A letter to my parents

Mom and Dad,

Hey! I hope things are going well. This week is a bit slow (as are most of them) and so I thought I’d take time to write you guys.  I also wanted to write you a letter because I have something I have something big to say that I don’t want to come across as a flippant, not-well-thought-out decision.  With a letter you have to take the time to write it, read over it, put it in an envelope and send it so you tend to have to really mean the things you say or at least have to think about them more than just for an email or phone conversation. So here it goes: come the fall I’m going to be leaving graduate school.  (I can hear Dad’s groan even from 2500 miles away…).  That’s probably not something that you wanted to hear, and believe me, it’s not easy to say.  I’ve thought a lot about how you guys would react and how hard it is for me to tell you.  But what I’m hoping for is maybe not your “blessing” to do this, but at least your understanding of why.

By the time I’ll be packing up to leave, I will have been here for a year and gotten the full spectrum of the graduate school experience, classes, research, meetings, etc.  For me, I will have given it all a fair try.  (Even now, as I write this, I’ve already experienced all of those things, but a year is a nice round quantity).  To be forward with how I feel about all of it: it’s pretty unbearable these days.  In my classes, I feel the way that I used to feel in Mrs. Clegg’s classes in high school, utterly and brutally bored and disinterested.  For example, today I was showed how to do the same basic task for the fourth time, I’ve listened to some lectures now two and even three times, and I have yet to be excited about any of the research I’ve encountered in this program.

I’ve thought through all of the reasons I should stay or go that I could think of.  I’ve made lots of lists of pros and cons and forced myself to look at this choice through as many lenses as I can see.  I’ve even done my best to convince myself that staying is what I should do, but I just can’t.  I keep coming back to the fact that I am just not happy here.  I’m not just unhappy because graduate school “hard” and laborious and requires a resolve to get through, I’m unhappy because I feel like all of my creative energy and excitement is being squandered on menial tasks and/or research that I don’t feel is particularly interesting, challenging, or beneficial to anyone.  Not only do I feel that my energy is being wasted, but it also feels like it’s being depleted.  At the end of the day I don’t even have the energy to pursue the academics that I am interested in.

(Note: There are a lot of things I want to say, a ton actually, and as a result my thoughts keep getting a bit overwhelmed.  I’m doing my best to present this as logically and clearly, so I apologize if it at times it isn’t.)

Since I’ve been here I’ve consistently looked for other things to do as aside from my coursework.  Motorcycles, an old car, a student garden, and most recently a LOT of hiking.  Anything.  Anything else.  I think that’s pretty telling about my level of interest in this field.  The coursework, this coursework, is not enough for me.  I am not challenged, not interested, and not motivated to continue on.  To stay would be an exercise in endurance and nothing else.  I have no doubt I could complete what is required of me here.  The things I get excited about have nothing to do with this graduate program or Los Angeles.

Every weekend (every day actually) I look forward to the moment when I am free, whether it’s from class, lab, or the city.  I’m starting to feel that it’s no way to live my life.  If there were something here that I loved or truly enjoyed or felt a part of, I think I could latch on and find a way to stay, but there just isn’t.  My commitments to school force me to be surrounded by people I don’t particularly like, the cost of living here is really stressfully high (and my stipend will be going down by ~$10,000 next year), getting out of the city (the most fun, enjoyable and wonderful part of being here) is expensive, time consuming, and stressful and once Alex leaves I would be both without a car and without a partner… and it’s really hard to get out of LA on a bike… by yourself.

So without just listing all of the reasons why things aren’t great here, I’ll try and trace the bigger pattern or raise the question that I’ve been asking myself: how much energy am I willing to spend to make a genuinely unpleasant thing tolerable?  And then weigh that against the energy that school’s busy-work requires… and then ask myself the question “how much time and energy does that leave to devote to me growing and developing in the ways I want to and in the ways I feel that graduate school should let me grow?”  The truth is, almost none.  And when it comes right down to it, I’m 23 and I’m not ready to “tolerate” five years to get a Ph.D. in a field that no longer interests me.

Let me also add that it’s not that I don’t want to go to graduate school. I just don’t want to be at this graduate school, in this program, in this place, at this point in my life.  I think that grad school should be exciting and challenging and a time of discovery both personally and in one’s field of study.  That may be naive and optimistic but frankly, I’m not ready to let that hope die.  I’m not ready to throw in the towel on finding something that truly inspires art in me.  I mean, that’s why I got into physics and math!  Medical physics just has not panned out the way I thought that it would.  The truth is what I’m doing now and what I will be doing in the future in this field, inspires none of those feelings.  All I feel is frustration because it keeps me from pursuing something that could potentially awaken that in me.  (Even the job prospects that would come after the Ph.D. in this field don’t interest me and I feel that same sense of frustration towards them).

I know that there area  lot of obstacles on the path that I’m choosing… and a lot of challenges and risks.  I’ve considered them (even the pragmatic ones like health insurance and student loans) and I think this is a risk that I don’t just want to take, I have to take.  I’ve considered that there’s a good chance I’ll end up working at a job I won’t like and will want to change in a few years. But even if it fails entirely and I come crawling back to grad school, I will be happier knowing that at least I have the guts to try and walk a different path.

I think a lot of people go to grad school these days (definitely not all, but an increasing majority of people) because they don’t know what to do and are afraid to walk out into the world and try something different. I can’t and won’t be one of those people.  I’ll come back to grad school when I want to and when the time is right.  If it’s meant to happen and I want it to, it will happen.  I’m confident in the choice I’m making, but also a little scared. It’s a good kind of scared though, the kind of scared that lets you know you understand how big of a deal this is and that makes you get stuff done as a result.

I know this is a lot to take in.  I haven’t said any of it straight out before, but a part of me has to think that you heard it in my voice and in my comments during our conversations.  I’ve been thinking most of it for at least the past six months if not longer. I also didn’t say any of it out loud, because I really wanted to give Los Angeles and UCLA a fair chance to work out and saying it out loud would have meant resigning myself to those thoughts.  I really wanted it to work out more than anyone because it’d really make my life a lot easier!  But I just can’t deny it any longer.

Right now I’ve got a good financial buffer (according to the book that Doug Guthe gave me at graduation!), I’ve got close friends in a lot of great places, I’m leaving with a 4.0 GPA, and I’m going to start applying for jobs as soon as you guys get this letter and we get a chance to talk.  I’m in a good spot to take this leap and I’m trying to do everything right.  I really want to hear what you guys think though seeing as I know this is big, possibly disappointing news.

I’ve thought about what Dad’s been saying about David Burrell and it’s make me realize that I don’t want to wait too long to “start” my life and surround myself with the people and things that I love.  So not only is this program not what I want to be doing, but being away from everyone I love and not having the money or time to see them really does make me realize that I kind of have put things on hold.  But I won’t keep doing that for something that I don’t like any longer.  I know that there has to be a better balance elsewhere.  I can hear Dad saying “five years isn’t that long!” but it really kind of is when you’re pushing yourself to do something that you don’t want to do with nothing to balance it with.  There’s no reason that I can’t do something I don’t want to do closer to Alex and you guys and Lea and Kyle and everyone else back home!  Haha.

I miss you and love you so much.  Let me know when you get this and let’s talk.

Love,

John