Thank you for your thoughts, MJS. I did insist to myself that I finish my M.A. before I leave, so I have that… but frankly I don’t feel like it helps me very much professionally, aside from the fact that I now rely (primarily) on academic copyediting for a freelance living. In fact, I threw away a lot of my old notes from my training because I reflected honestly on how unhappy I was (and how that unhappiness was bleeding over into unhealthiness) and decided that, if I left grad school just to make a life of the same type of work, I would be doing myself a disservice. So my M.A. is mostly only worth the clout of an M.A. (which is variable and depends on who’s judging it) and the intellectual enrichment I received through the process.
To be more specific, my program was very quantitative, and that sort of approach to the world was stimulating, but it didn’t resonate enough with how I ultimately wanted to make my contributions in this life. It was suggested that I could perhaps transfer to a qualitative program, but at the end of the day, qualitative skills would be even less valuable on the job market, and the prospect of being beholden to IRBs and therefore immensely stifled in my creativity as a writer was going to be the same, whichever academic discipline I might have chased to the doctoral “finish line.” I left 8 years ago, and I have never once regretted that decision. There are things about grad school that I miss, but I know I made the right decision for me.
That said, yes, it has been tough. For a while, I figured I’d get by on teaching language (something I’d done before my Ph.D. program), so I moved abroad and tried that out. I also worked as a preschool teacher for a short while. In the end, I liked both of those jobs, but none of them was particularly fulfilling for me. After all, I’d quit teaching to go into grad school, hoping I could “do something more” and have a “larger” impact than I felt like I was accomplishing from behind the desk. It isn’t that teachers don’t have a valuable or tremendous impact; it just wasn’t the impact I wanted to make. In the end, I found myself gravitating toward freelance editing, since it allowed me to blend a variety of my values: literary pursuits, intellectual stimulation (including a continued connection to the ivory tower), and the freedom to explore the world. (My love of culture and society was how I ended up in the social sciences in the first place.) If I had to go back to school for another Master’s degree, I honestly don’t know what I would choose. Adding to the weight of the decision, of course, would also be the fact that I’m from the U.S. and really don’t want to have to go any deeper into debt for a university education than I already am. If school were free, I might look at things differently… or maybe not.
I agree with you completely: programs need to be very honest with their students about what the non-academic options are. Hiding the fact that there are any is highly effective in frightening Ph.D. students into functioning as obedient little research machines, but in the end, everyone loses.