Why I Left Grad School

Natasha came to work with me in the midst of a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go situation, this one revolving around grad school and getting her doctorate. Ultimately, through much digging (soulful and otherwise), she decided to go. Here’s why she left, how she got to that decision, what she’s learned, and where she is now (two years later).

Down the Forest Path by Rachelle Dyer

I left.

I worked with Michelle, I talked with my husband, I took a good hard look at my life and then I left graduate school.

Cue confetti and a marching band and a confident stride into my perfect new, better, shiny career, right?

Don’t I wish.

I left. And then I started looking. I leapt before I looked, just like we’re all always warned not to do.

Sometimes, that’s what you have to do. I didn’t have a plan two years ago, but I couldn’t let that stop me from leaving in part because I couldn’t see anything in that situation. I found myself in a perfect storm of long hours, worrying I wasn’t putting in enough hours, feeling like I was an imposter, feeling like I was so lucky to be where I was that I couldn’t leave and more. I couldn’t see a way out, but I also couldn’t fathom how to continue in the same direction.

I was lucky. My husband (then “just” my boyfriend) made enough money to support us both, and was willing to do so. We looked at the finances and decided it was worth the monetary hit to get me to a better space – even without knowing what that space was. I was also resistant, at first. It took me a very long time to see this as a lucky place to be and a sign of pretty deep love from the person most impacted by me, day to day.

Some of the (hard and good) lessons:

  • It absolutely sucks to tell people you’re leaving without having something new in place. The more important a person is to you, the more it’s going to suck. There is no easy way to do this. I think I shocked the hell out of one of my advisors when I told him, and I definitely cried right there in his office.
  • It sucks, but not absolutely, to have to tell people you still don’t have a plan. When I’d just left, I didn’t know what was next. That was uncomfortable for me and those who cared about me. But people expected I’d figure it out quickly. None of us expected it would take me two years or more. Once whatever amount of time passed that someone thought was reasonable and I still didn’t have a plan? Then they had suggestions and plans for me. Or they asked if I’d go back. This was typically not helpful, depending on how the suggestion came about.
  • I missed (and miss!) large swaths of graduate school. Not all of it, but enough to put a bit of a rosy tint on the worst of it when I was stressed and feeling low because I still didn’t have My Thing. This, I think, is actually typical. There are some cases where there’s absolutely nothing good about a job[1], but usually there’s a reason to be there beyond a paycheck. This goes double, I think, if it’s a “career” instead of a job. Ask Michelle if she misses parts of acting, and I know she’ll say there’s a thing or two.
  • I was in graduate school because I was absolutely obsessed with the neatest thing ever. My goal, for basically my entire adult life, was to learn more and more and more about this thing. When I left, I didn’t totally leave behind the obsession (I could still talk your ear off), but I left behind the focus. I left behind the obsessiveness. I left behind the constraints.
  • Which meant I was flighty as I ever had been. Even in grad school, I loved, in brief, the ideas of “trying this too” and “what about researching that”, but I had a guiding focus. Without a singular guiding obsession? Fuck, man. I was out and about and for the birds. I was gonna do everything. I don’t think my poor husband could keep up with all my ideas. Sometimes, this sucked hard. I didn’t feel like I could trust my brain. Other times, I realized it was kind of like I finally got to consider all the possibilities. Over time, I’ve come to realize it’s probably normal to be this way. A major shift like this probably invites trying copious amounts of “things” on for size.
  • Leaving was the right choice, hard as it was and badly as I sometimes miss it. It took a lot of time, and distance from the past, but I’m a much happier and healthier person. And I can approach all of life in a happier, healthier way. More than that, finally getting back into a happy, healthy life means I finally, FINALLY, have my eye on two or three real possibilities for “What’s next?” Two or three real possibilities have lodged themselves in there and stuck around. One climbed back in after being pushed out and demanded I recognize it was not given due credit.

Sometimes, incredible stress and pressure can really mess with you. I didn’t realize for a very long time that many of my responses had as much to do with stress as they did with my own choices and focus. That chronic stress really invaded my system, tried to become a part of my bones, and really changed how I looked at things. I had to have faith in myself, had to eventually become comfortable with a lack of focus (obsession). I had to stick through it and let go of what stress I could (the probing questions from loved ones still get to me) and try on all the ideas.

I had to give myself the time and space to recalibrate and look inward and find me.

It feels great. Now I have the energy and space to give these ideas real consideration. I’m not just grabbing anything to try to answer the question, “And what do you do?” I’m (usually) not feeling terrible because I don’t have an answer yet. I will.

Now I know. Stick with letting yourself figure it out. Find, and use, your support network. That and some luck and a lot of perseverance, and you’ll find your path (or the path to your path) in time.

Natasha is figuring out where she’s going with a dash of questions and a dose of answers. She holds a couple biology degrees (B.Sc. and a M.Sc.) and finds that training coming to bear on any path she explores, especially as her interest in food blooms. She maintains MetaCookbook as a place to explore that delicious interest in all things food from cooking to growing to the politics of food to the communities food builds.












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