Monday, March 21, 2011

10 Reasons I'm Glad I Went

Given that a lot of academia- and grad-school-related posts on this blog are going to be somewhat negative in tone (at least at first), I wanted to use one of today’s posts to basically send the message that, well…

It hasn’t all been bad, even if I am leaving...

As anyone who makes the decision to leave academia will tell you, this decision and process is fraught with a lot of emotional turmoil and mental anguish. Why did I waste so much time in grad school if I was just going to leave? What was the point of this? Am I a failure? Why didn’t I like academia enough, or why wasn’t I good enough at it to get an academic job? Why did I waste all this time and money? And why didn’t anyone help me see what kinds of jobs I could get outside academia? Grad school is a total waste.

Trust me … if you decide to do this, these questions and doubts will cycle through your head. And you’ll probably also have a lot of anger at what you experienced during your grad school years as a result. God knows that I have … and I’ll probably detail a lot of it on this blog. I really think that there are a lot of tremendously negative aspects to grad school and academic life that need wider attention, and that no one pays enough attention to.

But, really and truly … it hasn’t all been bad. I want to be clear about that. I wish I had realized that I didn’t want an academic job several years ago, before I languished miserably in the ABD stage, not wanting to work on research and hating every second of it.

But if I could do it all over again, I’d still go to grad school. I would … although I wouldn’t have stayed as long. But it hasn’t been all bad, and I’ve gained some valuable skills and had some wonderful experiences. And so I present my list of the 10 things I liked best about the time I have spent in graduate school.

10.  Coursework. I loved it. Perhaps this should have been a clue to me from the beginning that I was into grad school as an extension of college rather than as a career, since most grad students in my program hate coursework and can’t wait to get to work on their own research projects. I think I would have taken courses forever. But for whatever it’s worth, I loved taking classes and learning more about a diverse range of topics in my field.

9. The chance to hone my research and writing skills. These skills have more relevance in the real world and in a wide range of jobs than even I thought possible, so I’m immensely grateful to have gotten this training.

8. Friendships. I have made really fantastic friends in grad school that I wouldn’t give up for the world. We got each other through the tough few years of adjusting to grad school life and getting through coursework, and as time has gone on we have provided each other with emotional support during dissertation writing and the job search progress, as well as through personal events like new relationships, marriages, and the birth of children.

7. Conferences. They are a lot of fun. Not the professional networking or the crapshoot that is the research sessions (where you’re just as likely to see mind-numbingly terrible presentations as good ones), but I always loved the chance to visit a new city and see all of your old friends. If you’re someone like me who likes to travel and enjoys the opportunity to catch up with old friends, conferences are great fun. I still plan to go to the occasional conference even if it’s not required for my job.

6. Unintended benefits of the city I moved to. During one of the worst economic crises our country has seen, I graduated from college and moved somewhere where the crisis hit much less severely than elsewhere. I’ve lived for years in a city where my partner and I have remained gainfully employed, bought a house that has actually gained in value over the years, and have crafted a pretty decent life for ourselves while a lot of other people are suffering. If nothing else, I’m grateful that we are not underwater on a mortgage or at risk of being laid off from our jobs. In this day and age, that’s something to be thankful for … and if I hadn’t gone to grad school, who knows if we’d be in this position.

5. Flexibility. While I said previously that the flexibility of graduate school can actually have negative consequences, I have to admit that there are a lot of benefits of that flexibility. It’s great to have the type of job where I could take a full week off around the holidays, or go on an extended weekend vacation, without having to worry about vacation days or whether my supervisor or coworkers would resent me taking time off. I will miss having that freedom. But it’s not enough to keep me in the academic world.

4. The time and freedom to learn more about topics that interest me. At first, being in graduate school allowed me to learn a lot more about the topics that interested me – namely, various social policies. As I’m sure I will discuss in another post, this freedom to read and learn actually becomes more narrowed as grad students advance; however, the knowledge I gained through reading and thinking through ideas early in graduate school has helped me gain a deep understanding of the topics that interest me. I know that the time I had to really, really learn about those topics will help me in the workplace and in any writing or thinking I will do on these topics in the future.

3. Increased independence. The chance to move away from my family and to forge my own adult life. I have always been very independent, so I doubt I would have been someone who would have moved in down the street from my parents and asked them to do everything for me or anything. But still, moving away at such a young age and having to be responsible for myself on a daily basis has been a great experience.

2. University-provided perks. Free library access, cheap/free computer software, discounts on travel to conferences … they’re all perks of being in graduate school. And if I’m being honest, another perk is the chance to occasionally get money for doing very little work (such as what I’m doing this semester as a “research assistant” for my advisor, despite not having talked to him once all semester). It’s a job I don’t always like, but it does have some decent fringe benefits.

1. The chance to teach. The desire to teach at the college level was, at the core, the reason I went to graduate school. I thought I would love it, and I did. My decision to leave doesn’t mean that I don’t still love teaching – I do. I just don’t love all of the other things that a career in academia requires. But I will never, ever regret the teaching experience I’ve gained. I love teaching, and I plan to continue “teaching” in some capacity in my future career. So I’m incredibly grateful that I spent a few years in the classroom, honing my teaching skills and realizing that I’m good at it and love it.

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