Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dear Adviser: It's Not you. It's Me.

It's been two days since I emailed* my thesis adviser and told her that I was leaving my Phd. To be honest, I didn't say "I quit." It was more of an "I'm going to take a year and pursue other opportunities and then reassess" kind of an email. Should I feel a bit weaselly about not just coming out with it? I don't, after all, have any intention of returning to my dissertation. I don't think I do, at least.

No, I don't want to return to my PhD. I don't enjoy it and I want to move forward. But I'm learning that it is really difficult to turn away from it and not look back and try to grab hold of one little piece, just in case. This shouldn't come as much of a shock, especially since I started this quitting process months and months ago and here I am still going on about it. To you. On my blog. No one could ever accuse me of making a snap decision here. Some days I wish I had been a bit snappier about this whole thing.

I hold on to these little bits and pieces in case I've made the wrong decision, which makes all of this about the scariness of trying something new. If I tell my adviser that I'm leaving and never turning back, then my choices today become awfully real. But I think there is more to it than simply needing a back-up plan. This is about pride again. (and, of course, shame). I've spent years attached to my identity as an academic, as a soon-to-be Dr. Professor. I research and write and publish and go to conferences. I am a specialist. These last two years that we've been here in the U.S, even though I wanted to quit, even though I've often been very unhappy, I still held on to that piece of myself. If I could stay connected, even just a little, to that part of my identity wrapped up in a PhD, then I could maintain some semblance of order.

The important people in my life know where I stand now (though there are still some friends I haven't had the chance to talk to yet), and they have all been so incredibly supportive. I haven't written much about it, but my parents really took me by surprise with their reactions. They both seemed genuinely happy for me. And where I expected my friends to judge me, they instead asked me excited questions about what I might do next. And Matt, he's been listening to this for years (bless him). As much as I look up to my adviser, we have always had a distance between us, even when I lived full-time in Toronto. We've never had that student/mentor relationship that you see in all those ivy-covered movies. Telling her is difficult, but not scary. What made writing that email so difficult was the finality of it all. I was a graduate student, and she was my teacher. Seven years ago I asked her to work with me on a project, and now I'm severing that relationship in an unnatural sort of way. Until I sent that email I could still rely on that relationship to hold together what felt like a vital part of myself.

It's final. Alright self, on to something else.

*I realize it seems incredibly lame to give this message over email, but we live in two different countries right now. I don't think I've ever called her on the phone in seven years. But, it still is kind of lame. I'm owning the lameness.


  1. Hey! I got here via your post about your birth story (which, by the way, is amazing)! I had no idea........I lean towards congratulations, my friend. I hope that you are happy and thriving (and it sounds like you are). Much love. jc

  2. Thanks, Jen. This is the right decision for me, but not an easy one. Thanks for reading!I hope Bishops is treating you well.

  3. I second the congrats and am sorry that I'm just learning about this now (or I would have paired my congratulations with a big hug on Monday)! Sometimes in grad school we get wrapped up with finishing, and it's easy to stop asking ourselves whether we really want the prize at the end to begin with. I think it's awesome that you didn't put yourself through the torture of barreling blindly and painfully towards something you probably don't want or need. Plus, there will be some very lucky high school kids now who get to benefit from your talents!