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.