Why I’m leaving the PhD program

This is my last week at Marquette University. I’ve been thinking about quitting for a long time — at least over a year now — but it’s been a difficult road to that decision. How much of my unhappiness was from regular ol’ imposter syndrome and how much of it was from sincere unhappiness of my life decisions? I’ve spoken to a lot of friends, trusted professors, strangers online, and my therapist, and I realized that the thought of leaving makes me happier than I have felt in a long time. I feel free now. While I’m nervous about starting my new job as a student services specialist,  having to start paying down my loans, and worrying about the possibility of regret, I’m also excited for the first two. I read several personal blogs about why people left their Ph.D.s and I wanted to share my reasons in case it resonates with people in the same position.

For a long time I’ve been struggling with my dissertation. I imagined my dissertation to look a certain way. I know that how you imagine it in the beginning is never how it turns out; I was ready for that. What I was not ready for is being told that the argument I wanted to make wasn’t enough. I lost interest in my own dissertation. If I didn’t care anymore, why should anyone else? Also, how can you write 200 pages on something you aren’t interested in? A seminar paper is easy enough. I’ve had to bull shit those for years, but you can’t do that for a book. I am passionate about my topic and hope to pursue it in other means — blogging about it, for example — that won’t give me the same grief as my dissertation, but still satisfies my need to share my thoughts and ideas about some amazing books and women with the public. So that’s one reason.

In the last few years, I’ve also seen friends with PhDs unable to get jobs. A few have gotten tenure-track positions (some right after graduation and some after a few years of adjuncting), but in places I would never want to live — Alabama, Georgia, Iowa. Where I live is more important to me than the job, because I need to love where I live. I know that a lot of people can live anywhere, but I am not that person. I want to be close to my family, I want to live in a blue state, I need mountains and relatively quick access to an ocean. Friends who didn’t get TT jobs either ended up having to adjunct in several places to make ends meet (and this obviously means no benefits) or have part-time or temporary jobs (again with no benefits). I hate to sound like a capitalist, but I would like good health benefits, pay down my loans, and be able to travel occasionally. If that’s the life I want, then I need to change my situation in order to get it. The priorities I want have become clearer and I’m lucky enough to be responsible only to myself so that I can make the changes I need.

My third reason, which some (like my therapist) can argue should be more important, is that mental health has deteriorated since I’ve started. Since I’ve been here (August 2012), I’ve had to increase the dosage of my anti-depressants and the frequency of which I took my anti-anxiety medicine. For the first time in 10 years, I considered cutting as a way to alleviate my pain/frustration/anxiety/whatever I was feeling that day. That alone scared me and made me face why I was feeling the way I was. Being in therapy has luckily saved me from resorting to old and bad habits, but it also made me realize that I was unhappier than I was willing to admit to myself. I need to refocus my life and figure out what makes me happy — or at least content instead of miserable. Reading is one of those things that I loved and has been sacrificed (ironically) because of this path. I’ve missed free time when I’m not racked with guilt. While I still read for fun, it’s usually for half hour a day, some days. I miss reading things I actually want to read. While I hate the cynicism of this statement, I do think that loving literature and loving reading are not enough reasons to pursue a graduate degree. And I’ve realized I miss enjoying reading. It might seem trivial, but it’s time to focus on what makes me happy.

There was a lot of thought and talk about me “wasting 5 years here,” except I don’t see like that. Since 2012, I’ve taken classes in which I’ve learned new things; I’ve discovered literature that is never or rarely discussed; I’ve gone to conferences to hear some fantastic speakers and presenters; I’ve worked as an editorial assistant for a literary journal which introduced me to a new side of academic publishing; I’ve taught to some amazing (not not-so-amazing) students; and, I’ve made lifelong friends. It’s been a great experience. Now it’s time to move on. I used to hate it when a professor here would discuss the Ph.D. as if it was a job, but it really is. And if you’re unhappy with your job, you leave. So my decision came down to this: I’m unhappy at my job, I’m getting paid next to nothing for it, and I’m getting into more debt. If no one is dependent on me having this job, then what is stopping me from quitting and finding a better job? At the end, this logical break down made my decision easy.

Meanwhile, as a forever emo kid who swears by the power of music, this song perfectly encapsulates my life right now.

On Feeling like the Token Other

When I told my friend Vicki, who at the time was in her first year of Master’s at MU, that I got accepted into the PhD program she was incredibly happy that I’d be joining her. We got our B.As together from CSUN and were (are) good friends. Once the shouting and planning ended she said to me, “Just so you know though, you’re going to stand out here. I’m the exotic one because I’ve lived abroad.” Vicki had done two years of the Peace Corps in the Philippines. I heeded her warning, but it didn’t bother me too much. After all, in my MA program at Duquense, I was one of the four “brown” girls, really the only diversity in the graduate program. But after being back in Los Angeles and adjuncting for two years, something had changed. I got used to a diverse culture again. I didn’t stand out for my dark complexion and people knew from my last name that I was Armenian (Thanks, Kardashians. I think…).

In August 2012 I got the first email from my DGS addressing all newcomers. One could have easily played the game of “One of these is not like the others” with the list of incoming students. Bridget, Emily, Brian, Sarah, Heather, Andrew, Sareene…

I was a little weary, but still thought “It’ll be ok.” Except, it wasn’t. Nothing racist has ever been said against me (at least from what I know), but there have been moments in which I felt uncomfortable and when I feel uncomfortable I have this awful habit of bringing attention to that through what can be deemed as inappropriate humor.

In my Romantic and Gothic literature course, the late Dr. Diane Hoeveler was discussing Orientalism and showing painting of whitewashed and hypersexualized “Middle Eastern” women. Then she asked, “How are these images different from how the West views the East now?” Queue awkward silence and downward glances. [Necessary sidenote: I am Armenian, but I come from the Armenian diaspora so my dad is from Syria (though all throughout high school I claimed him as Lebanese, a story for another day) and my mom is from Egypt. And because of genetics, I guess, I’m also of a darker complexion than many Armenians.] After a few seconds, I straightened up in my chair and said, “Well, as the only brown person in this room, I feel comfortable saying that those images of the ‘East’ were never realistic, but neither are the only-burqa-wearing images of women we see now.” Two people giggled; Vicki, cause she knows what I felt like, and Andrew, who found it hilarious that I would make others uncomfortable. Dr. Hoeveler picked up on that thread and went along discussing the racism behind Orientalism. See? Not a big deal. I can move on.

Except… I needed a haircut. I had been living in Milwaukee for three months and I couldn’t wait anymore. But being a non-White-but-really-I’m-Caucasian-but-I’m-also-ethnic woman means I can’t just walk in to a random salon. I needed a recommendation from someone who also had thick, curly hair. This shouldn’t have been a problem. And it was. I found one. That’s right, one woman in a graduate program of roughly 35 students who had curly hair. Many people might not think that this instance is even worth mentioning, but there are people who do not have straight hair who can understand my struggle here. Thankfully, I met the hairstylist who I’ve religiously gone to for four years now. This could have been something I discovered eventually on Yelp, so again, maybe not a big deal.

AND THEN, Miss America 2014, Nina Davuluri came into my life. Well, sorta. it must have been a day or two after the pageant when I walked in to say hi to our department secretary, an amazing woman who always has tissues ready for the graduate students and a sympathy crier to not make you feel alone. She’s awesome, seriously. But, she was the one who, inadvertently, exposed just how little people knew about the only dark-skinned person in the graduate body. I walked in and she smiled at me and said, “Congratulations!”
Me: For what?
Her: The Miss USA winner! She’s the first Indian-American woman to win!
**awkward pause**
Me: Um, I’m not Indian-American. I’m Armenian.
Her: Really? Oh, my son’s best friend is Armenian.
If I could have done it, this is where I would have face palmed myself. If someone actually knows an Armenian, wouldn’t the -ian from my name have been at least a clue of my ethnicity? I was a little peeved, but determined to find the humor in the situation. I get it: I have a long name, long (at least then) and dark curly hair, and an overall dark complexion. I shrugged it off as an easy mistake to make in a place where there are probably 100 Armenians. Ok, move on. Go to class. My PhD literary theory class. I was telling Andrew the story of what had just happened, because I knew he would laugh and shake his head, acknowledging that the situation was sadly comical. Well, I’m loud, so as I was saying this story everyone started to listen in, even the professor, the professor who is an African-American literature scholar but as white as they come. She laughed at the story and said “Of course you’re not Indian! You’re Iranian!” “I am?” I asked. “You’re not?” “No, but you’re at least closer in terms of location. I’m Armenian.” “Oh! I didn’t know that.” Clearly. But I love this professor. She’s one of the two professors at MU who I loved learning from. She was also our DGS and was always blunt yet comforting when I needed help. And I expected better from her. Shouldn’t someone who studies racial discord in America be more sensitive about making assumptions on someone’s race or ethnicity? And now, the humor was gone. I wasn’t angry. I’m still not angry. I’m sad.

I’m sad that since August 2012, the only other person-of-color in the graduate program is an Indian Jesuit. It’s been 4 years and we can still play the same “One of these is not like the other” game with the list of student names. Sure, no one has been overtly racist and, besides that moment in theory class, I’ve never actually felt uncomfortable. But it’s not really comfortable either; I’m somewhere in between. I know it is not a conscious decision among the faculty to accept only white students. I know several faculty members, including the one who assumed I was Iranian, mourn the lack of diversity in the graduate student body. But, we are at a small, Catholic school in the most segregated city in the U.S. It’s not exactly the most welcoming fact when POCs look for prospective universities. I applied here because Vicki told me about it and I thought that since it sounded really similar to Duquesne I had a decent chance of getting accepted.

But I’m the token other. Sure, no one else says it and they laugh when I jokingly point it out (jokingly because what else am I supposed to do? yell?). But I’ve seen most of the names of the students coming here in Fall. Looks like I’ll keep being the token other until I graduate.

 

Writing, or trying to, when my brain can’t.

I was diagnosed with clinical depression and general anxiety disorder in 2008, though if I had been brave enough to seek help, I would have been diagnosed a lot sooner. While I am on medication that helps me a lot, it is not a cure and every day is different. Some days, I can clean, do laundry, write, revise, grade, and lesson plan. Other days, getting out of bed and moving to the couch is the most I can accomplish.

As a PhD candidate, I have limited funding and limited time to finish my dissertation. I know that I want to defend in a year. I want to defend in a year, but when moving to the couch is all I can accomplish then no writing gets done. It’s not easy, and I know I still have it a lot easier than many other people.

A friend of mine who is also a PhD candidate and suffers from severe depression posted this article by Katie Rose Guest Pryal on having to work when your brain won’t cooperate. She describes the struggle of not just having to write, but also being a parent and a wife, and how mental illness can slow things down and make you think that everything is terrible.

Perhaps the stigma of mental illness, particularly depression, has lessened while more people publish on the realities of dealing with it, but what can you do when you are on a time crunch and you literally cannot do the things you are supposed to? Is there room in academia for people like me and my friend who may not be able to work as quickly as our healthier peers?

#ILookLikeAProfessor

A couple of weeks ago, #ILookLikeAProfessor was trending on Twitter. The hashtag’s goal was to show that academia can be a diverse place, that the image of the old white man in tweed and elbow patches is not accurate. As a short, ethnic woman, who happens to not look her age (#thisis30), who has a couple of visible tattoos (including a Harry Potter one) and wants some more, who likes to wear jeans in winter (I’m in MKE, it’s cold), and who talks with students about Harry Potter even though I’m letting them get me off track, I know I do not fit the stereotype of an academic. Yes, I’m still a graduate student, but I teach 3 classes a year and want to continue teaching in higher ed, if possible. So, this trending hashtag resonated with me. On November 11, 2015 I will turn 30 and I plan on marking this occasion by getting a tattoo on my arm. It may still be covered (and will be, because – again – MKE), but I’m definitely not going to feel the academic guilt of not fitting in with the stereotype.

For a good read on #ILookLikeAProfessor, read Kelly Baker’s Vitea article here.

An article on why we need emotional and passionate women and men in Academia

Karen O’Donnell published a post for The Guardian about why being passionate about your academic work is a good thing. Many academics might scoff at me when I say “I love this book” or “I love my research,” but why shouldn’t we love what we’re doing? I did not give up a well-paying job with benefits to live at the poverty line for 5-6 years, constantly worry about funding, not get great health insurance, and not be able to live like my other 30-year-old friends for something I am not passionate about. And as O’Donnell points out our research lives and dies with us, and we work alone for long periods of time. Passion is what keeps us going and I have no shame saying I love what I do and I’m pretty lucky to be able to do it.