The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program

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I’m a PhD dropout, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s on my Twitter bio and stuff.

When people ask me why I quit grad school — particularly two chapters into my dissertation — I usually give them a fairly boilerplate response, one that fits well with some of the current narratives about the failures of higher education:

A PhD candidate in Comparative Literature. I saw the dearth of tenure track positions in my field. I saw funding for foreign language, literature, theater departments (three of my areas of "expertise") axed. I sat on hiring committees where an opening for an assistant professor position would receive hundreds and hundreds of applicants, all from incredibly qualified job candidates. I saw friends on the job market year after year after year after year. I saw colleagues take jobs in undesirable locations. I saw colleagues take jobs with overwhelming teaching loads. I saw them struggling to make ends meet, often burdened with substantial student loan debt. And more and more frequently, I saw them having to support themselves and their families as adjunct professors, piecing together teaching jobs at community colleges and universities, often commuting lengthy distances to do so. No benefits. No job security. Certainly no tenure track — that modicum of job security and intellectual freedom that’s supposed to come at the end of the whole awful grad school ordeal.

I saw the handwriting on the wall — the future for academics looked grim. So, I dropped out.

Even though I had several publications under my belt, had taught for a number of years, had spoken at major conferences — all the “right things” to make my CV stand out to potential employers and make me one of those “incredibly qualified job candidates” — I felt the promise of a professorship was a false one. A false promise to most grad students to be sure, and definitely a false promise to me.

I was disillusioned by the institution of higher education. I still am. But my disillusionment about grad school involves much more than simply the unhappy prospects for the academic job market. I saw the university care more about sports than learning. I saw undergrads care more about getting their diplomas than learning. I’d once believed I wanted to be part of a scholarly community, but “community” was sorely lacking, as was oftentimes the scholarship. And while I wanted to spend my life immersed in learning and teaching and writing, I just couldn’t reconcile “the life of the mind” with the whims of university administrators, state politicians, state budgets. I couldn’t reconcile “the life of the mind” with the demands of the physical world, the demands of the physical body.

In the spring of 2004, I’d passed my qualifying exams (with distinction, I’ll brag). I’d submitted a dissertation prospectus that was accepted by my committee. (The prospectus won an award.) But rather than start churning out the chapters right away, I figured I’d make the most of the summer vacation — a summer vacation in which I did very little. I wrote an introduction. I penned a first chapter. I made some notes, sketched out some outlines. I taught summer school — a coveted position in my department as it meant having a little bit of income in the months between the end of spring term and the beginning of the fall one.

While I did get a small teaching stipend for those summer months, I did not have any health insurance. At the beginning of the 2003–2004 school year, I’d opted to pay for just 9 months of insurance (at a cost for my family of about one full month’s salary, incidentally). So when my husband Anthony began to experience extreme and frequent heartburn and nausea over the summer months, he figured he’d just wait to see a doctor ’til I could pay the family’s insurance bill again when the Fall Term started in September.

September 15, we again had insurance. September 16, he saw a doctor. The diagnosis: not something that a “little purple pill” could clear up.

Liver cancer.

He was 33. Our son, 11.

I chronicled a lot of my struggles with the medical and health insurance industries back then in blog posts I don’t feel particularly compelled to link to – in no small part because it’s really quite painful to revisit them. 2004 was when I started blogging, and I was relieved to find a supportive readership among fellow grad students, academics early in their careers, and others with loved ones with cancer.

I found little such community on my own campus. I found little such support from my department. I found little such support from my dissertation committee members — professors that I had considered my mentors.

There was never any question, it seemed, that I would continue to teach, continue to write the dissertation, and all the while care take my dying husband and our son. Nobody offered me any alternatives; admittedly I never asked. I couldn’t take a leave of absence from school altogether. My family needed the income. My family needed the health insurance.

On August 29, 2005 — seven years ago today — Anthony died.

A month later, still in a daze from death and dying, I stumbled back into the classroom to teach. I don’t remember anything about that entire academic year. I don’t remember what I taught (although my CV indicates I did so). I certainly didn’t write a word of my dissertation.

Then at the end of that school year, I received a note from my department: I’d used up all my funding and there’d be no more teaching appointments available for me. (I was welcome to apply for positions in other departments.) I got a note from the grad school too: I’d have to finish my dissertation ASAP or apply for a special extension as I was coming up against the seven year deadline to complete a PhD.

So I quit.

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics. I quit because I didn’t want to be a cog in that machine. I quit because I felt the system was broken. And at the time, I was broken too.

Seven years later, I’m healing; I'm stronger than ever. The health and prognosis for the institution of higher education, however, don’t seem quite as good.

Image credits: Anthony Vanderford



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