I Just Ended a 7-Year Relationship: I Walked Away from My Doctorate

3 years ago

"True ambition is not what we thought it was. True ambition is the profound desire to live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God." -Bill W.

I just ended a seven-year relationship with a doctoral program.

Credit Image: Kelly Teague on Flickr

At the beginning of this year, I received the most amazing news. The dissertation research project that I had poured my heart and soul into since 2009 when I began writing the dissertation had received IRB approval. I had been in the doctoral program since 2006. For those who aren’t familiar with research at the university level, this is the pinnacle achievement prior to being able to collect data and move forward with entering the scholarly realms. This means that I have created a research study that is ethically sound and worthy of exploration.

In the moment I received that approval, I could finally envision being called “doctor Michele” and truly being accepted into the world of academics and researchers. I would finally be arriving professionally. I have struggled with my professional purpose for so long, asking the question: ;Where do I belong?

Because I’ve received so much rejection across the board in my professional life, I thought with a PhD I wouldn’t still have those feelings of inadequacy. With a PhD, no one could ever make me feel inferior.

I would have also been the first in my family to achieve this level of education. In my immediate family, I played the role of the “hero,” the one that was supposed to get it all right. The one that was supposed to go above and beyond. In the larger picture, there are a few masters' degrees filtered through the family tree, but according to our family historian, there is no doctorate. Achieving this level of education would have been no doubt an amazing accomplishment for a girl born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, whose parents both hail from the South with very limited education and world exposure.

But I was quickly jerked out of my daydream. Because in the same breath that I received that approval (literally in the same day), I received notification that my funding source that I had utilized for the past year and half had been denied. No reason, no appeal. I fought the decision anyway with academic advisers and my mentor advocating along the way. The unfavorable decision was upheld. I could not start my research without being registered and could not register without having some way to pay.

I searched high and low for funding. I had three terms to figure something out. I’m not saying I exhausted all avenues, but I made a diligent effort. I ultimately came up empty.

I was completely and utterly devastated. There had been so many setbacks along the way, but always something came through. This had been seven years of my life, with the past four years falling in love with my topic; going back and forth with committee members and the university about methodology, research strategy, writing style, the viability of my topic, and anything else that I could think of. This project and the doctoral degree had been my child, my lover, my friend, and my enemy, all wrapped up into one.

Much of my self-worth had been wrapped up into getting this degree.

There were dark times. But the interesting thing is that in all this darkness and sadness surrounding my impending doctoral doom, something beautiful was happening.


I began to ask myself the question: What would it take for me to love myself, right now, as I am, even if I didn’t achieve a doctoral degree?

I began to truly examine that question. And I realized through some tough internal work that I was already an amazing person. This was affirmed by some wonderful people who supported me through this process. I also realized that I wasn’t the only “doctoral school drop-out” in America, many before me had made this tough decision. And as far as feeling inferior, I had a wonderful conversation with someone who had achieved his doctorate, who said that even after achieving the doctorate, there is still so much pressure to achieve more and more. It truly never ends.

The feelings of self-worth have to come from inside.

And I don’t have to necessarily give up the work, either. For example, I had the opportunity to speak on elements of my topic at a conference. People said I made them think. And there is always my writing. My purpose perhaps is being fulfilled. Slowly, but surely, and perhaps not in the way I expected it to.

So a few weeks ago, after receiving another rejection from a prospective funding source, I made the official decision to withdraw from my doctoral program. I received a lovely email from my school mentor, who had been my biggest advocate, that said to keep in touch and to let him know if I need any letters of recommendation as I figure out my next professional steps. He went on to say that he is “always happy to help out a colleague.” A colleague. That acceptance I craved from others didn’t come until I accepted myself.

I won’t be walking away empty-handed, as I will be receiving a second master's degree. There of course is no shame in receiving two master's degrees; however, it was not the intended result, so there is some grief that I still feel. But that little voice inside was telling me that it was time to move on and keep moving towards my purpose, rather than staying stuck in what I thought I should do.

And what does my mom think about all this, given the assumed pressure I felt to achieve this level of education in my family? She truly could care less. She just wants me to be happy. And as far as she’s concerned, I’m a winner… and a doctor. Because according to her: “Two master's degrees should equal a doctorate, anyway!”

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