If you don’t follow Karen Kelsky of The Professor Is In, she’s doing an amazing thing: collecting the information on the debt thousands of PhDs have accumulated in the process of getting that degree.
I know I had a lot of shame wrapped up in the debt I accumulated. I was “fully funded,” but I knew exactly one person who was able to get by on the stipends we earned. That she was able to do it convinced me I should be able to do it, but I wasn’t.
We earned $800 a month. I lived in a college town that is miles cheaper than any city, but even though I took on managing the apartment building I lived in (free rent!), it wasn’t enough. I had two surgeries during grad school. I had ongoing health care costs. Food allergies meant the cheap stuff wasn’t going to sustain me. Books cost $500 a semester. Maintaining any kind of mental health meant leaving the house and doing things with friends. My car broke down. I had to buy clothes to bolster my own authority, being a short, young and young-looking woman. $800 a month just didn’t cut it.
I wasn’t able to make it work, and I was incredibly privileged. I got out of undergrad debt free, because my parents had saved for college and because I did undergrad in three years to maximize that money. (My undergrad had a set fee for “full time,” so 15 credits cost the same as 21.) I was fortunate to be able to find lots of flexible work during undergrad to pay my bills. I got full funding for my graduate program. I owned my car (thanks to my father). My dad helped me fund the job search, and my mom bought me suits. I knew, at the end of the day, that my parents could and would help if things went terribly awry.
Short of a major trust fund, that’s a pretty good setup. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough before the market got so unbelievably terrible, when everyone I knew got some kind of full-time, TT job, even if it wasn’t the one they wanted most. It wasn’t enough even when getting a job wasn’t a dream.
We talk sometimes about academic salaries and how abysmal they are in certain fields. They’re worse, much worse, for adjuncts. But we don’t talk about the debt it takes to even get that far, because our culture has so much money shame.
Kelsky’s survey showed that it’s not uncommon for PhDs in the humanities and social sciences to end up with six-figure debts. When full rides don’t actually cover all the expenses and you’re not legally allowed to work elsewhere*, the system is set up to put you into debt.
You did not fail. You did not do it wrong. The model, that old apprenticeship model that assumes you’ll achieve master status with all of the perks thereof, was never true, and it’s even less true now.
*My assistantship contract actually spelled this out. I had a few colleagues do it anyway, and the department head looked the other way, but it was risky beyond simply limiting the amount of time you had available for school and sleep.
Every year, on the winter solstice, my wife and I have a day without electric lights. We light the fire. We light candles. We open the blinds for the little natural light there is.
We spend the day going inward. We nap, we journal, we dream, we plan. We also cook dinner by candlelight, which makes a godalmighty mess, but there’s something lovely about it at the same time.
We wanted a day where we were able to really experience the turning of the year, but it also serves another purpose: reminding us that the light will return.
There isn’t much difference in the length of today and the length of tomorrow and the length of the day after that. This is the end of the pendulum swing, when the changes slow down to stop, and then slowly reverse before catching momentum and zooming through the equinox.
But in a week or two, you’ll start to see the difference, and in a month, you’ll know. The light is returning, literally and, I would argue, figuratively.
Whatever transition you’re facing right now, the light will return. Not as fast as you’d like, perhaps, or not necessarily in the way you’d prefer. But the light will return, because the world we live in moves and changes and frequently moves and changes in cycles.
Happy Solstice, friends. I’m lifting my mug of tea to you.
If there’s something I hear over and over again in working with people leaving academia, it’s that people don’t think they have any skills: “Nobody needs a Dickens scholar / expert in German philosophy / curriculum specialist outside of academia!”
In all of these cases, people are confusing what they know with what they know how to do.
What you know how to do
In the course of gaining all that expert knowledge, you learned a lot of things no one explicitly taught you.
Research. Writing. Project management. Public speaking. Teaching. Assessment. Curriculum design. Training. Time management. Argument. Program assessment. Curriculum review. Employee evaluation. Editing. Grant writing. Proposal writing. Hiring.
And that’s only if you’ve never done anything else outside of academia — no hobbies, no previous jobs, no nothing.
These skills are valuable
When you’re in academia, you’re surrounded by people who have, by and large, the exact same skills you do. So they don’t seem like skills that matter, because everyone can do them.
Except everyone can’t. People outside of academia often have no experience in or comfort with public speaking. They can’t break down information and figure out how to sequence and scaffold it in order to help someone else understand or learn it. They can’t assess writing quickly and comprehensively.
You have a lot to offer a prospective employer, but it isn’t your content knowledge. It’s all the stuff you did to gain that content knowledge, and all the stuff you did to support yourself and serve the university while gaining that content knowledge.
It all counts.
Jessica Peyton told me her story over email, and I asked if she’d be willing to share it on the blog for people who are considering leaving. I’m so glad she agreed! I love being able to share a success story. If you’d like to share your story on the blog, please let me know!
Why did you go to graduate school in the first place?
I knew early on that my biggest strength was writing. I was not a math person. In high school I had THAT teacher – the one who changes the way you see a subject. In this case, Mr. E. was the teacher who made me love History. I wanted to become a History teacher. My parents weren’t completely thrilled with this career prospect, and suggested business or law.
I did my undergrad at Notre Dame, where I majored in History. In order to fulfill a language requirement, I enrolled in Russian 101, figuring I’d learn how to say, hi, bye, my name is Jessica and where is the bathroom, before calling it good. What happened, however, was that the tiny class bonded, becoming a group of friends who took the same Russian language and literature course. I ended up making Russian my second major.
I won a fellowship to Harvard to do my MA in Russian, East European, and Central Asian studies. I started to realize how many opportunities Russian offered a young female scholar; it is a traditionally male-dominated field and I had some off-beat interests that yet to be really explored by other Russianists.
I constantly felt inadequate at Harvard, suffered from insomnia and chronic stomach pain, and had nightmares about papers and exams. However, as disillusioned as I was with grad school, my parents encouraged me to just apply to PhD programs, per my original plan. I was and am grateful that they ended up supporting my intended career in academia.
I got in to my first choice program at Arizona State University, which I chose largely because it was a teaching university. I wanted a program that would encourage and support me as instructor.
I loved ASU – my advisor was fantastic, equal parts maternal and friend, my classmates were also friends, and the program connected me with grants, speaking opportunities, and internships.
There was only problem – my favorite part of the program was being a T.A. – working with students, and specifically helping develop their writing skills. I wasn’t really interested in becoming a professor anymore, and I had failed to develop the same passion for living and working in Russia that I saw in my colleagues.
Why did you want to leave?
Even before starting the PhD program, I knew I would struggle with being a Russianist specifically, because I did not enjoy living or working there, and the learning the language was an ongoing struggle that I was less and less interested in continuing. History remained a passion, however, and I found myself envious of classmates who weren’t boxed into a regional focus, as I had committed to. But even then, I remember getting into a debate with a very conservative professor about what was “real” history.
“What’s wrong with wanting to a write a book for both an academic audience and something someone like my father, an incredibly intelligent person outside of academia, could read and enjoy?”
She said I had to choose. And if I wanted to be a Russian scholar, I better go with writing the dense academic stuff.
It was so many things. But mostly, it was that knot of anxiety balling in my gut every time I pictured getting my PhD and then…and then what? Having to go live in Russia for six months? Living apart from my husband as I hop from postdoc to postdoc, praying for a tenure-track position that would somehow magically align with where the Army sent him every three years?
And above all, realizing that scholars have to put their research and publishing first. I really just wanted to work with students.
What was hard about leaving? What got in your way?
I was worried about disappointing my parents, letting down my advisor, and making my husband feel somehow responsible for my decision to leave.
I wasn’t sure about leaving the career track I’d been on for 5 years. What would 5 years of being so poor I qualified for food stamps count for? What about all those books I bought? The two research trips to Russia?
And, when it came down to it, I ALWAYS finish what I start. I felt semi-obligated to finish the PhD just because I started it.
How did you get past, through, or around those things?
My husband saw me really spiral into a depression over the last year I was in the program, and encouraged me to call my advisor.
My advisor, the most ethical teacher and generous person, said, “I know you can finish if you wanted to. But what’s the point if you don’t want to? I just want you to be healthy and happy, and it doesn’t seem like the program is doing either for you. Don’t worry about me, and stop worrying about what your parents will think.”
I made the decision without talking about it with my parents. I know their feelings were hurt, but it was something that I didn’t want to be talked out of. The only way I could decide by myself, for myself, was to let them know after the fact.
How did it feel after you left?
It was hideous disappointing my parents, but otherwise I felt So. Happy. I didn’t realize how much the program and my future career prospects had been weighing me down. I felt lighter, excited for the first time in years about the future. I felt free, really. Like I could start prioritizing a career that would make me happy and building a family with my husband.
What are you doing now, and how did you get there?
My wonderful husband said I shouldn’t feel rushed to find work, but rather, suggested I take some time off to figure out where I wanted to go next. I filled out applications to be an academic counselor at various local universities, thinking to myself, “But someday, I want to own my own business where I show students how to look for and apply to college, grad school, and funding opportunities.” After about a week I decided not to wait for some day, and get it up and running.
I launched Aim High Writing at the beginning of this year, am a member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), and help students and parents navigate the college applications process. I place special emphasis on writing a competitive essay, so that students enter college prepared to write at the university-level.
Whether working with clients one-on-one or running seminars, I absolutely love my job now. I see two sides to what I’m doing. There’s the teaching aspect, as well as the policy-making aspect, which I doing in conjunction with educational organizations and nonprofits. This split allows me to continue doing a little academic research and writing, while making a more immediate connection with those students I want to assist.
What advice would you give someone considering leaving?
Two things. First, you are the only person who can give yourself permission to leave. Accordingly, you are the only person withholding permission for you to leave. I’m guessing most people reading this entered into their programs with every intention of finishing. I sure did. But when my career objectives and life circumstances changed, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a scholar of Russian History. At first I thought, ok, well I can just get my PhD. But without that long-term goal to keep me motivated, any further work on the PhD felt like a waste of time and money, as well as a drain on my happiness and energy.
So, second, I recommend you ask yourself if the degree is still worth it. You can decide to leave academia but still need or want a PhD. But if the PhD was an means to an end that you’re no longer interested in, don’t feel bad about walking away.
It isn’t giving up. It’s letting go so that you can move forward with things that make you feel happy, motivated, purposeful, and productive. Decide what that is for yourself.
More than once my mother has observed that if I could stay in school forever, I would.
She’s right. If I won the lottery, I’d probably spend my time traveling, reading, and taking classes, because World! It’s so amazing and interesting! As it is, I read voraciously across all different kinds of topics. Right now it’s geology and the sociology of time, both spurred by a recent cross-country road trip (why is the landscape the way it is? and how is time so different in different places?), but in the recent past it’s been the ecology of backyards, introversion, the sociology of emotions, and scores of other things.
And yet, despite all of my love of learning and figuring things out, I hesitate to do it in public.
The cultural construction of smartness
As a child, I was tracked into gifted classes, and while the classes themselves rocked, they made my life a particular kind of hell. I remember being in the 6th grade, when the group of us were bussed to another school one day a week. The day we came back, the teacher tossed us a question the rest of the class had answered the day before. We couldn’t answer it, at least in the time allotted, and both she and the rest of the class mocked us for it. No matter that the question was in context for them and out of the blue for us. No matter that brains work differently. No, if we couldn’t answer it immediately and correctly, we must not be that smart.
There used to be a feature in Parade magazine: people would write in questions to Marilyn Von Santos, whose IQ was ranked one of the highest tested. (It may still be in there, for all I know.) These were rarely (at least in my memory) questions that drew out thoughtful, considered, variable answers. They were more often brain teasers trying to stump her. Again, the measure of smartness was being able to answer puzzle questions immediately and correctly.
This pattern — that smartness had to be proven over and over again, demonstrated regularly through feats of intellectual prowess, lest you get marked as not that smart after all — held in many contexts, with many people, across many places.
It causes just a few issues
If failing at something — or quitting something, or not being good at something, or deciding something just isn’t for you — means your entire identity is called into question, well, that’s not something you’re likely to put yourself in a position to experience.
It’s part of why we resist leaving, even when we know we’d be happier elsewhere. What if leaving means we weren’t really that smart after all?
But you are that smart after all. Leaving or staying has nothing to do with how smart you are. It only has to do with the situation at hand: what jobs are available, how well or ill your values and priorities match up with the market, and what actually makes you happy.
So if that fear is rattling around in your brain, bring it into the light. Look at it. Feel some compassion for the young, scared part of you who is worried it means you’re not special anymore. Sweetie, you are special, and you are that smart. And you will continue to be special and smart wherever you land.
Just about a month ago, my wife and I pulled into our new driveway, 2800 miles away from our old driveway. Even though I know better, I had this idea that we’d get settled and back into our routines in no time.
So not true.
While they’re much fewer and farther between, we still have boxes to unpack. (I still haven’t found the kitchen knives, for instance, which does make cooking an adventure.) Every time we want to do something, we have to first figure out where it can happen and then we have to get there from here. We spend time every day trying to remember the arcane recycling rules. We get lost thinking we know where we’re going.
In short, it’s not just the time it takes to unpack the boxes. Part of why transition is so fucking hard is that it erases all your lovely routines and forces you to problem-solve for every. single. thing. We know that making decisions takes actual energy, and we have a finite supply of it. When we have to figure out everything, we need more sleep than usual, we forget things, we get clumsy, and we’re hella emotional.
I can testify to all of these things. I have more bruises on me right now than I did when I learned to ride my bike.
But here’s the difference: Because I know about transition, I could greet the arrival of each annoying side effect ruefully, as something expected, instead of with resistance or anger. Transition is hard, but knowing what to expect meant I didn’t make it harder by thinking there was something wrong with me.
This is why I talk about transition, and this is why I think everyone should know about it. We all go through dozens of transitions in our lives, small and large, and the rules always apply. It’s so much easier when you know it’s normal.
Annoying, but normal.
One of the best, shiniest, and most destructive assumptions we use against ourselves is this one: I should have known.
We say it when something goes wrong. We say it when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would. We say it when things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. We say it when someone else’s dire predictions come true. We say it when we’re angry, when we’re disappointed, when we’re hurt.
Notice that we rarely say it when something goes right. “This relationship is wonderful – I should have known!” “I won the lottery. I should have known!”
Even when we do say it when things go well, we say it in relief and a little bit of laughing at ourselves for our stressing out. But we don’t blame ourselves for not knowing things were going to work out.
No, it’s exclusively a way to beat ourselves up by assigning ourselves the blame for things not working out, no matter what things we’re talking about.
It’s a lie
At base, it assumes that we can, actually, control things, and that in this particular instance we screwed up – instead of acknowledging the reality that the world is complex and variable and dynamic and shit happens that we couldn’t possibly predict or control.
Somehow, it’s easier to believe that we’re screw-ups than it is to believe that there are things we don’t get to be in charge of.
But sweeties. There are things we don’t get to be in charge of. Lots of things.
You aren’t in charge of the economy and how it affects higher education. You aren’t in charge of whether universities post jobs or how they fill them. You aren’t in charge of the way graduate school shapes you and your hopes. (Ideology, man. It happens.) You aren’t in charge of who else is out there, applying for jobs. You aren’t in charge of how many people are getting PhDs. You aren’t in charge of your advisors and their idiosyncracies. You aren’t in charge of how available jobs map on to your very legitimate geographic limitations.
The more we can distinguish between what we are in charge of (how many applications we send out, whether we send them out, other opportunities we pursue, how much time we spend on it, what kind of help and feedback we get, how much we work on our emotional gunk, how much time we spend exploring our options) and what we aren’t in charge of, the happier we’ll be.
I once heard a great quotation, and of course I can’t remember now who said it. (The Dalai Lama? Thich Nhat Hahn?) “If you can’t do anything, don’t worry. If you can do something, don’t worry.”
In other words, do the parts that are yours to do. Let go of everything else. It’s not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to control the universe which, you know, is pretty much guaranteed to fail.
Our culture does a piss-poor job of dealing with grief and mourning. A friend of mine who lost a late-stage pregnancy reports that people actually turned around and ran away from her in the halls in the weeks afterwards. No joke.
If we’re that bad at dealing with actual death, just think for a minute about how bad we are at loss that is less tangible.
You will grieve
Even if you got to the stage of things where you were so disgusted by everything that you were glad to close the book on that chapter of your life, you will grieve. If you got a tenure-track job and decided you didn’t like, it you will grieve. If you didn’t get a job when you really wanted one, you will grieve.
No matter how you get to the point of leaving, you will grieve. Even if you want to go.
Because leaving isn’t just leaving. Leaving means letting go of the whole future narrative of your life that you’d been aiming at. It means facing a future you don’t know the contours of. It means giving up the dreams you had about what this career path would be for you.
Even if you had no emotional hangups about it at all (okay, probably not possible), you would still grieve. Sadness and grieving do the work of letting go. They’re HOW we let go.
It takes time
I’m sorry to tell you this, but grief is a process. Forget that whole Kubler-Ross thing (it’s accurate for sudden and shocking change; not so much for grief) — grief is more like sitting on the shore, letting the waves lap around you. Sometimes, at high tide, they submerge you entirely. Other times, at low tide, they’re just licking at your toes. But they go away, they come back, and while there’s a general rhythm, you can’t exactly predict it.
It takes time. You’ve probably spent a decade in academia. That entire time, you had a vision of who you would be, the career you would have, the life you would live. When you leave, you lose all of that.
I’ve talked to so many clients who think they should be over it already, when “already” can be measured in weeks or months.
Oh sweetie. You should not be over it already
This is big, and profound, and significant. It will take longer than a headcold to get over. It will almost certainly take longer than you’d like it to.
But if you can really feel the sadness and the grief — the bodily sensations, the crying, not the narrative about it — the worst of it will pass relatively quickly.
Weirdly, you’ll actually get over it much more quickly by explicitly giving yourself time and space to grieve. It can feel like it will pull you under and never let you go, that if you start actually grieving you’ll never stop.
But you will stop. The grief will run its course. And it will take so much less of you with it if you can open to it.
So go ahead. Grieve. You deserve to acknowledge what you’ve lost. It matters that you lost it.
It sucks, and I’m so sorry.
Have you ever had the experience of dreading something, assuming it’s going to take hours and hours and be really painful, only to sit down and finish it lickety-split?
Most of the time, it’s because the stuff you have to do is simple and quick, but the emotional baggage between here and getting it done is huge.
It’s why “just write three pages a day” works when you aren’t emotionally tangled up in a project, but fails miserably when you are. It’s why making choices that feel important take forever, even when we know logically that there aren’t huge differences between the two and we’ll likely be fine either way.
Leaving is like that
The stuff of leaving — telling people, looking at what else you can do, writing job materials, applying for jobs — isn’t all that complicated, when it comes down to it. Sure, there are things you’re unfamiliar with, and things you’ve got to figure out, but the logistics are fairly straightforward, even if the proliferation of details is kind of overwhelming.
What’s hard is worrying that your adviser will be disappointed in you and trying to figure out some way to ensure she won’t be disappointed. What’s hard is being afraid you don’t have any marketable skills and beating yourself up for not doing something more practical when you had the chance. What’s hard is regretting that you spent eight years doing this thing you now don’t like and being angry that you have to start over.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t logistical questions
Even though logistics are relatively uncomplicated (hey, anything is less complicated than digging around in our psyches to untangle old patterns), that doesn’t mean they’re obvious. When we don’t know something, we don’t know it, and we’ve got to learn it. That goes double for changing contexts.
When you’re leaving academia, the way the non-academic job search works is far from obvious. How to leave without burning all your bridges is far from obvious. How to translate your academic experience into something a non-academic employer wants is far from obvious.
So it’s not that you shouldn’t spend some time figuring out the logistics. The problem comes when we spend all our time on the logistics, dithering and wondering and getting frustrated, not realizing that it’s going to go a lot better if we address the emotional underpinnings of all that spinning in place.
Anytime a logistical, practical problem is complicated (rather than complex), stop and take a breath. Ask yourself what you’re afraid will happen as a result of solving this. What could happen if you choose one way? What could happen if you choose another way? What reservations or worries are you having about the whole endeavor?
It’s easy to think that addressing the emotional part of things will make it all take longer, and there’s no time! And you have to figure it out right now!
Ironically, when you take time to actually engage the emotional piece, the practical piece often gets done in no time at all — meaning it actually took less time overall than when you tried to ignore the emotional end and force your way through the practicalities. Life is funny that way.
This is the underlying theory of the course I’m teaching next month on the non-academic job search. Yes, we’re going to talk about the logistics, and we’re going to problem solve and brainstorm and apply principles to actual situations. But we’re also going to pay attention to the fears, the anxieties, and the what ifs, because that’s where the power is.
If you’re leaving or considering leaving and you’d like some support figuring out the job search, check it out.
And the next time you notice yourself stuck on something that seems straightforward, ask yourself why. It’s so much more efficient, not to mention effective.
Barbara Sher has famously said that “you can’t get enough of what you don’t really want.”
When you want to go on a nice long hike, you won’t be satisfied by sitting at the coffee shop writing, no matter how many treats you give yourself. When you want to read trashy novels, you won’t be satisfied by reading high literature, no matter how good they are.
You can get caught up in what you think you’re supposed to want, and then feel restless and dissatisfied when you get it, because it wasn’t what you really wanted.
But instead of recognizing that it wasn’t what you really wanted, you blame yourself or think that if you just keep pushing through, you’re going to love it sooner or later.
If you’re dissatisfied, you aren’t getting what you want
It’s risky to acknowledge what you really want, especially if what you really want doesn’t fit the narrative you’re trying to live or that the people around you are living.
It turns out I’m a much bigger fan of popular culture than I am of “high art.” When I was a graduate student in English, I felt guilty about watching romantic comedies and liking pop music, because it was all about the Coen brothers and musicians I’d never heard of.
My then-boyfriend was obsessed with Keanu Reeves, but that was different because he somehow shoehorned Reeves’ acting into Deleuzian theory. Another friend of ours was obsessed with Arnold Schwartzenegger, but that was different because he wrote papers about him.
I didn’t want to analyze it, theorize about it, or write about it. I just wanted to enjoy it. I kept a lot of what I loved to myself.
Aesthetics are small potatoes when it turns out you don’t want academia and everyone around you thinks it’s the brass ring. When the story is that the academic life is wonderful and flexible, but it’s just stressing you the hell out, trying to talk yourself into seeing it as wonderful and flexible isn’t going to make you happier about it.
The only way to be satisfied is to go after what you really want
If you’re unhappy, take some time to think about what it is you really, actually want. Not what you’re supposed to want, or what you think you should want because you’d be a different kind of person if you wanted it, but what you actually want.
When you can name it, you can figure out how to get it. But if you don’t acknowledge it, you’ll remain dissatisfied. And this life is too interesting and rich for that.