The Good Graduate
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The Good Graduate

What Life Looks Like After An Unfinished Graduate Degree

It’s been a while since I’ve written about leaving my PhD program. Almost a year to be exact! After the countless comments on that post of others sharing their stories, I’ve finally felt motivated to share what my life looked like after an unfinished graduate degree.

Going to therapy… lots and lots of therapy

I felt a myriad of emotions when I left my graduate program.

Disappointment. Uncertainty. Shame. Confusion. If you’re going through a similar experience, you might be feeling the same.

I instinctively isolated myself from my friends (most of whom were still graduate students themselves) and family, only picking up the phone for a select few. I felt alone, as if no one could understand what I was going through.

At the time, I had already been attending virtual therapy appointments, so when I returned, the topic of conversation promptly shifted to my thoughts and feelings around my decision.

There were lots of tears, bouts of long, unbroken silences, and times where I simply vented about my pain. The simultaneous feeling of pride for following my heart and the immense shame associated with “quitting”. Imagine juggling both at the same time. Trust me, it’s not fun!

But after a few months, I had gained the confidence to stand firm in my decision, and regained a sense of worth independent of my educational achievements. Leaning on professional help was the best thing I could’ve done to support my mental health during such a vulnerable time.

Telling your loved ones

There was a period of a few months where I was withholding the truth from loved ones. Perhaps it was an attempt at self-preservation, or maybe it was the internalized pressure to appear perfect. Either way, at times I wasn’t sure how to truthfully respond to questions like

How’s school going?

What’s going on this semester?

Exams are coming up, how are you feeling?

I kept my answers brief and vague. Mostly because I wanted to spare having to have that conversation. What seems like an endless flood of questions. What happened?! Why did you leave? What are you doing now for work?

I evaded these questions not because they didn’t have answers, but because the answers were accompanied by an overwhelming cloud of depression when I was hoping for little chance of rain.

There were no simple answers to these questions. I had to spend a long period of time and introspection answering these to myself. And even more difficult, finding a way to form them into verbalized sentences.

When I finally told my parents, close family members, old friends and acquaintances, it was in my own timing. It was dependent on whether I felt like a safe space had been created for me to share my story, without judgement.

I had an old social media post from the year before that had announced my graduate school acceptance. To bite the bullet, I made a post announcing my departure. It was very vulnerable, but at the same time empowering. You can check out the Twitter thread I started below.

Commencing the job search

I really wish I would’ve dropped by the career center back when I was an undergraduate. When I first started my PhD program, I figured I could wait at least 5 years before having to update my resume.

Thinking this would be a straightforward and easy process, I brushed up my LinkedIn profile a bit, reformatted my resume, and applied to a few jobs. With an engineering degree in my belt, I assumed the jobs would come to me, not the other way around.

Recession or not, searching for a job is hard work.

You start applying for jobs you thought you wanted to do, then realize you actually need a graduate degree for them.

You start with a neat spreadsheet to track all of your applications, rejections, and interviews, but gradually, any semblance of organization falls through the cracks.

You stop trying to find your “dream job” and will settle for anything to be able to afford next month’s bills.

But through a little bit of career counseling, information interviews with working professionals, and some reevaluation of your strengths and weaknesses, you somehow end up narrowing down your interests.

I learned that I like working with tech, and hate to work on my feet (like in a research lab). That I have above average people skills but also prefer to have a bit of independent work. That I’m not the best at managing myself, but can efficiently delegate tasks to others in order to complete a common goal. That I like being challenged and having the chance to expand my skillset and grow into a career.

And finally, upon attending a virtual career fair through the university I was leaving, I found a role and a company that took a chance on me, passed me along through interview after interview, and handed me a job offer just in time for the holidays.

This was by far the most challenging part of my life after leaving my graduate program behind. But it was definitely the most rewarding. I’m now 8 months in at my new job and I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon.

Having just a few regrets

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret leaving graduate school for even a moment. But I do still have some lingering sorrow for opportunities I missed in the past.

I regret not assessing all my options before applying for and accepting an invite to a PhD program. It’s a huge commitment and I considered it lightly. Upon graduation, I didn’t even apply to any jobs and turned down any offers that came in my vicinity.

I regret not being more open to the various possibilities, not just career-wise but also academically. I never considered whether I wanted a Master’s degree initially, or whether there were other fields that would best suit my interests.

I regret not doing career counseling at all throughout my 4 years as an undergraduate. Not because I had to figure my life out in advance, but just to be aware of possible career paths.

But it’s important to remind myself that I should never regret the experience of attending graduate school in the first place. It wasn’t a waste of time. Not quite a failed endeavor. Perhaps better worded as a period of self-discovery that simply ended with a different result than expected.

For those who read my previous post, I hope this blog post provided answers to your questions and some solace to your situation.

As always, feel free to comment below on your thoughts!

Originally published at https://thegoodgraduate.com on September 7, 2021.

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The Good Graduate is a place for those who are perplexed by the intricacies of functioning as a full-fledged adult after college.

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Sophia Upshaw

Sophia Upshaw

I’m a WFH technical writer based in Chicago and I occasionally write about the kind of stuff about adulthood you don’t learn in school.

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