Goodbye, grad school: on quitting my PhD

As of this summer, I am no longer a PhD student.

A lot of factors went into this decision, but the pickle I was in really started to show itself last winter, when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get anywhere with the dissertation proposal I was supposed to be writing. I did pretty well in my coursework and passed my comprehensive exams, but somehow, this particular step, where one has ostensibly proven their knowledge in their subject areas of expertise and finally has a chance to focus on their own work, just had me spinning in circles.

What is now obvious to me but wasn’t at the time was that I was going through severe burnout, and it had been happening for months, if not years. I hadn’t finished any new games for an entire year. My ability to concentrate and make anything resembling long-term plans had completely diminished, and I was flaking out on a lot of personal and professional commitments. I wasn’t the most depressed I’d ever been, but my faith in the quality of my work was at an all-time low, and since I have historically derived a lot of my self-worth from the work I do, that definitely took a significant hit.

On one hand, my inability to thrive in an environment as hypercompetitive and uncaring as academia seemed inevitable. A part of me was aware of this from the start, and I tried my best to protect myself by treating grad school as nothing more than a badly-paying job and claiming that I wasn’t married to the idea of becoming a tenure-track professor. But I did enjoy my master’s program, for the most part, and hoped that I could mould my PhD to work in a similar way. Making weird art games in an environment of supportive peers and mentors felt like the best possible job I could ask for, and justifying it as “research-creation” felt like an easy enough way to convince an academic institution to let me do just that.

But the more time I spent in grad school, the more it slowly eroded at my soul, and by the time I could even notice it was happening, I was more far gone than I ever wanted to be. I felt marginalized as a trans person of colour, even though the spaces I was in welcomed diversity on the surface.1 I also witnessed professors emotionally abusing other students, only to have my concerns dismissed and ignored. It then became clear to me, through zooming out and seeing patterns in other people’s experiences at other institutions, that this wasn’t limited specifically to my particular work environment at my particular university, but systemic and by design.

Still, I continued to justify staying by reminding myself that all jobs are awful under capitalism. The whole reason I was in grad school in the first place was because the videogame industry was even worse. But then, it became apparent to me that while I have still continued to love making games regardless of whether someone is paying me to do so, I have no such love for the work involved in being a career academic. I can’t stand most academic writing, both as a writer and as a reader. Something deep in my body rebels at the prospect of spending so much of my time trying to get published in academic journals that only a few people will ever actually read — and not the kinds of people I particularly care about reaching, either.

And there was another factor: I was no longer the same person I was when I started the PhD program. While I had already been out as transgender, I had not yet engaged in any medical interventions to that effect. For a while, I reasoned that I didn’t need to, that my gender dysphoria wasn’t that severe, that I’d survived perfectly well up to this point, so why do anything drastic and disruptive to my body? Except it turns out that surprise, I was lying to myself because I was scared. When I actually went through with top surgery, and then with taking testosterone,2 there was this incredible feeling of rightness that I hadn’t felt in my body for as long as I could remember. As if I had been going about my life with a lot of background noise that I’d just learned to ignore and live with and treat as normal, but it was only when the noise finally stopped that I learned that actually, I very much prefer the silence and really, REALLY don’t want to go back to the way things were before.

This realization helped me learn that I don’t always have to continue to endure my present circumstances just because it seems like it would be more convenient for other people. My capacity to endure has served me very well in life, and it’s a skill I know I can fall back on when there is no way of escaping, but feeling like I’m allowed to make decisions for no reason other than “because I want to” has been a game-changer. And indeed, once I did make the decision to quit grad school, I felt that same sensation of background noise fading away. My burnout symptoms almost completely subsided and I was suddenly a lot more productive and excited to make things. I feel like as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough of a reason.

Plus, it also became apparent to me that the main benefit of a PhD, the ability to make your mark as an expert in your field by creating original research, is actually something I have already accomplished in life. My work has been recognized by major festivals, I’ve done exhibitions in museums and galleries, and even a hypercapitalist institution such as Forbes has seen fit to put me on a 30 Under 30 list. Staying in grad school, being treated as if I still wasn’t worthy of respect or admiration unless and until I succeeded in very particular-to-academia ways, actively prevented me from internalizing my accomplishments. Maybe “tough love” or whatever they call it works for some people, but it doesn’t work for me, nor for anyone else who has already, in many ways, been considered by society to be worthless.

And yet, why should my self-worth be so tied to my productivity, anyway? Politically, I believe all human beings have intrinsic worth, but accepting that I, personally, am worthy just the way I am, without having to do anything… well, that’s been a lifetime struggle I’m still working on to this day. As I said, a lot of my sense of self-worth comes from the work I do, and a lot of that is because I have been made to feel like I have no other redeeming qualities. I’ve talked a lot, and made a lot of games about, being bad with people and not always understanding how to exist among other humans. I’ve finally come to accept that this is because I’m autistic. I don’t say this to give myself an excuse to behave badly — indeed, one of the reasons I’ve been hesitant to publicly and explicitly label myself as autistic, especially without a formal diagnosis, is the fear that it would be taken as such. But knowing that I have a brain that doesn’t work in a way society considers typical is helping me learn to be kinder to myself, and also kinder to others in the sense of being better-equipped to communicate my needs.

So, what’s next for me, now that I’m officially done with grad school? Well, for starters, I’m once again taking on freelance work (if your game studio needs a narrative designer, writer, and/or diversity consultant, ping me!) and also reinstating my Patreon. In the longer term, I’m trying to form a worker co-op, because I’m learning that the job I really truly want, a supportive non-hierarchical environment where I can make games and interactive art with/among other people, won’t exist unless I help create it. Meanwhile, I’m continuing, as best as I can without taking on too much and burning out again, to participate in initiatives that help make the game industry, and the culture around videogames, a better place, especially for marginalized people. A lot still feels uncertain and I don’t yet know where exactly I’m going to land, but I’m feeling more hopeful than I have in ages, and that’s definitely something.

  1. While I don’t think anyone actually intended to contribute to my marginalization, often, all one needs to do is nothing and the kyriarchy will take care of the rest. Most of what I experienced was benign-seeming microaggressions borne out of ignorance rather than outright hostility, to the point that it felt incredibly petty to speak out against any particular incident. But they call it death by a thousand paper cuts for a reason, right?
  2. Yeah, I know these steps typically tend to happen the other way around, but I’m not a particularly typical person, so.