For many of our younger years, the back-to-school season is one filled with turbulence and excitement. Even long after we've graduated and left the academic calendar behind, there's often a certain irrepressible, nostalgic frisson that comes on around the first weeks of September, alongside the clichéd images of fresh pencils and school buses. For me, the magic lasted longer than for most other people, since I went back to graduate school just two years after graduating from college. I started a masters program in English literature in 2009 and moved on to a PhD program just a year later. That meant that starting in fall 2010, not only did back-to-school mean back to classes for me, it also meant back to teaching. If you think fall is thrilling and nerve-wracking as a student, just try it as a brand-new teacher.
Despite my intense nervousness, teaching was pretty much my favorite thing as soon as I started doing it. Between fall 2010 and spring 2013, I taught five classes that were entirely my own (and was the TA for one larger lecture class). I also finished all my PhD coursework, including classes on everything from Shakespeare to post-colonial poetry to film theory. I figured out that what I was most interested in was the way American women poets wrote about life and identity in the mid 20th century. I started to think about what I had to add to the conversation as a scholar, about what kind of teacher I wanted to be, about how to bring current, relevant, serious topics into my classroom alongside the unavoidable lessons on reading, writing, grammar, and literary theory. And then, after the semester ended in May, 2013...I left grad school.
The most straightforward explanation for why I left is that I failed a test. Not some metaphorical test of character (although it very much felt like one at the time), but a quite real, literal test: my PhD qualifying exam. These exams are based on a reading list that you are supposed to come up with in conversation with your committee (four professors with relevant backgrounds who can speak to your interests) and, at least in my former department, they are oral exams. After a two-hour ordeal, all four of your committee members have to agree that you pass. Mine did not. While at the time this felt like the whole world suddenly and unexpectedly dropping out from under me, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that there were plenty of warning signs. I didn't work well with most of my committee and they didn't get personally invested in my project. None of them were a particularly good fit for me or my interests, either in terms of personality or research specialties. I had a hard time getting them excited about the things that excited me. I was also not very good at making myself interested in what they wanted to talk about, instead. It was all around kind of a disaster.
It's taken me more than two years to be able to think (and write) about it all that calmly. At the time I was in a panic. I seriously considered retaking the exam, which I can see now would have been a pretty useless project. I felt like I'd completely wasted four years of my life and failed at a job I'd really started to love. Of course now I understand that what I really failed at was meeting a very narrow, specific, specialized definition of "acceptable" knowledge set for me by four people who barely knew me and, to be honest, who probably cared very little. In lieu of a PhD (along with the massive debt, uncertain employment future, and psychic damage that would in all likelihood have come with it), I have kind, thoughtful evaluations from my students that tell me I was a good and helpful teacher. I have an insane amount of surprisingly useful information about English literature to deploy at trivia nights and in daily conversation. I have a new, successful professional life where I constantly find different and unexpected ways to use the knowledge and skills I gained in grad school. And I still have my thoughts about, ideas on, and passions for all the things I obsessed over for those four years. What I didn't have, until recently, was the mental and emotional wherewithal to actively think and write on those thoughts, ideas, and passions.
While I was in grad school I had a built-in community of like-minded people to talk to, but that's something I've struggled with since leaving the ivory tower. At first, in fact, I pretty much rejected any type of thinking or reading or discussion that reminded me at all of school—it was just too painful. My confidence had been completely shattered and my support network was gone. I comforted myself by insisting on the insularity and irrelevance of academia, on its archaic systems and unavoidable moribund decline. But I missed it. I missed seminars and discussion sections and composing essays. And I knew I had things to say, even if I couldn't say them the way I was apparently supposed to. The Boston/Cambridge area where I live is both a great place and an awful place to be in my position: Awful because no matter where I go, I'm basically on a campus, surrounded by people doing what I thought I'd be doing—maybe struggling at it, yes, but making it work. Hell, I walk within a few hundred feet of my old office every day on my commute to work. But the density of intellectual and academic life in this area also makes it easy to access a wide variety of programs and resources to on my own, to create my own curriculum and reengage with these things on my own terms.
So, recently, I have been trying to find other ways to access those old, Academic Rachel feelings in my new, grad-school-dropout life. I go to book clubs, lectures, and readings. I'm starting new projects and getting involved in causes that matter to me. I read things, and make my friends read them, and then make my friends talk to me about the things we read. And I even write. This blog has been the first part of a return to writing, and now I am very pleased to say that something I wrote on this blog has become my very first published essay. Yes, it's in an online journal. Yes, it's in large part about Taylor Swift. Yes, I'm pretty sure my exam committee would hate it. But I don't hate it. It's about poetry and it's about feminism and it's about American culture and maybe some parts of it are even funny and it's me. It's not the way I imagined my first published essay would look, but I have a pretty active imagination, and I only see good things ahead. So I'm here to tell you, there is life after leaving grad school—even a life of the mind. I'd love to hear from other grad-school drop-outs, academic nonconformists, ivory tower escapees and "failures" of all kinds—what are the misadventures that have brought you where you are today?