Going AWOL: From University to ‘Real Life’

October 31, 2015 | Sarah Hertz.

Produced in collaboration with History To The Public.

Hi, my name is Sarah and I am a grad school dropout. Well, not really — I’m actually a graduate of the University of Cambridge who decided not to pursue a PhD. Halfway through my Master’s in Renaissance literature, it began to dawn on me that life exists outside of academia. To the horror of my mentors as well as my former self, I developed a taste for tiaras, hip hop, and climbing the roofs of seventeenth-century colleges. Indeed, my year at Cambridge was primarily one of personal as opposed to intellectual growth.

When I returned home, I was $20,000 in debt and living at my parents’ without a job. I had the absurd dream of working at a teashop, which I did for approximately eight months. I have vivid memories of setting tables over and over in empty yellow rooms, and of being treated like the servant of anyone who happened to be a ‘paying customer’.

This was quite a contrast from the lavish Cambridge lifestyle: the weekly, three-course Formal Hall meals; the twelve-hour, year-end May Balls, with endless food, drink, and entertainment; the flashing of college scarves and university cards at the iron gates of every college — this was the so-called ‘Cambridge Experience’, and I enjoyed it.  

Despite these perks, the unconscious pressure to *achieve* is so unspeakably great, that many Oxbridge students either run mad or win the Nobel Prize. Or both. Consequently, the transition from academia to the ‘real world’ is harsh, almost soul-crushing. Students at the master’s or doctoral levels have been training for one job for so long, that some can’t conceive of doing anything else. The exclusive nature of the academy and the disconnect between higher education and public forums, collectively discourage students from leaving the Ivory Tower.

Ironically, some of the most intelligent and successful people in history went AWOL: Henry David Thoreau left Harvard to live in a cabin; John Steinbeck dropped out of Stanford to write the next great American novel; and Charles Dickens left school at an early age to work in a shoe factory. (1) This is not to undermine the value of higher education, or to say that we should all chuck our textbooks into the river, cry “anarchy”, and move to the woods of Vermont with Howard Axelrod; this is to say that a cloistered, university life is not the only viable path for intelligent and thoughtful people. We should encourage our students to think beyond the box of academia, to harness their knowledge of science, philosophy, history, and literature to make the world a better place. For every institution, every system, is a mental framework and a mode of being. To believe that academia is somehow immune to the ‘evils’ of the corporate world — sans ideology, fraudulence, or extortion — is to risk those very evils it seeks to eradicate.

My transition from university to real life has given me the resilience to pursue something better for myself: a job in which I can find personal, as opposed to peer-reviewed, satisfaction. Only by throwing it all away did I realize my essential thirst for knowledge and drive to make a difference.

Leaving the academy is terrifying, but it is not the end of the world. There are so many ways to cultivate one’s mind and keep on learning. If you want to write, sign up for a workshop; if you want to code, take free courses from CodeAcademy. Volunteer, travel, and apply for jobs you never thought you could. Above all, if you decide that academia is not for you, remember that there are many other bright drop-outs, making the same transition.

About Sarah

Sarah Hertz graduated with a Master’s (MPhil) in Renaissance literature from the University of Cambridge (2013-14), where she completed a dissertation on seventeenth-century devotional reading practices. She is returning to school in January to pursue a career in publishing, and is the Engagement Editor for the Cambridge-based nonprofit organisation, History To The Public.

Website: http://www.sarahhertz.com/ 

Twitter: @melancholicpoet

Edited by Harriet MacMillan and Niki Holzapfel.


1. In his Harvard Magazine article, “The PhD Problem”, Louis Menand lists Dinseh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Richard Bernstein, and David Lehmen as exceptions to the I-dropped-out-of-grad-school-ergo-I-am-a-loser rule.

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