Guest post by Sacha Siskonen. She currently exists somewhere between academia and the non-academic world in a nether region of teaching. She hopes to exit this realm in the near future, but she has been told she is overqualified for any jobs that pay a living wage. In the meantime, she blogs at The Saskatchewan Review.
When I first began my PhD program, a friend and I used to joke that the people who were ahead of us in the program—fifth and sixth years, the occasional seventh+ year—were afflicted with Stockholm Syndrome. When we chatted with them about the program or the faculty at department functions or social events, these otherwise vibrant, intelligent people suddenly became drones with dead eyes, parroting the party line. It seemed to us that some time around year three or four people in the program stopped questioning the program, and started repeating mantras of “that’s just how it is here” and “you get used to it.” I was told that faculty members who seemed incompetent or even cruel to me “were actually really helpful.” It was creepy and disconcerting. There were lots of jokes about drinking the Kool-Aid that first year.
By my third year, I’d started to exhibit some of this same behavior. I was bitter and angry, stressed and frustrated more of the time than I wasn’t. I felt dead inside. Studying for my preliminary exams was slowly driving me insane; “prelim brain” became the shorthand in our program for the confused mental state, inability to focus, and constant worry exhibited during the exam year. My advisor was unhelpful, dismissive and absentee. But worst of all, I could no longer see the goal at the end of the struggle. I didn’t want the degree anymore. The job market was, and continues to be, disastrous in my field (English/Creative Writing), a tenure-track position seemed almost impossible to get, and I was racking up student loan debt at a quick clip with little hope of a starting position that would allow me to pay it off in my lifetime. The people around me on the tenure track seemed miserable, and I feared becoming them. I was turning into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like.
I decided to leave my PhD program last fall at the beginning of my fourth year. The semester had already started and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I stayed for the year, took a Master’s degree and made plans for my next move. At first this decision made me euphoric. I was finally free of all the stress and resentment I’d been holding on to for three long, hard years. I got a good six months of relief and excitement out of the decision. I was very happy to be leaving. I felt like I had taken back control of my life.
Now, I’ve been out for a little over four months. Emotionally, I feel unbelievably better. Even the stress of a job search outside academia cannot compare to the stress I felt while in the program. And I’m no longer taking on debt, which is great. But I have been surprised by how shaken I feel by the whole experience. My confidence has definitely taken a hit. I’ve got a case of PhDPTSD, self-diagnosed. [I say this partly in jest, but certainly don’t mean to make light of PTSD, which is a real and serious problem.] Leaving a PhD program where you felt abused, poorly treated, ignored, marginalized, etc. can have very real effects on your sense of self, your feelings of self-worth, and your ability to function in non-academic society. I believe these effects are temporary and can be overcome, but acknowledging them is certainly the first step to healing and moving forward.
My PhDPTSD mostly takes the form of a need to confess my status as a PhD dropout. As though mentioning that I left a PhD program recently will explain any erratic behavior or odd tendencies I might display: flights of criticism, rambling introductions, excessive citation. Being in academia was a huge part of my identity and it’s going to take some time to redefine myself. Like an addict in recovery, I feel the need to declare my problem. So when I run into a friend or acquaintance, or communicate with someone whom I haven’t talked to for a while, I find myself telling them, without prompting, “I just dropped out of my PhD program.” To their credit, no one in my life, family, friends, strangers, inside academia or outside it, has said anything unkind about this. I wish for everyone leaving academia the support I’ve gotten from everyone I’ve come in contact with. Even my dismissive advisor offered her help when I told her I was leaving the program!
I’ve been using the word “failure” pretty freely in the last few months. I feel like I’ve failed. I wanted to leave. I’m happy that I’m no longer in my program, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel like a failure. A few of my friends have been kind enough to say this isn’t true, and to reframe leaving academia not as failure, but as success, survival, self-actualizing, etc. I appreciate their reframing immensely. But I also never want to run from using the word “failure” or be afraid of failing. As a writer, hell, as a human being, failure is inevitable. For me, confronting that feeling of failure, letting myself feel it and saying it, is helping me move past it. There’s something freeing about failure. It’s a fresh start, but not a blank slate. Failure is how we learn. Failure is how we improve. Writers are fond of that Beckett quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The part of my PhDPTSD that’s harder to admit is that I also still want credit for the years of struggle and work I put in. I made the mistake of looking at my transcripts recently. All the time and energy I sunk into this endeavor, and I don’t even have a degree to show for it. I imagine that people who did get their degree but are no longer working in academia might feel similarly. You invest so much in a program, in your education, and if you don’t tell anyone or people don’t know that you did all that work, then why did you do it? Maybe for some, who are more evolved than I am, just doing it is the reward. But I want some validation! I’ve been in school for most of my life; I still want the gold star, the “A,” the pat on the head. I want to be the best at dropping out of grad school. And that’s something I need to let go of too. Or rather, I need to let go of the need for that validation to come from an authority figure, some doting or dismissive professor.
Part of this need to confess, in my case, comes from my love of self-deprecation—a quality that was not appreciated in academe where pretention and self-aggrandizement are the norm. I love to tell my friends and family stories about the awful things that happen to me. So this failure is partly fodder for me, a way to entertain and connect to people. Likewise, telling my story is a way to free myself from shame and embarrassment. The more I tell it, the less power it has over me, and the less it hurts to tell. Leaving academia can be traumatic, but remember trauma comes from the Greek word for “wound,” and wounds heal. They’ll heal with or without help, but a wound that’s attended to leaves less of a scar.