I’ve asked myself this question a lot over the past couple of years.
I spent years in graduate school, focused on becoming an expert in a subject matter that I was passionate about…only to leave it behind as soon as my Ph.D. was in hand. Did I just waste 8-1/2 years of my life?! I didn’t even tell anyone in my graduate school cohort – I just left!
Okay…it was a lot easier than it seems. Ten of us started together, five dropped out in the first three years, two had graduated before I did, and I rarely saw the other two since our specialties were so different.
Granted, the last couple of years of graduate school felt particularly brutal. I hated it! I was burnt out, and I wanted nothing more than to be done and to move on. I admit, I thought about quitting – many, many times! It wasn’t until two or three years later that I really started to miss it. Sometimes when I’m sitting in a meeting or commuting to work or staring at a computer screen, I get an intense longing to be back out in the field, to be immersed in it, to exert my esoteric expertise!
If you invest that much time and energy into something, shouldn’t you maximize your newfound knowledge, apply it, devote yourself to it, and gift it to the world?!
It has taken me a long time to accept something: It’s okay that I left academia! For a long time I fluctuated between feeling like I let myself down and thankful for the new opportunities I have pursued. No matter what decision you make about what career path you choose to walk down, there will be wins and losses, pros and cons, fulfillment and dissatisfaction, and gratification and regret.
I still keep up in my discipline…I still have moments of deep yearning to be back in my field. But there are things about being in academia that I had no desire to go through: the stress of having to continuously publish, to find funding, to make tenure…all while trying to teach a couple of courses a semester.
True, I never experienced those suites of things myself. Trying to teach one course a semester on top of my own full course load, and research was stressful enough! But I have friends in academia who have been going through that for years, and they are just as often utterly miserable about the stress of their jobs as they are excited about their research.
The truth is, I still have everything I learned in those 8-1/2 years…and I can always keep on top of my discipline. And many of the skills and knowledge I gained through my graduate school experience have enabled me to cross into completely different fields, pursue new career opportunities, and expand my skill set and knowledge-base. And all of these things together have enriched me.
So…did I waste all those years in graduate school? Not at all!