On Giving Up What (I Thought) I Always Wanted

As with most things in life, we learn what we want by first discovering what we don’t.

I am pleased to inform you that the Doctoral Program Advisory Committee has accepted your application to our Ed.D program with a specialization in Higher Education.

The paper prints. For as long as I can remember, I’ve preferred hard copies. Something about the physicality of the words, their reassuring permanence that can’t be wiped from a screen. This is the news I’ve waited years for.

Let me back up.

I was always the kid who loved school. Well, most of school. I’ll amend that first sentence for the chemistry teacher who caught me reading Sophie’s Choice behind my textbook more than once. When I got to college, the construction of each semester’s schedule, framed by the novelty of being able to choose what I studied, became a blissful errand. I devoured a first major and upon filling its requirements by spring of my junior year, quickly devoured a second. My friends jokingly called me “Doctor.” Of course I’d wear the gown with the velvet stripes one day. Of course.

I careened into my master’s degree. After flirting with a school counseling program and nixing a full-time Ph.D. that would delay my entry into the workforce, I had chosen an M.A. in English. This would give me the education I needed to teach at the community college level, while allowing me to continue learning under professors at my baccalaureate alma mater. It was the best decision I could have made: immersion into a subject I love while maintaining the balance of work, a social life, and part-time study.

The English department chair of my hometown community college took a chance on me in 2012, and I accepted two course assignments while finishing my thesis. As I walked out of the classroom that first day, my tangle of nerves dissolved into pure euphoria. I knew I had found a job that I loved, and that even though I’d probably stumble around half-blind for a while, I would eventually get better. Over the next four years, I took on higher-level courses. I designed syllabi from scratch. I built up a rapport with students who enrolled repeatedly and recommended me to their friends. Even as a low-paid adjunct driving between multiple campuses, I was convinced that I had the talent and drive to beat the system. And part of my strategy was, as it had always been, to enroll in a doctoral program.

And then everything changed.

Seeing the writing on the wall as course assignments dwindled and more professors did not receive renewed contracts, I took a full-time administrative job in international education. This did not deter my plans of getting a doctorate. I had sent in my application and letters of recommendation; everyone was cheering me on. And for the first time, my employer would be able to provide tuition assistance.

I dragged myself out of bed for the interview one Saturday morning, during the stretch when I hadn’t yet moved closer to my new job and was commuting a grueling five hours a day. Afterward, I collapsed back into bed and slept the day away. Whatever the outcome would be, I had given it everything I had.

The acceptance letter came. Two weeks later, I sat in a classroom with 24 other cohort members, all chirping away as the program director described what the next three years of our lives would look like. But something felt off, like I wasn’t in command of the words coming out of my mouth. They belonged to a person I no longer was. I dismissed this as nerves over being the only one in the room under 30, and the oddball with a convoluted story among seasoned principals and superintendents. I balanced a plate of h’ors de’orves on my forearm and laughed between sips of wine at the reception. I was doing the right thing, wasn’t I?

I’ve always tried to live by two pieces of advice drilled into me by my mother and great aunt: Trust your intuition, and know your limits. At the start of my doctoral program, I was doing neither. I had convinced myself, much like a partner who feels obligated to continue an unhealthy relationship because they’ve already put time into it, that it was more commendable to stick something out no matter how loudly my gut was screaming. I had also ignored the self-knowledge that I adapt better to small, gradual changes rather than too many all at once.

The first course was engaging, albeit unlike anything I’d ever studied. My unapologetic inner socialist loved looking at the history of American education through a Marxist lens, examining schools as systems to reproduce existing social inequities. But a brain cluttered with a new city to live in, new job training, and new commuting patterns couldn’t handle this One More Thing. I tried using my eight hours a week on the train to complete all readings and daily assignments, but found myself retreating into an agitated and antisocial headspace.

After a brief existential crisis, I read an e-mail from the program director. I understand that you have some concerns. If you’d like to call me today and talk, here’s my cell number.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” I said, cradling the phone in my shoulder as I folded laundry. “I’m at a new institution with so many opportunities open to me, and I have no idea what the next few years will look like.”

“And are you OK with not knowing where your career is headed?”

“I think so, yes.”

“You know that we’d love to have you. You’re perfect for our cohort. But if you were my daughter…” There was a deep pause on the other end of the line. “If you were my daughter, I would tell you that this probably isn’t the time.”

I was right to trust my gut. Over the next year, the high-energy urban environment I was living in shot my anxiety through the roof, and I focused on taking care of myself and relocating to a calmer, more community-oriented area. It’s strange to think that had I stayed the course, I would have a third of a doctorate under my belt. But would I have learned as much about my needs along the way? Would I have made the introspective progress that moved me to a city I love and actually been able to call myself content for the first time in years? As with most things in life, we learn what we want by first discovering what we don’t.

Not long after I had withdrawn and gotten my money back, my co-worker called me into her office. I was still feeling embarrassed and sorry for myself—feelings compounded by the fact that most of the people I work with have terminal degrees.

“I just want to say congratulations,” she said firmly.

My face fell. “For what?”

“For dropping out of your program.”

I didn’t understand.

“You made a very difficult decision,” she went on. “But you knew yourself well enough to make the right one. You didn’t let pride, stubbornness, or the desire to be called ‘doctor’ get in the way. That deserves a congratulations.”

So to all of you who have ever acknowledged that a career, relationship, marriage, town, or school isn’t the best fit and let the driving red pulse of your intuition drown out all the other voices—congratulations.

Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.

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