June 29, 2012 by The Editor
It is just short of a year now that I chose to not pursue a doctoral program that I began in July 2011. After completing two seminars in Chicago I realized that I just didn’t want to study anymore, at least not in the structured fee-based manner that had dominated my life up until then. After completing my BA in 1991, I worked for 10 years before taking up another academic program, one that led onto another, which culminated in two master’s degrees by 2010.
Convinced that with another degree I might be able to make inroads into a satisfying career, I decided to take up a doctorate. But I quickly realized that the level of study, dissection really, was not for me. I also realized that, in my chosen field (Jewish Studies), I would not really be able to progress any further with a doctorate than with a master’s unless I was thoroughly competent in Hebrew.
After 20 years of in and out studying of Hebrew, I know probably more than your average American although that’s not saying much. To market myself as a Judaica librarian in an academic setting would require a firm grasp of the language and I didn’t have it, nor did I anticipate that I would have it in the next five years.
Leaving the doctoral program though was a blessing in disguise. Although I didn’t feel any angst about it, there is something to the idea of ‘finishing what you start.’ But I went into the program as a sort of test of my desire to continue and, in fact, I did not have the desire to continue.
As a way to wrap up my years of formal study of Judaism, I started a blog (not the one you’re reading, although the content of that blog has been incorporated into this one under the heading “What’s My Story.”) The blog was meant to interact with the students I met during the seminars and to possibly discuss the materials we were reading. I offered a synopsis of our articles, along with my thoughts. As an exercise in community building, it failed. One of the few people to ever respond in a thoughtful way was a fellow student who in
not so many words 629 words said that I was an ignoramus and had no real business studying the Medieval Jewish texts we were engaged with.
Nonetheless, I continued and soon discovered that blogging (something I had long eschewed and associated with malcontents…. Ahem. Look who’s talking…) became a real motivator. Not only did the blog see out the completion of all the reading for both seminars, it served as a sort of final project. It was for my own benefit, since I had withdrawn officially from the program.
A month or two into my ‘serious academic blogging’ I decided to start another blog that would be more creative in nature. It was in this blog, the one you’re reading, that I discovered the true blessing in leaving formal academic studies: in doing so, I actually opened up creatively in a way that I had not experienced since my 20s, another time when, absent an academic program, I engaged in extensive ‘creative’ writing beyond the bad poetry of my pre-college days.
No longer waiting for an assignment, I realized that I could write whatever I wanted. No longer needing a good grade (or thinking I did), I discovered how I could build my own interests outside academia, outside Jewish Studies, outside the academic approach to religion that had become my mainstay.
When I was in my early 20s and working as a bookshelver at the University of Michigan Grad Library, I looked with pity on the aging graduate students struggling to make ends meet, hoping beyond hope for a break into a good academic career. In a way I became that person, even if my circumstances were different. And in fact, it is kind of pitiable – not that people give their all or follow their dreams. It’s pitiable because maybe those people, like me I think, would have been much better off leaving academia entirely and living life outside its cosy/cold walls.
Academia can open worlds, but it is in itself a very closed world. It can be rigid and unfulfilling. It’s not for everyone. It ultimately was not for me. I may end up back in a university library someday or a university press. You can find good jobs there. But you can be a reader, lover of knowledge, and dare I say, an intellectual, without filling your wall with degrees. The dream of sabbaticals and book-lined offices in hallowed halls is really just that – a dream open to a very privileged few, many who are brilliant, but many who are just plain lucky.