Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Decision to Commit Academic Suicide...

On this lazy Sunday, I was catching up on some of my blog reading and stumbled across a moving piece about the type of motivation that comes from making things work because you JUST HAVE TO. I don't think that one line summary does the post justice, so just go read it to see what I mean.

Wow, did it hit home.

So now, even though I try my hardest to keep my identity private so that I don't compromise my job or cause pain to any of those around me such as my advisor (whom I totally respect) or my school (which I totally love), I'm going tell you a little about myself and the last 4 months since I started this blog.

When I decided to become a PhD student, I can't say I did it for the "right" reasons. I didn't know at the time they were the wrong reasons, but I've come to realize it. The reasons were:
  1. I was good at school
  2. I loved listening to lectures and doing homework
  3. I didn't know what else to do with my life
  4. It made my parents, friends and myself proud.
I wasn't totally enthralled by my subject. I had actually considered going for a PhD in a different subject, but see reason #4 for why I went this direction. That was probably the biggest mistake I made.

Another problem with my logic was that getting a PhD has almost nothing to do with previous school experiences, i.e. #1 and #2, in fact it's the exact opposite. It's unstructured and lacking clear direction other than the self-directed goals you set.

I don't think I need to explain why #3 is a bad reason. But if I do, then I'll just say it's because something so consuming and frustrating and poor-paying should not be entered into lightly. If I was floundering at least I could have done it in a 9-5 that paid me 6 figures, like the thousands of obviously smarter college grads who enter the real world workforce each year.

I loved the first two years of my program because it was basically a harder version of college - exactly what I was looking for. I completed my required courses all while avoiding taking on too much research (mistake number 4).

During years 2 and 3 I taught a lot. Part of this was because I was required to, part was that I found that I really enjoyed teaching and part of it was that I wasn't finding a good research topic and being busy teaching was an easy way to not acknowledge that while being useful to my department.

The bouts of PhD Depression began during year 3 when I would question "why am I here?" (grad school, not life...or maybe both). But at that point I brushed it off as something that would get better once I identified my dissertation topic.

But I was wrong.

During year 4 I finally nailed down a good topic. One that actually interested me and seemed relatively unexamined in the field. I felt good and motivated and could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

And then I saw how much digging and swimming and climbing it was going to take me to get to the end of that tunnel.

And that sent me into the lowest low of my PhD Depression.

It was in the depths of my PhD Depression that I felt so desperate that I was moved to action. First, I started this blog to find others out there like me, and then I began to plan my escape from academia.

But then a great/horrible/mysterious thing happened....I started to feel good, really good, about my PhD.

Have you ever heard that one of the warning signs of suicide is when a really depressed person just suddenly and inexplicably stops being depressed? Sometimes that's because going on medication, ironically and tragically, gives them enough of an energy boost to do the deed and since they've decided to end it now they're just enjoying the last moments of life, feeling better having made the decision. Well, that's sort of how I felt.

Having decided to commit Academic Suicide (not PhD Suicide, I still plan on finishing my degree because I'm so close, but I decided not to continue my career in academia afterwards), I began to feel really good. And this good feeling was magnified by my concerted efforts to incorporate the tips into my life.

Why is feeling good so bad?

It's bad because I began to put the plans I had been developing for my future academic-break on the back burner. The things I was preparing started to seem less important than my research.

That's the catch 22 and why the article hit so home with me. It's great that I'm getting interested in my research, and I'm going to need this momentum to finish. But it is also a symptom of something important in my personality. As long as I'm doing anything else, I won't be able to totally disconnect and focus on doing what I want to do (i.e. my own business).

So how does this story end?

When I told my parents that I have no intention to continue on to becoming a professor, they responded by saying I should just apply for positions and take them in the meantime until my business takes off. It sounds like my parents have a lot of say in my life, but the truth is that they are just the external representation of that nagging voice inside my own head. They're saying the things that I know are true - I shouldn't be irresponsible about this decision.

Of course I should get a job and health insurance, and I shouldn't burn my academic bridges...just in case. But there has been another nagging voice in my head saying...

"If you take the safe route again, this is never going to happen. You're going to get stuck there, just like you've gotten stuck in your PhD. You're going to put all of your time and energy into it, because that's what you do, and you'll never quit because you don't quit things."

And that's it I think.

I have to start drowning before I have the time, energy or focus to learn how to swim.

Is that crazy? Probably. But right now, what seems crazier is swimming only in the shallow end and then drowning anyway, but so slow that I don't even realize I'm drowning, and being too stubborn to get out because I think this is the safer water.