Cut and run: my exodus from academia
Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it. - Marcus Aurelius
I quit my PhD
Yes, you read that right. No, you're not imagining things. I, Lietsel Jones, walked away from my PhD last month. Here you are, coffee in hand, excited about a blog update from mother of neurons, only to find yourself nonplussed. It's okay, friend. Let me fill you in.
The catalyst that led to this meteoric decision occured in the beginning of August when I tested positive for COVID-19. My partner and I, like so many others, are immunocompromised and have pre-existing conditions, so you can imagine how gutted we were after almost 3 years of avoiding it. I was exposed while working a side job and within 48 hours, the dominoes began to fall. I was bedridden, shivering, aching, and out-of-touch with reality for 2 weeks. My partner tested positive 3 days later with harsher symptoms swiftly deteriorating their health and ability to breathe unassisted. I stumbled through thick brain fog and a weakened physique to keep my partner alive as the virus had plowed through their immune system worse than it had for me. Fear of losing the love of my life, intense sobbing, hospital visits, and a strenuous recovery laid bare a harsh truth for me to swallow:
Had I not felt the necessity to seek external sources of income while pursuing my PhD, I would not have exposed us to this virus.
To this day, we are still suffering from long-haul COVID-19 symptoms. To better illustrate my covid experience, I'm going to reference this review paper to categorize the acute and long-haul symptoms I've been dealing with (disclaimer: my pre-existing conditions include ADHD, bipolar disorder, and asthma and some of the long-haul things mentioned are just worse versions of what I dealt with before). My little doodle to the left outlines everything I experienced while ill and all that I am still dealing with today.
We were lucky enough to have access to treatment that allowed us to pull through and start to heal. Lucky enough to be insured and to have gotten doctor visits when we needed them. The same is not true for those who lost their lives during this pandemic and we cannot forget that systemic failures and lack of social responsibility are at the root of such losses. It also hasn't escaped my notice that had I not been married to someone with better health coverage, I may not have had better outcomes solely on student insurance.
The reverberations of the virus still impact our health today and have further disabled the both of us. All because we had bills to cover, loans to pay, savings to build, and a living to make. Things I couldn't do on just a PhD stipend. Would I have felt differently about completing the program were doctoral students compensated for the caliber of work they are expected to deliver?
Reality hit. Hard.
The answer to the previous question is a hard and resounding YES. As someone who holds the same Master's degree as my partner, I make significantly less per year. I don't care about who makes more than who, but I do care about making a living wage with the qualifications I possess. I care about equitable contributions to my household finances so that one person does not feel an imbalance in financial responsibility or burden. If doctoral students earned at least 40k and postdoctoral researchers earned over 60k for the hours they work, the talent they exhibit, you know...their actual worth...perhaps, I would have stuck it through. I love the work. I love the science. I love knowing I can make a difference. It's all I ever wanted to do. But when things comes to a head due to circumstances, we are forced to re-evaluate our choices by asking the hard questions and uncover the answers that will redirect us.
So, I started asking myself more questions. Am I happy with the way things are? Is this path sustainable for my well-being and that of my family? What have I lost or missed out on while working on a PhD? Is my mental health sound enough to see me through to the end? Well, reader, here are my answers:
I have not been happy. Doing a PhD at this point in my life is not sustainable I've missed out on 2.5 years of self-discovery, exploration, and happiness. On quality time spent with those most precious to me. I have 2 brain cells left and they are fighting for their life to get me out of bed in the mornings so I would have run out of steam before even reaching candidacy (Fall 2022 was my semester to propose my candidacy topic, by the way). Truth be told, if covid didn't take me out, the PhD would have pushed me off the edge. I was absolutely in a sunken place and there were so many complex weights in place that kept me submerged (topic for another post, I guess).
WHY was I missing out on life for something that didn't make me happy? Oh good heavens. That last question hit me in the gut the hardest. I don't know. I didn't have a good reason. I looked over at my partner as we laid in puddles of sweat and it was through covid eyes I saw that I had been living for reasons that meant nothing to me. A degree, a title, a job title...all of it pales in comparison to the love that we have, our precious health, and the precarity of life itself. Life is so delicate and so easily taken from us when we least expect it. Should we not try our best to appreciate what we have? Cherish it? Only do things that make us happy? Live for ourselves and not others? Work to live and not live to work? Learn and accept that it is okay to walk away from things that no longer serve our growth, happiness, or needs?
Please understand, reader, that I say all of this acknowledging that I have the privilege to do so. Not everyone has the ability to do this and I recognize how fortunate I am to have a support system and environment that has allowed me to quit this job. Making these choices on the basis of happiness is a luxury due to wage inequality, unstable housing support, necessity to support family, disability, and so much more. This post is not me trying to feed you a self-help spiel or to convince you to leave your jobs! Just thought I should clarify here. I digress.
I said goodbye. Now what?
After working out the details of my leave, I decided to focus on what's in front of me: I have skills that are transferable, freed mental space, and nothing but time. Instead of panicking, I focused on aspects of academia I loved and tailored my job search around teaching, mentoring, and managing.
It has been cathartic in a way, having a chance to really hone in on what I'm good at. While I was a PhD student, I constantly felt inadequate and suffered from the ever-dreaded imposter syndrome. But here I am on the other side of things, able to tune into who I am, what my worth is, and what I can bring to the table.
I decided to stop wondering what I will "end up doing with my life" and being wrapped up in the anxiety of being a failure; instead, I start each day excited about where life will take me. I've had interviews, callbacks, offers, rejection, rejection, rejection (times 100). I'm sure I'll have news for you all soon, but for now, my horizons have broadened and I remain hopeful for my future. I wanted to share this journey because I know some folks have been following my career in science and have been wondering why I've been so quiet lately. Please know that I have not given up on science. I still love it. I love the brain. I love talking about the brain. Something tells me that wherever I end up, I will still being doing neuro-related work. Maybe I'll make a career out of talking or writing about neuroscience. Perhaps, I'll be teaching it! Who knows?
For now, I am focused on healing, recovering, and enjoying life (safely, and within physical/mental limits). I can muster the energy to walk my dog, snuggle with my cat, and catch up with friends and family. I am engaged and present for conversations with my partner. We have nothing but time to reconnect and rebuild and it has been so incredibly fulfilling. I cannot fathom why it took me so long to quit my PhD but I'm really proud that I mustered up the courage to do it. Ta ta for now!