Are you smart enough to stay in grad school?

There is a widespread belief in academia that people who leave graduate school are dropouts who couldn’t hack it in the program. I take issue with this belief. I don’t like the choice of words.  There are high-school dropouts and college dropouts; kids who leave school before completing the essential programs to become productive members of society. This is why there is a negative stigma around the term “dropout”. Graduate school is not such a program. I would even say that many graduate programs actually make people less productive members of society. I have this idea of a time when PhDs were all called “Doctors” everywhere, and they were polymaths: informed, knowledgeable in many subjects, very smart. PhDs today are about the opposite: they are about specializing, about narrowing down your focus to a single thing. I could talk about my subfield comfortably, but when I hear talks from other fields I feel completely lost! How did I get here? How is it that after so many years of studying I actually feel like I know less?

Anyway, people who change their minds about getting a PhD are not dropouts. They are courageous people who have a clear idea of what they want in life, and no, they don’t lose IQ when they exit the ivory tower, and no, the postacademic cooties are not contagious, and finally no, you don’t lose academic purity by remaining friends with them. In a previous post I mentioned the encouragement I received from my professors and my family. What nobody mentioned was that if you are smart enough for grad school, you are smart enough for a whole bunch of other things too. In addition to that, the first weeks of graduate school are daunting. There is a lot of work, but there is also a lot of talk about how lucky you are to be in this program. TNRU is such a prestigious department, the professors are so well recognized in their fields, and everybody is so smart (while everybody outside of campus is banal and obtuse). Academia is the winner’s circle, everybody outside of it is a loser [ by the way, isn’t it funny how in academia the post-acs are the losers, but in the post-ac world it’s “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”? ]. I didn’t want to be the loser. I knew academe  isn’t for me a few months into the program, but I felt like I needed to prove to myself that it isn’t for me because I don’t like it, not because I can’t do it. So I stayed.

I remember an instance where a person who left my program was talked about with disdain. “Ze is quitting. Ze can’t take it anymore.”, someone said, “this workload isn’t for everyone.” These comments made me so angry, because clearly none of the people understood how difficult it is to decide to leave. When one ponders leaving the program, one is obviously dealing with a lot of internal struggles. We grad students are also not the “quitting” type of people, so we probably have thought this for a while and we’ve been miserable for a while. If one takes one’s eyes off the problem sets/papers/dissertation, one realizes there’s a lot to hate about academe.

The academic/work/vocation dimension is only one side of the problem. There is the issue of graduate life itself. At least for me, this dimension weighed a lot. When we choose the PhD route, we change our lives and sometimes the lives of the people we love (significant others, children…):

  1. You relocate, many times to a different country.
  2. You make a vow of poverty. Even if you have funding from your department, check your funding letter: we are funded for 9 months, even though you are expected to be a graduate student for 12. Many get loans, rely on their families, or decide to spend their life savings on graduate studies. We take on-campus jobs, get teaching gigs, get research assistant gigs. And even then, I have yet to find a graduate student who can say “I live comfortably. I think I only want a raise; I don’t actually need it.”
  3. You get sunk costs that grow each day you stay in grad school: Instead of starting your retirement savings, you will not save a dime. You will postpone the beginning of your career and professional experience by at least four years. Instead of buying a home, you get a room-mate. Instead of having children, you have “revise and resubmit”.
  4. You get out of touch with your friends. If you are foreign, you will miss many of your family and friends’ milestones because you don’t have the time or the money to be there for them.

… and then you get a hunch this isn’t what you expected, or what you want to do for the rest of your life. More directly: I sacrificed/let go of so much to get here (TNRU), and now I think I want to walk away. wow. WOW. I couldn’t leave empty-handed. Not after everything I put my family and my significant other through.

From the point of view of “true academics” you only need to be smart to stay in graduate school. For me it was really cowardice that kept me in. I was afraid of discovering the source of my unhappiness wasn’t academia but something else, something inherently wrong with me. I was afraid there won’t be a place for me outside of academe. I was afraid of disappointing people. I couldn’t deal with all this, I didn’t know how. I know how to study/write a paper/learn, so I did that and kept doing it until there was nothing left but a dissertation and the job market, and I realized I would have to deal with this or else I would start the cycle all over again.

I wish I could have talked to that person who left the program. I would’ve told hir how brave I think ze is for daring to make the jump before it was too late, like me.




  1. Lauren

    It is really hard to make that decision to leave and not knowing what the f*** your going to do after. I applied for non-academic jobs for months before I left with my masters and nothing in what I thought I wanted to do happened. Then I moved back home (with my mom) and found a job that I love, does not pay a lot, thus living at home for now, but it has a lot of room to grow and will hopefully become something really successful. Its not at all what I thought I would be doing but in incorporates a lot of things I love and I know I am miles happier now than I would be if I stayed in grad school. I know it may seem super scary right now, but if you stick with your decision I think you’ll find you’ll end up in a way better place! Good luck!

  2. Caitlin

    Lovely blog. So much of this sounds very familiar. And since it sounds so similar to my inner debates, I’m going to take the liberty of mentioning that my inner dialogue got much, much happier when I stopped *telling* people I was leaving and, just… left. Socially more than institutionally. Academia is such a totalizing institution that I found I had little in common and little to talk about with my old friends and colleagues once I decided I wanted out. And even non-academic friends and family have a bit of a hard time when the people they thought they knew want a drastic change in their lives–they may mistrust your decision, and thus make you feel the same. Finding a new circle of people (even just online!) in which to take my new, post-academic self for a test-drive made me immeasurably more confident in my post-academic skin.

  3. viktoriaeremita

    “There are high-school dropouts and college dropouts; kids who leave school before completing the essential programs to become productive members of society. This is why there is a negative stigma around the term ‘dropout’. Graduate school is not such a program. I would even say that many graduate programs actually make people less productive members of society.”

    You’re so right: it takes major guts to quit! I’ve been trying to quit for months (years?) now, and when I’ve talked about it, I have absolutely gotten a reaction from some people as if I had said I wanted to drop out of high school. This is absurd. Thank you for saying so clearly and succinctly why leaving grad school is not dropping out. It is just a life decision, and it can be a healthy and smart one.

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