Since I’ve been talking to people about leaving the academy, I’ve noticed that many people — both academics and non-academics* — seem to equate
1. wanting to leave with being sorry you came, and
2. gaining worthwhile skills and knowledge with finishing the dissertation and receiving the PhD.
Some people probably do experience these things as equivalent, so I don’t want to deny that reality. But I think it’s a mistake to see the two equivalences I listed above as necessary, or occurring in all cases. And I want to suggest that it’s helpful to untie the cognitive-emotional knots that join, for example, wanting to get out of the academy now with thinking that the last three or six or fifteen years of your life have been a mistake.
It might sound counterintuitive, but recognizing what I got out of academia actually made the decision to leave the academy less painful. Plus, I realized that I have skills that could find their way onto a non-academic resume (more about that in a later post). Best of all, I was able to lay claim to the last seven years of my life as a productive and empowering period and a good basis for the future. I want to devote this post to personal reasons I’m glad I went to grad school, with the hope that other humanities folks out there will see what they have gained too — whether that list includes the PhD or not.
Disclaimer: There are sooooooo many reasons not to go to grad school, especially in the humanities. The fact that I am glad I came doesn’t change the facts. Maybe I would have gained the same things, or something else of equal value, by staying away from grad school. And this post is about value as much, or more, than about facts: I’m pretty invested in seeing my life’s narrative as a unified whole, so I tend to incorporate even negative experiences into that narrative in a positive way.
Without further ado, 5 reasons I’m glad I went:
5. The People. I met some people I couldn’t stand, including real-life versions of this person. I experienced epic academic mansplaining and felt the isolation of being a woman (of color!) in philosophy every day. I also met some of the coolest, kindest, smartest, most amazing people, some of whom are my closest friends (one of whom is my spouse!), some of whom are just acquaintances, all of whom I am really happy exist in the world and with whom I can have genuinely awesome conversations about a wide variety of things, philosophical and otherwise. All of the people I’ve met, whether I liked them or not, have taught me things I really needed to learn. In fact, the really bad experiences (say, of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia) have made me stronger and steelier than I ever was before. In a better world, they wouldn’t happen, but in this world they are dead useful.
4. The Disillusionment. No, really! Like a lot of people, I believed Myth #4 and came to the academy thinking it was purer than the business world. After TAing for six years and seeing several contract negotiations between my grad employees’ union and the administration, I know that the university is just as exploitative as any other business, and that the myth of purity helps keep TAs, adjuncts, and even tenured professors cowed. Imagine if I didn’t go to grad school and never found that out! I’d be kicking myself forever for “selling out,” not realizing that the value judgement that casts engagement with things other than academia as selling out is based on false beliefs about the academy. Like a lot of philosophers, I am inordinately interested in finding out The Truth, so this is valuable in itself. Also, having experienced life as a contingent worker, I have a sense of direction for the future: if and when I start my own business, I know that making it a fair place to work is a top priority. I know at least some things not to do, and I have some idea how to start thinking about what to do. Since my desire to work in an environment where labour is treated fairly and workers can flourish hasn’t changed, whatever knowledge I’ve gained about this set of issues puts me closer to my goal.
3. The Reasoning Skills. Holy crap, can I cut through a bad argument. Not that I was dumb before grad school, but spending years doing nothing but critiquing and creating arguments has really sharpened my conceptual and analytical skills. Now I can see very quickly, sometimes immediately, that something isn’t going to work, so I’m free to move on sooner. On the other hand, I’m better at untangling difficult problems, so I can tenaciously get to grips with things that do seem worthwhile. If you don’t believe that this is true of you, and you are done with coursework, try this. Sit in on a seminar. Observe your thoughts and feelings. Compare to the past. Aren’t you way better at this than you were back in your own coursework days? Now try it in a non-academic setting (it works there, too).
2. The Confidence. I know I’m not the only one who felt really, really nervous and insecure at the beginning of grad school, who mistook others’ bravado for superiority, who constantly questioned her own competence and her very right to be a part of the conversation. I’m also not the only one who, through a combination of lots of teaching and lots of research and maybe a professional conference or two and a ton of introspection, overcame the impostor syndrome and grew into a confident person. Sure, I’m still fallible, and I still know when to defer to others’ expertise. But I know my strengths, and while I respect others, I’m not afraid of anyone. I can’t tell you what a difference this has made in my professional and personal life.
1. Wu Wei**, or It Made Sense, Even Though I Wasn’t in a Position to Conceptualize Why at the Time. When I decided to go to grad school, I did so as the person I was then, with the needs I had at that time. I knew something about the abysmal job market and something about the possible awfulness of writing a dissertation, but at the time it didn’t matter because it felt right to go. For non-instrumental reasons. I just wanted to do philosophy in a serious way, in a structured environment where I would get lots of criticism and feedback from experts. So I went. And now, seven years later, I can truly say that (1) it was the right decision for the person I was at that time, and (2) it has helped me grow into the person I am now, for whom leaving the academy is the right decision. I guess I got what I needed.
Do I know what comes next? No. Hell, I don’t even know if I should finish my dissertation before leaving. But I do know that no matter what I decide about the dissertation, I have gained things that I need for the life ahead. I am not sorry I came, and what I’ve gained does not depend on actually having the PhD. And I’m ready to move on.
Thank you, Academy, and so long!
*Actually, the most recent two people to express these equations to me were my dad and my department chair. Hilarious, in a way: both the Name of the Father and the actual father, saying things that made me feel tiny and powerless and like a failure, in the context of my trying to leave the most hierarchical, patriarchical institution, maybe not EVAR, but in my experience. It’s like something that would happen in a bad play, but it was reality.
**I’m not a scholar or even a good reader of Chinese philosophy at all, but I do know that wu wei is a complex concept, so big apologies to any readers who actually have substantive knowledge in this area. I’m totally just appropriating some shard of this idea so I can use the term for my own purposes here. Nobody should ever take anything I say seriously as reflecting anything true about Daoism, OK?