After 3 Years, I Left Grad School And It Was The Best Decision I Ever Made

Oleh Slobodeniuk / flickr.com
Oleh Slobodeniuk / flickr.com

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going — or so they say. I’ve never been certain who “they” are, but they have a lot to say, and I used to listen to them. Now, I think they’re full of shit.

We live in a society where quitting is seen as a weakness, a sign that you just weren’t trying hard enough, weren’t strong enough, didn’t want it bad enough, were just too lazy. Sometimes, though…sometimes it is quitting that requires the strength, the effort, and the drive. Sometimes quitting is absolutely the best decision you can make.

And so, I left.

After 3 years of graduate school, over $100,000 of student loans, and lots of time and effort — I left. It has been the hardest decision I have ever made and yet it has also been the most rewarding. Quitting changed my life.

I’ve definitely changed the course of my life over the past few months, a feat not so easy for a neurotic like me, but the change has brought me back to me. I’m the me I was long ago, when I felt hopeful and excited about what could be next. I think I was about 4 years old the last time I felt this excited about life — like I said, I’m an anxious neurotic.

My whole life I have followed the rules exactly as I was instructed to, always erring on the side of extra caution — just to be sure. I have always been the one on the sidelines, unsure of the safety of whatever we were deciding to try, saying, “I don’t think this is a good idea, you guys!” I’ve always been the observer, never a fully active participant in anything, standing to the side taking it all in, wrestling with the anxiety and insecurities that always kept me from the game (of both the literal and metaphorical variety).

And then…I changed my mind.

It took me 26 years to decide to listen to myself, to allow myself to be honest enough to admit what I really wanted. It took me over one year from the time I decided to leave to when I actually said the words aloud to another person. It took me 3 weeks from the time I said the words to when I left. It felt like an eternity.

I needed time to set the thought in motion. I have a history of staying in situations far longer than I should, mainly out of fear, so that I stay in everyone’s good graces. I don’t like confrontation, I don’t like disappointing anyone, and I don’t like rocking the boat. Moreover, I have a tendency to hold things in until the last possible moment, when it all comes spilling out of me and I create a mess out of it. I needed time because I needed to do this right.

And so, I planned a trip. I booked my flight five days before I was set to leave. I told no one of my plans until everything was settled and I sat with the anxiety and excitement of the decision as best I could as I waited for that glorious Friday to roll around.

I booked the trip on my own and I left on my own. I explored a new city without the safety of another person and I even managed to get myself a job interview! I showed myself that I could be self-sufficient; more than just self-sufficient, I was fine.

The whole trip went well (although, I still don’t like eating at restaurants alone) until I was making the drive from Seattle to Portland. It was foggy and I couldn’t see a thing — only the faint red of the taillights in front of me. The fog had settled in patches — some lasting seconds, others minutes, feeling like hours — my hands were clenched on the steering wheel and I actually turned the radio off — something I never do. I think I may have even held my breath at some point. The nerves I felt driving through the fog was foreign to me; I live and learned to drive in an area of California known for its thick fog, but this was different.

As I got closer to Portland the fog began to dissipate, replaced by a cold rain. Once I felt certain the fog was gone, I started crying — sobbing — about every hurt I had ever felt, every bad day, every disappointment, every loss…I felt it all. I felt all of it and had the sudden, clear, thought — “I’m not happy.”

“I’m not happy,” I thought. I wasn’t happy and no one was going to fix this for me. No one was going to tell me what to do or do it for me. No one was even aware of how miserable I was, despite my constant declaration of it and the circuitous conversations I regularly had on the subject with everyone I met (not my proudest moments). Through the sobbing, I made my decision.

I slept well that night.

It seems cliché to say that I came through the fog and was finally able to see things clearly, and yet, here we are. I finally allowed myself to be honest enough to be heard — and I changed my life. I started setting in motion the changes that would finally make me happy.

No one did it for me, there weren’t any guidelines for me to follow, no rules. I couldn’t sit on the side and observe the action — I was the main star of this production and it was uncomfortable and amazing and overwhelming all at once. I quit, and it is the best thing I have ever done.

My name is Catherine Aleman and I am a quitter — and quite proud of it. Now, I’m ready for what’s next…what do you have for me? TC mark

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  • http://dareneiri.com/2014/10/30/why-i-decided-to-leave-academia/ Why I Decided to Leave Academia | Daren Eiri

    […] explanation would be nice for those who are curious. I also read some interesting perspectives from other graduate students that left their program for various reasons. Perhaps this may also help others […]

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