Jumping Ship

For several years now, I have introduced myself in bios and panels as a graduate student in anthropology and folklore.

Pretty soon, that won’t be true anymore.

I came to my university with every intention of leaving with a Ph.D. in those two fields. It’s a time-honored path for writers: become a professor, do fiction in your spare time. It works for a lot of people, and I think it could have worked for me.

The reason I don’t think it will work anymore is probably the best of all possible reasons: writing is going well enough for me, and is forecast to go well enough for the next three years or so, that I find myself unwilling to take time and energy away from it to do the work necessary for finishing my Ph.D. Maybe I could write a dissertation and a novel at the same time, but a dissertation and a research-intensive novel? Not so much. (If only my major were English history . . . .)

But this post is less about the writing side than the academic side. (Shhh, don’t tell the folks in charge.) See, it was really really hard for me to make this decision, to admit that I’d be happier leaving with a master’s than sticking it out for the doctorate. I genuinely like academia. I like scholarship; I like using my brain to peel back the layers of something and see what hidden treasures of meaning are inside. I was never a hard-core theory nut, but I was very happy to take the more basic tools and apply them to new materials — in my case, role-playing games. I got to stand up in front of tweed-jacketed academics (and, these days, tattooed and nose-pierced academics) and talk about the different metaphysical stances represented by character creation systems in D&D and White Wolf games.

And I like finishing what I started.

That’s the real kicker, the one that had me chewing on this decision for at least a year. I am what you might call tenacious. I do not like quitting. I had to spend an entire year convincing myself that jumping ship to do something I loved more (and get more money from) is not quitting; that I am perfectly capable of finishing the task if I want to. My priorities have simply shifted, so that I no longer want to, not badly enough. And if I decide down the road that I really regret not having gotten that doctorate, it’s not like the bridge has been burned; I can always go back and finish . . . if I want to.

I won’t leave with a Ph.D. I will leave, though, with the mental toolkit of one. My coursework here has made me a vastly better writer than I was before, equipped with all kind of theoretical perspectives with which to poke my own fiction and see what falls out. And I’ve learned from my social circle here — heck, if nothing else, had I not come to graduate school, I never would have run the RPG that inspired Midnight Never Come. But gaming in general, with the fabulous community in this area, has changed and strengthened the way I think about story, my skill for emergent and polyvocal narrative.

I hope I never stop being the person who finds it natural to refer to such things as “emergent and polyvocal narrative.” Because if I do, then I’ll have truly left academia behind — and lost something in the leaving.

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    “And if I decide down the road that I really regret not having gotten that doctorate, it’s not like the bridge has been burned; I can always go back and finish . . . if I want to.”

    As someone else who left academia without the paper at the end, let me mention that my university had a recency of credit requirement, which stated that after six years, my prior credits stopped counting toward my degree. If you haven’t already, you might want to check and see if yours has a similar rule in place.

  2. 2. chrisweuve

    Thanks for the very timely post. I understand the entire idea of trying to decide if you want a degree badly enough. I’m just finishing up a masters (20 years after starting one that remains incomplete), and am trying to decide if I want to do a humanities PhD, or return to a previous job. Both have the potential to inspire a lot of fiction, which would be a major purpose of either one. But which one to choose?

  3. 3. Marie Brennan

    I knew my degree would feed back into my fiction, but that isn’t why I came to get it, if that makes any sense. I feel like that would have been unfair to my grad school and also WAY cost-ineffective. <g> But I did think it was good to aim for a degree that would be compatible with the fiction.

    Now, mind you, I do feel a little guilty, because it’s a little bit like “I’ve gotten what I REALLY came for, so now I’m bailing.”

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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