Why Quitting Grad School Was The Best Decision Of My Adult Life

I first suspected that it was time for me to call it quits on graduate school when I pulled into the parking garage at the University of Southern California one blazing hot day in August of 2009, parked my car, and began to weep. My class was leaving for a field trip, and instead of boarding the bus with my fellow students, I remained in my vehicle with tears and snot streaming down my face for about twenty minutes.

Friends texted me to ask where I was. The bus was boarding, they said. They were calling the names of the missing. I was among them. If I didn’t show up, the bus was going to leave without me. It was pulling out. It was gone. I was not on it.

Instead, there I was, sitting in my beat-down Toyota Corolla, a mess of a human, crying because…I didn’t exactly know why. All I knew was that I was unhappy, and in that moment, I was also convinced that I was in the midst of my most epic failure as an adult: the inability to figure out whether or not I wanted to pursue a higher education, even after having applied to, been accepted at and starting graduate school.

Let me back this story up for a second. A year and a half before my meltdown in the USC parking structure, I quit my full time job in order to pursue a freelance writing career. After publishing a few articles, I figured that the publishing of a few more was just around the corner, which would of course be followed by abject literary greatness.

But things didn’t go exactly as planned. Instead of becoming the world’s next great, celebrated author, I found myself almost immediately filing for unemployment. For about six months, I scraped by on whatever writing gigs I could get, a few corporate copy jobs here and there, and a check from the government. I wasn’t proud of it, especially because it happened to coincide with the height of the recession. While everyone else on unemployment seemed to have a pretty good reason to be there, all I could muster was that…well, I hadn’t really thought this whole thing through. Sorry!

After about six months, I decided that it was time for me to take matters into my own hands. What does a person do who wants to change career paths? What is the responsible move? What is the respectable trajectory?

Why, graduate school, of course!

Not being all that committed to the idea, I found two graduate programs in journalism in the entire United States that were only nine months long: one at Columbia University, and another at the University of Southern California. I half-heartedly studied vocabulary words and math in preparation for the GREs, took them and received aggressively mediocre scores, and filled out my applications and wrote my essays the night before I had to mail them to meet the deadline.

Do you see what I’m getting at here? I didn’t really want to go to graduate school in the first place. Or rather, I didn’t know what I wanted. Freelance writing wasn’t working out the way I wanted it to, and in my flailing attempt to try to get my career on track, I stumbled upon man’s greatest recipe for unhappiness: doing what I thought I should be doing.

Rarely does what one thinks one should be doing line up in any meaningful way with what one actually wants to do, but unfortunately, that little nugget of wisdom didn’t reach me through my panic about the direction my life was taking. So off went my applications, and I waited to hear back.

Not surprisingly, Columbia rejected me. But USC gave me the green light, and so in my stupor, I signed the paperwork, sent in my acceptance, and prepared myself to go back to school.

I should note here that part of my preparation involved committing to borrow an obscene amount of money. It seems crass to get into specific numbers, but suffice it to say had I stayed in graduate school, I would now owe the equivalent of a down payment on a house.

Anyway, I started school at the beginning of August, and everything about it felt immediately wrong. The campus made me claustrophobic. The teachers put me to sleep. The subject matter seemed stilted and stifling, and talking about journalism in the context of academia seemed irrelevant (I’ll note that I’m certainly not the only person who feels that way). Not only that, but seeing the fresh young undergraduates coast by me on their bicycles, their long hair flowing in the wind and their youthful skin glowing with the possibilities of their new life made me feel downright decrepit, washed up and old (at the time, I was 29).

In other words, it was all wrong. But I couldn’t shake that feeling that I had no other choice, that if I wanted to change careers the only reasonable thing to do was to stay the course and get a degree.

Or rather, I couldn’t shake it until that morning in the parking garage. After about 20 minute of hysterical crying, I sniffled it up, put my sunglasses on like a celebrity leaving rehab, and weakly and hesitatingly pulled out of the garage and made my way back home. I think I spent the rest of that day watching reality TV, and finally I decided that I had to quit school.

Once I made and carried out the decision, it was clear that it had been the obvious choice all along. None of my professors were remotely surprised that I was leaving. I felt no hesitation after telling them — only relief.  And as soon as I walked off the campus a free woman (or perhaps more accurately, a woman with no job, no place to go and absolutely no responsibilities), let me assure you that I did not shed a tear.

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    • Cee

      Yay quitters…

      While a couple of free lance writers or so called writers make it, I think it is a dangerous path that many are doing this because more often than not, especially here in California, writers = waiters/waitresses.

      • Bug

        Finding something else to do that makes you happy is not quitting. It’s about making an active change to your life. Good luck doing what’s expected of you as opposed to what really makes you happy. Not everyone has the courage to step out of line.

    • TulipJ

      I love this because this would have been me.

      I work in fashion, am a freelancer and in 2009 my jobs started drying up FAST, as it did for many other people I know and work with. Budgets were slashed, shoots were dropped, the whole year went on like this. My career completely stalled. I thought there was no way 2010 could be the same way but it was. That’s when I started hearing friend after friend say they’re leaving NYC, moving back home and going to grad school. I thought that maybe I should just do that as well because it didn’t look like 2010 would be any better -and it wasn’t- but I had ZERO desire to go back to school. I had no idea what I would even go back for. I already have a BA in journalism and sure as hell didn’t think I needed an MA in it. Also, I have no student loan debt anymore and couldn’t imagine racking up 100 G’s of it for something I don’t think is even going to be of any use to me. I already had friends with their MA’s who weren’t doing anything great with them and would complain about their rising loan payments. Well, the ones who didn’t have their parents pay for grad school would complain.

      I did look into a few programs but when I read the coursework I dreaded the thought of having to write papers and study for tests again after traveling the world with a job I loved for eight years. And don’t get me started and having to study for the GRE’s…UGH. No, thank you. I still think about how awful I did on the SAT’s.

      While I still feel like I’m the only person I know who didn’t go to grad school it was absolutely the best decision. I don’t think I would have finished either. Instead I take continuing ed classes at FIT and SVA to get my skills up in addition to learning new ones. Hey, I even started a blog and joined a volleyball team!

      So, SUCK IT grad school!

    • Hillary Kern

      Well now I want to know what you did next! How did you go on from there?!

    • 50 Proposals

      Right on! Thanks for sharing this…so many people get sucked in to the retrace because they think it’s the only way!

    • ABD

      Every once in a while, someone asks me if I would recommend grad school, and I always say, “If you really want it, if you think it would be the best thing for you, do it. If you have any doubts at all or if you’re just doing it because you can’t think of anything else to do, don’t put yourself through it.” I love it, but it’s also been the hardest thing I’ve ever done and will take over your entire life (especially a PhD).

      I am almost done my PhD. Grad school has been great for me, because I’m good at what I do, it is what I really want to do, and I can’t imagine anything that would make me happier than a life in academia. If you can’t say the same, for heaven’s sake, don’t go to grad school.

      • ABD too

        I’m ABD and on the verge of dropping out for the sake of my mental health, but I couldn’t agree with you more. I give others this same advice. I am passionate about my field of study but my program was not a good fit for me. Just a shame it took me this long to realize it

      • SKN

        Hey, so what’s going on with you now? I’m a year into a phd program and my program, and advisor are definitely not good for me. I’m pretty sure I need to quit, but I feel like such a failure! I sometimes wonder if I can just power through.

    • Marla

      I’m glad you are now gainfully employed, no PhD required.
      BTW Corolla has only one r.

    • MR

      I did my grad work in Economics, and my career in fiscal policy has been totally tied to it. The degree is a label – and the place that hired me first required you to have one. So I guess it all depends on if you can get away without having it. PS. Greater Los Angeles ‘is’ a huge parking lot. I lived there for 2 and half years – and minus my girlfriend then – couldn’t wait to come back to the Northeast to do my grad work. The mild (and rainy) winters could only go so far.

    • Marie

      As a journalist and current grad student, I couldn’t disagree with you more. Grad school is always a good decision when you choose it for the right reasons . Choosing to return to graduate school two years ago has been the BEST decision I made, hands down. I’ve grown as a writer since I first entered the program and that’s what I wanted, so I’m pleased.

      Also, I was careful to choose a program that was based on actual writing, versus rhetoric on Journalism practices which makes a HUGE difference.

      • Fedor

        Key phrase: “Best decision I made”. Not everybody feels the same as you.

    • Jennifer

      This is so refreshing to read! I literally had my own “cry-in-the-parking-garage” moment last night, except it was in my living room surrounded by a sea of 5-10 pound books. I’ve been going to graduate school for nursing, so it’s a little bit of a different situation, but my reasons for entering grad school were the same as yours. I just wasn’t completely satisfied with my situation so instead of looking at other jobs I could get with my undergraduate degree, I made the hasty decision of applying to and halfheartedly enrolling in graduate school because it felt like it was the only choice. I’m about to go and throw in the towel (hopefully with a little grace) and start enjoying life again. No more nights with my nose in the books studying crap I’m not interested in in the first place! Hooray for quitters!

    • A

      Fitting article considering the fact that I quit today. Long story short: Still love the subject matter but the department was awful. Completely unsupportive, shot down all of my ideas. Not to mention the area was terrible. I could write a book and list the zillion other reasons why it was wrong but, when you know it’s time to go, it’s important to listen to your gut. For me, I ended up trying to go to bed and just ended up staying up and realized that I was completely and utterly in a terrible situation. I understood going into the experience that graduate school wasn’t going to be all sunshine and roses- but not being able to have the freedom to design my own projects and completely submit to what somebody else wanted me to do? Come on. I want to reapply and go back, but at the same time, I do have to entertain the idea that school is no longer for me. Meh. Education can’t define us all- if everybody went for an MA or PhD we’d probably be blubbering idiots despite some of the amazing people who possess these degrees.

    • Lauren

      Thanks for this post. I think it’s good to have quitting stories Out There and available so folks can see that there is life after grad school, even if it isn’t pretty. I’m blogging about my quitting at mamanervosa.com

    • ProudQuitter

      This is so relevant and completely resonates with me. I just made the final absolute decision to quit my MS today. I was feeling a bit down but after reading your post I know it is the right decision. After almost 2 years of being medicated just to make it to the lab or class everyday was enough. I was super close to being finished but I know I would have ended up a mess. Sometimes it takes a smart person to know when to walk away, not to get an extra piece of paper. Go quitters is right!

      • AboutToBeProudQuitter

        I relate to this completely! I am 3 months into a 1-year MSc…and it just doesn’t feel right. I am currently on winter break after having coming close to a nervous breakdown at the end of the first semester. I am happy that I am not the only one who is experiencing this….I’d also love to hear how you feel 2 months after quitting. I am about to go back to school in 2 days…where I have to announce the decision.

    • Charles Solomon

      OK, Ladies, See! This is WHY Women live longer then we Mano – au – MANO. It comes to an orgasmic head, you have your LIFE SAVING PUS SY Crying Fit and on to your Lives You Go. We Men?? Take It Buddy!!! Suck It Up and Shut The FU CK Up and that plays Havoc with the body. Leave the rest to your imaginations.