After high school, I embarked on a tumultuous ten-year journey that eventually led to receiving a doctorate. I joined the ranks of a highly specialized and intellectual community. I was a Scientist (imagine it in big shiny neon letters, or me in a shiny white coat).
The entire galaxy could not contain my sense of accomplishment, not because I was one in a million or particularly exceptional as a scientist, but because I almost quit more than five times during my PhD. I was proud that I was able to persevere until the moment I heard the chair of my PhD committee announce I had completed all the requirements and would finally be granted my doctorate, that coveted piece of paper that I had sacrificed my very sanity for.
Completing a PhD is an experience that’s impossible to explain to someone outside the world of academia or research. Our route is mostly structured for five years or so and we have to complete specific tasks to advance along it: complete rotations in different labs, pick a lab and advisor for our research, pass our comprehensive exams, pass our proposal defense, finish our experiments, publish a paper, maybe publish a review article, write our dissertation, pass our dissertation defense.
This structure is satisfying because it gives us stability that we lack otherwise. Ironically, our projects themselves are filled with uncertainty: will the data be valid, will it be as we predicted, will it be statistically significant, will it have impact? Unfortunately, the most important question was actually, will it be published, and in which journal? Our entire lives ride on microscopic experiments and phenomena that we have no control over. Our success is measured by how prestigious the journals we publish our research in are.
Once it’s over, all that structure is suddenly gone. Instability takes over everything. The intensity of the feelings of loss and confusion can be extremely disarming. I felt empty and had no idea what to do with myself. I had no idea who I could be outside of my PhD and what kind of career I could have. I ended up choosing the safe, familiar road by joining another lab as a postdoctoral researcher. On the academic track, I didn’t have to wonder either, because there are even more steps, although they are less concrete. Do a postdoctoral fellowship, maybe do a second, maybe a third, due to extreme competition and scarcity of funding and positions. But wait! With extreme luck and good karma, 10% of us could find a position as a junior investigator or group leader or principal investigator, and then life is more or less smooth sailing, except that we then have to constantly ensure that we have sufficient research funding and are producing a ridiculous amount of research to maintain that funding.
Surprise, surprise: I’m leaving academia. I’m walking away from this entire bubble. I don’t currently know if it’s for the best, but after a ten-year journey it is both heartbreaking and liberating to step off the path. There are so many simultaneous thoughts that collide into each other, complete opposites that somehow do not cancel each other. I hate it, I’m going to miss it, I love it, I’ll be happier without it, I’ll be miserable without it. I think to myself, what a waste of ten years to just walk away! I hear people around me say I’m too weak to handle this world, that I’m selling out and giving up. Another voice in my head says, you can never be anything else, this is who you are and you’re addicted to it. Maybe the hard truth none of us want to swallow is we are like addicts. We know so many parts of academia are toxic but we’ll take it because we love it, plain and simple. We’re passionate and devoted to a fault.
I was drowning, and it felt like I was drowning alone because those around me had completely normalized the constant pressure, exhaustion, and unrealistic expectations. If you let a passion take over everything and practically break you, is it really admirable? There is no career in this world that requires or deserves self-negligence that is mistakenly framed as “dedication” or “hard work.”
A few months ago, I wrote: “Some days I love academia and I can’t imagine my life without research. Other times, I’m not sure why I’m still in it and if it’s even worth it.” I might find nothing but failure and dissatisfaction in my new life outside of this world that I invested so much of myself in, but I’m willing to redefine what work is. I’m looking forward to giving my other passions some attention and time, because so many parts of me were pushed to the corners to make room for the all-consuming black hole of science. I am a whole person aside from who I am as a scientist. I know now that for me, my wellbeing and happiness outside my career are more important than some random definition of success.