just close your eyes and think of the undergrads

May 27, 2009

so once upon a time i decided to go to grad school. and it was interesting. and then i realized it completely fucking sucked. so i left, presumably to seek fame and fortune in the publishing industry.

you can imagine how well that turned out. at some point, hopefully i’ll stop being delusional about my career prospects.

anyway, this whole saga – which has been going on for the past 6 years or so – sends me through periodic paroxysms of grief and doubt as i debate which was really the better choice and whether i shouldn’t have just stayed – or whether i shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

so i’m a classic lisa simpson-type overachiever. despite this, college wasn’t something that was expected or pre-determined in my blue-collar family. others had gone, but not necessarily straight from high school. even i wasn’t particularly set on it until about my junior year, when i went to san francisco for the first time and realized that there was a whole wide world outside of my crappy town, and that college could get me there. so i applied to all of two schools (berkeley because i wanted to go there; humboldt because that’s where my best friend was going) and paid for my berkeley application myself because my mom couldn’t afford it. and then i got in to berkeley, and was ecstatic.

so then i went to berkeley, and it was fantastic. i loved everything about the bay area (still do, for the most part). i loved the whole college experience. i loved that i learned so much, that i took such great classes, that i became more and better – while also learning that i didn’t have to go to lecture to ace a class, and that i could do all manner of things while amazingly stoned. i started working for a small independent publishing company, quite at random, and it was the perfect place for me. 9 years later, i still do freelance work for them.

but as much as i loved working there (and i did), i couldn’t help thinking that grad school was something i should do. i loved to write – specifically, i loved historical writing. i love the research, the noodling around with academics (seriously, i love esoteric conversation). i knew i didn’t want to teach, but i figured i could do something else after i’d gotten the ph.d. – go back to publishing, maybe, perhaps even at a university press. so the year after i graduated, i applied to grad school. i had no idea what i was doing, i got no advice from anyone, i did no research – basically, i approached it with the same casual attitude i had college and expected that things would go just as well. they did not. i was soundly rejected from every school i applied to. there was much wailing and (metaphorical) rending of cloth.

the next year, i decided to give it another shot. i figured if i didn’t go back to school after two years away, i never would, and that if didn’t go back at all, i’d always wonder (i still think i was right about both of those). this time i got some guidance, both about the application process and where to study. i did a better job, although not a great job. but i got into the program that was best suited for me and my research interests, and off i went, still pretty much expecting that grad school would be like college only more so.

oh, how i was wrong. i could not have been more wrong. i totally should have read this before going. quite aside from the fact that i was terribly lonesome and homesick for the first month, the first quarter of grad school was rough, to put it mildly. in the first week alone, i nearly cried many times while trying to figure out postmodern theory (in my defense, the book i read on it was horrible; when i TA’d for Sociology my second year, i ended up teaching PoMo to my students and the book we used broke it down so it actually made sense). for someone who had never particularly been bad at anything academic, this was a brutal experience. ego-shattering, really (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, we all need ego checks on occasion). i thought about quitting several times. but it got better, and i thought “hey, i can do this.”

and then came the second year and TAing. turns out i was right about not wanting to teach. i suck at it, largely because i hate it. my students irritated the crap out of me. they bitched about everything and never did their reading, despite the fact that it was far less than the reading i’d been assigned as an undergrad (and then i would be annoyed both because they whined about such small assignments and because they made me feel like a cantankerous old woman). there would always be a couple who were legitimately interested in the material, but most of the students were just taking the courses to fulfill a gen ed requirement. regardless, it turns out i don’t really have the right temperament for teaching.

the other thing that happened that year was that the professor who taught the 2nd year research seminar had apparently had enough of wide-eyed overachievers thinking that grad school was the way to go. she was determined to make us understand that the ivory tower isn’t all shits and giggles and being lovably absentminded while wearing tweed and smoking a pipe. you think grad school is bad? the job market is worse. in fact, this about sums up what she tried to impress upon us.

and it worked. i realized that if i already hated teaching, i wasn’t going to like it any better when i was stuck at some liberal arts college in the middle of iowa, teaching four classes a semester while trying to publish my own research so i had a shot at a decent job in a place without snow. and one night while grading finals and hating life (not to mention the thought of TAing for another four or five years), i decided to take a break and found myself looking for publishing jobs. and i realized “you know what, i could totally be doing something else right now, and i don’t necessarily need a ph.d. to do it.”

and so i quit. i finished out my second year, took the MA (my friend and i call it the “parting gift degree”) and moved back to the bay area. where i quickly ended up temping for a mortgage company. a temp job that turned into a permanent job. i worked there for almost 2 years before moving back towards doing something more related to my interests (although still not at all what i thought i’d be doing when i left school).

this all sounds like it was easy, but it wasn’t. i freaked out at length the last couple of months i was in grad school. my whole life, my identity had been built on the fact that i was good at school, that i was smart and talented in academic matters. and here i was quitting, just walking away from it all. i couldn’t help but feel like a failure.

and as the years stretched out and i ended up in jobs that are rather different from the grand plan i envisioned, i couldn’t help but wonder if i’d made the right choice. furthermore, i couldn’t help but wonder which was the worse choice – leaving my cushy publishing job (where they offered to expand my duties and responsibilities if i decided not to go to grad school after all) for something i ultimately didn’t want, or leaving grad school for jobs that didn’t fulfill me?

i think i benefitted from the grad school experience. god knows, i learned a lot, although not necessarily the things i thought i would. i’m a far better writer now than i was before, and my ideas of history and society are far more developed. i made some great friends, relationships i wouldn’t trade for anything. and i learned a lot about myself and what i want. i guess, ideally, i’d like all of that AND my old job, but that’s purely impossible.

so instead i’m stuck trying to figure out what it is i do want. my experiences since leaving grad school have shown me that just as my ideas of grad school were naive and short-sighted, so are my ideas of what a career in publishing entails. i’m no longer sure that’s what i want. in the meantime, i’m treading water: i have my normal 9-5 job, i have freelance editorial jobs, and in the limited time that’s left over, i try to fulfill the part of me that needs intellectual stimulation. it’s a herculean task at times, but it’s part of what this blog is supposed to be helping me do. instead of whining about how i don’t know what i’m doing, i’m trying to take action. i want to read more? i want to think more? i want to write more? then i need to do it, even if it’s just on a blog no one is reading. this isn’t about audience, it’s about me.

oh, and the title of this post is a reminder to myself – some days (like today) when i’m particularly missing grad school and academia, i try to remind myself how much i hated being a TA.


One comment

  1. […] and the like « flying into space one hand clapping July 29, 2009 i’ve previously discussed the various enduring existential crises surrounding my decision to leave grad school for the […]

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