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.