Mental health Personal Society

A break-up story, or why I decided to quit my PhD

Okay. This one is going to hurt. I’m quitting my PhD.

There’s still a lot to unpack, but here’s the basic ingredients: mental health issues, plus a loss of interest in academic things, plus being unfunded, equals a dead road. Academia and I are just not a good fit anymore.

Dreaming of becoming a researcher

For the longest time, I thought I was in love with doing research. I had been a good and eager student in high school and found a great way to geek out further by doing a BA in cultural studies. Everything was just so interesting, and the professors I encountered were all so smart and passionate and righteous, that it was hard not to fall in love with the idea of becoming an academic myself. I had found a sense of purpose, and worthiness too, because this was something I was naturally good at. I dreamt about spending my days in the tall university building that I frequented as a student, where I would have a corner office overlooking the vast and wide forest, dedicating myself to reading the never-ending stack of books scattered on my desk and in my massive book case, and writing profound and inspiring texts for a big audience. This was my dream. This was who I wanted to become.

It was a challenge to get there at first. After I finished my research master’s in Cultural Analysis I started applying to PhD scholarships here and there. I think I wrote a total of 4 or 5 applications, which is not that much by any means, but I wanted to stay in the Netherlands and that meant that there were fewer positions that fitted my academic interest. Although I came very close a few times and at one point was even the runner-up for a paid and popular position at my alma matter, none of my attempts to find a fellowships paid off (pun intended).

So I moved on. I found a job that paid the bills. I knew it was only temporary, and I regularly had to remind myself of this to stay sane. But I still felt trapped, as if I wasn’t living up to my full potential – which of course, given that I was basically managing a computer program four days a week, I wasn’t. And so when on one spring afternoon, I ran into a former class mate who told me that he had met a professor in political science who was now working at a university known for its focus on food and sustainability and who was interested in “our cultural analysis type of work”, I could only take this random remark as a sign that there was still something out there, for me.

I decided to be bold and emailed that professor the most recent PhD proposal I had written. A few months and another rejected proposal later (ouch), I took the plunge and committed myself to an external – and unpaid, so parttime – PhD position at a new university, supervised by that same professor, who in the meantime had gotten incredibly excited and supportive about my research plans.

Starting the PhD

Things finally started happening. I was living the dream, at last, but I still felt terribly insecure. I was in a new field altogether and felt like the odd one out, being that weird cultural analysis gal (anyone familiar with objects “speaking back” at concepts?) in a department dominated by anthropologists who went on fieldwork and other crazy stuff like that. Plus, knowing that I was a parttime PhD who worked one or two paid jobs on the side made me feel like I had to work twice as a hard to keep up with the rest. An unsustainable and unhealthy thought, of course, but try telling that to an overeager and ambitious perfectionist who makes it a sport to push herself.

I guess that’s where a nagging feeling started to develop, and I could have left it at that. I could have carried on just the same, overcoming my anxieties and ignoring my doubts, and things would’ve worked out, perhaps. But I couldn’t, and things didn’t. While my partner was going through an academic crisis of his own, I felt my own anxieties deepen. Slowly, at first. I had my first ever panic attack just a month before a major project was due, and I blamed it solely on the stress I was experiencing.

I told myself I was just very busy and things were overwhelming, so that must have been why I felt like my body was suddenly giving up on me and I was about to die. It would subside later, probably. But when my panic attacks never fully left and even returned in full-force again, half a year later, I knew that more was up. And that’s when I started my long and deep journey of “realising things”, in the spirit of Kylie Jenner.

Could it be that I had made a mistake? Or rather, could it be that I had outgrown my own desire to excel in academia, because I now wanted to excel in just being myself?

The taboo of leaving academia

Reasonable and important questions as these may be, it was still hard to connect the dots and consider the possibility of quitting. One does not simply walk out of academia. Most people in academia have invested much of their time, energy, money and sense of self-worth into academia, and so giving up is not really something that is talked about. On the contrary, it’s almost as if feeling doubt and insecurity is what you’re supposed to feel, and any additional stress on your physical and mental health is just something you have to overcome in order to become a true academic.

What I really, really dislike about academia, is that there is not really an open discussion – within the university – about how much stress is too much stress, and when opting out and choosing a different career is the better option. Forgive me for my cynicism, but claiming that suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks maybe means that you should just carry on is extremely problematic. Sure, we could all use some more Buddhism in our lives, but sometimes, giving up is the right thing to do. And the fact that there is no debate about that within the university – or at least not at mine – really pisses me off.

Giving up the fight

Maybe it’s the tiny rebel in me that then started to put one and one together. Because my health and well-being are way more important than chasing some illusive career goal that’s not going to offer most PhDs a secure future. And I then noticed that, as soon as I took a step away from my research, and another one, and another one, that I started to feel better, more inspired and… wait for it… happy again. But surely I wasn’t supposed to be feeling those pleasant, joyful feelings?! I was a young academic who was supposed to suffer for the greater good that was the Life Of The Mind!

And then it hit me. It just wasn’t worth it for me, anymore. I wanted to spend time doing the things I truly love, like writing for myself, doing lots of yoga, and being a free and happy person. I wanted to give up the fight.

I told it to two of my supervisors, and they were very supportive, though also sad. And I am about to tell it to my main advisor, that professor who had invested so much energy in me and really believed in my project. He will be crushed and extremely disappointed, but I will accept that. The truth is, I have spend most of my PhD trying to please him to the detriment of my own well-being. I am over that now.

So that is it. I am announcing my break from academia and am now slowly letting go.

Goodbye, academia

I still like my project. And a part of me still thoroughly enjoys the freedom and space of exploring a very big but specific range of literature. But I don’t idealise it anymore, and I don’t need a PhD to pursue my goals and ideals in life. I now know that academia nearly killed my soul, and that is really not worth it for me.

Maybe academia was my first love. Before I met my academic self, I never felt like I belonged anywhere. And in academia, I found a part of myself that was admired and celebrated by others, so it was hard not to feel like it was where I needed to be.

I’m not saying I will never do anything of this sort ever again. Who knows, maybe in a few years I might return, and academia and I might rekindle our love affair to find we were right for each other all along. But I also know that this is just the thing you’re supposed to say during a break-up, to leave out the possibility that you might still be friends. Because the harsh, but often true alternative at that moment of separation is much harder to except: that it was never a perfect match to begin with, and that beyond this short affair there remains nothing else but memories and lessons learned.

I’m not going to be cynical or bitter or bitter about it – or at least not beyond the usual amount of post break-up behaviour. My academic journey has taught me a lot, but in different ways than I expected. Rather than merely gaining intellectual knowledge, I have learned to truly, madly, deeply feel myself.

So now what? What will I do with my life? Well, just like with any type of break-up, I will need time to heal. I’ve been really good at moving on, but this break-up needs to take time. It has been a big part of my life, after all. So I’m taking things easy for now, and see where I’ll end up.

I want to live happily ever after. So goodbye, academia, goodbye.