The Decision That Wasn’t

Several weeks ago, I made a decision. 

I mean, I was pretty sure I had made a decision anyway; I just had to keep waiting for the right time to write a blog about it because then I’d know that I’d really made a decision. 

I’m not very good at making decisions.

After some long discussions with my supervisor about the realities of a career in research, as well my long standing aspirations of working in science communication/ public engagement, I semi-made a decision. Namely; I was not going to stay in research once I had completed my PhD, but instead move onto those aforementioned aspirations.

At first this felt pretty liberating. I didn’t have to worry about negative hypotheses, or “bad” data. I didn’t have to worry about whether experimental failures were indicative of a doomed research career. Get in, get a thesis, get out. 

Of course, feelings of liberation and generic positivity do not tend to stick to me for long. I soon realised that, instead of ridding myself of anxieties by moving away from academia, this action would probably just shift  all my worrying to another area of my life.

Namely; what if I’m walking out on academia too early? What if there is actually potential for me to succeed there? What if I spend the rest of my life feeling bad for giving up on something before I had really given it my best? In short, the thought of walking away from research made me feel really guilty. 

There are plenty of academics who walk away from academia. Contrary to what some “successful” academics i.e. ones who are still around for the time being, would have us think, this is not due to them being bad at science or not working hard enough. It’s a matter of mathematics. There are $x available for research, and >x researchers and projects competing for this (dwindling) pile of money. Just short of  0.5% of PhD students will make it to the level of Professor-dom. If I could make a living doing science for the rest of my life, without having to repeatedly prove that I was doing it significantly better than 80% of the rest of those poor bastards out there, then I might be a bit more willing to give it a shot.

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Less than 0.5% of PhD grads will make it to the level of Professor-dom (from the Royal Society report, “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”)

I always tell myself that, if the worst comes to the worst and I have to walk away from my PhD, I’m not completely unemployable (I mean, I’ve had jobs before at least) so things will be OK. “OK” in this context mostly meaning: not homeless. However, I’ve been in the academia game for nearly two years now, with a 9 month stint as a bioinformatics research assistant  and 15 months of PhD-ing under my belt, and my self worth has already become intrinsically linked to the quality of my work. The idea of simply saying to myself, “Whelp, I tried, I failed, onto the next challenge!”, tends to invoke a paralysing feeling of worthlessness. 

I guess what I’m wondering is: what is it about academia that makes academics so crazy: why do we attach our self worth to our academic productivity?

Discussions regarding mental health in the context of academia have recently been brought to the forefront of academic discussions within the twittersphere, thanks in part to the publication of this somewhat terrifying Guardian article. Scrolling through the comments, I noticed one along the lines of, “You’re all delusional, academics aren’t the only ones suffering, we’re all having a tough time out here!”. Is it really the academic environment which fosters these feelings of personal inadequacy, or is it just all in the nature of being human?

It makes me think: what about all those aforementioned poor bastards who had to walk away from research before they were even ready? They had to walk away after they had poured their heart and soul into grant applications, experiments, teaching, committee meetings ON TOP OF their PhD in itself.

Guys, how are YOU going right now? Does it really get better out there? 

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Evidence: I really do love Biology! Just maybe not enough to surrender my sanity.

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2 thoughts on “The Decision That Wasn’t

  1. This is really interesting and something I have been struggling with myself for a while. Academia in its very nature will always be pressuring for more knowledge, results etc, whatever the discipline, but choosing to opt out and engage in the practical application of this knowledge should not be regarded as failure. Often one would not exist without the other, and vice versa. You shouldn’t feel like a failure simply because you have decided to apply your unique and equally valuable skills elsewhere.

    As for the sense of despair and depression that seems to surround PhD students, I think in a way it is unique to academia. It’s definitely a different feeling of depression then that which stems from hating your 9-5 job.

    Personally, I think it’s the combination of having reached such a high level of student-hood that it’s now a long way down, but still a very long way up in terms of entering ‘real’ academia. Combined this creates a precarious and isolating position – like walking on a tightrope over a canyon whilst carrying a large boulder above your head. Plus I think PhD study attracts those who push themselves and are near incapable of accepting their own success/limitations, which all results rather nicely in a near continual sense of inadequacy and chronic impostor syndrome. Joyous!

    That said, I think underneath all the whinging we are genuinely passionate about what we do, but perhaps that is part of the above problem?

    • Thanks so much for your words Susan! You’re very eloquent! I agree that the anxiety that comes with PhD-ing is a “perfect storm” of sorts, in that only the very motivated and traditionally (i.e. school grade wise) successful students make it as far to even attempt a PhD, and it is exactly these types of people who may push themselves “too hard” and fail to even register their achievements when they do come along.

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