It's over. I'm walking away from my dissertation. I'll never get a doctorate in music theory.

I feel free. Free to have the life I want, instead of feeling trapped in something I was never going to finish. Free to explore all the things I haven't had time to explore. Free from the guilt of not working when I knew I should, and most of all, free from the feeling that I wasn't good enough to get a PhD, because I honestly felt that way all the time.

I never actually believed I could finish a dissertation, not even when I was first starting in the doctoral program. I could imagine what graduation would be like, or teaching, but I didn't ever find a successful dissertation defense to be a plausible outcome. Everyone who goes through this process talks about how difficult it is and how they wonder if they'll ever finish, but this was a different feeling. I didn't realize the difference for a long time, so I just lumped myself in with the rest of the downtrodden doctoral students who eventually finish their degrees and then wonder what they had been so concerned about. I know that when most of you would ask me when I was going to finish my dissertation, I tended to answer, "Probably about a year," whether it was two weeks ago or two years ago. I always felt like it was just a year or so away, but then as I'd get deeper into it, I would realize (over and over) how much more time I still had left. There were always more threads, more reading, more music to consider, and I knew I'd never be able to devote the time to seeking out all of the answers I needed to search for. There was never a definite end in sight. And I didn't feel joy from it anymore, at all.

I'm grateful for the learning that took place, both about music and about myself, and I don't regret starting this degree program for an instant. I don't believe in living that way. Self-awareness often comes at a great price, but I'd never reverse the course of things if it meant that I wouldn't know about myself what I know now. Failed relationships, if we're open to what they have to teach us, can make us stronger and more able to love deeply in the future. An unkind word tossed out to someone we care about, if we explore our motivation for saying it, can lead to deeper communication and a better relationship. And the road not taken, no matter how alluring it may seem in retrospect, probably wasn't the right path at the time, which is why we didn't take it. It certainly would not have brought us to our present. I love my present, and I wouldn't change a thing.

(For the record, I do still have a masters degree, and if I someday decided I wanted to teach again, there are options, like the classes I've taught in the past that I really did love teaching.)

So what now?

Now, I stop feeling guilty about not working on my dissertation. Now, I seek out ways to change the world. Now, I indulge in things like Facebook (which I had avoided joining because I knew that if I joined it, I'd just feel guilty about spending more time not working). I'll spend more mental energy on my family instead of on something that was taking me away from my family. I'll read for pleasure again. This is the first time in my entire life that I'm not thinking about the next step of my academic career. Do you know how freeing that is? Well, most of you probably do, and maybe you didn't give it much thought when you were finishing. But for someone who was feeling as stuck as I was, being able to look beyond academia is just lovely.

Our church service this morning could not have been more perfect. Heartened by the upcoming inauguration, our very liberal pastor spoke eloquently about opening our eyes and hearts to hear God's call to us in an optimistic, but still broken, world. I'm thoroughly excited about service opportunities now that I have the time to devote to them, so everything she said and the hymns she had chosen spoke to me in a really clear way this morning.

Then I talked to my advisor after church, a conversation that went better than I ever could have imagined. He was understanding, saddened by losing me as a student but also very supportive. One of his comments was representative of his entire response, and also my whole thought process about this thing. He said, "The world doesn't need another music theory professor nearly as much as it needs more happy people." I started crying right there on the spot, because it was the most generous and true thing he could have said to me in that moment. I told him that of all the people I've talked to or whose writing I've read who have mentioned their graduate advisors, he's absolutely at the top of the list. I'm glad that I'll still see him at church, because I would hate to lose him in my life.

This week, our country begins to create a new version of itself, and so do I. I think our Inauguration Party is also turning into a New Phase of Life Party. Spreading the news to friends in town will be much more fun if I'm serving them O-shaped hors d'oeuvres and putting blue O-shaped ice in their drinks, as we fantasize about our country's future and about changing the world together.

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I'm happy for you. Following your heart (and your gut) is difficult to do, and this sounds like it was the right decision for you. And like you said, what perfect timing with the Obama inauguration!
I'm so proud of you for following your heart, for doing the best thing for you and your family. And << merci fille fois >> to your advisor for responding to Erica-the-person, not just Erica-his-advisee. You can't ask for more than that in a friend!
Yay for you for being able to make the best choice for you! Feeling free to let go of an idea of yourself is one of the hardest things to do and one of the most rewarding. Cheers!
I'm so proud of you. It is hard sometimes to deliberately change the course of your life. I love the comment Annie Beth posted in response to your previous post in that we can sometimes find great purpose in the things that bring us joy. You are already doing something great to make a difference in the world; you are raising an intelligent, kindhearted yet strong human being..can't be a more important job! Hugs to you--Heather
Wow, what a huge, brave thing.

"And I took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference."

(hugs) And congratulations!
What a great post, Erica! And I look forward to seeing you on facebook.
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