But I want to post about this because there is a part of it that is mine, and I can’t tell it without giving a summary of the one that isn’t mine, if that makes sense.
Summary: BES is leaving her PhD program in order to pursue a life outside of academe.
She’s not leaving because she wasn’t excelling (she was). She’s leaving because she has other things she wants to do. And because it made her miserable.
So here is where it becomes my story. She told me about this decision a couple of weeks ago, and the deed was already done before she told me about it. I think that she was freaked out about telling me – more freaked out, obviously, than she was about telling her mentors in her grad program.
How did I initially react? Well, initially I just reacted as a friend, I think. I wanted to know if she felt good about the decision, and I wanted to know that she felt happy. After the fact, I admit that I did wonder at what motivated her to do it, and I had some uncharitable thoughts related to her being afraid to write her dissertation. But those were brief. Don’t take this the wrong way when I say it: I didn’t and don’t actually care that she decided the profession wasn’t for her.
At no point in relation to this news have I felt like this is some sort of tragedy. I don’t feel like the profession is in dire straits because she decided it wasn’t for her, nor do I feel like I have in some way failed, nor do I feel that she betrayed me or or that I have something to be angry or sad about about it or something. I hate the thing that I feel is pervasive in academia where mentors feel like they are in some way the architect of their students’ lives, whether the students “succeed” or “fail” at academia, or just decide neutrally to opt out. I feel like that is narcissistic bullshit, at the end of the day. And I hate the idea that my value as a person or an intellectual or a professional should be measured by whether I make copies of myself and send them off into the (academic) world. I won’t lie: I’m a little wistful because the future of MLA conventions together that I’d envisioned won’t happen now, but I’m not disappointed in her, nor do I feel like her decision has a thing in the world, really, to do with me.
What was kind of funny about our follow-up convo last night was that she noted that her emotions about her decision were most dramatic about her undergrad profs (including but not limited to me) but that she was fine about telling her grad faculty, since they’d always been at such a distance from her. I noted a couple of things in response: 1) I wondered if she’d had more of a connection with her grad profs if she would have made the same decision and 2) probably one shouldn’t feel that connection with profs in grad school, and that it was probably good that she was making HER decision rather than emulating people that she admired.
So why am I writing this post? Mainly because I want some grad student out there who really doesn’t want this life, but who feels obligated for whatever reason, to know not only that it’s totally ok not to want it but also that acting on that feeling won’t make everybody in the world, plus the mentors that you most value, hate you. At the end of the day, the point is living the life you want. And better not to waste years pursuing that degree plus hours in therapy to get a PhD you don’t want.