five crises, part 2

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.