Sunday, February 13, 2011

why I decided to leave grad school in Classics

I'm really excited to be guest blogging over at Worst Professor Ever this week. I'll be offering some advice for folks who have made the scary decision to leave university life for the big Other--life outside academia.

What can I say about academia that hasn't already been said by the Simpsons?

After a truly wonderful undergraduate career at Loyola University New Orleans, wild horses could not have stopped me from pursuing graduate school. I loved my close-knit Classics department with its inquisitive, enthusiastic students and supportive, sparkling faculty. With Davina as my incredible mentor, I was on top of the world. I studied hungrily, taking exactly twice the number of Classics classes I needed for my major. I was sure beyond doubt that I was born to be an academic.

Grad school was an ice-cold glass of reality in my face. The University of Texas Classics Department proved to be nothing like the supportive nest I'd left behind in New Orleans. I could (and who knows, maybe will one day) write a book about what a truly terrible experience I had in graduate school. Cultivating special relationships with wonderful people like Mary Jane and Douglass Parker (and other folks--you know who you are) was all that got me through, but it wasn't enough to balance the scales. Parker was retiring and couldn't take me on as an advisee. Suffice it to say that I decided by the end of my first semester that I would stick it out until I finished my master's degree and then be finished.

How could I have so quickly turned my back on a career I had been cultivating so carefully for so long? Was it the total lack of joy many of my colleagues seemed to take in their work? Was it the appalling insufficiency of faculty interest in and attention towards graduate students? Surely a smart, willful young woman like me wouldn't let a bunch of haters keep her from her dreams. Ultimately I found that my decision to leave wasn't about the toxic environment I'd found myself in for graduate school. I realized the whole thing just wasn't for me.

At my father's advice, I wrote myself a letter at the beginning of my last semester reminding myself why I decided to leave graduate school. He told me it would be nice to have one day to remind myself why I had done what I did.

Now, more than four years later, I am sharing it with all of you.

January 16, 2007

I'm leaving for a lot of different reasons.

I'm leaving because graduate school in Classics does not suit my personality. The fact that I am an effervescent, enthusiastic, extroverted, excitable, bossy, innovative person is a major liability to my career as an academic. The ideal academic personality is truly ascetic, valuing hard hours of studying hard Greek in a hard chair with too little sleep and too little to eat in a too little apartment. I am not an ascetic. In fact, I'm a little bit of a hedonist. My desire to spend long lazy weekends doing whatever I please, my desire to spend quality time writing and reading, and my desire to hold my family and personal life ahead of my professional life all make me an undesirable candidate for a PhD. Also, my skills with organization, with people, and with leadership are all squandered in this environment. When do I get to let that huge part of my personality shine in graduate school? Hardly ever. Instead, these truly useful and desirable skills are frowned upon, or tolerated at best. I need a job where my interpersonal skills, my creativity, and my leadership ability are utilized, not ignored.

Getting a PhD in classics is a career cul-de-sac for me. After obtaining my PhD, I would be lucky to be offered even a temporary position at any university. This university would likely be in an undesirable city for me, and almost certainly a city where Nick would be unable to find satisfying work. This job would pay me an insultingly small amount to at once teach multiple classes (many of which I would not be qualified to or inclined to teach) and continue my own research in the Classics in the hopes that one day I might become tenured somewhere by publishing multiple works of nonfiction about minutiae in ancient texts. The best I could possibly do as a Classics professor would be gaining tenure and earning $75,000 as a full professor at a nice private university.

I don't want to be a Classics professor anymore. In fact, I am pretty sick of studying the Classics, period. Latin and Greek appeal to me because they are languages, rather exquisite languages, but not because I have any special connection to the ancient world. There. I said it. I do not feel any particular connection with the ancient world, aside from the one that has developed from studying it for years and years. That's the heart of the matter.

I don't want it, I don't want them, they don't want me, and it wouldn't be good anyway.

You are better off in a real job. It might seem empty and meaningless sometimes. Remember that it is not actually any more meaningful to be studying puns in the Hippolytus. Accounting for minutiae in ancient texts is not inherently valuable in any special way. In fact, it is a waste of your talents.

Don't ever be discouraged or worry that you made the wrong decision. You did the right thing.

I've never had to reread this letter to reassure myself. I've never regretted my decision to leave graduate school for a moment. I so was afraid that life outside of my own research would feel empty and meaningless, but I adore my work. With apologies to the great Nadine Eckhardt--ever since I left academia, my life's been duck soup.

So be sure to tune into Worst Professor Ever this week to see what kind of advice I come up with for people who want to explore life on the other side of the fence. WoPro is a fellow disgruntled former classicist from UT's grad program who is turning her defection from academe into an awesome blog. She's a gutsy woman whom I admire and with whom I enjoy drinking beer and talking noise periodically. Go check her out.

Discussion Question: Have you ever written yourself a letter?


  1. I'm not sure I'd reward academia with the title of 'ascetic'; to me it's just a workplace that has built itself around socially stunted people, as well as rewarding OCD narcissists. Which is just as good a reason to get the hell out!

    No letters, though the blog is turning into a novel...

  2. This hedonist doesn't consider to be much of a compliment but you preach the truth as always :)

  3. To answer the posited question, I have never written a letter to myself. I have visions of anything I would write to myself smacking of that terrible emo phase I had in college, rife with Blessid Union of Souls.

    I still don't understand how anyone put up with that.

    kmjdp, I think you should put together your grad school experiences into a David Sedaris-type novella. I would request an autographed copy tout suite.

  4. omg Blessid Union of Souls!!!

    yeah, I had a few of their cassingles.

    and I'll file that novella idea away--it's not a bad one :)

  5. OMG, Blessid Union of Souls = Cincinnati Cowpunk.

    Also, LOL @ cassingles.

    Also, my favorite (and most personal) part of that Simpsons clip is "...I only made $600 last year."

  6. Doesn't that Simpsons clip kind of summarize the life of a grad student? Ugh and don't get me started on the sub-topic of being MARRIED to a freakin graduate student... :P

  7. Cool post, Katie! I agree that your creative social energy and life-embracing irreverent brilliance would be wasted in a stuffy academic department populated by sad melon-heads with no people skills. Good that you got out when you did.

    My own grad school experience was pretty fun because it was with a large, hard-partying cohort of fellow marine biologists. We had the run of a field station in a separate town from the main college campus. That was a good arrangement because it made us feel like beautiful swans in our own pond instead of like unwanted geese in the undergraduate duckpond, which is what I think being a graduate student usually feels like.

  8. James, that is the nicest thing to say! :')

    I'm glad to know that other people had less grim experiences in higher education. The world needs good marine biologists!

  9. Thanks for sharing your story. I really look forward to reading your guest post this week on WoPro's blog. I actually sent my graduate coordinator my "I quit" notice this morning (I'm a PhD student in English). It feels freeing and kind of weird at the same time. I'm quitting for many of the same reasons as you mentioned in your post.

  10. High five, fellow defector! Good luck on all that comes next! I hope my WoPro guest blog is helpful for you--I wrote it for people just like you. Hit me up on twitter if you ever want to commiserate :)

  11. I left graduate school in the Health Sciences too due to a lack of support....I wish I had the boldness to write the exact same letter! And I do not regret it either.

    1. The letter I wrote was to myself, not my professors or colleagues. It's never too late to write that kind of letter to yourself! :)

  12. I just found this, and I completely feel you. I absolutely adored Classics. I was praised by many of my professors and was regarded as a mentor by my fellow classmates. I was at the top of every class, never getting anything below a 97 on any of my language tests. During my last two semesters, which were my hardest, it dawned on me how miserable my life would be as a Classics graduate student. I was reading at least 1000 lines of Greek and Latin each, and staying up late to make sure that I read and understood the languages as if they were my native ones. Although I balanced my social life and academic life pretty well, I knew that going to graduate school for Classics meant at least triple the coursework and not enough praise from professors. Just like you, am effervescent, extroverted, and hedonistic. Today I am two semesters away from receiving my Master's in Library Science, with no regrets.

    1. One thousand high fives to you to for having this realization WITHOUT learning the hard way! I hope the library world treats you very well. :)