Friday, March 1, 2013

Wisdom to Other Drop Outs

This is the story of a grad school drop out. I encourage all drop outs, as well as current students who are suffering, to read and participate. We need a community more than ever to provide support and understanding to each other. Personally, I don't know any other drop outs besides myself, and I am sure this applies to most.

In the six months since I began graduate school, and in the two months since I dropped out, I have learned more than any school or program could have taught me. When I began graduate school, I had only a weak grasp of who I was as a person. I had this idea, for so long, of what I was going to be, without ever worrying about who I already was. Or who I wanted to be. Not as a professional, but as a human being. And how much my professional goals contradicted with this.

I delved into the field of psychology in my second year of high school. It was fascinating to me. I had always known I wanted to help people, but a weak stomach ruled most "helping" careers out and always kept me questioning how exactly I was going to help. After taking my first psych class, I felt that all was answered.

Somewhere along the line, I decided that I was NOT going to get a master's in psychology. I was going to get my Ph.D., no matter what it took, I was going to be a doctor, and it was going to be awesome. The End.

Well, not exactly. After the first year of not getting a position in a program, I sought all field work I could lay my hands on, worked on multiple research projects, perfected my nearly-already-perfect grades, studied and took the GRE twice, flew to multiple states for interviews (two years in a row), etc, etc etc! Anyone who has been in a fully paid Ph.D. program, especially in the last ten years, knows the efforts I am talking about. I even completed three bachelors degrees, a minor, and a certificate in my four years of undergrad.

Finally, I got offers after my second year of applications. Looking back, I didn't feel the sense of happiness I had been so UNhappy for so many years in order to attain. Relief, contentment, but never happiness.

Shortly after moving a few states away for grad school, to an utter change of culture (to say the least), and dragging my supportive husband along with me, I began having massive anxiety attacks. I would awake in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and unable to breathe. In the middle of the night! I had to leave school early so many days, because, again, I felt that I could not breathe. Suddenly, I was more depressed than I could have ever imagined possible, I couldn't sleep or eat at all, I was having anxiety attacks which were fairly new to me (at least in the five years previous), and I couldn't even look in the mirror. I hated myself, and I hated every choice I had made in the last few years. I wish I could put my depression into tangible words, but I can't. I wanted nothing more than to disappear. And to this day, I know I could not physically or emotionally have dealt with my denial of what was wrong much longer and actually live. The worst kind of feelings aren't associated with losing someone close to you...they are associated with losing YOU. 

Based on my research, it seems that a student choosing to leave after only one semester as well as building a hatred for their program and the person they were becoming in it so quickly, is a bit unusual. For me, my choice to leave was initiated by my feelings, the strongest feeling of you-are-doing-absolutely-the-wrong-thing-with-your-life jumped on me during my first week. I am thankful every day for some people that finally asked me the questions I needed to force myself to answer: what do you want more than anything for yourself in ten years? When was a time that you were absolutely happy in something you were doing? Why did you go for the Ph.D.? I had nothing left but to be honest with myself, after so many years.

I wasn't stressed at any point during the semester, and I had done much harder things in my life than go through the motions of my program, especially academically. But as I went on, my feelings were verified with my grad school experiences. Experiences that confirmed in my mind that I did not want to be an egotistical academic (no offense to anyone, as this is a generalization, not rule). I did not want to have the coldness (or unhappiness) I felt many of the professors around me carried. I did not want to ignore my heart any longer for the sake of my ego. Actually, I didn't want any choice I made in my life to be based on ego, as this choice had been. It's never too late.

There is a stereotype that drop outs "can't handle it." I could handle every piece of it, but the fact that I simply did not want to bothers some people. And it always will. I didn't want to spend 6+ more years doing research when I hated research (more than anything, this was my concrete reason for leaving) just to try and be a certain kind of person. Suddenly, I wanted to be quite the opposite. Blaming the intense drop out rates on the students is an excuse for the world of academics to ignore the problem. Unfortunately, many drop outs are not like me. They DO drop out due to harassment, abuse, and a whole lot of program-oriented issues. And it has been swept under the carpet long enough...

Addressing attrition rates, and even higher suicide rates among grad students, will help not only the students of today, but the students of tomorrow (who deserve to have a firm grasp of the grad school world before delving into it with all they have in them), and it will surely save millions of dollars each year for schools and better than will save everyone's time and lives.

So, I encourage anyone reading this to speak out about your experiences. You are not any lesser for them, but you certainly are stronger. We are allowed to change, and for myself and most of you, I am sure, I have changed for the better.


  1. Please contact me about writing a post on this blog, and I will approve posts by your username right away :)

  2. Hi Brittany, I just got your comment on my blog.
    Thanks for asking, by the way. Would you mind telling me a bit about your book and what you want to cite from my blog?
    thanks, UofL

  3. Would you mind emailing me? I'd rather describe it in an email :)

  4. Hi Brittany,

    I am currently in the midst of dropping out of my cog. neuroscience grad school program and so much of what you wrote has resonated with me. I am only one semester in and have felt the depths of depression and anxiety already. My program is supportive but there is no future in this life for me, so I am making the change now. Interestingly enough, my advisor told me that I was the most qualified applicant in the pool this year and, in some weird case of cosmic irony, the soon to be drop-out has stumbled upon significant results the day before announcing his departure. The point isn't that I CAN'T finish this program, it's that I now know that I don't WANT to. I will continue reading your blog to see how your life has progressed since your departure. I have a plan for myself but it's always comforting to see the journey that another has gone through when it is so similar to my own.

  5. I just commented on another one of your posts, but wow, this one rang true with me. I am very similar to you in that I chose to do go into the counseling field because I wanted to help people (when I was younger I thought about being a doctor, but it just didn't fit because I don't like dealing with blood and stuff, and I'm not good at chemistry/math). But the further along i have gotten in school, the worse my issues with anxiety and depression have become. And really, anxiety is the main factor that prevented me from being accepted into the program track that I really wanted to do. It's just hard to know when to throw in the towel and say that this isn't for me. How do you determine that? Especially when you have worked toward a goal for so long? And what if you can't answer those questions--"what do I want to be in 10 years?"etc...I don't think I can answer them right now. But maybe I just need to ponder them for a while. Maybe my "ego" did play a huge factor in my desire to go to grad school. I don't know. I do know that the grad "game" is not for the faint of heart or those with self-esteem issues. I although I can see positive ways that going through this process has grown me, I also see how it has impacted my already low self-esteem. And I profs aren't very sensitive to these issues in my experience. Why does academia have to be so intense?