Hi, person reading this post. I’m going to imagine you as I was about a year ago: bundled in bed at 2 a.m. with classes in the morning, Googling my way into oblivion as I desperately fantasized about quitting graduate school.
If that’s you, I’m sorry. And I hope this will help.
Why I Quit Graduate School
When I quit graduate school, I was asked — obliquely, mind you; a professor asked a friend of mine to ask me — to provide some rationale. What follows is an almost-word-for-word transcript of the email I sent as a response to that request.
Graduate school is a great option for many of those who take it. It’s the best fit for a wide variety of personalities who would be unhappy elsewhere. For me, graduate school, or at least a graduate program in creative writing, was a bad Plan B, an attempt at arrested development.
Some of the issues I describe below are endemic to the graduate school atmosphere and the people who pursue graduate school as a last/only resort. I hope, therefore, the following letter proves illuminating, whether you’re considering graduate school — or considering dropping out.
Dear OU Faculty Members,
I have been asked to make some more substantial comments on my decision to leave the creative writing program at OU so as to improve the program for future students.
I’m not entirely certain what to say. I don’t think my leaving is indicative of any substantial problem with the program that needs to be fixed; there is nothing heinous about the program that is not, at least from what I’ve heard, endemic to the institution of academia at large. Many of my colleagues and teachers are brilliant and talented individuals with whom I’m really pleased to have had a chance to connect; the program is generously funded and the workload is, if this is ever an applicable word in graduate school, reasonable.
My reasons for leaving are largely personal. I didn’t feel like I was a good fit in the context of the program, not the other way around. If anything, I made a very important discovery during my first year of graduate school: I am not an academic. Rather, I’m someone who really values and enjoys learning.
It was a pretty easy mistake to make. I had run screaming back into the open arms of academia after being scared out of my mind by the year I spent at odd jobs (Starbucks, cubicle) after finishing undergrad. It makes sense: you go to school your whole life, you become really accustomed to the push-the-lever-get-the-pellet operant conditioning way the classroom works. I knew what was expected of me, and I really do love learning and the opportunity to sit around a table with other people who want to talk about important things in books – and I do still want/plan to surround myself with people who are also invested in that (although that kind of community is admittedly hard to find outside of the context of a university).
There are other components of being an academic, however, that I apparently do not conform to at all. For instance (and I know Dana Gioia already said all of this in his “Can Poetry Matter?”), teaching does not necessarily have anything at all to do with being a writer, and I dreaded every moment I spent in front of a class. Although it was very rewarding to be able to reach the students I could, they represented a very slim minority – and not for my lack of trying. Most undergraduates are simply not interested in prerequisites and core curriculum classes, and I am both uninterested in and unqualified to jump through the hoops necessary to make them expend any energy on the course, or to fix four years of writing five paragraph essays with, in many cases, apparently zero usage guidance. I think that teaching freshman composition is a vital job, and I remember my own freshman comp class fondly – it was part of what made me realize I wanted to study literature seriously, that that study was even a viable option. In my lack of experience and the (come on, I know you guys know this already) inaccessibility of the WAW approach, I felt I was only pushing students away from developing an interest in English, writing, or rhetoric, the importance of all of which I believe in deeply. It was not a good feeling.
Furthermore, I’m really not very interested in the kind of publication that goes on in professional creative writing – the insularity of publishing in journals which are largely read only by those who also have been/wish to be published in those journals. Many things about the creative writing community I got to glimpse are wonderful, but it does feel like a very closed community in the limited way writing, at least poetry, is published. I know that some of that is simply the effect of a glutted market and a culture that doesn’t care very much about poetry, but I want my work and words to go out into the world and touch people. Maybe blog writing is a lesser art, but at least it gets read. At least it might help or change or effect someone who falls outside of the elite circle of academia or intelligentsia.
There’s also the push to publish within that circle to contend with, and while I understand this as a metric by which to measure employability in a field whose metrics are not otherwise immediately apparent, it is, of course, still a flawed metric. I’m also really uninterested in hopping from place to place for the requisite series of one-year adjuncting stints with no agency whatsoever over my location. I do not want to live in Arkansas.
And to be honest, that was another major influence on my decision – I don’t want to live in Ohio, either. I made a lot of jokes to friends and family, when asked about my level of productivity up north, that I had amassed lots of poetry about how much I dislike Ohio. It’s a topic on which I don’t need that much material. I hope not to offend those of you who love Athens; it is a cute little town with some wonderful spots and people. But as I’ve stated in a few creative works some of you have probably read, Florida has made me weak. Mental health issues that I have not contended with in years reared their heads as a result of both the dreariness of the weather and the smallness of the town. There’s no way to escape the academic community, and I personally don’t do well with the full-bore, 100%-involvement, school-is-all-I’m-doing-now thing – I need escapes and, well, non-scholastic discourse communities (ugh) in which to integrate. This was the first ever back-to-school season wherein I was actively, physically dreading going back – I had nightmares; I was nauseated. I am historically the kid jumping up and down at the prospect of new notebooks in August. It just wasn’t a good situation.
After I got back from my crazy 11,000 mile road trip (which I decided to take in part because I felt so radically out of place in academia, which I had felt sure would be my path), I realized exactly how much I was dreading the return. Although the prospect of quitting halfway through – especially after completing more than 50% of my coursework and having suffered for a lot of the first year – was extremely unattractive, I allowed myself to apply to a few long-term positions alongside the freelancing gigs I was researching. I gave myself three weeks to make a miracle happen – and it did. Honestly, I’m really lucky and kind of floored that it did happen; I really did fall into this job opportunity. I wrote the cover letter on my way out the door and was shocked when the Executive Editor emailed me the next day.
As far as specific suggestions for improving the program/curriculum/etc, anything I might say is probably well-known by the department already, if casual Ellis Hall conversation is any indication. As I hope I’ve explained, this move is largely the result of a series of personal realizations and incompatibilities and not some failure of the program.
Anyway, I’m sorry if my leaving has caused undue commotion in the department, and I hope that my funding can be reallocated to make remaining students more comfortable. I really did enjoy my time at OU and I’m glad to have had the experiences there that I did. Please know that I’m at peace with my decision and that I think this will be a good thing for me – I’ll be earning a very livable wage with full benefits and living in a place that makes me happy. I hope you all will drop a line from time to time.