An Ode to Chris Borland (and Calvin Johnson, too) – Why I Left Academia

I’m a huge NFL fan.  Hell, I’ve suffered through over a decade of being an Oakland Raiders fan, despite their historic lack of success (but we’re on the up!).  But thats not why I’m writing this, and this isn’t about sports.  I’m writing this because I’ve spent the first 24 years of my life (okay, maybe 13 or 14 consciously) working towards a profession that I realized was going to kill me (probably metaphorically speaking, but I’m not totally sure).  With such sunk costs into a profession, an abrupt change of directions isn’t easy (its likely one of the hardest things you’ll ever do – it definitely was for me).  In a lot of ways, I feel like a Chris Borland, but let me explain.

The Rise

I grew up loving science – in every sense of the word.  I loved asking questions about everything around me, and then the thrill of the chase for the answer.  I volunteered in high school to help in the chemistry department; I won the physics olympics; I left high school with over 30 college credits to major in biochemistry at a major research university.  From my freshman year on, I was participating in research in one way or another at an a number of different institutions both on and off campus.  After four years, I graduated with a 3.7 GPA and four years of research experience.  My advisors all but forced me into academia – with little career advice besides sticking with academic research.  Sure, I had a number of other interests across a number of fields (I loved poetry, graphic design, and just about everything else – and I loved my hobbies too), but academia was the only one ever painted as ‘career-worthy.’  So onto graduate school I went.

The Promise

Grad school in STEM looks like a million bucks on paper:  a paying position to become a doctor (with free tuition, healthcare, and the works); a paid trip to visit the school and be wined-and-dined and treated like a commodity; a means to continue being a student and continue learning – what more could you want?  After being courted by a number of top schools, I ultimately chose a top 10 STEM program with a nice stipend in a major city – living the dream.  I got PAID to go to school to become a doctor – it was a no-brainer after 4 years of paying through the nose (or Sallie Mae doing so) to get a BS degree (such a fitting acronym).  I was flying high and feeling good, while my friends from college went on to get (slightly) better paying entry-level jobs and internships.

The Disillusionment

The first year wasn’t bad.  Mainly classes, with no real teaching commitments (like I said, the DREAM).  My newly made friends (and the people that made deciding to leave exceptionally hard) and I bonded as much over the coursework as over our impressive ability to drink and function the next day.  We saw the wee hours of the morning more times than I care to admit, and even on weekdays.  Sure, we worked our asses off – but we partied them off too, as a near necessity.  We started lab work about halfway through the first year.  For me, once I was fully immersed in lab work, reality started to set in.  I was now in lab at least 8 hours a day (and typically 6 days a week).  50 hours a week in lab was normal, not to mention the reading and thought experiments done once you left.  We all soon bonded over the seemingly never ending amount of work we’d do (and the all too often lack of results we had to show for it).  We had gone from bonding over our shared interests (whether it be a craft beer, a new book, or a new movie) to bonding over our shared misery.  To our non-graduate school friends (and my fiancée), we had become habitual complainers.  Our once-bragged stipend had turned into what amounted to about $4/hour, on a good week.  My hobbies that kept me sane throughout the coursework were slowly replaced by more and more work I could squeeze in, with hopes of getting publishable data.  I’m not saying we expected it to be a cakewalk, but we didn’t really expect the Valley of Shit layered with bouts of Impostor Syndrome that we got.  And personally, I had hit an all-time low.  My typical optimistic and easy-going personality was destroyed by the lack of satisfaction with my projects, and even more dismal job market for STEM PhDs.

The Fall

By the middle of my second year, I was hating nearly every aspect of graduate school.  I was beginning to accumulate personal debt on my credit cards and still up to my neck in undergraduate loans.  My long hours in lab with little results left me feeling incredibly unsatisfied, day after day.  To make matters worse, I couldn’t simply disconnect from my work when I got home to focus on time with my fiancée, or my hobbies.  I was slowly assimilating into the life consuming world of academic research.  I had seen it in the post-docs from my previous experiences, but I never appreciated the gravity of it all.  I always knew I wasn’t going to pursue academia as a career, and rather saw a PhD as a path into industry, and so I thought I could avoid it.  It took another 6 months of qualifying exams, research, self-doubt and misery before I realized I needed to make a change.  Depression had become the norm, and I felt trapped (which is easy to imagine when your current job is source of your income, housing, AND misery – I couldn’t separate the three).  I had hit rock bottom, and needed a change.  And so I went for it.

The Change of Plans

I went and spoke with my advisor for the first time about my utter dissatisfaction with graduate school (I shouldn’t have waited so long, looking back).  My advisor was a leader of his field, and lead a very prestigious career – the very thought of disappointing him was completely terrifying, so I avoided telling him how I really felt for quite some time. To my relief, he was very understanding.  To my credit, I had thought through nearly every aspect of why I wanted to quit so many times that I had nearly created a perfect model for my decision:  I wasn’t satisfied with my project; I was swimming in debt while trying to get married and entertain the idea of children in the not-so-far future; My fiancées career was put on hold with the move to the new city; I didn’t want to work in academia after my PhD anyway; I had realized I wasn’t even sure why I wanted a PhD in the first place other than maybe to continue the conditioned way of measuring success by grades in school – the list goes on and on.  I had decided any job would be more satisfying, and pay similarly than what I was doing at grad school, and being closer to family would make both my fiancée and me happier as our family grew. So we jumped.

The Fallout and Moving On

In the end, he commended my maturity and supported my next move 100%.  He and the department were completely supportive of my transition out of grad school, and supported me continuing to work on my project until I had something else lined up.  I really have to commend how they handled it and were sure to not simply kick me out on my own.

At the end of it all, I had put myself to the brink of self-extinction out of fear of disappointing other people in my life, and out of fear of changing the course that I had been on for so long.  Much like Chris Borland, I had to step away from the path I had been on my entire life because I realized there was more that I wanted out of life.  No, my career didn’t pose the threat of physical harm and disability that the NFL does, but it posed similar threats to the things that I value in life:  a healthy work-life balance; an ability to pursue hobbies outside of your work.

This all has happened in the past month or so (April, 2016), so I’m not sure what the future holds.  I know I’ve been happier than I’ve felt in months since taking action to correct what was making my life so unenjoyable.  I’ve applied for dozens of jobs that are both in science, and out.  I’ve begun pursuing my own hobbies and interests with an academic vigor that I learned in graduate school, and have been realized that learning doesn’t only happen at school.  I’ve learned the value of pursuing personal interests the way that I’ve pursued my academic interests, and I realize that there is so much to be learned outside of the classroom.  I’ve taken an interest in the science of beer and brewing, and the art of non-fictional writing and blogging.  I feel like the tunnel vision that graduate school puts you in is slowly dissolving and I’m realizing all of the potential avenues I could pursue.

I’ve realized that there is more to life than the path I’ve been on since I was ten, and I’m happy for that.  It certainly would’ve been easier to maintain the status quo than to uproot my life in so many ways, and try to sort out the aftermath – but I realized (maybe a bit too late, but soon enough) that I’d rather live my life with nobody knowing me than to live my life never knowing myself.  Here’s to forever learning, in every possible way.