I first started to question my love of science about 3 months into my PhD.
There I sat, alone and late at night. Our lab was small and, 6 weeks after my arrival, the PhD who should have been my real mentor had left, an industry position shining bright in his eyes and a lack of Post-Doc funding biting at his heels.
And so I was alone, at a computer, recording brain waves and listening to the harsh “BRRRRAT” of electric stimulation play through the loudspeakers, the light “TKTKTKTKTK” of artifacts and neuron spikes; the sole proofs that I was doing anything at all. This state of solitude and yet simple focus would be my constant companion for the next four years.
It felt like four years of driving down a highway, late at night, feeling in control but in no way able to let my focus slip, or even take a break.
I stuck it out; one of my simultaneous greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses is a stubborn streak a mile wide that won’t let me quit. Because of my—well—pride, I stuck out my PhD contract the way I previously stuck out a bad summer job, even after a manager threw a wrench at my head.
Alas, no amount of stubbornness can overcome an unmanageable amount of work, and with a supervisor ill-equipped to advise me in the substances that mattered most, my late-night highway drive often felt like a raft lost at sea. After moving labs, it was practically just me and my supervisor. As one person cannot be an expert at everything, so one supervisor cannot provide adequate guidance in all things one needs to succeed in modern academia. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes an institute to raise a scientist.
As my contract came to its conclusion, there followed the obvious question: do I continue in academia, or do I seek fortune elsewhere? Throughout my PhD life I continuously applied to other jobs which might have offered a beacon of light in my dark journey. As many other would-be ex-academics however, I found myself in a paradoxical situation: too educated for many jobs, not educated enough for the rest. However, my PhD was not finished and I would need more funding for my 4th year to continue. So, I did the obvious, incredibly dumb thing: I accepted an underpaid, overworked, poorly fitting scholarship for half the pay and twice the obligatory lab hours alongside an entire new project for my PhD.
As I said. Stubborn.
Needless to say, the scholarship did not help; after nine months and the onset of a brand-new, worldwide pandemic, my PhD had barely progressed. The additional project was not helping, as I was spent more and more time doing things not strictly related to my PhD. Come the end of the scholarship, I again faced a choice. I felt like I was sitting at an arcade game, in a dank, dusty back hallway:
Insert quarter to continue?
Insert year of your life to continue?
I’d had enough. I announced as much to my supervisor: I would rather finish writing my PhD on my own time instead of this scholarly half-life. To be clear, I would not and have not given up my PhD; I would simply not accept the scholarship any further. It was slowing my progress and came with too many strings attached.
Many (academic) friends questioned this decision. Were they in my shoes, they would accept the scholarship just to be in the proximity of science, to breathe the scientific air. I guess… in the end, I don’t love science THAT much.
It only took the better part of four years to figure it out.
That’s not to say leaving has been easy. My supervisor frantically consumed most of my remaining time, to document all and instruct them on what I had done, such that my work could be used long after my departure. And so, even after taking my time into my own hands, my time was still not my own.
Immediately after my departure I felt even further adrift. I was a year older, with no more useful job experience than last time and more jaded than ever. My twin consolations were the availability of time to write my thesis, and a small freelance job that I landed doing programming support for an NGO. Luckily for me, that would prove to be the foot in the crack of the doorway that I needed.
Even still, I spent six months on the job market before I found someone willing to give an ABD (all but dissertation) a chance: someone who valued cross-disciplinary input and thought that proven communications abilities would strengthen a software development team. But in between, it was a long six months. Six months amidst a pandemic, unemployed and unable to see many friends and family.
I am still not finished writing my thesis, and some days I wonder if I will. It’s no longer relevant to my career, really. At this point, it’s a matter of pride.
Maybe my choice was foolhardy.
Maybe it’s just the stubbornness.
I wish I could offer more words of encouragement to anyone who follows this path. I suppose if I had to give advice, it would be this:
Number one: academia is a romantic partnership. You need to be healthy, of sound body and mind, before you take on such a crazy venture, or it will only bring your troubles to the surface. Do not go into science because you do not know what else to do, do not take a position at the first lab that offers you a chance, do not use it as an excuse to hide yourself away from normal life. Bad relationships can be toxic; a bad PhD will poison your life for years to come.
Number two: well…
Number two A) you must love science to have anything resembling a career in academia.
Number two B) you probably do not love science. And that is ok.
Academia is like any other career based on passion, such as artistry or athleticism. If you would not expend most of your energy towards it, you do not love science enough. If you would not beggar yourself to follow the path, you do not love science enough. If you are not ready to fail repeatedly and never become a rock-star researcher, you do not love science enough. If you are not ready to sacrifice a normal life in the pursuit of knowledge, then you do not love science enough.
Number two C) no matter how much you love science, it can and might reject you anyway, and you need to be prepared for this. There simply are not enough academic positions around the world for everyone who thinks they want one. Focus on the soft, the transferable, and the cross-disciplinary skills, not to the exclusion of your academic domain, but in addition. Software programming is a heavily requested skill everywhere. Focus on managing your projects in a professional manner. Work on your communication skills, with both laymen and experts.
I am not writing to tell you not to do a PhD, nor that you would fail in one. Having doubts in yourself is part of the process, after all. But you always need to hedge your bets. Be honest with yourself about your chances of success, even if you are the best researcher in your lab. Luck is too great a factor to not have a back-up plan. Aim high in your career, but pack a parachute, just in case.
This is also not to say that I don’t still love science. But we’ve had a harsh break-up, and I need time to cool off before we can continue. As friends.
See many of you on the other side.
And that’s ok.