It was almost a year since I had first mentioned my qualms about academic life, so by now I just wanted to finish. I was tired of feeling guilty and angry and confused, of the awkwardness at the department, of being ignored by my professors. And so I tried to focus on submitting the dissertation and preparing the defense.
Then, a couple of weeks before D-day, I had a conversations with department members and heard their version of the last year. I think it was important for me to hear this and appreciate the people who voiced these opinions, but I will hate their timing forever. I heard theories about my decision. They ranged from “nervous breakdown” to “manipulative mastermind whose goal was to take advantage of the department and TNRU”. None of that was really surprising; academic departments are full of gossip and politics. Plus, in an environment where academia is the only right path, anyone who strays from it must be mentally challenged, unstable, or plain evil. I got over this pretty quickly. But hearing my advisers’ reactions to my decision got to me. They were blindsided. Our relationship began years before the job market and they always thought I “had it”. Not only were they disappointed that I was refusing to even try being an Assistant Professor; they thought I had handled my exit poorly. They were convinced I was making the wrong decision.
… fuck. Fuck a duck. My dissertation defense would take place in a room full of disappointed people who think I’m wrong. That’s not a very promising scenario. [I could have saved myself a lot of stress if I would’ve realized, once I had a defense date, that an unsuccessful defense is seen as a huge fail for the PhD candidate and the committee alike. They could not fail me. I didn’t know that, so I was very stressed out.]
What could I do? Could I meet with the committee beforehand to smooth things over? Apologize? Say something during the defense? Guilt, sadness, loneliness, doubt: all the feelings that had been a constant in my life since the first time I questioned the academic path came back and piled onto the stress of preparing a dissertation defense. I felt that I was doing something wrong, and I hated myself for it. Did I take advantage of TNRU? It’s not like I’m taking my fellowship and grants and buying a house in the Bahamas. Did I take advantage of the committee members? Professors could have invested in other projects and students. But I also worked hard on their experiments, their surveys, their articles, their TA chores. And, of course, again I wondered… am I making the wrong choice?
Then I manned up. I don’t know how but there was a catharsis. I decided to stop trying to change their opinion about me. I wouldn’t apologize for taking control of my professional life. I reasoned that in any conference presentation or peer-review process, science shouldn’t be influenced by attitudes toward the scientists. A dissertation defense shouldn’t be any different. OK, maybe that’s not how science really happens. But whatever. I needed something to break the cycle of wanting to leave but also wanting to please everyone. Regardless of my own feelings about academic life and the research industry, I went to class, TA’d, reviewed articles, and produced the best dissertation I could (it’s pretty crappy and I can’t even look at it. But I don’t doubt that I gave it my absolute best shot). I expected my committee to do the same: regardless of their disappointment, they should be able to judge my dissertation objectively.
And so it was. The defense was not as horrible as I thought it would be. Maybe I had prepared very well and obsessed over insignificant details. Maybe my committee didn’t bother to prepare hard questions. No blood was shed, but no champagne was popped either. After the defense I went for a long run, ate, and slept for 15 hours straight.
A few days later, my library books were returned, my office was packed. The paperwork was submitted. Signing the forms is what I imagine signing divorce papers might feel like: something’s technically over, but something still feels unfinished. I found myself thinking a lot about my advisers and what I heard they had said. I needed closure. I needed to say that I wish things wouldn’t have been so messy. I don’t know what I would change. I don’t think I’ll be a student again, ever. But I don’t regret going to graduate school either. I wanted my mentors to know I’m not throwing their teachings away. I won’t use them the way they would want me to, but I still see myself as a scholar. Just… one who dissents from the idea that academia is the only worthwhile intellectual pursuit on the planet.
Objectively, I sincerely think my graduate experience was pretty great. I had to tell them I knew this. TNRU is a fantastic institution. I never had to worry about funding (not on the lap of luxury, but I could always count on a stipend). The undergrads were really smart. For years, these professors’ doors were wide open to me and my questions. And I learned A LOT, about my academic field and about myself. If I couldn’t be happy in this great academic setting, it’s pretty unlikely that I’d be happy in a different institution or in a different role.
Over a series of 1 on 1 coffee meetings, some held on to the poker face, some were more expressive. A couple of times it felt like I was saying goodbye, other times I felt like we were turning the page and moving on in our professional relationship. In all cases, I felt that talking after I had already defended was the right call. Most importantly, I felt like my PhD was finally done.