I dropped out of psych graduate school and don't know what to do!

I majored in film and media, but thought it was too impractical.

Published June 28, 2006 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm 26 years old and I recently left a doctorate program in clinical psychology abruptly after only one semester. I quit school for several reasons but primarily I was feeling burnt out (I had recently completed a two-year master's degree in the field), I no longer felt excited enough about the field to justify 10 hours of work per day, and I hated that I was going to be spending five to six years of my life in a part of the country (typically referred to as the "armpit") that I absolutely hated.

I moved to New York City and searched for jobs outside of psychology to no avail. I thought I could go into ad copywriting, perhaps to use my psychology training for evil instead of good. However, after two months spent without work, school, or any friends to speak of, I became desperate. I eventually had to swallow my pride and ask my father for help; so when he put me in touch with an old business friend who offered me a job, I jumped at the chance. Fast-forward three months and I am utterly miserable here. The job is not challenging, the office environment is lonely, and frankly, I feel diminished working in a position that doesn't technically require a college degree. The icing is that it pays so poorly I have to get financial help from my parents, which truly bothers me.

I am in an existential panic -- I have no idea what field or career I would like to pursue at this point and yet I want to be there already. I went to college for film and media studies but I have absolutely no faith in my ability to become any kind of writer. In fact, I entered into psychology because it appeared to be a safe and secure career path (as opposed to trying to make it as a creative). My girlfriend is trying to convince me to go to law school so that I will have more career options, but I can feel the same forces of practicality that sent me into psychology pulling me toward that decision. I'm not OK exploring lots of different careers at this point in my life; I feel like I had that opportunity and I used it on psychology. So I guess my question is: How do I even begin to figure out what to do with my life ... simple, right?

Ph.D. Dropout

Dear Ph.D. Dropout,

I have a solution for you. But first, I would ask you to consider briefly this extraordinary moment in history, to kindle some small flame of gratitude in your heart, to temper your bereft desperation with appreciative awe. What you suffer, after all, is a luxury of choices. How did it come to pass, anyway, that rather than tilling a stony field sunup to sundown you are living in an opulent laboratory amid a torrent of splendid images, as if inside a jewel that reflects back to us all of history and all the visions of poets and artists and charlatans and all the daily creations of actors and musicians and painters and people who work in media we did not even know would exist a few years ago. This sensorium we inhabit is vast and complex beyond all imagining; it is like nothing ever created on earth.

And yet often all we can do is sit in this jeweled garden and cry out, It is too much! Too much! Too much! Overwhelmed with choice, sated creatures of a culture warlike but creative, ignorant but rich, we put our faces in our hands and weep. It is too much!

I know. It is too much. All these choices make us anxious. That is how we are. I am anxious too. I am not grateful. I am desperate and hungry and dissatisfied and restless just like you.

But I know, nonetheless, that all my vexatious choices are a gift. The only torment is choosing.

I do not mean to be moralistic; I only want to say, please, my son, before we turn and go back into the castle to consider these matters, look out over these hills, this land, this miracle: Be grateful you have a choice.

But OK. Enough already. Just the same, the fact is, you're stuck. You're lost. You're in a tough spot. You took some turns and now life sucks. So here is what you do:

Go back to what you know. It's like when you're lost in a car, you get back to where you were when you knew where you were and where you were going.

In college, you knew what you wanted to do. You wanted to work in film and media studies.

You probably still do.

So go back to that spot and recover what you had. Get back to that moment when you were enthralled.

You may have doubted that you were on the right course. It may have seemed impractical. You had to find out. So you found out. Now you know. Psychology is not for you.

Perhaps you tried to be adult about it and put aside film and media studies in order to be practical. But doing what you don't want is not practical. If you are not suited to it, it is not practical. You are not all that motivated to get something you do not all that much want. So you will not work all that hard to get it and you will not excel so greatly in the endeavor. Others who desire it with all their hearts will pass you, and you will wonder why you are even trying, since it is so hard for you and since you do not even enjoy the work or want it all that much anyway.

There is, on the other hand, much practicality in working toward what you want, even if it is difficult. If you are working for what you want, you are using your hungers to your advantage.

When we do the things we love we create congruence between motivation and talent; we come alive. When we are brought to life by doing what we love, we do it well, and people notice, and they hire us. When we are only pretending, we languish and suffer, doing mediocre work begrudgingly, hating our lives and those around us, and we die poor and unhappy.

So do what you love.

It is hard to do what you love. It takes more work than doing what is simply available. But it is the right thing to do. And in the end it is the most practical choice.

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