Leaving a PhD Program: Part 3 – From Stress to Success

It wasn’t too long ago when it felt like my world was spinning out of control; when the pressures of life turned the mumbo-jumbo in my head into a full fledged jambalaya.  It happened when the initial rush of leaving my PhD program subsided and my eyes got tired of staring into the unknown.  It happened when I spent two long and lonely months in my apartment updating my resume, filling out endless cover letters, and writing freelance while coming dangerously close to developing a mild case of agoraphobia.  It happened when my stint working part time with the Census was over and the reality of my empty piggy bank confronted me; or when I realized I was alone in my journey and

“Standing on a hill in the mountain of dreams, telling myself it’s not as hard, hard, hard as it seems.” – Robert Plant

the problems I would have to solve were my own.  I made the decision to leave grad school so I lived with the consequences.  Still, the instability I lived under was threatening my sanity.  Here I was, in Boston, barely covering rent, without a job, and few friends to turn to.  The pressure was slowly building upon me.  I wondered, was I heading for a catastrophic collapse?

[RewindAm I crazy for leaving graduate school?  Why I did it.]

I’d like to point out that I never expected the road after leaving graduate school to be well paved or easily maneuverable.   I knew I would have to be very patient with myself in the months following my departure.  I was starting a new career – a stage in life that takes time to develop, foster and grow.  I was also entering a job market in a miserable economy with little real-world work experience.  No, I was not expecting a ride on the gravy train any time soon.

[Rewind, part deux: How the American Dream helped me stay optimistic.]

Still, I decided to come up with a plan before I left graduate school for good.  I hoped my plan would ultimately help me and give me direction.  The plan is extremely simple; it’s more of a philosophy, but it helps me ride smoothly over the bumps in the road that accompany difficult times.  What exactly did I do?  I gave myself a year.  That’s it.  I left graduate school in March, and I would use the next 365 days as an experiment; a trial period in which there was no right and wrong or black and white.  A personal experiment in the experience itself – experiential learning.  What my plan allows me to do is free myself from any expectations.  Sure, I have goals, I am determined, and I am willing to work as hard as ever.  I am extremely motivated by a personal belief that those who work hard are eventually rewarded, and I am driven by my desire to make a positive difference in the world.  And yet by freeing myself from expectations, my plan has allowed me to produce without worrying about outcomes.  It has given me the liberty of following my heart.

So far I’ve stuck with the plan, almost my right hand man at this point, and I’ve been following and will follow it until I am ready to make the next step or until my year is up, whichever comes first.  But as I already mentioned, it hasn’t been easy.  The bumps in the road are too great to smooth out comfortably.  On paper, my plan sounds appealing, almost appetizing.  ‘Live a free life!’ it screams,  ‘Follow your heart!’  In reality, one could easily dismiss it as Utopian jargon.  My plan fails to address a certain need we are all dependent on and driven by: reward, both financial and spiritual.  No matter how much I sweat over my laptop pumping out beautiful articles, I’m not getting paid a penny for any of it.  No matter how many eye catching cover letters I write, I’m still overlooked in a pile of applications.  Unfortunately the rent check and bills are still due month after month; mouths need to be fed (luckily only my own at this point) and credit cards paid off.  And as time goes by it gets harder and harder to balance yourself on the tightrope of freelance work.  The demands of everyday life start creeping in and picking away at your mental fortitude as you slowly, carefully venture across.  Your heart starts beating faster.  Halfway through and you’re on edge; you start sweating and swearing.  You hold on to your goals, your hopes, and your dreams, but you have no idea whether they alone can will you across to the end.

[Flash Forward: I’m hired as Project Developer for the ‘Stories’ film series]

Before you consider leaving your graduate program for good, understand that you may be putting yourself into a situation of potentially more stress than you were in before.  Combine financial pressures with unemployment and a largely unfruitful job search in a bad economy and you may think twice about your decision when months of stress build up in the overheating pressure cooker that is your brain.  Ask yourself whether you are making the right call.  Don’t act on impulse; look deeply within yourself.  Take time to analyze and find meaningful reasons before you jump to conclusions.  Remember, the grass is always greener on the other side and big decisions carry a baggage of responsibility.

My only choice was to stick with my decision.  I wasn’t about to flip flop after months of debate.  But like with everything in life, the novelty of starting something anew eventually wears off.  The first few months after graduate school were becoming increasingly difficult.  Motivation has a funny way of gradually diminishing after yet another round of unfruitful job searches.  On top of that, I didn’t have anyone to turn to for concrete advice; that is, no one can predict the future.  Most people advise me to work hard and wish me luck.  They tell me I’m still young.  Well, I agree, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.  Instead, I kept turning to my plan.  I decided I had to explore all possibilities without much regard for common practice or the status quo if I was going anywhere or doing anything important any time soon.  If I saw something I liked, I went for it.  Maybe I wrote about it.  Maybe I applied to it, or wrote a cover letter for it.  I put myself out there – in person and online.  I had to swallow my pride when I knew I looked ridiculous.  The only mistake I could make was not trying.  So I went on, for months; I stuck it out.  Just like many of my friends – the college grads my age – or those who have been victims of the economic collapse, I kept looking.  Searching in the dark.  Dozens of applications and cover letters.  I had headaches along the way and I had doubt.  But ultimately, I just believed.  It was the only thing I could really hang on to.  When I suffered, I reminded myself that sometimes you have to take a step back before you can move forward.  I was going somewhere, I just didn’t know where.

And then, about a month and a half ago, my life changed.  It was a surreal experience that to this day I can hardly believe happened.  It was a moment of glory.  One of those times when it feels so good that you lose all inhibition, get up, jump around and yell maniacally.  One of those phone calls you will forever remember.  My big break.  I was graciously offered a chance for an internship.  It was a work opportunity that I saw as a perfect fit.  Of course I accepted, and in the middle of June in the year 2010, I became Project Developer for “The Stories Project” at the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.  In the next few weeks I would be compiling and producing a series of video documentaries that highlight people’s special experiences at Boston’s historic Emerald Necklace system of parks.  I would be connecting and communicating the importance of visiting our parks while simultaneously promoting the parks to a broad audience.  There was a paycheck involved, too.  All at once, months of migraines cleared away in a surging wave of bliss.

It has been a hectic few months, but I have finally found a temporary home.  The road map I was looking for has appeared in front of me.  I have a sense of direction now, and I’m driving toward definite rewards.  I am gaining real-world experience and I posses affiliation with an extremely important organization in Boston.  I have been heavily invested in my project, and yes, it is true, I have had much less time and creative energy to write for my blog (you can blame the beautiful Massachusetts summers for that one as well).  However, my hard work with the Emerald Necklace Conservancy has paid off, as I have not only orchestrated something out of nothing  (The Stories Project is a brand new venture for the Conservancy), but have been granted another opportunity with the organization as a part time web developer.  In the Conservancy, I found the break I was looking for, and I couldn’t be more grateful.  I feel so fortunate…so lucky.  I have learned to appreciate everything that comes my way.  Great hardships lead to great triumphs.

I was talking to my girlfriend Katie yesterday about my roller coaster of a ride this past year.  From moving across the country and readjusting to a new life, starting and dropping out of graduate school, searching for a new career in a new environment, and having my car stolen (I’ve never mentioned it, but yes, in June I had my car jacked), this year has been one of tremendous ups and downs, learning experiences, probably a few new wrinkles, and a transition to adulthood I have never experienced before.  And yet as I looked back on my year and reflected upon my current situation to Katie, I compared myself, in economic terms, to a stock.  If you invested in me a few months back, I was a small asset, high risk stock.  On the flip-side, high risk stocks pay out with high rewards.  Ultimately, I told Katie, if I released my quarterly report today, I feel my investors would be happy with my growth.  Most likely, they would be optimistic about large dividend payouts in the future.

Note: Leaving graduate school to pursue a different career is difficult.  But no, it is not impossible.  You have to believe in yourself, your hard work, and your abilities.  Believe that if you are talented and intelligent enough to be admitted into a PhD program, you are skilled enough to do anything.

Why I left a PhD ProgramPart 1 – Are You Crazy???

Believing in a Better Future: Part 2 – Pursuing the American Dream

What’s Up Next? I’m hired to create ‘The Stories Project’ film series



Filed under Inspiration, My Personal Journey

7 responses to “Leaving a PhD Program: Part 3 – From Stress to Success

  1. Pingback: The Stories Project: A new venture into video-documenting a historic Boston park system. « IGORoamandreport

  2. Pingback: Leaving a PhD Program: Part 2 – Pursuing the American Dream « IGORoamandreport

  3. Carol

    Thanks for writing this. I’m also in Boston and have decided to leave a PhD program at Boston College. I’m technically on “leave of absence” and have been thinking and rethinking. I also have a lot of unfinished work from the first year and can’t return anyway, unless I get those papers done. My situation is very similar to yours. Actually, I got very sick, both physically and mentally toward the middle of the spring semester and was on anti-anxiety medication for a while. As time is passing and since I don’t have any motivation or desire to complete those papers, I’m realizing that it’s inevitable that I will be withdrawing from the program at the end of this semester.

  4. Pingback: Every Beginning Has an End, But Every End is the Start of a New Beginning: 2010 in a Nutshell. | IGORoamandreport

  5. Thanks so much for this series of articles! I am at a fork in the road similar to yours, where my past interests and choices have brought me to a PhD in Aero Engg. As you mention, the initial novelty and romance (of probably 8 years) has worn off and it has taken some time for me to realize what I am no longer as driven about Aeronautics as before. However, I am very grateful that I became interested in it for the past many years and it has provided many happy moments and avenues to explore, one of which I am considering right now as a future path. To my family, friends and mentors, this may look totally absurd. Coming from a developing country where you get good education at a premium, I am giving up a stipend-paid PhD in a foreign land with all the associated perks. Given my past interests and previous work, my education and career looked like one-step-leads-to-other thing, but I know that it was a case of me being at the right place at the right time, given my interests at that time.

    Like you, it is tempting to say in the univ for purely financial reasons while trying to find your way for the future, but probably that’s not a good idea. I really from the bottom of my heart that those who are go through deep difficulties are the ones who eventually develop the courage to succeed. The new road I may take will probably involve lot of pain, but I have to be ready to go through that in order to accomplish what I set out to do (which in itself can be a painful search).

    Thanks for your posts and for the inspiration.

    • Hi yogesh. Best of luck to you on your journey! You are brave, and not too many have the will to do what you did. And don’t get down when life seems tough. For me that’s easy to say now that I’m doing quite alright for myself, 2 years removed from my PhD program. I write, make videos, and consult on social media for a living. But getting to this point took a lot of patience, a lot of soul searching and many projects for little pay. Be ready for some pain, but it will only make you stronger. I say take a few months to experiment and identify what you really love. Then pursue it! I never had a concrete answer but I always had an interest in media, writing, and journalism. Things will work out the way they should!

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