This post is part of my “five crises” series. You can read part 1 here.
Second: Dropping out of graduate school
The second crisis was more profound than my first one. I received a degree in mathematics and did well enough to be accepted directly into a PhD program at another state university. The program I was accepted into was not world-class, but it was a solid mid-range PhD mathematics program. I was studying complex theoretical mathematics and thought I had an aptitude for both math and teaching. I thought I would coast through the PhD program and launch a brilliant career as a math professor studying esoteric theoretical hoohah.
I was wrong. Badly. The PhD program hit me like a brick in the head almost from the moment I arrived. I was unprepared to go from my undergraduate math major to a PhD program. Even while majoring in the subject as an undergrad, I took maybe 2-3 math courses per semester while continuing my other courses – Russian, psychology, English, etc. I had no real job although I did substitute teach from time to time at the local public schools. I had plenty of free time for sports, social life and pursuing my other interests.
All of that changed in a heartbeat. My life was math, all math, all the time. I was teaching undergraduate courses. My fellow students were all just as good and, for the most part, better at math than I was. I had no time to develop a social life in a new city. I was overwhelmed. I struggled for two semesters, and then sat back and did an assessment of my life.
I was passing my courses, but not by much. I was teaching my classes, but struggling to grade papers and keep up with my own homework. The single-mindedness of the focus on math bored me to tears. I had spent half of the season on the lacrosse team before dropping that, so my only social activity was my work with a political campaign. All of this to pursue a degree that might take another five years to achieve, and then face what appeared to be a long recession when I emerged into the job market (this was the early 90s).
I had never met academic or personal failure to this point in my life. Admitting that I had failed was something I almost could not do. I was ready to soldier on, fading further and further, just to avoid failing. But in the end, I did. I dropped out of school, packed all my belongings into a U Haul trailer attached to my 4-cylinder car, and drove back to my hometown. I rented a small apartment with two roommates and started taking accounting courses to build up the prerequisites for entry into the master’s program.
I’ll continue this series intermittently over the next week. I am traveling, so no roundup until at least Sunday.