Tell me how to leave graduate school and still be successful
October 7, 2012 9:12 PM   Subscribe

I am current a first semester history MA student at a highly ranked public university, and I cannot stand it. I'm planning on contacting the department secretary soon to tell her that I'm leaving the program. What can I do now?

some more detail:
I've only attended this school for a month, but it's become very clear to me that I am not compatible with my department and that they care very, very little about their MA students. I have not been granted an adviser yet, and the only professor who taught in my area of interest was either fired or left over the summer. Therefore, I am stuck taking completely irrelevant classes, that may or may not even count toward a degree. In addition - and perhaps the most alarming point to me - is the terrible culture of the department. I feel like any dissent in regard to political, religious, or historical views is quickly stomped out, and I had a professor mock me and others (in class) for interpretations of documents. This leaves myself and my cohort are absolutely miserable. The university itself is a red tape disaster, i.e. it has taken Student Accounts one month (and counting) to rectify their mistake as charging me as an international student. I'm more stressed than I've ever been in my entire life, causing terrible panic attacks and DAYS without sleep. I've visited the campus counselling center, but so far, they've been very unhelpful. So, clearly, I need to leave this university as quickly as possible. I've given thought to joining another department at a different school.. would it look bad if I abandoned a masters degree? I'm not even sure if I hate my department, or if I hate the discipline of history at a graduate level. I just have nothing to compare it to other than my current school, and I'm very, very fearful of finding myself in a similar situation.

tl;dr: my current university is terrible.

But here is where my thought process ends. I don't know what comes after this. If I do abandon history, I will probably enter community college to pick up a trade (most likely, respiratory therapy or veterinary technology) or a post-graduate certificate. I'm not quite sure what I would enroll in, but main goal is is a bright future/ employment prospects. I would LOVE to work at some place like a community college or at a local government level. I've also given a fair amount of thought to respiratory tech and vet. tech for both their employment prospects and my interests in both fields.

I did take a year off between my undergraduate degree and graduate school, but with my history BA and a fair amount of work experience (retail, public outreach, management, etc.) I only managed to get a call center job and a temporary test scoring management position. I'm afraid that jumping back into the job market immediately would yield similar results. I have a background in history, economics (which I loved), and chemistry.

Has anyone ever made a career u-turn like this? What can I do to brighten my career prospects? What would be the best degree (post-grad certificate or community college AAS) to gain employment?
posted by oxfordcomma to Education (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I also apologize for the numerous spelling/grammatical errors. It's been a long, upsetting day.
posted by oxfordcomma at 9:13 PM on October 7, 2012

You sound panicked and desperate. But even in the best of possible worlds, your first semester in a graduate program at a new school (after a year out of school!) would be a huge and stressful adjustment, wouldn't it? Lots of people feel the way you do right now. They knew it was going to be hard, you knew it was going to be hard. Now it's hard, so it's time to bust out those simple coping tactics.

Here's a question: what do you need to do today to remain a student in good standing tomorrow? You may hate your program, and your faculty, and your university… but thousands of students are probably attending it right now and their heads are not exploding. There have probably been lots of people in your master's program, and I bet many of them finished the program requirements and graduated, and their heads didn't explode with terror either.

You are spinning off ideas for dramatic, life-changing course adjustments. Those kinds of decisions take time to formulate and weigh properly. Your advisors and instructors may not be the most helpful to you in that regard — I believe you. Everyone believes you. But don't make panicked plans on a Sunday night, it'll just make you feel more panicked.

So: what do you need to do to be a decent student in your program tomorrow? How about for all of next week? Don't think big, think small. Baby steps. There are many things frustrating you, but you don't need to deal with all of them at once, and you definitely don't need to deal with all of them now. But you can deal with some small stuff as you head into tomorrow. Tomorrow you might feel less panicked. By the end of the week you might feel better. You might even feel a little differently. But you'll definitely be in a better place to consider your options for the future.
posted by Nomyte at 9:29 PM on October 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Has anyone ever made a career u-turn like this?

Almost everyone with an MA in History makes a career u-turn like this. Eventually. You deserve nothing but praise for recognizing these issues early and taking steps toward a complete resolution.

Public schools typically have pretty early dates for a clean withdrawal. To keep these classes from counting as 'withdrew failing,' you may be looking at a medical withdrawal, which I'd guess you qualify for given the panic attacks, sleep deprivation, and extreme anxiety. The merit of a clean withdrawal is that it shouldn't figure into your GPA by any calculation--this school's, another school in the same public system, etc.

What you do after that, who knows, but it sounds like you've got realistic, practical ideas to hold in mind while you go through the process. I wouldn't worry about making those ideas too concrete. In my experience, people going through things like this just need to know they'll come out OK--that there's something else that's going to work somehow. And I think you will come out fine.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 10:07 PM on October 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

I was in a PhD program and left with an MA.

After leaving the program, I worked briefly as an SAT/AP tutor while looking for a decent job. You could do the same. After 3 or 4 months, I landed a job as an editor at a startup, and now I work as a programmer.

The job market for history majors isn't much worse than the job market for anyone else. You can do pretty much any non-technical job, and you can do a technical job if you have the skills.

Don't go to community college right away. Take some time away from school to gain some perspective and some money.
posted by twblalock at 10:18 PM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in a PhD program at a prominent university that I left - and ten years later I'm in a completely different field altogether and looking to go back to do a PhD in a couple of years.

The reason I left was that it was very clear that my approach to research was not going to marry up with the approach of my key supervisor. I didn't really feel supported and I didn't feel that the coursework I had to do would be of benefit to me or my PhD. I was also very young (early 20s). I left very early on in my program and have done a whole bunch of other things (some good, some not-so-good).

If you don't have the support you need or the people you want to work with and you have to do a bunch of study that's useless to your area, I would move on (as logistically-smoothly as possible) because you really shouldn't waste your time or make yourself upset just for the sake of doing it.

My best advice on what to do after you leave is to go exploring - see where it takes you (hint: it will probably not involve history).
posted by heyjude at 1:07 AM on October 8, 2012

It sounds like you enrolled in an unfunded terminal MA in a department without commitment (and presumably without reputation) in your area of scholarly interest. That was a mistake under the best of (other) circumstances, so you certainly should be looking for an exit before second semester tuition is due or the drop deadline for the classes has passed (to avoid bad grades).

Lots of people drop out of grad programs early. If anyone asks, "my planned adviser left between my enrollment and matriculation, and wasn't replaced" is a fine explanation.

If you still want it, reapply to direct to PhD programs in the top 5 rank in your area if interest. If you aren't admitted with full funding by one, that's the universe telling you to do something else.
posted by MattD at 5:37 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you had certain expectations for how the program would be and it isn't meeting your expectations.

But consider where your expectations came from.

Are you supposed to be granted an advisor in your first semester? Does the handbook say that?

What made you think that classes of interest to you would be offered first semester?

As far as your professors putting you down - this is fairly normal socialization in a grad program.

The accounts office took a month to pay you? What time period would have been reasonable?

The handbook is your friend. If things differ from the handbook, you have a leg to stand on.
posted by k8t at 6:02 AM on October 8, 2012

Sometimes you just KNOW that something is going to be a waste. Husbunny decided that his PhD program wasn't for him right before Thanksgiving. He dropped out right then and there. He's never looked back. This is the second PhD program he bailed on.

What did you think you were going to do with an MA in History anyway?

I agree, picking up a trade through an MA Community College is a great next step. A respiratory thereapist will make Ooodles more money than a vet tech, so if you have an interest, you could go further and fair worse than studying that.

When Husbunny dropped out of his first PhD program, he went to school to become an RN and he worked as a nurse for over ten years.

You have my permission to drop out.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:42 AM on October 8, 2012

I would strongly recommend that you make yourself intimately familiar with the graduate studies handbook for your department and your contract to see if they have failed in their written obligations to you in some way. If they have, please consider hiring a lawyer. Especially if you are in a college town like your profile suggests there will be at least one who specializes in navigating departmental bullshit.

"The university itself is a red tape disaster, i.e. it has taken Student Accounts one month (and counting) to rectify their mistake as charging me as an international student."

Wait... You're not paying them are you? In meaningfully ranked Masters programs that benefit their students, tuition gets paid in pretend money and they give you a stipend you can at least plausibly live on.1Paying for a Masters in history is a profoundly terrible idea, unless you are independently wealthy and don't give a shit about your time, if only because the kinds of program that give little enough of a shit to make their student's pay them will have the kinds of problems you've already seen. When you got that letter from your institution offering you a Masters, but not enough funding for BOTH tuition and a plausibly livable stipend, that was not an acceptance letter it was an advertisement, and you already know the product is shitty. If you continue, in addition to driving yourself into unsustainable debt you will be an exploited stooge. While people in academia who hire folks with degrees in history might feel sorry for someone who completes such a degree, no one respects an exploited stooge. A department that is desperate enough to take their failure to thrive out of the asses of their graduate students is a department that does not give a shit about you and an advisor that is craven enough to do the same also does not give a shit about you. A postgraduate academic degree without funding is a lot more pain, but it will also inevitably result in a lot less reward. Not all postgraduate academic degree are created equal and a department, much less advisor if you find one, who cannot get their shit together enough to pay you will be a department who is not taken seriously, cannot be reasonably expected to help you publish in a significant way, or train you in a marketable academic skill set, much less help you prepare a career more successful than their own. Unfortunately these days any sufficiently advanced academic budget plan is indistinguishable from fraud and even universities with big names are falling prey. Fuck them, you deserve and can get better, whether that is a real job that will actually pay you or a department that will.

"I've given thought to joining another department at a different school.. would it look bad if I abandoned a masters degree? I'm not even sure if I hate my department, or if I hate the discipline of history at a graduate level. I just have nothing to compare it to other than my current school, and I'm very, very fearful of finding myself in a similar situation."

If you are indeed still interested in pursuing a degree in history, there is no shame - none - in deciding that you don't want to pay for it and want a better option if your scores, grades, and letters can support a decent application to a department with funding. If you are asked why you left, or want to leave, your current department, be absolutely frank about the money but don't bellyache about the other fucked up bullshit. Also, any professor who would not overjoyed to facilitate your escape to a department with funding, if that is indeed feasible, sees you as a repository of credit for the department to just grab money out of.

TL;DR: The big difference between good programs and fucked up ones is funding.

1Aside from professional Masters programs that train you for a specific job for which you are receiving a terminal degree, which is emphatically not History.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:24 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another hint -- 1st year, 1st term graduate school cohorts tend to get into very bad places emotionally. And the effect of the group is a major contributor to this.

Everyone is already a little bit shellshocked, depressed, hurt from the socialization, feeling the lack of money...

And then when other people start sharing their same feelings it turns into an explosion.

Trying to separate yourself and your situation from that which others are experiencing may allow you some actual reflection.
posted by k8t at 8:38 AM on October 8, 2012

Reading your previous AskMeFi questions it sounds like you were in law school, then dropped that to do this MA, and are now having a panic reaction to the program fueled by disappointment, sleep deprivation, and anger.

It sounds like you are not sure about what you want, which is fine. By your posts it sounds like you are maybe in your early 20s. But no matter what the age, having multiple big changes in a short period of time is difficult and stressful.

The above advice about withdrawing if possible is sound. You should be careful about using a medical escape-clause because it may follow you, although if the alternative is failing, then by all means use it. You can explain the reasons for withdrawing as MattD nicely put it, that your planned advisor was no longer with the program.

If its true that you have made 2 graduate school changes in less than 2 years, I would say you should take a cool-off period before making another change. The community college will still be there in a year or two. Yes, those fields can be rewarding, but most of the people who are entering them have some exposure to the fields (working with animals or being EMTs etc). You should consider taking some time to really explore these options, including work or volunteer experience.

Many people consider that the best way into a career is by doing an academic program. Especially in the professional "trades" for lack of a better term, the best way in is through a combination of experience and focused training. Give yourself the best chance at success in this, and explore the options before committing to another academic program.

Good luck.
posted by artdesk at 8:45 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

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