In April of last year, the CBC published a story that covered the experiences of various PhD students who had left their studies prematurely to pursue work outside of academia. Many of the students discussed the difficult choice to move on from their research and their resulting struggle to develop an identity outside of the university. The article hit home for me because I went through a similar experience earlier that year when, after finishing the course work required for my master’s degree, I decided to decline an offer of admission from a PhD program.
I never imagined I would end up turning away from the doctoral route, because I knew it was the only path that could lead me to landing my dream job at the time, which was to work as a tenured English professor. However, six months into my master’s, I began to think differently about my plans. The idyllic life of an academic that I craved so badly became less and less appealing. I lost interest in the constant pressure to specialize and read and write about topics that were steeped in more theory than practice. On a personal level, I had stopped sleeping every other night in order to meet deadlines while also developing an unhealthy food addiction to temporarily take my mind off the stress. Just as bad was that I felt extremely guilty whenever I interacted with my family, friends, or the first-year students that I taught because I was not using that time to read more, complete assignments, and write grant proposals.
After declining my offer, I soon went through a period of shame. I felt like I had disappointed my professors (whom I viewed as parental figures), especially those who had worked hard to write reference letters for me throughout the application process. This shame eventually morphed into fear when I soon came to the realization that for the first time in my life, I did not have a syllabus that laid out my future.
Over the past few months, I have been able to reflect more deeply about what is truly important to myself and, as a result, I have developed three principles that have helped me get through this difficult transition. These principles have provided me with a sense of direction while renewing my curiosity and thirst for knowledge.
1. Rest, recover, and reconnect
That’s right. It is okay to take a step back from the busyness of life, especially after leaving graduate school, to get your health and mind in order. “Take time off to slow down, to give yourself perspective, to break the cycle of incessant achievement, to get away from constant supervision, to see that there’s a world outside of school, [and] to develop skills and explore capacities you haven’t had a chance to cultivate,” William Deresciewicz, a former Yale professor who left the ivory tower, advises students entering the world outside of academia. For at least a month after leaving school, I recommend ignoring your family’s likely insistence to immediately market yourself and instead spend time pursuing interests that are or were once important to you. You may want to return to an old hobby you enjoyed pursuing before the pressures of university put it on the backburner. I spent the first few months after graduation getting back into practicing the piano and guitar. I soon realized how much meaning and happiness music provided me with in high school. As a result of the work I have put in, I am currently employed as a music teacher.
More importantly, work on getting your sleep and diet regulated again while also rekindling some of the relationships that were most likely ignored in graduate school. Go out on coffee dates with friends or your significant other, attend birthday parties for relatives, and simply try to be more present in your daily conversations.
2. Try something new
After taking time for self-care and reconnecting with those who are close to you, I recommend working or volunteering in a field that you would not have considered dabbling in before, especially if it is something that you previously believed was below you because of your educational background. While many of these opportunities may not require you to use the same type of thinking skills you developed in university, there is a good chance you will learn valuable lessons that will remain with you for a long time, even if it is simply putting yourself through an experience outside of your comfort zone. My first job after graduate school was teaching the fourth grade. While I had taught teenagers before, this job was very different from anything I had done in the past because I had never worked with such young students. It was a humbling experience because, though I have three university degrees, I realized how little I knew about topics covered in the fourth-grade curriculum, such as ancient civilizations and Impressionist painting. I was also inspired by how creative and worldly many of my students were.
3. Remember to focus on the process instead of the outcome
Since I left graduate school, I have gravitated towards Stoic philosophy. In particular, I really like thinkers like Seneca who stress the importance of engaging in fulfilling work and experiences on a daily basis instead of worrying about where they will directly lead you. When I was a student, I cared so much about pursuing experiences for the sake of gaining credentials. At the same time, I declined certain opportunities presented to me because I believed that they would not directly benefit me when it came to finding a job down the road. I have since tried my best to move away from this way of thinking. Going forward, I hope to slow down more to appreciate the journey that life takes me on instead of focusing so much on the destination.
I really want to reiterate that the above plan is not doctrine. You can follow or ditch my suggestions entirely. Just remember that if you are unclear about what you will be doing this coming fall, there are others out there in the same boat trying to figure things out for themselves. Life is filled with uncertainties, as well as, in the words of William Deresciewicz, “stumbles, inner struggle[s], false starts and wrong turns.” While one of the toughest parts of leaving graduate school is not having that guaranteed structure to fall back on come September, try embracing this new-found freedom and see it as an opportunity for personal growth. While I may not be enrolled in a PhD program like I thought I would be, I am still viewing these next four years as an educational experience that will serve as an intense period of self-discovery, an experience that may not have been afforded to me if I was still in graduate school.
Ryan Racine earned his master’s of English language and literature from Brock University. He is currently working as a high school teacher and college instructor in Ontario.