So, About Grad School…


In my First Ever Blog Post, I gave a little glimpse into where I’ve been and where I I’d like to be going. There is a lot to unpack in the “where I’ve been” segment. I find myself telling people that I went from one extreme to the other- from Political Science to The Arts. While there’s certainly more to the story than simply, “Grad school didn’t work for me…” it is am important piece of the puzzle. Here’s what I wrote about it in January of this year when I made my decision:

I’m a quitter.

Did you know that I trained for a half marathon once? It was years ago, maybe 2008 or so. I had been running for a while at that point, and I had all the special running socks and armbands and such, and read all the running magazines. If you know me at all, you know that when I try something new, and like it, I dive in. Hard. I fully immersed myself in the running world. I had done several 5ks and at least one 10k, and a half-marathon seemed like the logical next step. It’s what everyone in the magazines was doing.

At first, it all went great. I enjoyed enlarging my regular three-mile loop in incrementally bigger circles until I was running 4.5 – 5 mile tours of my neighborhood. My feet began to blister and I loved every minute of it. “Yah! I’m a real runner now!” was the thought that echoed through my head as I pumped my tired legs up the hill towards home several times a week. I began running longer stretches on the weekends. Six miles one Saturday, seven miles the next. The longer runs were challenging, and they tired me out, but I kept it up. Then came the day I had planned to run eight miles.

My husband Jeff was training with me, and so we ran together on the weekends. That particular Saturday, we mapped out our eight mile run and headed out for our usual routine of a run followed by breakfast. For about the first six miles. Jeff easily jogged in front of me, keeping his pace to mine, and I cranked my Ipod and settled in for a long haul. Then, around mile seven, something happened. Not an injury, not a cramp, no wardrobe malfunctions or anything like that. I was just…. done.

I stopped, looked at Jeff, and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” It was a little hard to understand. I had been training for weeks. I had already registered for the race. I wasn’t hurt. I was tired and sore but perfectly capable of continuing on. I just didn’t want to. It wasn’t something I spent time deciding. I hadn’t weighed the pros and cons, I just knew. I knew it in my bones. I was done. Right then and there, several miles from home, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, it was as if my body and my spirit teamed up to make the choice without me- this is over. And that was that.

Even though I knew for certain I no longer wanted to train for a long race, it was sad to give up that particular goal. I realized I had really set my heart on having had run a half marathon. I wanted to be a ‘real runner’ and be acknowledged as such- I wanted to fit in in runner’s circles. I wanted to wear the Seattle Marathon t-shirt while running around Greenlake and nod in acknowledgement as I passed other runners wearing the identical bright yellow jersey. I wanted to put one of those cute little oval stickers on my car that simply read, “13.1.”

All of those things- the t-shirt, the sticker, the ‘real runner’ label, they were all status symbols, of course. And I wanted them, I really hungered for them at one point. And maybe it seems obvious that those things would never bring me true fulfillment. Like, duh Kristin, read a self-help book once in a while, it’s all in there. But for me it was a bit of a wake-up call. Running my little three-mile loop around Greenlake two or three times a week makes me happy. It makes me feel healthy, it gives me time to clear my head, it calms my anxiety, it gives me an excuse to buy a new cast album and dance all the way around the lake. And that, I realized, is all I need. It’s enough. And it’s good. Even if I can’t compare marathon stories or join hardcore running clubs. Even if it makes me a quitter. And so I did, I quit training.

My decision to pursue a PhD felt a little like deciding to run that half marathon. I love school, I love learning and studying and collaborating with fellow academics. I follow a lot of scholars on Twitter, I read the SCOTUS blog, I attend lectures on the UW campus. After returning to school to complete a long-unfinished bachelor’s degree and graduating in 2010, I was on such a high. I loved every minute of that degree. I wanted to continue on that path forever. I wanted to stay in school and live there for the rest of my life. Pursuing a career in academia seemed like the logical next step.

As most of you know, there were several things that barred me from taking that next step right away. I spent several years caring for and supporting ill family members. Besides the time commitment that I gave to them, it also took a mental and emotional toll. Still, I entered into academic conversations when and where I could. I researched various masters and PhD programs and fantasized about traveling the world to speak at conferences, and of wearing one of those cool, multi-colored Doctorate sashes over my robe on graduation day. Eventually I worked up to GRE prep courses and then took the test twice. I spent an entire year contacting old professors, writing and revising personal statements, and finally submitting applications to five different graduate schools.

It took a total of two solid years, but I did it. I got into a master’s program that I knew I could use as a stepping stone to get me into a PhD program. I worked hard my first quarter and succeeded- getting 4.0s across the board. I had one professor and one advisor believe in me so much that they both offered their free time to help me publish various things I was working on. I made a few friends and found new and exciting things to research. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t the program that I wanted to be in, but it was a start.

It was during this first quarter that another family member began suffering health problems. I considered leaving my graduate program when they were diagnosed. But I decided against it. Those dreams of being a ‘real scholar’ and wearing a cool “She wants the (Ph) D” t-shirt were real and powerful. Besides, I had spent the last five plus years working towards this. I had left a successful career in early learning behind (that I had no desire to return to). What else was I going to do?

My first quarter, a rousing success by academic standards, came and went. During my winter break I planned to be festive and celebratory and enjoy the holiday season. But instead, something happened that I didn’t expect. I was a wreck. I was so tired. And not a ‘I’ve worked hard and feel so accomplished’ tired. But a deep, sad kind of tired. I hardly pulled myself out of the house for two weeks. I didn’t even realize how I was feeling until three days before I was due to return to school for winter quarter. I started to cry, and I couldn’t stop. The day before school started again, my heart was heavy, and I felt so lost. I grabbed a bottle of wine and made Jeff drive me to one of our favorite beaches.

Sitting on a freezing cold rock overlooking the gorgeous Deception Pass, I peeled off my gloves just long enough to pour myself a glass of the bold Syrah that had been aging in our wine fridge for several years. I felt the deep purple warmth spread through my gut. I took a deep breath, looked at Jeff and said, “I think I’m done.”

Jeff nodded, took a sip of his own wine. He looked back at me and told me something I didn’t even realize I hadn’t seen, “You were miserable.”

He was right. I thought about how I had postponed ordering my winter textbooks until the last possible minute. I still hadn’t ordered my parking pass for the quarter, or transferred my loan money into my tuition account. All of those things I had done well in advance before my first quarter. Thinking about doing them this time actually make me sick to my stomach. I thought it was simple, ordinary stress. It wasn’t. My body and my spirit had teamed up again to make a decision, and was trying to tell me. I was done.

It wasn’t that I no longer loved research, studying and collaborating with academics. Like with running, I still wanted to do it. It still made me happy. But oh god, the striving was killing me. The constant hustle to meet the next deadline, to keep up my GPA, to find funding for the next quarter. I thought I was supposed to stick it out- that it was the sign of a strong, intelligent person to put my head down, work hard, and get through the sucky stuff to get where I wanted to go. We hear so much about ‘work ethic,’ and about people who ‘succeed’ against the odds. Giving up sleep, giving up security, giving up personal time and the little joys of life to meet a goal- that is a value that our culture holds dear.

Well, forget that. I’m done. I’m coming out today as a quitter. You can keep your ‘work ethic,’ I don’t want it. I want to cook meals for my family members when they are ill, and not have to rush home to finish a paper before midnight. I want to nurture my marriage. I want to play at the playground with my niece and nephews while they’re still little. I want to laugh with my friends over cocktails. I want to read trashy novels, drink wine on the beach, go to the theatre, travel to new places, and still be in bed by ten. And yes, I want to learn, to study, to collaborate with other thinkers who are making contributions to our communities. But, for now, I don’t want to do it in a marathon. I don’t want to do it just for the medal at the end. I want to do it in three mile increments- to do it because it makes me dance. To experience the joy in it again.

And so, I quit. I dropped out of school.

I know that some people will judge me for it. I know that some people won’t understand how I can be happy living in such a small house, wearing clothes from Goodwill, driving an old beat up car, and having no letters after my name. And it’s okay, they don’t have to understand. It’s not for them to understand. I trust that those of you who love me will accept me no matter what, and will not be disappointed with me for making this choice. I’m not certain what lies ahead for me. It won’t be easy forging a whole new path. But I know I made the right decision.