To Change a Dream: A Reflection on Leaving Graduate School

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Free stock photo from http://www.sxc.hu. Photographer’s site is http://www.garrisonphoto.org/

As I get ready to leave Chicago to move back home to New Orleans, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams: about how they fluctuate, and change, and sometimes even leave us.

And how that’s nothing to feel badly about.

I came up to Chicago with a Master’s degree in Spanish literature to get my doctorate and become a professor. I was good at research. I felt comfortable in academia. And I figured that even though teaching made me uncomfortable, it was something I could get used to.

The strange thing is, looking back, how well things were going for me. I was building a great CV for a professorial job after graduation.

  • My grades were great, and my teaching evaluations were far from horrible.
  • I helped plan a conference for my department.
  • I presented research at numerous conferences.
  • I got an article published in a peer-reviewed journal.
  • I had a good relationship with the professors and with my colleagues.

But I wasn’t happy. I lost all sense of purpose in my research (which I had never liked that much anyway). I felt fake as an academic, even though I was good at it. I was faking interest, faking that I believed that what I was saying mattered. Would make the slightest bit of difference in the real world.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with pursuing a career in academic research in the humanities. I’m just saying I discovered that wasn’t my dream after all: I knew it was no longer my dream to be a professor, because I was wearing a mask each day.

That mask was getting heavier by the month.

Eventually I took a leave of absence. The day I officially withdrew, after five years of investment in graduate school, was terrifying as well as liberating.

I felt free and powerless at the same time. Like I had thrown off a weight but was a failure for doing so. Even when I convinced myself I hadn’t failed–I had simply decided to pursue a difference course–I felt I was leaving a huge part of me behind.

LETTING A DREAM GO

And I was. I was leaving behind all ambition to be a public and professional scholar. But I realized that was okay.

I hadn’t wanted to be a professor to impress people with a series of letters after my name. I didn’t crave the letters for ego inflation. I had, at one point, loved Spanish literature. And I had loved learning about it.

I guess I had learned enough to make me happy, and my passion for it wasn’t as deeply rooted as my passion for writing fiction.

I had been pursuing that since I was a child.

No, I didn’t want to lose my Spanish, but I could still talk in Spanish and read Spanish without being a professor.

Yes, I enjoyed intellectual discussions, but I had tons of awesome friends who were in my field, with whom I could still discuss philosophy and literary criticism (to the extent I wanted to).

I didn’t leave because grad school was hard. It had always been hard. The thing is, it used to be hard, and stimulating, and fun. It used to feel fulfilling.

Now it was hard, made me miserable, and felt purposeless.

Walking away wasn’t easy, and I agonized over letting that dream go, but I made the right choice.

THE COURAGE TO CHANGE A DREAM

I’ve learned that dreams aren’t made of stone. They evolve. We alter and sometimes even discard them as we grow and mature as individuals.

And that’s no reason to feel like a failure, or inadequate, or cowardly.

As I sat to write this post, I realized that I’d addressed this very issue in my first, unpublished novel. The book is awful, but has a scene where a character named Jacob is struggling to move past an unrequited love. His friend, a seamstress named Danni advises him to forget the woman.

“Forget her?” Jacob rose to his feet. “Couldn’t I misinterpret what I’ve seen? I think of the future and I know—somehow I’m convinced of it, I can’t bring myself to doubt—that I will be with her.”

“I used to imagine things like that, but I was naïve, Jacob, and so are you. Life doesn’t work that way.”

“I can’t give up,” he said, “I can’t. I don’t believe I have the strength. I am not as brave as you think me.”

“What do I know of bravery? I sew clothing. Bravery’s not the issue. You can do this if you want to. It takes—my God, it really does—it takes as much faith to push hope away as to hang from it by nothing but your fingers, and sometimes, letting go is for the best. You’re the only one who can tell you where you stand. It’s up to you.”

I think it’s uncanny now that I wrote this (admittedly horribly sappy) exchange years before I ever enrolled in my master’s program, let alone my doctoral program.

Because Danni was right. It takes COURAGE to change a dream. To let an old desire, an old and familiar part of you, flit away.

It makes you feel exposed in an awful way.

It takes courage to walk away from a situation where you’re more or less secure, even if you loathe the work you’re doing and can barely stand it any longer.

It takes courage, perhaps, to put that dream of seeking an agent on hold to self-publish quality work, when you’ve dreamed all your life about the Big 5.

It takes courage to follow a new and unfamiliar path, whether in life or in the fake lives you’re writing about as an author. When you think you know what your characters are doing and then they change their minds….

But characters’ lives, like ours, are all about change. Life means constant change. Why should our dreams be exempt from that process?

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27 responses to “To Change a Dream: A Reflection on Leaving Graduate School

  1. A lot of good stuff going on here. First, changing dreams or fostering new ones is a good thing but we get stuck on all the TIME we invest in our current idea dream. I seriously considered all the money and effort I wasted before dropping out of (so expensive) grad school.

    But I realized I couldn’t sustain myself, and I really wasn’t happy either, like you.

    I also remind myself when I change ideas ‘midstream’ that change is akin to LIFE and living. I try to visualize a pliable plant or tree that bends in the wind vs a dead tree that is stiff and cracks when it is forced to bend. Here’s to bending!

    • that’s a great point. I’m SUPER lucky in that I didn’t have student loans to pay back…. I was on fellowship all the way through, so they were paying me to teach for them as I went to school. Things might have been different for me from a practical perspective if I’d had heavy loans!

      and you are so right…. life IS change. It really is. I tend to fight that and there’s no reason to! much better to bend, like you say!

  2. I think what you did is a very brave thing to do and I have huge respect for you for doing that. Especially because it was your choice. I was only able to let my dream go after failed auditions – when it had died already. And after that I didn’t have a dream at all, which is not a good way to stumble through life. But I think I could have never chosen to let the old dream go, even if it all had worked out and THEN I would have realized that I’m not happy because I would have been thinking about all those years I had invested.
    Life IS all about change. And life gives you things and opportunities – it may not have been what you have wanted in the first place, but what you needed.

    • “Life IS all about change. And life gives you things and opportunities – it may not have been what you have wanted in the first place, but what you needed.”

      I have found that too. I have always had what I needed. Sometimes that wasn’t what I wanted, at all, but I’ve seen how the struggles and the upsets in life have served to make me a stronger, and kinder person. And that’s GOOD. I feel like that is God at work. Always have.

  3. Good for you, Victoria!
    Change is usually a good thing. Walking away from what does not make you happy is a good thing.
    I am slowly allowing myself to admit that a certain project has not turned out the way I expected. Now I just have to work up the courage to prune it out of my life.
    Your step may be the boot I needed to get it done. 🙂

    • Best of luck!!!! Sometimes it does make sense to let a project go…. I’ve done that before with a novel or two. It kind of sucks, but I learned tons about writing and about myself to apply to the next thing.

  4. Dreams are fluid and evolve. I think that’s their nature whether we’re awake or asleep when we have them. I know a lot of people who grew to dislike their dream job, so they left to pursue the things that made them happy. From their experience, I think pursuing happiness is a more noble goal than pursuing simple survival. Though, I’m a little jaded on the whole thing.

    Good luck on your new dream and I’m looking forward to hearing about your accomplishments. Who knows what the dream will turn into next.

  5. Victoria, I’m glad you had the courage to let go of a goal that no longer fit. I had to let go of law school (my parents’ goal) and took a lot of flak for it for a time. But I never looked back.

  6. I applaud you for your decision! I’ve had similar doubts, mostly that I’ve chosen the wrong dream. I’ve always wanted to become a geriatric nurse, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions by colleagues as well as professors that I’m throwing away my degree and that I should work in a hospital or go into management. In February I tried management and it about killed me because my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to go back to what I loved.

    And recently I realized that I never pursued my dream of writing because I felt like it wasn’t something that would be worth my time – a feeling I got whenever I told people I wrote, and they would give me that look of ‘you’ve got to be joking.’ But now that I’ve started to write again, I feel oddly free, like I can be myself again and focus on what I really love. Thanks for the article and for your example!

    • I’m glad you could relate!!! We all have different callings, different purposes, and none is inferior to another.

      I try my best to ignore people who look down on me for writing, but it’s hard. And oh my gosh, whoever would tell you geriatric nursing is a waste…. I can think of fewer things more meaningful! To bringing comfort, help, and a supportive smile to the greatest generation…. that is truly incredible.

  7. I’m really glad that I came across this—I’m working toward a PhD right now, and I’m currently in a state of wondering if it’s what I want to be doing. It most certainly was, and I know that embarking upon this course was the right thing to do. But it’s really reassuring to read your post and to know that no matter what I decide, I can make the right decision. It might be staying here, and it might be moving on, and I don’t have to decide right now.

    Thanks for this very inspiring post!

    • I’m so glad it was helpful!!! I DEFINITELY know how it feels to be where you are. Best of luck to you: figure out what YOU need, and do that, because in the end this is about you and other people’s opinions don’t matter in this.

  8. ‘Life means constant change.’
    Absolutely! And congratulations for being courageous in the face of it.

  9. Yes! Congratulations, Victoria, on the courage to change your dream, and thanks for sharing your story. I have certainly been guilty of hanging on to things too long. I did finish my Ph.D., even though I was no longer sure academia was the right place for me. I felt like I’d put in too much time and effort not to finish. Letting go of the guilt I felt for leaving academia took a long time, because I thought that was what I was “supposed to” do. After several years as a technical writer, I finally gave myself permission to write fiction, as I’ve wanted to do for years. And it has been scary, but very fun and liberating at the same time. Brava, you!

    • Thanks!!! I felt that I was at the point where if I was going to cut the cord, it made sense to do it, otherwise I would have been too invested.

      Academia DOES have a way of making you feel wrong or inferior for leaving. It’s sad that’s the case!

      I finished all my coursework and was preparing oral exams. At that point, all I had left was my dissertation after the exams, so I told myself:

      either take exams and then write the dissertation, or call it a day. My dissertation director heading to another university kind of sealed the deal for me. (He did offer to take me with him, but I would have had to redo coursework. For me, not worth it).

      • I totally understand that–the perfect storm of circumstances. It IS sad that academia can be so guilt-inducing. Maybe because in some sense it feels “noble” to teach. But having gone as far in grad school as I did and then moving into the business world, as well as having a sister in academia, I’ve learned that academia is as much a business as anything else–just a different kind of one.

  10. I admire anyone who follows their dreams. That takes serious strength and moxie, especially when you’ve invested as much in as you had!

  11. Pingback: On an Author’s Dreams: what they are, and how they shift | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  12. I know this is an old post, but I stumbled upon it and am so glad to have read it. I am trying to decide whether to stay or go. One problem is that, like you, I am in a pretty comfortable position, and I am not half bad at the whole academia thing. It is harder for people to understand my desire to leave when there’s no clear problem, per se. However, I don’t feel passionate about grad school… I went into a field that is known for its activist tendencies, but as I went along I began to question whether my field really has the kind of pragmatic impact on social issues that it imagines it does. I’ve read a lot of books and articles that I think provide fascinating insights into issues of race, poverty, etc. that people outside of academia would be interested in… however, these books and articles are mired in so much jargon/obscure theory that I doubt anyone aside from a person trained in my field would ever have the patience or the necessary theoretical framing to slog through them! And, yes, writing for a broader audience is possible, but does not count for much in the tenure game.
    There are other issues at hand – difficult personalities in my department/field, my desire for a more collaborative/team oriented work environment – that are also spurring my desire to leave. However, I could finish in 2.5 years and I’ve already invested so much… On the other hand, my life is happening now and I should be enjoying it, or working towards something that will be more fulfilling!
    Fortunately, my family has been super supportive and my mom has said much the same thing you did about how dreams change and that’s ok. Just hard to break out of that grad school socialization in which leaving = failure! Anyway, thanks for the post. Glad to hear there can be happiness and fulfillment following this difficult choice!

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