Although it was 20 years ago now, I still remember the day my parents told me I needed to withdraw from grad school. I had stopped attending most of my classes, was erratic in turning in homework, and had missed one of my exams and had to take a make-up. The university had contacted them (since they were paying most of my way) and advised them I was on a probationary status.
Although I’d struggled with a few of my classes in college, this was the first time I had actually failed at anything academic; I’d been a B+/A- student in both high school and college.
While my parents were disappointed, they accepted the situation as it was. My mom, as a young woman, had started college, withdrawn, entered a convent, then withdrew from that. She worked in her father’s insurance office for a time before eventually restarting her studies at a new college. She understood.
Following her advice, I spent a couple of months staying with my grandmother out of state, then came back and started looking for a job. I went to a therapist a few times but found it completely useless and didn’t go back.
At the time, I didn’t understand what had happened except that in some way grad school “wasn’t for me”. It would take me some further years to find a stable career and establish myself in the world of work, but I never considered going back to academia and I mostly didn’t think about exactly why it hadn’t been for me. The past was in the past.
It’s only been in the last couple of years, actually, that I’ve come to realize my asexuality was a major factor in what happened so long ago. How could I have explained it to anybody, or even understood it for myself, when I wouldn’t know for another eight years that asexuality was a thing that existed? (I withdrew from grad school in 1996 but only learned about asexuality in 2004. I don’t think any of the early asexual websites or proto-asexual communities even existed in 1996. If they did, I certainly never knew about them.)
The story really starts my freshman year in college. That was when, overwhelmed by sexualized situations and expectations I had no idea how to handle, I began to withdraw into what I sometimes refer to as my Fortress of Solitude. My top priority was to create an autonomous, independent place for myself and only allow into it people that understood and accepted me the way that I am. Particularly in college, that meant having few friends at all.
When I first started college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in but late in my freshman year I decided to study physics. I had really enjoyed my physics class in high school and been good at math and science. I don’t seem to have had any clear vision for myself of becoming a researcher or academic (indeed, I don’t seem to have any clear idea about my future at all!) and the course of study I pursued worked well for someone transferring into physics in their sophomore year, but wouldn’t have set me up very well for a doctoral program in physics.
I was one of the few women majoring in physics – I still remember taking a class my junior year where the professor was a woman and one of the other half-dozen students was a woman and that was the highest percentage of women in any of my classes! I don’t remember there being any special programs or support groups for women in physics, either.
I’ve since come to learn that isolation is a common experience for women in science and a major factor when women leave the field. Whether it’s a lack of role models and mentors, or being left out of shared experiences, shared norms, or shared culture, female students often struggle on our own.
This would have been true in any case, in such a male-dominated department, but when I had few friends and little in the way of a support network outside of my studies, and felt alienated from the lives of many of my roommates, neighbors, and other fellow students, I was really left to swim or sink on my own.
Despite these difficulties, I managed to get through college OK and graduated with a 3.25 GPA. The program of study I had completed wasn’t rigorous enough, nor my GPA high enough, for many physics PhD programs, and I also didn’t have much in the way of research experience or other projects that might have made my application stand out (this is where it would have been really helpful to have had a better network of advice and support).
However, I was accepted into a master’s degree program in oceanography, which seemed like an interesting field with good opportunities where I wanted to live.
But it was in grad school that my isolation really did me in. Although there are opportunities outside the classroom that undergraduates can take advantage of, success at the undergraduate level was mostly about classes and exams. And I could handle that.
However, in grad school, I found myself with a research assistantship where I was given little direction or guidance on projects. I seem to have had little idea of what type of research I might want to do, and again there was little in the way of advice from others. I also didn’t fit in with the culture in the department and wasn’t included in or didn’t want to take part in events and activities outside of academics. I also had few friends – at least at college I had still had people I had roomed with and got to know early on.
Grad school, in short, was much less structured than undergraduate had been, and required much more self-initiative. I felt completely lost with no idea what I was supposed to be doing – in some cases I didn’t even know that there was something to know. Nobody seemed to realize it either and I didn’t feel there was anybody I could talk to or turn to for help.
Eventually, I quit trying. It wasn’t that the academic work was so much harder in grad school. It was that the grad school culture expected me to be something I had no idea about. Things I had struggled with in undergrad but managed to get through finally got the better of me.
I’ve learned a lot since then, about taking the initiative, not giving up so easily, and reaching out to others (most of this, I feel like I had to figure out the hard way through a lot of trial and error).
I thought for a long time that it was just my own personal shortcomings that I couldn’t handle grad school, my personality wasn’t developed enough, etc.
However, I’ve come to realize there were structural issues that made it more difficult for me than it needed to be.These days, there’s much more support available for women in science, and more awareness of why women and other historically-underrepresented groups need this extra support.
And these days, there’s increasing awareness of asexuality, and even a growing number of asexual support groups on some campuses.
I can’t really picture what my life might have been like if those kinds of support networks had been available for me 20-25 years ago. My life has taken such a different course since then that imagining an alternative becomes hypothetical piled on hypothetical until it collapses.
But getting to know aces who are in grad school today (including many of my fellow writers here at The Asexual Agenda), and who are succeeding and thriving with the help of ace friends and sometimes even partners, gives me hope that fewer aces need to go through what I did.
Grad school wasn’t right for me in 1995 and 1996. But maybe things have changed enough that grad school is right for someone like me who is coming up through it today.