Beyond “QuitLit”

I quit my job text on cardboard

I spent weeks working myself into a fine lather over the how, when, and why of explaining my current relationship with academia (which I eventually did in my most recent post). Grad school is a fantastic incubator for self-consciousness, and—though I make a genuine (and, I would argue, largely successful) effort to stay optimistic and confident in all things—I couldn’t help but worry about how my colleagues and peers might respond to my public declaration that I’m not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up.

While some of that anxiety was inevitable, it also proved to be a fantastic waste of my time.

Since returning to school (and SMDS), I’ve been buoyed by support from peers and mentors around the country. It turns out I’m not alone. There are a lot of graduate students who aren’t really sure the career path they are following is the best choice for them. Indeed, I’ve heard from highly successful tenured professors that they still don’t know if they made the right choices, decades later. Even those who are convinced they found their place in the world are sympathetic to my situation, because they’ve seen it so many times before. I’ve also discovered that some of the grad students I most admire (and least expected) are warming to the alt-ac path, if for no other reason because the exigencies of the job market dictate they must.

I’m sharing this miniature update because—while I consider myself a pretty astute observer of micro and macro trends in higher education—I didn’t anticipate the tide of empathy in which I’m currently bathed. At best, I assumed I’d face a lot of cajoling; at worst, I figured I’d be written off as too weak to survive in academia. I came to these expectations honestly, in no small part thanks to a number of articles on the topic (so-called “QuitLit”) that have been circulating in the recent past. I was especially struck by Elizabeth Keenan’s Vitae post on “Having the Talk.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but stay with me here. The fact that so many people are taking to the internet to enumerate the reasons why they left academia, and to empower others as they do the same, made me feel like the thoughts I’m currently indulging required justification. It felt like I was committing some kind of radical thought crime, just by acknowledging that—at twenty freakin’ eight—I’m not 100% wedded to my current career path.  That’s insane.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate the efforts of my fellow bloggers; I think “QuitLit” deserves a big, prominent place in discussions of higher education. That said, what I needed to hear over the past few weeks, more than anything else, was what I heard when I went back to school:

“Oh. Yeah, me too.”

“It makes a lot of sense for you to be having these thoughts given where you are in your career.”

“Leaving academia seems far less upsetting now than it did a couple years ago.”

And my personal favorite, from a friend who beat the odds and actually got the tenure-track job: “[I]t seems pretty self-apparent that a true scholar can find fulfillment and do the world some good in any number of professions.”

So there you have it folks. If you are considering alt-ac career options, or leaving grad school, or are SURE you want to try for tenure but want to feel like it’s okay to discuss other options, shoot me an email, leave a comment on this post, or join the SMDS Facebook group. I will tell you what you need to hear… with a comforting lack of fanfare.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

I’m Back… And I’m Starting Over!

New life chapter

Just three short months after starting “The Six Million Dollar Scholar,” I did that thing that pro bloggers tell you to never, ever, ever do: I disappeared. It’s been over three months since my last post, which is even more embarrassing because that means my blog’s spent more time inactive than it’s spent active. WOOPS.

Well, I’m back now.

So where did I go? I crawled into my own head. A small piece of me actually died in there. Some call that piece “denial,” others “fear,” but I’m going to go ahead and call it what it is: bullshit. My bullshit died. I killed it.

I stopped blogging because I decided “writing for fun” was a waste of time, that the aforementioned time needed to go to my dissertation. I was struggling with my academic work—pretty much for the first time ever—so it didn’t make sense to blog. Instead, I devoted myself to hitting my head against the wall, harder, and harder, and harder. Eventually the dissertation would shake loose, right? Grad school is suffering, so finding myself chronically unsatisfied with my work was just a sign that I was on the right track, right? RIGHT?!?

Wrong. I had been going nowhere, and I’d been going there at the speed of light. By the time my twenty eighth birthday rolled around in December, I was demoralized, depressed… I was done.

A fairly accurate rendering of where I was around this time last month.

I went home over the winter break with no books, no journal articles, no writing, nothing. I resolved that I would use my time off to deal with the frightening reality that I might not be cut out for the career I’ve spent years pursuing. To call that process uncomfortable would be an understatement. Academia is, and always has been, my security blanket. It’s my constant, my rock, my significant other. It doesn’t just structure my identity, it structures my assumptions about all the big-ticket concepts in life: success, love, work, intelligence, and freedom, to name a few. Nevertheless, I rolled up my sleeves, and took a good long look at my situation.

What did this several-week-long face-to-face with the truth yield? A series of realizations:

  • I am NOT happy with life as I’m currently living it.
  • I have all the tools I need to succeed, both within and without academia, but I’ve been too disconnected from myself to use those tools effectively.
  • There is nothing more comfortable than that which reliably sucks, and there is nothing more frightening than attaining what you want.
  • By convincing myself that my life path is pre-determined—and structured by others (academia, my professors, reviewers, search committees, etc.)—I’ve made graduate school into a trap, instead of a space to freely cultivate my ideas.
  • My priorities in life have been changing fairly radically over the past few years, but I failed to accommodate, or even accept, those changes.
  • In walking away from blogging (and non-academic writing in general) I have been denying myself that which brings me closer to the truth. Of course I couldn’t post… being authentic would mean admitting I didn’t have all, most, or any of the answers.

I would say I had a fairly productive Winter Break, wouldn’t you? For all the epiphanies I managed to cram into a few short weeks, the process of arriving at all of these conclusions was incredibly difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I couldn’t—at the time—do a damned thing about them. I just had to sit with all this new information, and try not to throw up.

Now I’m back at school, and it’s time to take care of business. What does that actually mean?

This is probably the place where you expect me to tell you that I’m dropping out of school. I’m not. But I might… one day. I honestly don’t know, and that’s actually really important to me.

The single most radical thing I can do, and my single greatest challenge, both personally and professionally, is to accept (and dwell in) uncertainty. So that’s what I’m going to do.

These days, when I wake up, I have three main goals: I will use the day to (1) do meaningful academic work, (2) write something meaningful, whatever that looks like to me that day, and (3) to do something concrete to build up my “alt-ac” options. My days will also include home-cooked meals, exercise, non-academic reading, and at least eight hours of sleep. In essence, I’m going to force myself to live intentionally, but without a concrete end in mind. I’m trusting that this will bring me to a place where I’m able to truly understand what I want out of life, and how—or if—a Ph.D. figures into that calculus.

I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but part of me worried that doing so would somehow invalidate the whole blog. After all, I called my blog “The Six Million Dollar Scholar.” Can I still claim that title, now that pretty much everything about my life and career is up in the air?

Yes. Yes I can. Looking critically at (and beyond) my Ph.D. is probably the most intelligent thing I’ve done since starting SMDS. In fact, it’s an exercise more academics would do well to adopt. It’s also helped remind me that I need not be a grad student, a professor, or an anything in particular, to be a scholar. Learning is my jam. I’ll be a scholar no matter where this journey takes me, because that’s just who I am.

So there you have it. I’m back, and on the road to being better than ever. 2015 should be a very interesting year.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.