[storytime] How I Quit the Senior Thesis

Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.

That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”

You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.

So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.

I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.

But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.

So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.

The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:

  • I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
  • I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
  • My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.

As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.

It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.

Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.

And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?

And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.

I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.

This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.

The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).

I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.

But why?

Life is just too fucking short.

It’s too short for this kind of crap.

And so I quit.

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More Than Just a Body With a Broken Brain: Why I’m Choosing Social Work

It would be nice to be called “Doctor.”

It would be nice to be paid a very high salary and have a stable job, and to be able to produce an official piece of paper proving that I am Smart.

It would be nice to be published in prestigious journals, to receive emails from others curious about my work. It would be nice to be quoted in newspapers and magazines as an Expert.

It would be nice to be part of the elite–the less than 1% of Americans who have a doctorate.

It would be nice, but it won’t be me. At least, not for a while.

Until recently, I left unquestioned the notion that I want a PhD in clinical psychology. I just wanted it. Why? Well, it would allow me to be a therapist, which is what I want. I would get paid a lot. It would carry prestige.

But gradually my resolve started to break down and I started to wonder, Why?

I discovered that I disliked research. When I told people this, they were often shocked. But aren’t you curious? Don’t you care why people think and feel the way they do? Don’t you want to understand?

Yes, I am, and I do. I’m deeply curious. That’s why I read voraciously. And I am more than happy to read all the answers to my questions when they’re published rather than to work long days in a basement lab somewhere.

I can do research, I’m sure. But it’s not what I love, and there are others who want this much more.

The turning point came when I attended a panel of graduate students in psychology, along with an admissions person for a doctoral program in clinical psych. They all told us that when we apply for grad school, our entire resume and personal statement should discuss nothing but our research experience. Everything else I’ve done wouldn’t even matter–not the year I spent as an RA, not the three years I’ve spent as a member (and, then, a leader) in a sexual health and assault peer education group, not the summer I volunteered at a camp for at-risk kids in New York, not the initiative I started to implement a peer listening program at Northwestern, not my internship at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

I shouldn’t even include it, they told me, because it would annoy the admissions people.

The work that I love, the lives that I hope I’ve changed–it would be an annoyance.

At first, I thought it wasn’t a big deal. Who cares what I put on my application as long as I get in?

But then I learned more. I learned that I probably wouldn’t be accepted if I admitted that my goal is to be a therapist, because they want to spend their money on someone who would bring prestige to their institution by publishing research. I realized that I would have nobody to turn to for support–no mentors–because I’d have to hide my dreams from them. I learned that clinical training in clinical psych programs is mostly lacking (ironically), so I wouldn’t be learning the practical skills that I need to help people.

And, most of all, I understood that my time in graduate school would be miserable beyond belief, because I would be living a lie, facing extreme pressure to publish or perish, and wasting at least five or six years of my life. During that time, my life would be completely on hold–I wouldn’t be able to move, work, or start a family, if the opportunity presented itself.

The future that I had once dreamed about turned into a nightmare.

It was then that I finally stopped listening to my professors–who, of course, all have PhDs–and listened instead to the friends and family I have who actually are therapists, or hoping to get there. And increasingly I understood that a masters in social work would be a better option.

MSW programs emphasize learning practical skills, and many of them have you start a clinical internship as soon as you start the program, because the best way to learn is by experience. They understand that people aren’t just isolated brains inside bodies, that circumstances affect individuals and that psychological problems aren’t always caused by faulty brain chemistry. They emphasize understanding societal inequality, working with marginalized groups, and picking up where clinical psychology leaves off.

I’ve been told that I’m “too smart” for a masters in social work, that I will be “offended” when I see how little they pay me. People who say these things must not know me very well. Although I wanted a PhD before, I’ve never really needed my career to make me feel important. I don’t need to be important. I just need to be helpful.

As for “too smart,” that’s ridiculous. The helping professions need more smart people.

The truth is that, in my hour of need, it wasn’t a man with a white lab coat and a doctorate who saved me. It was–as corny as this is going to sound–the social justice movement. That was what finally taught me that my feelings are justified, that my thoughts have merit, that my words matter.

I finally learned to see myself as more than just a body with a broken brain. I’m a whole person enmeshed in particular circumstances, and the interaction between the two has made me who I am now.

I still agree with what I’ve written before. Medication can be useful. Therapy works. Psychiatric labels are important.

But my strengths and goals require a different sort of education than what I could receive in a doctoral program, and they point me to a different sort of career than a PhD would prepare me for.

True, I’ll earn less money. There will be hard times. There will, I’m sure, be bureaucracy, budget cuts, and crappy bosses.  There will be days when I don’t love it.

But there will not be days when I’m living a lie. There will not be days when I’m sitting in an expensive lab at a prestigious university, doing work that may be meaningful, that may get published, that may be improved upon, that may someday, maybe, help someone. Maybe.

And I have nothing but respect for people who want to do that. I admire that, and maybe someday I’ll return to school for a PhD. But at this stage in my life, it’s just not for me. After all, I can always get a PhD; what I can’t do is unget one and unwaste all that time.

I don’t expect every single day to be productive, every session to help every client. But I do expect that at the end of my life I will be able to look back and know beyond a doubt that, in my own way, I changed things for the better.

That’s why I’m choosing social work.

P.S. A little disclaimer–I’m not looking for any comments on how I’m wrong about the doctoral route or why I should reconsider my decision. There’s a lot more than went into it than I could even discuss here, and there are enough Older and Wiser People trying to tell me how to live as is. Thanks. 🙂