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Whose Ambition is this Anyway? - Leaving Academia Is Not a Failure

Originally posted on PhD Balance social media platforms on 02/18/2020.

Picture of a person standing on a hill top with their back to the camera, there are many other hills can be seen in the horizon and the sky is bright blue.

As a child, I was eager to learn, infinitely curious. In high school, I started fearing failure. Others expected me to do well in school, and I was afraid of letting them down. What would they think of me if I got a bad grade? After I got home from school, I was lying on the couch, crying, or feeling numb and confused. I liked almost everything, but I could never decide what to do after high school.

Not knowing what on earth I was supposed to do, I enrolled in a Liberal Arts program – that way I didn’t have to choose just yet... I took courses in cultural anthropology, transferred to another university, went back to Utrecht and majored in linguistics and minored in cognitive science – social and affective neuroscience it was! Maybe that way I could help people who felt like I did? During college, I got diagnosed with chronic depression.

After graduation, I left the Netherlands for a much-needed gap year. Things got better. When I got back, I started a neuroscience master’s program. After graduation, I thought the next logical step was getting a PhD – what other options were there, even?

I’m in Germany now, working in a great group of people with a passion for science. I’m in my third year. In the last two years, my depression and anxiety have gotten worse.

It’s rough to be terrified of failing, of making mistakes and letting people down, especially when you feel so disconnected from your project.

I don’t belong here. I’ve learned so much during my PhD, though – many useful skills, but also what I don’t want. A culture of normalized overwork. Constant competition. The lack of job security. Projects that just never seem to end.

Leaving academia is not a failure. It’s not the only path to success or fulfilment, whatever people say. There is lots more to explore. I’m looking forward to getting to be the jack of all trades that I am on the other side of academia, hopefully telling stories with data and talking to experts.


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