stay in the present. You always have to think ahead: from coursework to candidacy, from candidacy to dissertation, from dissertation to post-doc, etc. Do you ever savor the moment in grad school? I can’t think of a single, quiet, triumphant moment. I don’t want to miss out on those anymore, so I am sitting in this discomfort and letting my body and mind get used to the expanse.
For now, I’m thinking about today, not tomorrow or next year (ALTHOUGH SOMETIMES I LIE AWAKE AT 4 AM THINKING WHAT DID I JUST DO). But I trust that this will pass. I trust that by this summer, I’ll be able to sit on a park bench in the evening and just listen to the cicadas and talk to my friends about harmonicas and picnics, and be totally there. Even if it’s a Saturday.