On Major Decisions and Regret

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This past Thursday, I participated in a local storytelling project, Testify (their Tumblr has more info). It was my second time (I performed in their first show and then this time in their anniversary show).

The theme was “Hindsight” and as soon as I heard about the theme, I knew I had a story I wanted to tell. And it was one I had held back from writing down because I was nervous about putting this story into the world. Mainly because I was worried about individual people thinking 1) that I’m talking about them and 2) that I am (or was) at all upset about having talked about regret as part of my decision-making process. I neither remember individual conversations about this nor do I — haha — regret any of them that I did have. In fact, I feel fortunate that so many people cared enough about me, my well being, and my future to even want to discuss me possibly (and eventually) leaving graduate school deep into my dissertation.

Writing and then performing this piece was cathartic. Thank you to the women behind Testify for inviting me on stage. And thank you to the Testify audience for clapping in support and celebration of my choice and my story.

Below is the prepared version of my piece (I didn’t read it on stage so the live version was different but had the same flavor).

I’ve been thinking about regret for a few years now. Well, probably more than that if I’m being honest. And I AM trying to be honest with myself.

Why I’ve been thinking about regret is tied to a major life decision I made late last year: to leave graduate school after pursuing a PhD for over a decade. And before I made this decision I had roughly 1,000 conversations about the regret I’d feel if I chose to leave.

I graduated from college way back 2002 and immediately moved to Austin, began a PhD track in the Classics department at UT (study of ancient Greece and Rome, not Charles Dickens and Jane Austen). I never took a damn minute off from school. But I really loved school.

So when I landed at UT in 2002 , I thought grad school was going to be a fun land of learning (you can laugh at that if you want because it is humorous, you know, in hindsight). Turns out, grad school — especially in a Classics department — is a cesspool of politics, navigating people’s sensitive feelings, dodging subtle insults, constantly measuring your intellect against others.

In order to fully explain to you all about what it was like for me to make this major life decision and to weigh the supposedly inevitable regret I would face if I chose to leave, I’m going to tell y’all about my long, difficult path through graduate school. And before I do so, I want to say, this is MY experience. There are things that are almost universally hard about graduate school and academia but I’m not here to tell you whether people should be in grad school or academia, just to explain what I learned when I decided to move on from it.

Grad school was harder than I thought it would be. Duh. At the end of my first semester, a professor told me in comments on a paper — they were written in bright red pen — that I had a long way to go before I was going to be a good writer or scholar. In my second year, I got a C in a class. That’s the grad school equivalent of failing. And to this day, I still don’t understand why I got that grade. At the END of my second year, I became the pawn in a will of powers between the professor who gave me the C and the one under whom I wrote my Masters thesis. Pawns never win. And so, I received my Masters in Latin Literature AND was told that I had one year of probation and, if I didn’t significantly improve my performance, the Classics department was booting me.

After a few weeks (months?) of crying, I initially responded to this punch in the gut by saying, I AM GOING TO FUCKING KICK THE ASS OF GRAD SCHOOL.

At some point at the beginning of that third year (it didn’t take long in that third year to start to realize maybe I wasn’t going to kick grad school’s ass), as I was crying once again about how horrible I felt and lamenting my personal stupidity, my kind, patient, loving husband told me that grad school was turning me into a person that he didn’t like. And I agreed. He was right. I didn’t like myself. I don’t even like to think of who I was back then. I didn’t like what I was doing. But how do you quit? If I quit, what would I do? Would I regret it?

So, I jumped to History and the first few years in the History department were the best of my career in graduate school. I had amazing friends, amazing professors, was learning so much about so many things that I loved. It felt intellectually rigorous. I was competent.

I got pregnant in late 2007. The summer of 2008, my belly round, I passed my oral competency exams. It was a huge moment. No more classes ever. Just dissertation research and writing.

I had my son in September 2008 and took the fall off. I went back that next semester and started work on my dissertation when my son was four months old.

My dissertation topic was cool. It was about the English island of Barbados in the Caribbean during the 17th century. I looked at how slavery and empire came together in that small but important space to affect how the English thought about the human body, how their ideas about the body changed as they came to rely on the enslaved labor of black people. To do the research for this project, I had to go to London, where most of the archival documents I needed were located.

So, in the summer of 2009, my whole family — including my husband who worked from our small flat, my 9-month-old child, and my mother-in-law who watched my child while my husband worked and I dug through archives — lived in London. And we invested a HUGE amount of money in my dissertation. It was a great summer (we don’t regret it) but I was keenly aware of the financial sacrifice that we were making.

But it was worth it. Or, at least, seemed that way. By the end of 2009, the faculty in my department chose me as one of the three students that they put forward for a university fellowship (I didn’t get it; the story of my time in graduate school). But months later, I received a letter from the department saying that they were concerned about the fact that I hadn’t written any of my dissertation yet and didn’t know if I was worth the financial investment.

I threatened to leave immediately. My advisor found me some money. But it was a horrible, horrible feeling to be caught unaware like that. And this feeling started to permeate everything about my dissertation. I wrote under constant duress, sure all the time that my topic was shit and my writing was horrible and I wasn’t a smart enough or a hard enough worker to get through it.

I avoided going to campus. I fell into a depression that was often coupled with crippling anxiety. I cried a lot. And I started to talk about quitting. That was 2010. I didn’t quit until November 2013. And for almost every minute I was awake in those years, I felt like a failure and sat in perpetual fear of never completing my dissertation, which was this gross spiral that kept me from doing any of the work.

And I had a son. Who never knew me as anything but that anxious, depressed person. I went to therapy and when that failed to work well enough, I went on anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. And things got better but never better enough. I never again LIKED my dissertation or wanted to work on it.

When I started to seriously discuss leaving graduate school in early 2013, almost every single person told me I would regret it. I had written three chapters of a five-chapter dissertation. I was SO close. Just finish.

But I was anxious. And depressed. And I didn’t like myself. And I didn’t want to be in the academy anymore. And I had this moment once when someone (I can’t even remember who or when) was warning me I might regret this decision later in life, at some point in the future where I would suddenly have hindsight and be sad about what I had chosen. In that moment, for whatever reason, it clicked and I thought, “I ALREADY regret not leaving grad school. I ALREADY regret this person I have become. I ALREADY regret the years of my son’s life where I have taught him that the goal is more important than the journey to get there, more important than having a healthy mind.”

I left. I quit. I’m happy. I am now a freelance journalist who is under contract to write a book and whose words show up all over the internet and even sometimes in print. I am an activist. I cook. I go on dates with my husband and I build legos with my son.

So, here’s what I learned when I decided to leave graduate school last November, three chapters in to a five-chapter dissertation, more than a decade after I started >> sometimes, when you get to the point when you are trying to figure out if you will regret making a major change in your life, the chances are pretty high that you ALREADY carry around regret, that regret will be a part of the decision whether you make that change or not. That regret lies on both sides of that moment and that the decision cannot be about it.

And, in hindsight, I don’t regret leaving. And, in truth, not regretting leaving makes it a lot easier to appreciate all I gained from graduate school. And, in the end, I don’t regret a damn thing.

5 Responses

  1. Candi Cubbage says:

    I have followed you on Twitter for a while and appreciate what you post. This piece really touched me. My husband did finish his dissertation and has his Ph.D., but also no tenure. After experiencing similar trials in grad school and achieving his goal he ended up working as an adjunct. Essentially slave labor. Long story. HIS story. He left. And he does deal with regret about all aspects of the process and outcome. However slowly but surely he is letting go of that regret. I’m going to show him this piece if you don’t mind.

  2. Ellen Sweets says:

    It takes far more courage to walk away from something that is damaging you than to stick it out for the sake of conforming to what others decide you should do. Others don’t/can’t live your life for you. To have a warm, loving husband and a beautiful boy are far more valuable than a doctorate in anything.

    Just think of the assholes who have multiple advanced degrees; hasn’t done them squat’s worth of good at lifting them into being decent people.

    My brother, who became part of the White House photo corps while working at the Washington Post, who later worked for the LA Times and ultimately retired from AP as an editor, flunked out of the same university twice because he only wanted to take photographs. He’s a world traveler, almost speaks Spanish, is an avid reader and can hold his own anywhere with anyone.

    I flunked out of two different schools with As in writing, French and literature and Ds and Fs in everything else because I only wanted to write term papers and stories for my dad’s black weekly newspaper.

    Our parents were not happy. But they had had their shot at happiness and done OK the traditional way. Both college-educated, they insisted a degree was our only path to success. We disagreed.

    As I said initially: conforming is an easy path. Robert Frost nailed it: when two paths diverge and you take the one less traveled, it can make all the difference.

    Brava, Jessica.

  3. Matt Powers says:

    You really have to be deeply stuck in the culture of graduate school to think to yourself, as I did, “I don’t really want to do this any more, so the most reasonable course of action is to write a book on 17th century English political culture over the next 2-3 years that 0 to 15 people will ever read, then go do something I actually want to do.”

    Sunk costs are so tough to let go of. It is great that you were able to do so, clearly it was the right choice.

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