Why I’m Leaving Graduate School

So, for the past five years, I’ve been attending graduate school, studying mathematics.  But after this semester, I won’t be coming back.  I’m not graduating.  I’m just going to leave.  I’ve got a job lined up, a decent job with higher pay, benefits, and a set schedule.  But, I’ve been in school so long, and several of my readers are likely to be surprised by this, so I thought I’d write up an explanation.  This may end up being a bit rambling, as I try to organize my thoughts.

One thing you have to understand about me is that I’ve been in school a long time.  I didn’t take a break between high school and college, or between undergrad and graduate school.  In fact, I started taking college courses while I was still in high school.  So, you could say that I’ve been suffering burnout for a while.  It eased up my last year of undergrad, when I got to take more “fun” courses that were unrelated to my major.  But the past 5 years have been in graduate school.  You don’t get to take courses outside the major.

This led to me finding hobbies that eventually culminated in the creation of this blog.  Gardening, real food, sewing, juggling, playing piano.  These were all the things that I liked doing, and that were completely unrelated to math.  I dropped a lot of things, like reading fun books, writing fiction, drawing.  Things that I did in undergrad but didn’t feel like I had the time for in graduate school.  Looking back, it’s rather obvious to me now that I wanted my “work” life and my “fun” life to be separate.  But I still wanted a “fun” part.  Graduate school wasn’t so bad about this at the beginning, but as I’ve gotten further along, it ate up more and more of my life.  I felt guilty if I was doing anything but reading or working, but I wanted a break from reading and working.

This past Christmas break, I decided to let myself have a real break.  The past few years, the holidays had been huge stressful times, full of drama, and I started them with the intention of getting something done (which never happened, of course).  This year, I said, “Nope.  I’m gonna spend my break baking and cooking and having fun hanging out.”  And I realized over that break, I was a lot happier when I wasn’t stressing about work.  And I mean, a lot happier.  Now, someone might say “Well that’s true with any job.”  Not really.  You don’t have an off switch when you’re thinking about research.  I’ve had new ideas for proofs keep me from sleeping at night, and then in the light of day, they still turn out useless.  In every other job I’ve worked, once you punch the clock to go home, you’re done.  Your time after that is yours.

I tried to force that kind of set schedule on myself in the previous year, by learning new organization methods, staying on campus all day, holing myself up in my office trying to get things done.  I tried to make it so I had specific “work hours”.  But that didn’t really work.  And here we hit the next big reason I’m quitting: I am not a research person.  In fact, anyone who has talked to me knows this.  When I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree, considering my options, I knew that I liked teaching.  I liked helping people see the beauty and logic of mathematics.  But I didn’t want to teach at the high school level.  Watching my mom’s experiences as she taught jr. high and high school students, I didn’t want to work with that level of disrespect (from students and administration).  Collegiate level seemed ideal for me: I didn’t have to worry about “forcing” students to pass, students would (theoretically) want to be there, and if they failed, they failed.  But to teach at the collegiate level, you need a Ph.D.

So, I signed up for graduate school.  I knew at the beginning that I wouldn’t like research.  But I figured that it would end up being a hurdle that I could jump and then when I graduated, I could find a job where I wouldn’t have to do research.  Unfortunately, the longer I’ve been in grad school, the more I realize that my conceptions of my end goal were completely false.  First of all, the likelihood of my finding that dream job where you don’t have to do research is slim.  I had a friend who found one, but the more I thought about it, her story was unique.  Finding any academic job these days is hard; there are more applicants than there are jobs.  I wouldn’t be able to be choosy.  And no matter where I go, I’d probably be expected to do research.  It wasn’t just one hurdle, it was turning into a never-ending line of hurdles.

I also have a significant other, and I didn’t want to have it turn into a constantly-moving or long distance relationship.  I want to have a family at some point, and there’s just really no good time in the academic tenure-track line to do that.  By the time I have the job security of tenure, I’d probably be too old to have kids.  I can feel my biological clock ticking.  I know other people have managed to have children while in grad school, but for me, I just don’t feel stable enough for that right now.  There’s also the fact that, frankly, academia does not pay well.  I still have student loans to pay.  I’m almost 30, and I feel 5 years behind my friends who didn’t go to grad school, at least as far as milestones and finances go.

So, let’s see if I can summarize this.  I’m leaving grad school because I want to have designated work and fun time.  I’m leaving because I’ve never really wanted to do research and it’s looking like if I keep going, I’ll be miserable because I can’t avoid it.  I’m leaving because I need to move on to the things I really want to do with my life, instead of still jumping hurdles.

Now, I don’t consider my time in grad school a waste.  I got my Master’s degree, and I feel it was the healthier option for me, as I worked through a lot of issues while I was in there.  More than my undergrad experience, I feel like grad school was where I got the chance to grow up and really find myself.  I just also feel that it’s time for me to move on.  I don’t like the prospect of doing something I hate for the rest of my life, and that means I need to shift directions.  So, in May, I’ll be starting a new job, and we’ll see where it goes from there.  Nothing about the blog will change, as I didn’t write about math here.  But hopefully that explains a bit about my reasons for taking this major change in direction.