Grad School Dropout: The Rest of the Story

Posted on July 18, 2019

Here’s a story for my Father-in-law, who asked me a “simple” question recently: “Why didn’t you finish grad school?” My wife was kind enough to provide him with the quick and dirty answer, but it got me thinking that I should really write it out. Partly for myself, so I can get it out of my brain, but also for all the people out there who are facing a major task and just can’t seem to get it done. Maybe this will help, or at least give you someone to think “at least I’m not that guy.”

A quick history for those just joining the story now. I was a graduate student at the University of Missouri from 2006-2013. I left with a lot of new knowledge, experience teaching, and a boat load of debt–but no graduate degree. I finished enough coursework to be a PhD, but I never finished my Master’s Thesis (which is kind of important to the whole getting a Master’s thing). Eventually I got caught in an odd catch-22: the university would only count coursework from the last 7 years, so in taking longer than that I’d be stuck in an infinite loop of retaking classes as they aged out. My wife (to-be at that point) had her own life plans to follow, so I packed up and moved out to DC without the degree I had worked so long and hard to procure.

Why, you ask, couldn’t I finish in 7 years what takes most people 2-3? Well there are two answers to that, a short one and a long one.

The Short Answer

I’m a perfectionist to the point of inaction–if I can’t get it exactly right, it doesn’t get done at all. It took me a long time after grad school to learn how to create something that’s “good enough” and move on.

The Long Answer

Turns out I’m not just a perfectionist, I’m a medically diagnosable perfectionist. I suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, something I didn’t discover until years later. Let’s check out those symptoms, courtesy of DSM V:

  1. Is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost.
  2. Shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., is unable to complete a project because his or her own overly strict standards are not met).
  3. Is excessively devoted to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships (not accounted for by obvious economic necessity).
  4. Is overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification).
  5. Is unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.
  6. Is reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things.
  7. Adopts a miserly spending style toward both self and others; money is viewed as something to be hoarded for future catastrophes.
  8. Shows rigidity and stubbornness.

When I first read that list it was amazing to me how someone who never met me could sum me up so accurately. I don’t quite hit every check mark (3 and 7 aren’t as big a problem as the rest), but damn is the rest of it accurate. Honestly, when my therapist first suggested I might be obsessive-compulsive I was skeptical. But I had an image in my head of OCD, with its compulsive hand-washing and patterns of behavior. But OCPD fits my patterns like a glove, and it explains so much about why I didn’t complete my graduate degree. Let’s see how these factors tripped me up in practice:

Is preoccupied with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or schedules to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost.

I never really started my hands-on research. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t have an amazing list of people of interest. You see, instead of just getting into the field and talking to people as they came along, I was obsessed with finding the “key” people to talk to. So I poured over news articles, magazine specials, stacks of books all in search of the “key” people. And I had lists ready of who to talk to and about what. But I was so busy writing lists I never got to the actual research.

Funny story about adherence to rules: nothing is more sure to cause an argument with my wife than to attempt to play Settlers of Catan. You see, she grew up with house rules that make the game “better.” I can’t stand to play by rules other than those that are written. So set us down for a leisurely game of trading sheep and wheat and soon you’ll have an argument, guaranteed.

Shows perfectionism that interferes with task completion (e.g., is unable to complete a project because his or her own overly strict standards are not met).

Part of academic writing is the “literature review”. Basically, it’s a section of your work that summarizes similar work that has been done by other researchers. The idea is that you A) can show you know what you’re talking about by being up on the latest research, B) can help bring people up to speed if they aren’t as familiar with the topic as you, and C) show you’ve paid your ‘dues’ to other researchers in the field. My literature review was spectacular. It was also never finished, despite being approximately 10x longer than necessary.

You see, I couldn’t stomach the fact that I might be leaving an important citation out. So I cited the relevant research. Then I cited who they cited. Then I cited who those people cited. You can see how things quickly grow exponential.

The same problem cropped up in my introduction. My master’s thesis was to be on ‘griefing’ in online worlds, specifically Second Life. But that meant I had to explain what ‘griefing’ was. And that caused me to draw a line back through the history of the Internet and even to pre-internet behaviors. And similarly, a discussion of Second Life wouldn’t be complete without discussing other online worlds and their predecessors such as MUD‘s, and their predecessors in pen and paper, and so forth until I’m surprised I wasn’t explaining the big bang in order to build forward. I was Tristram Shandy-ing and couldn’t recognize it because of my need for perfection.

Is overconscientious, scrupulous, and inflexible about matters of morality, ethics, or values (not accounted for by cultural or religious identification).

I’m pretty sure I spent a semester or two working on just how to store the data I was collecting. It was just going to be text discussions and the occasional screenshot, but I treated it like I had been given the nuclear codes. I had an encrypted hard drive with a paragraph of a password stored in a locked safe stored in a locked office. I was up on every single possible ethical violation and potential risk, to the point that my subjects weren’t at risk of the NSA finding their thoughts on acting like a jerk online.

The irony of this was I had a hell of a time getting through the IRB. Ostensibly designed to protect the subjects of research and more likely designed to protect the university from lawsuits, I had to prove that I wouldn’t damage my subjects. It took me a few semesters to work through this process, with reviews and re-reviews from a group who clearly hadn’t dealt with much online social research in the past.

Is unable to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.

This one’s true in life, but didn’t much affect my graduate studies. Unless you count discarding worthless research. I’ve already talked about this, but nothing could escape my grasp when it came to potentially relevant research.

Is reluctant to delegate tasks or to work with others unless they submit to exactly his or her way of doing things.

This is perhaps the factor that makes me the most sad in retrospect: I could have asked for help, and didn’t. I had a wonderful resource in an advisor who was interested in my work, helpful when I came to him, and willing to put up with the guy who spent 7 years seemingly doing nothing. All I had to do was ask for help, but I never could.

This reluctance to admit I might be over my head extended to the rest of my life, as well. Whenever somebody (often my parents) would ask how my work was going, I’d answer “I don’t want to talk about it.” It was embarrassing to me that I couldn’t get my work done up to my perfectionist standards. I’d tell myself that “they can’t help” with my thesis, so why bother them? But now I realize it was part of my OCPD. My friends and parents might not have been able to write my thesis, but they could have been able to shoulder some of the emotional labor. They might have been able to help push me past my perfectionist tendencies. But I’ll never know now, it’s in the land of ‘what could have been.’

Shows rigidity and stubbornness.

If this blog post hasn’t convinced you I suffer from this one, I don’t know what will. It’s a constant battle in my life, one that I’ve been working on very hard to overcome. In the next section I want to talk about the things that have worked for me, and the lessons I have learned.

What’s Worked for Me

So I have a problem, and maybe you’re having similar issues. What’s worked for me?

First off, lots of therapy and daily medication. It’s not a cure but it’s a much nicer place to be starting from. I now know much better what my issues are, and that lets me work against them. And the medication makes it just a little easier to do.

Second, I’ve learned that ‘great’ can take a back seat to ‘good enough.’ I know this blog post could perhaps use some images, maybe a few more links to break up the giant blocks of text. But I’m going to post it anyways. It’s not going to join the legion of draft posts I have for this blog that fell victim to my perfectionist nature.

Third, I’m willing to ask for help. Even if that’s just talking to someone about the things that are hindering me, it’s a huge relief. I’m lucky to have a wife that’s understanding and can help me through things, but for you it might be forging a deeper connection to friends, family, or just paying a therapist for an hour to vent.

Finally, I try to break down tasks to their smallest unit, and focus on that. I’ve written this post sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Right now, I’m not writing “a blog post”, I’m writing a sentence. This sentence might not be perfect, but it’s good enough to get me to the next one. And so on. I try to do this with everything in life now–I don’t clean my apartment, I clean a room. And even then I clean part of a room at a time. I might not have a perfectly clean apartment at the end, but it’s cleaner and that’s what matters.

I suspect I would be able to complete my Master’s Thesis if I started it again today. Because I know I have OCPD, and I know I have to work against it. I have tools and strategies that help. And I have people who care about me whose help I’m willing to take. If anybody is finding this post online and wants to chat about your similar issues, feel free to hit that contact link at the top of the screen.