Half A World Away

Believe it or not, today marks the 5-year anniversary of my escape from the Ivory Tower. (Well, I didn’t so much “escape” from university as I “successfully defended my Master’s thesis”, but the fight-or-flight hormones were pumping all the same that day!) I am so far removed from the person I was in grad school that it’s hard to remember even being there. Ever. Some of my friends like to tease me and say, ‘Hey! If you weren’t such a quitter, you could have finished your Ph.D. by now’, but I can’t imagine having spent the past five years still in school. Talk about torture! πŸ™‚

Hmmm... five more years in university or a World Cup soccer game viewing in Old Town Square, Prague? Decisions, decisions!

Going to university after I graduated from high school never seemed like an option for me, and by that, I mean I always just assumed that I would go to university. (In retrospect, I’m glad I felt this way, but my parents would have loved me all the same if I announced I was going to take up semi-professional karate after Grade 12. Their love for me is the very definition of ‘unconditional’.) But yes: There was no choice involved in me heading off to post-secondary school– it just was. It was almost as though I believed that getting an undergraduate degree was as mandatory as attending K-12. So I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies and then applied for a Master’s Degree in the same field, because WHAT’S ANOTHER $15,000 and 2 YEARS DURING THE PRIME OF MY LIFE when you’re already in that game? πŸ™‚

Me (via dramatic re-enactment in Prague): Gee, I might as well keep hanging out here...

Well. My lifelong love of school and my mad academic skillz were put to the extreme test about 2 days into my MA studies. Listening to one of my peers babble on and on excitedly about some “critical issue” or another in my COMS of Biotechnology class, I realized with a mixture of surprise and boredom: Maybe I don’t love Communication Studies as much as I thought I did, and Perhaps I’d rather die a slow and grueling death than be a university professor in the future. This was not a fun (or timely) discovery to make, seeing as I had just started the graduate program, so I resolved to “give it some more time” and, failing all else, to force myself to graduate. Unfortunately, time did nothing to soften up my bad attitude, so I ended up undertaking, writing, and defending a 100+ page thesis, hating everything the entire time. I was a smart girl, and I was not a quitter. I would earn those “M.A.” initials behind my name if it killed me!

And it nearly did.

My personal Coat of Arms during my Master's Program. (Actually, this is inside one of the chapels in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic.)

During the 17 months it took me to complete my coursework and write/defend a 105-page thesis on women’s experiences with various methods of contraception*, I transformed from a positive, life-loving young woman into a anxiety-ridden, majorly stressed-out basket case. I carried a gigantic burden of PAIN and SUFFERING with me the whole time, and every. little. thing brought me to ugly tears. I remember my dad phoning to wish me a happy birthday after my first year of grad studies and not knowing how to react when I responded to his cheeriness with high-decibel wails and frustrated sobs (probably about discursive theory or something equally rage-tastic).

I couldn’t help myself.

Me vs. Me

I developed a considerable case of first-time depression during my MA program, and I worried constantly about alienating my remaining friends and even worse: losing my still-new marriage to Marty. (Poor man had a rough go when his blushing bride morphed, almost overnight, into a screeching banshee!) I became hyper-vigilant and continually monitored my behaviours and thoughts, which only made me become more robotic and Not At All Fun To Be Around. I should have more fun. Why am I not having fun? I’m no fun to be around. Why would anybody want to be with somebody so un-fun? I will lose all the friendships I’ve ever had because I’m not fun. BEING NO FUN IS NO FUN AT ALL!!

I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was about Grad School that caused me to become such a horrible shadow of my former self. Was it the workload? Was it the forced classroom dialogues over issues I could care less about? (Foucault again? Really?) Was it the extremely rocky relationship I developed with my former supervisor? The subsequent fallout I had with my former supervisor? The fallout that effectively burned a gigantic bridge between us and precluded me from ever using her as a reference again, forever and ever amen?

In any case, once I became so stressed out and apoplectic about everything, I had a very difficult time recovering. Marty would try to take me hiking on the weekends so I could have a few hours of *not* thinking about my thesis. Of course, the entire time, my panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains would be obstructed with thoughts like “I should be working on my thesis. All of my classmates are probably working on their projects right now. I feel guilty for not working on my thesis.” I’m not even exaggerating the extent of my awfulness. Somebody else from the Legitimate Science Department could have undertaken a quantitative study on “The Degree of Dana’s Horribleness During Her M.A. Program”, and the objective, hard data results would have come back: 98th Percentile of Terrible.

After months and months of withering away into a toxic, shriveled-up crisp of a person, the day finally came for me to defend my thesis. I was the first in my cohort to bring my thesis up for defense, and boy oh boy, was I a wreck! (Aside: I was not the first in my cohort to use academic-sounding words like “cohort”. Not a chance! I just threw that in there to sound smart.) Anyway. I had developed a severe stutter the night before my defense, and as I tried to rehearse my opening speech beforehand, I had poor Marty’s ears panicking (and probably bleeding). C-c-c-critical f-f-f-em-in-in-ist dis-dis-dis-course. I kept telling myself: Three hours and then it’s over. Three hours and then I can have my life back. Three hours of PAIN and SUFFERING and then everything can go back to normal… if I pass. (For the record: failing my thesis would have been soul-crushing. It’s rare for students to fail a defense, unless they plow ahead with the exam against their supervisor’s better judgment. Me? I had tickets booked to Europe for June, so I needed everything done and behind me before I left. PASS OR DIE!!!)

For the record: a nice, long trip to Europe cures any/all school-related blues.

I had allowed my exam to be “open”, meaning that anybody could come and watch. Yes, anybody! (The alternative was keeping it “closed” but risking tougher questions from the panel, who wouldn’t have an audience to hold them accountable for their meanness.) I ended up with an audience of about 5 people– Marty included– plus my panel, which consisted of my supervisor, the Department Head of Qualitative Psychology, and the Department Head of Women’s Studies. Tough. As. Nails.

I managed to get through my opening speech without stuttering, which was a miracle in itself. Then all I remember is saying “discourse” and “discursive” about 8 billion times over the course of a few hours. It was a blur of discursiveness. Marty watched on politely the entire time, trying not to let his eyes glaze over with the residue of Academese. What a champ! The tough questions came to a close. My panel conferred in private. It was announced that I had passed. Just a few revisions needed to be completed on my thesis, but then my program would be over and I could officially have my life back.

WHEEEE!!! Let's go and BE GYPSIES for a few months!

It took me a long time to fully recover from grad school. The program had pulverized my soul and heart with dramatic, overzealous kicks and stomps, so the transition from She-Beast back to Ordinary Woman did not happen overnight. I still have a difficult time staying out of my head, so to speak. It’s natural for me to analyze and over-analyze everything, and as much as I detest debating for the sake of debating, occasionally I find myself making a gigantic deal over nothing, just because I can. (I’m always so ashamed to catch myself doing this!)

If you can believe it, I seriously considered pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology soon after I finished my Master’s Degree. (Yeah, a Doctorate in Delusional, maybe…) It wasn’t because I wanted to do it, but because I felt I should. My supervisor, channeling a Greek chorus, told me that I belonged in the university and that I could never escape my destiny, and for a while I believed her. But then my paltry iota of Street Smarts finally (FINALLY!) kicked in. I didn’t want to be in school for another 5+ years, and then possibly for the rest of my life!!! I wanted to travel, to work at a ‘real job’, and to just plain old live for a little while. Screw the Ph.D.! I would dig a hole out of my so-called destiny and chart a new path!

My starring role in "The Shawshank Redemption". Just like Tim Robbins, but with a darker tan. And only one leg in this shot (??)

Looking back, I feel okay that I pursued my Master’s Degree. It still doesn’t feel like the *best* thing I could have done with those two years of my life– and I definitely wasn’t rendered any more intelligent or competent by real world standards because of it– but then again, what would have been the best thing to do during that time? Take up semi-professional karate? πŸ˜‰ I take comfort now in believing that I am taken care of by the Universe, even if I don’t understand the bigger picture at any given point (or at all– let’s be honest here).Β  Part of me also secretly believes that an opportunity will present itself one day and will demand a Master’s Degree (in COMS, no less) as a pre-requisite. Then, won’t somebody be glad she went through hell and back to earn those silly initials behind her name…

Anyway. This was a really, really long way of saying Happy Five Years Of Being Out of Grad School to me! I’m happy to be sharing the more cheerful version of myself with all of you, but I’m certainly not above signing this particular post off with the initials that rendered me decidedly less cheerful than I am now:

Dana, B.A., M.A πŸ™‚

Inadvertently looking smug. I am the Master of Smugness.

*Don’t ask me how this topic relates, in any way, to Communication Studies. My logic: People spoke to me about their experiences, and Speaking = Communicating, therefore I win COMS thesis writing!

15 responses

  1. I love this post, Dana, as I too made the escape from academia, post M.A. and post several stints of teaching college writing. I too was told I belonged in academia, won awards, scholarships, grants, fellowships, but bottom line: maybe I’m too creative for academia? I felt boxed in. I hated the politics–though I DO love teaching people to write–that I adore–that I think I’m good at and may do again some day–but I’m not a Ph.D. pursuing kind of person these days–any day–ever! I could maybe do Writer in Residence, if I ever wrote anything good enough to merit me such a position.

    Thanks for this post, Dana–it really helps me understand how it is that your writing is so damn smart–great writing, brilliant writing–but also keenly insightful and wickedly funny. That takes big brains–what a friend of mine used to call “Bulging Brain Syndrome.” You don’t necessarily come off brainy–but witty with an edge that I know requires I.Q.–a thinking person. It’s fun to know this about you. Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks, Kathy– your comment means a lot to me! I’ve always loved to write but went through an intense period of self-questioning and doubt about it during my grad studies. “Is my writing “smart” enough?” “Is humor a “legitimate” form of writing?” For a long time after I graduated, I didn’t even write a line in my journal– I was just so tired of all the endless paper/thesis writing. As you can see, though– I’m pretty much recovered. Pooh to the academy and onward with my irreverent, long-winded writing style! πŸ™‚

  2. That sounds like a really interesting thesis, I’d like to hear about your findings someday. Oh, I know! You should post your entire thesis on your blog, in 4-paragraph increments each day!

    Anyway, I did two Bachelor degrees and then decided I was done (for now?). I’m watching all my friends complete MAs and PhDs and sometimes I feel inadequate… but then I decide I’m “unschooling” and learning more by doing assorted random things. This may or may not be true…

    • I think it’s true, hands down. Looking back, I really admire and envy the people I knew who took time off of school to travel or “unschool”, as you call it. Yes, they might not have certain initials behind their names, but some of them know entire new languages and have a rich understanding of the world (at least richer than my own understanding is.) *JEALOUS*

      And my thesis… everything can be summed up in my Post-It note statement: When women talk about their chosen methods of birth control, they use language/communication to construct their choices as rational. I didn’t go into my research believing that ‘x’ method of contraception had ‘y’ effectiveness– period. I was interested more in learning how women built up the effectiveness of whatever method they were using while they were talking to me. I spoke with women who used their talk to make the withdrawal/pulling out method sound like it was the latest and greatest in birth control, and of course others made condoms (or whatever) sound like the best and most logical choice of contraceptive EVER. It was an interesting study (in retrospect, five years removed)– but I got REALLY SICK of using the word “discourse” for those 17 months! πŸ˜‰

      There. Now I don’t need to bore you with 105 pages of excerpts and conclusions!

      • Thanks! That sounds interesting. It does seem like we spend a lot of effort justifying whatever method we’re using… to ourselves, and others too. I try not to be too self-righteous about my own choices, but sometimes I do it anyway…

        My non-school years have been inconclusive so far… no new languages or visible wisdom gained… but there’s still time!

        • It wasn’t even self-righteousness. At all! The women I spoke to during my interviews just wanted to come across as competent people who make good choices. Every single one of them– no matter which method(s) of birth control they were using– succeeded in this task.

    • Like I keep telling you, we need to start a T-shirt making company together! “WHOOMP! There it is”, and “Being no fun is no fun at all” will be our best sellers! πŸ™‚

  3. Just so happy that you’re so much happier. Some of us are good at hating what we’re doing and not letting it consume them, some of us (me) are not. I don’t know where you’d place yourself on this spectrum but how awesome that you are loving life now.

    • Definitely consumed with the hatred. No doubt. I could not, for the life of me, separate or distance myself from my MA program. It felt like everything I had ever believed in my life had been called into question (in a mean, spiteful, let’s debate this just because we can kind of way), and I had nowhere solid to stand during that time. I didn’t want to argue or prove every single one of my beliefs, so I just sort of floated in a sea of confusion and depression for 2 years.

      BUT! I have emerged victorious and relatively unscathed. You, too, shall experience happiness and regular life again soon! I promise. πŸ™‚

  4. Wow, what a story. What I like best is your signing off with only your first name followed by your credentials, showing that your personhood comes first.
    You came through the experience much the wiser about yourself, and how wonderful and valuable that is.
    Considering your Catholic upbringing, I think I see a pattern of ‘escape from indoctrination’; self-liberation to free-thinking ?

    • Interesting observation– I wouldn’t say I have a conscious “escape from indoctrination” lifestyle, but in those two instances, yes I did! πŸ™‚

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