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.

13 comments

  • My philosophy is, everything happens for a reason.
    Perhaps, it just wasn't meant to me.
    I had a friend who also dropped out of a PhD program and he never regretted it.

  • I wonder if on this day, you still consider this a failure. In hindsight. I think its brilliant that you listened to your instinct, which told you that you were going down the wrong path. You made a path correction, went a different way and here you are.

    I've had a few bumps like that in my life, and although there is always an adjustment period where you are hard and down yourself, I didn't consider it failure. My attention span was and is very short, so I make frequent path corrections. But, I think the test is where you are today and where you feel you are heading. I like my life and I like where I am in my life. How do you feel?

    I'm glad you made that path correction. It is because of it that I am able to read your work today.

    • It's interesting that you ask if I still consider it a failure – I do, actually, although it's a failure that worked out in my favor. Too often we think that only success leads us forward, when actually we very often learn more from failures.

      I guess I feel that what happened made my life better, simply because I was happier with the direction it went than the direction I think it might have gone, but it's hard to say – I don't know how it would have turned out had I not dropped out…

  • Two things. First, while I would be considered a professional success in most respects, I have failed many, many times in the course of my education and career. To achieve your first failure in grad school may have been too late to teach you that failure is an essential part of life. I'm not sure; you tell me.

    Second, I'm not at all sure how a theoretical math person, even a failed one, could take accounting courses and enjoy it. Perhaps you can explain how you made that mental transition in a future post, Steve.

    • Curmudgeon, you're completely right – I consider myself lucky to have failed and recovered, which gave me confidence that future failures were surmountable. If my first failure had come when I was 10 years out of school it might have been much, much harder to recover.

      And I never said I enjoyed accounting 🙂 Accounting was chosen simply because I saw an opening there for international travel and a widely-sought after skill that would make me uber-employable. The mistake I made (and I'm sure I'll come back to it in the future) was in thinking that I could choose a profession for what it would GET me (travel, money, etc.) rather than for a profession I loved just for the sake of the work. The travel and money seemed awfully important at the time. Enjoying the work seemed less so…

    • Steve, I've been reading you fairly regularly for over a year now, and it just struck me – you want to be a teacher.

    • Argh, Curmudgeon, you broke the cryptograph embedded in my posts – I guess someone was bound to do it eventually. Heh. You're right, I probably do, and it's something (to be covered soon in my writing) that I'm getting much closer to doing in the near future.

  • so, i know you said that each person's crisis is their own, but i don't think of these as crises. i don't even think they are failures! each one turned out (it seems to me) to contribute not just to your growth but also to your success.

    maybe my outside perspective gives me a different view on this – to me, to have continued with the phd program would have been somewhat of a failure – failure to listen to your conscience.

    you have also gotten me to think about some crises/failures of my own, and how i might see them from a different perspective too.

  • I am intrigued that you consider this a failure. By your description it sounds to me like a major success: figuring our early that the career you had chosen was not right for you.

    Imagine if that had happened 4 years later. Imagine if it happened 12 years later…

    Congrats on a major success.

  • I just noticed my comments are not posting – am I hitting your spam filter? Anyway, I had a nice long comment earlier, and no time to recreate, just enough to say that this is a great series, and I don't see this one as a failure at all. 🙂

    • @deepali – you don't seem to be hitting my spam filter (which is not really mine, it's disqus's). Strange. I'll look into it. Sorry!

  • I made a similar choice to you, although I realised prior to starting a PhD (but after getting a masters) that pure maths research was not for me. One of the reasons that I feel like I failed is that I know that I am clever enough to get a PhD, just not good enough / interested enough in maths.

    I went on to pick a career that I enjoy, which I have been contemplating giving up to be a full-time writer (employed). We'll see.

  • @deepali – you don't seem to be hitting my spam filter (which is not really mine, it's disqus's). Strange. I'll look into it. Sorry!