Grad School: The Temptation to Quit

Though this blog post is directed towards those going through difficult grad school experiences, the advice given is completely applicable for anyone going through similar situations.

167It was a bad quarter. Though I somehow managed to escape relatively unscathed and pass my classes… hell is not an adequate enough word to describe how low some days got. In fact, some days my mental health was in such peril that many times I felt like walking into my boss’s office and tell him to take me off the project I’m working on… or, on the worst days, tell him I’m quitting the program for good.

In the end, I did neither of these things and after a day or two the feelings passed. However, I remember that afterwards I just felt so guilty. Because, here I am. I’m the first in my family that has been given the opportunity to graduate from college and continue my higher education. I have a rare chance to pursue a career that I am so passionate for and possibly make a difference. Yet, for some reason, despite all this, I’ve thought of walking away countless times. Quitting.

Quitting seems to be very stigmatized in society. Quitting is bad. Quitting means failure. Once a quitter; always a quitter.  You get the point. And in the academic world, this idea is just emphasized even further. I’ve spoken previously about how academics are so tight lipped about the difficulty of grad school, promoting an environment that demands that you suffer in silence. Mix this with cases of imposter syndrome and high levels of mental health issues amongst grad students and we make a system that either forces students to either quit for the wrong reasons (e.g. “I’m not good enough”) or, worse, refuse to quit–suffer in silence–because they don’t want to be looked down upon.

But honestly, if it’s for the right reasons there I truly believe that there is nothing wrong with quitting. I recently got asked on Tumblr under what (if any) circumstances would I consider leaving my program. Essentially, they asked, “how much crying is too much crying?”

Would I leave my program? Though it would be hard, I would if and only if I feel that the environment is not beneficial to my career goals or that my mental, emotional and even physical health are just taking one too many punches. In the end, it’s simply becomes a matter of deciding when you have hit that point of “too much crying.” In others words, is the amount of crying you’re doing is worth the long-term benefits that made you decide to come to grad school in the first place.

Now, I obviously cannot tell you whether or not you should quit. That decision is completely up to you and your individual circumstances. However, I’ve compiled a few things that I think will help you guide you to the best decision possible.

Constantly reevaluate

As you go through grad school or life in general, you grow and change as a person. Sometimes, however, these changes mean the reasons, dreams, desires and decisions that brought you to this point in your life may no longer be relevant. Therefore, ask yourself do the pros still outweigh the cons? Are all these current bad days worth what you originally wanted out of grad school? Is this still the path you want/need to take in order to reach your goals?

Make a Plan B

I actually did this exercise with my therapist for an unrelated reason, but it made me realize that though leaving my program would be extremely scary, I’ll be able to handle it. I have options. I’m not completely and utterly screwed. So, make a Plan B. And I’m not talking about a fully detailed, “prepare for the worst” type of plan. It’s simply a question of what would be the next few steps you take after leaving. (Feel free to include panic and cry as your first step. I certainly did.)

Remove yourself from the situation

Now, I’m perfectly aware that this is not always possible. During the worst part of my quarter I had to endure almost a month of grad school chaos before I could finally go on a small vacation. However, as soon as you can, have at least one day where you don’t do work. In fact, try not to think of school at all. This will allow you to come back a little more refreshed and with a clearer mind that will help you truly evaluate if this is worth your time.

Don’t make a decision on a bad day

When the world seems to be falling apart around you and your anxiety is at an all time high, this is not the right time to make this kind of decision. The emotional stress you’re going through can strongly influence the choices you make. If you’re lucky, it will all turn out okay. If you’re not, there’s a possibility you’ll regret the final outcome. As I said before, it is perfectly okay to decide to quit you program. But, it has to be for the right reasons.

Talk about your situation

Perhaps the scariest piece of advice here is to talk about your situation to others. It leaves you vulnerable and open to judgement. However, talking about this with someone you trust will ultimately allow you to gain outside perspective and sort out all those feelings.  Not to mention, openly talking about these kinds of topics will quickly find you amongst similar company. You’re definitely not the only one that has considering quitting. However, the reason we feel so isolated during these difficult times is because these types of conversations just don’t happen. Therefore talk about what you’re going through, for your benefit and others.

On that last note, please feel free to share your experiences if you’ve ever gone through a similar situation. Do you have any other advice for deciding whether quitting is the best option?


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