why I am leaving graduate school

Hello everyone.  Brett and I have a big life update…maybe it won’t seem as big later on down the road but right now it feels like a really big shift in our lives.  I am leaving graduate school.

Though each department is different, the Aerospace (AE) Department grants two opportunities to take the qualifying exam.  The AE’s qualifying exam is a written exam lasting 3 hours, with 8 questions of which 6 must be completed, and it is a required stepping stone on the way to obtaining one’s PhD.  I have now taken the exam twice, and have not passed it two times.

Those are the raw facts…and the only ones that my department has been interested in paying attention to.  I have accomplished a lot during my graduate studies though, despite the very difficult times that I have experienced.  I successfully completed a master’s thesis and have almost completed all of the course work for my PhD.  I have a paper submitted to a top journal and under review.  I presented to a packed room at the most recent conference that I attended.  I secured my own funding for three consecutive years.  In my mind, these facts are important too.

I cannot ignore that my mother passed away and that I went through cancer treatments of my own while I was in the middle of completing my graduate studies and I also cannot ignore that these events affected me.  They have shaped so much of my world in the past 3 years.  The way that I think, communicate with others, and assess situations around me have all changed.  This is ok.

Some of the faculty that I encounter at the U of I have been really really supportive and compassionate during all of this while others have not.  It is true that I did not pass the qualifying exam.  It is also true that I have been very successful in my graduate studies despite everything that I have been through along the way.  Despite my difficulty in classes and tests, I have performed very well as a researcher and as a collaborator.  The way that I am able to think and focus my attention right now does not seem to lend itself to the AE qualifying exam…and you know what?  That is ok.

The folks that I work with at NASA in Huntsville, AL on an everyday basis have been so understanding and compassionate (we’re talking everyday interactions, working collaboratively on a project..as opposed to just weekly meetings).  They have worked tirelessly with me to try and figure this whole situation out.  Not once has anyone minimized me or asked accusingly why I don’t understand a certain piece of information.  I have been encouraged to seek out full-time opportunities in Huntsville…not pushed out the door.  They believe that I am capable of completing engineering research and are excited about working with me.

I am not exactly sure what is next for me right now.  I do know, that my working environment needs to have a higher priority on my list of ‘must haves’ for any career choice that I make.  Brett and I still have some time left in Champaign before he finishes his PhD and we’re both going to make the best of it.  We love living in Champaign and it will definitely be sad when we leave this place in the future.  When we do leave, I may try and enter into a new PhD program or I may have discovered/created my new calling.  I actually have a few projects in my head and under way.  We’ll see how they turn out in the coming months.  🙂  I will update you all with details as the right time presents itself 🙂

Until then, I am excited about what this next part of our lives will look like.  A really great article written for Scientific American’s blog was written by a tenure track faculty member at a major, research institution.  The author described one of her strategies to being as happy as possible while trying for tenure (it is a very stressful and lengthy process) as, “I try to be the best “whole” person I can.”  The way that I figure it, I am doing my best right now to be the best, “whole” person I can…and some folks just can’t handle that right now 🙂

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  1. Pingback: what I’ve been up to :) » Mallory and Brett

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