In the opening lines of Bukowski’s novel Post Office, he writes “It began as a mistake.” He never intended to spend years in a menial and thankless job, yet there he was. Every day dying inside a little bit more. The job cost him a part of his soul. My road to academia “began as a mistake” and has also cost me more than I intended.
Academia has cost me everything. I took a wrong turn somewhere and I have never found my way back. We all make choices and each of them open doors in different directions. I made a choice one day to walk into academia with full force gale winds at my back and in that choice, I sadly left behind everything that was truly important to me. Unfortunately, those losses were only recognized after a very slow burn. The kind of changes that occur gradually are not recognized right away because we are living in them day to day. There was not a dramatic or instantaneous switching of the mindset, but a very slow mental shift that allowed for permanent rewiring of emotions and priorities. One day, I just realized I was different.
I lost myself, my identity, and in that I have allowed important life relationships to become deprioritized, and ultimately lost into the ether. It was not an intentional choice to lose it all. I had all hopes that academia could be a happy work/life balance. I convinced myself it was, so many times. I was so naïve. The loss of myself occurred more rapidly but the loss of everything else took much longer. We burn many candles in our lives, keeping flames lit for many reasons. Most of my candles are struggling to stay lit and those flames, once extinguished, will be the ultimate price paid for walking through that door, so many years ago.
Contrary to many academic experiences, I was relatively happy during my PhD. Sure, there were down times, it was stressful, and I certainly went through the phase of looking for a “real” job during that time. Honestly though, when I look back on it now, what I realize is that I never actually took it too seriously. I approached it as seriously as I needed to in order to be responsible, but never so much that I let it control my life. I realize now, I never really wanted, or needed, the PhD. It was simply the next logical step after undergrad. Plus, it allowed me to not have to punch a clock while using my brain in the process.
I do not adhere very well to the nine to five mentality, and I never understood why we are taught and conditioned to accept working more hours in a day than we are typically awake. In this thought process, grad school appeased me. I could come and go as I pleased, as long as I did my work. I could set my own hours. It was a sweet deal, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy working on scientific problems, learning new topics, and especially troubleshooting assays, but I could do all that on my own time, and I enjoyed that. Everything seemed right in the world during the PhD. That door felt like the correct choice.
PhD done. Check. Now let’s stumble forward. Job offer in Germany, in the field I have expertise? Yes please! Move the family and remove ourselves from all our support systems? OK. Scary? Yes, but exciting and exhilarating. I know now that this was the wrong door. This was the beginning of the long burn that has lasted for over 11 years and continues to this day.
I quickly realized that this thrilling new job was different. Everything was now very serious. I honestly realize in this moment of writing that my PhD was just not that serious to me. The post doc however was the big time, the show, and I needed to straighten up and walk the walk. When I did this, day in and day out, I slowly killed the self I knew in my previous life. In those first months of that position, I decided to ultimately let academia control my life. I took everything seriously to the point that I no longer had fun. No fun at all. Not at work, not at home, not anywhere. I completely lost the person I was. I now feel so disconnected and lost from that person in the past that I don’t even know who that was prior to moving to Germany. Who was I and what did I actually want in life? I can’t even remember.
I was conditioned to be a lifelong academic during my postdoc and in that process, I left myself, friends, and family relationships to wither while I consumed research in every waking moment of the day. To be clear, I knew something was wrong. I was never happy during this pursuit of academic greatness. For some god forsaken reason, I had to prove my intelligence and worth to my PI. I didn’t feel that way with my PhD advisor, but this was different. In that pursuit to prove myself I became anxious and moody, and altogether an unpleasant person. All this, for an advisor that was also so focused on the prizes that they forgot how to be supportive. I, too, forgot how to be supportive to my people. I chose my advisor over my people. (Writing that previous sentence just cut me to my core.) I spent 5 years in Germany slowly killing all recognition of my inner self and, unknowingly at the time, setting the stage for the fracture of the most important relationships in my life.
I hunted for that prize so intensely that I lost sight of all other things in my life. I let everything fall to the back as an afterthought and only gave homelife as much energy as what was in my reserve tanks. I was always on empty because the academic used all the gas. There was nothing left to give at home. I wasn’t taking care of myself.
If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.
I won the prizes though. I wrote and received a two-year fellowship. I published in the journal Science. First author, no less! Should have enjoyed that right? No. It was completely cheerless because I had forgotten how to live. I had forgotten how to enjoy myself. My anxiety was so strong, and I was so wound up that I experienced nothing anymore. After the acceptance of our big paper, I just started to work on the next projects.
Postdoc done. Now, let's stumble again. I received a tenure track position back in the US and I am currently still there. I was already conditioned to let academia control my time, so I just continued the cycle. Leveling up just means more responsibilities. We always think, “when I get the degree everything will be better,” “when I get that promotion, I will finally be able to relax.”
What lies we tell ourselves. For the past six years I have let academia continue to consume me and destroy every other beautiful thing I hold dear.
Once again, I won the prizes. I wrote and received a NIH grant, and I was awarded tenure with promotion. Should have enjoyed that right? No. It was just another honor to add to the list. No joy. No celebration. Nothing. Just another day in academia and now I can change my title to Associate Professor. Oh, guess what, that comes with more things to do.
Academia has beat me. I lost a major battle in those years during my postdoc that has been the slow decline of a war that I will ultimately not win. No matter what happens in my current job I have lost in my personal life because of it. No matter what accolades I have achieved, I have lost because I let it strip me of my ability to see what I was letting go in order to achieve it. I lost myself and therefore I lost everything else.
I recognize this now, however; the sad part of this is, I had to be shown myself in a mirror. I had to have something I truly love, respect, and admire yanked away from me in a brutal reminder that I have become lost. Unfortunately, the path back will ultimately not lead to the same place I diverged. Things are different now. Academia has stolen from me, not only my own self-worth, but also those who held high ground on my personal island.
I am redefining my academic pursuits and finding myself once again. Therapy is the starting point. Boundaries are essential. But as I slowly remind myself of who I am, I am torn apart by knowing I let academia come between the relationships that were most important to me. In the end academia will stay the same but my interconnections that I destroyed along the way will never be the same again.
My entire academic career has been a series of missteps. I have simply tumbled forward into whatever presented itself next. Whatever was the path of least resistance is where I have ended. I never wanted any of it. I never had any distinct plan or desire to want to “grow up” and be a professor. Yet here I am. Everyday dying inside a little bit more.
I use academia now to teach my students to be fully aware of its inherent viciousness and try to break the cycle of “you must go through what I went through.” It should not be so anxiety inducing. The biggest question for me now is whether to stay or go. While I love my students, I do not love academia. We have a very strained relationship and those are the ones we have to let go in order to fully move forward. It might be time to burn my academic life to the ground and see what grows from the ashes.
Thank you so much to Bryan (@ThePersnicketyDoctor on Instagram) for sharing his story. If you'd like to submit a story or piece, anonymously or named, fill out our google form or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org