Career Education Now + Beyond

Leaving my Ph.D. program was the best decision I ever made

The morning I met with my advisor to tell her I was leaving my Ph.D. program, I was so nervous I couldn’t eat. I’d been dreading this meeting for the past month. A meeting which was the result of my realization that after two years completing my master’s, and three years working toward my doctorate, I no longer wanted to be a Ph.D. student. After five years focused on what I thought was my singular goal, I wanted out.

After five years of singular focus, I wanted out.

The hard truth was I hadn’t always wanted to leave. When I first arrived in my program, I was eager to be an academic. I quickly turned a first semester paper into a book chapter for a Routledge anthology, became the Executive Director to a film organization on campus, and published poetry and film criticism regularly on the side. When someone asked me to speak on a panel, I said yes. When someone asked me to proofread a paper, I said yes. My weeks were packed with screenings, meetings, classes, and endless emails. I thrived off the hustle and bustle.

But I was also fueled those first three years by the nagging suspicion that I wasn’t actually good enough to be in academia. I reassured myself that if I just did more – wrote more, presented more – then I would avoid being found out as someone not smart enough or capable enough to succeed in graduate school. The façade seemed to work as I accrued more accolades, but so did the mounting tandem anxiety that I was that much closer to being discovered as intellectually inadequate.

Three years passed before I was gently but firmly told by my Department that I needed to cut back on my extracurriculars. Moving forward, my sole focus needed to be my dissertation. I wasn’t pleased by this directive at first. I’d built a reputation as someone who juggled myriad responsibilities with relative ease, and I felt I was losing a part of myself in paring down my focus to simply scholarly writing. But I also knew that my dissertation was why I was in the Ph.D. program and so to squander this time and opportunity was unimaginable.

For a while, I was able to lose myself in the solitary environs of research. However, as the months wore on, I found myself disengaged and disinterested in my academic work. What once felt like smooth sailing now felt like a slog. I grew despondent. My worst fears about myself had been realized: namely, that I didn’t have what it takes to be a true academic.

My worst fears about myself had been realized.

Imposter syndrome is a familiar affliction for many both in and outside academia. A recent article on ABC found that “70% of people feel like they are ‘imposters’ at least once in their lives.” And, paradoxically, many find that with mounting professional achievements there is simultaneously an increasing anxiety that the awards are undeserved.

While I knew that imposter syndrome was a common occurrence, it took me months to realize that while I was struggling to research, I was increasingly writing and publishing poetry and personal essays. It’s not that I wasn’t smart enough to write or research – I was – but, ultimately, what increasingly sustained my head and my heart was creative work, not academic writing. It was this realization that led me to re-evaluate the future I saw for myself and the future I knew I wanted.

When I came to terms with the fact that I wanted to leave my Ph.D. and pursue an MFA in poetry, I was certain my decision would be met with a level of derision by friends and family. But as I told each person in my inner circle of my plans, each friend and family member told me how proud they were that I was finally pursuing something meaningful to me. No one doubted my intelligence or ability to finish the Ph.D., nor did anyone want to see me toiling away to finish a degree that didn’t ultimately inspire me. What had initially felt like my biggest failure became an opportunity to see how others saw me. The unconditional love I received in response was overwhelming.

What one can do isn’t always what one should do.

Ironically, it was leaving my program that allowed me to expel the imposter syndrome that had plagued me so relentlessly for the past several years once and for all. I now value my abilities as both a scholar and a person, but what one can do isn’t always what one should do. Saying ‘yes’ to the unknown is a precarious position to be in, but I’m finally living my life on my own terms, and no one else’s.

By Hannah Bonner

Hannah Bonner is a writer living in Iowa City. She received her BA in English and Creative Writing from UNC-Chapel Hill and her Master's in Film Studies from University of Iowa. Her poetry has appeared in Asheville Poetry Review, So to Speak, The North Carolina Literary Review, The Pinch Journal, The Vassar Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Two Peach. Her essays have been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Bustle, The Little Patuxent Review, and VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts.