Life after academia: Your stories
In the academic world, it's called "quit-lit" — stories of the growing number of PhD students who make the momentous decision to leave university life behind.
Donya Ziaee's documentary brought us the stories of a florist, a bike shop owner, an instrument maker and a carpenter — all of whom threw in the towel somewhere along the long and lonely academic road.
Since the piece aired, we've received dozens of similar stories. Many listeners wrote to us, to share their own trajectories, and their frustrations with the academic world.
Two years ago, I quit my PhD to take up journalism. Now I’ve made a <a href="https://twitter.com/cbcradio?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@cbcradio</a> doc about other PhDs who quit — and the fascinating jobs each of them haven chosen since. Listen here! <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCSunday?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCSunday</a> <a href="https://t.co/SwBwKKQa0j">https://t.co/SwBwKKQa0j</a>—@donya_z
I left. I was ABD, had 200+ pages written of my dissertation, had won some of the major awards, taught as an adjunct for 9 years and loved teaching and research, but I have never looked back. I’m so much happier and my depression has lifted. Thanks for this doc. It struck home.—@KarenMayClark
Great doc <a href="https://twitter.com/donya_z?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@donya_z</a>! Looking back it would've been hard to predict the increased institutional censorship, precarious work, drying up of funding & focus on solitary producing > teaching that pushed many out. Academic mentorship must focus on helping those behind us prepare 4 this—@AmanSium
Here are five of the people who wrote to us. Some of their comments have been edited for clarity and length.
Nadeen El-Kassem, Toronto
From adult education to jewelry design
I quit my PhD program in Adult Education in 2009 to try and attain the elusive dream of work-life balance.
Although I enjoyed the travel and the people I met, I was not a fan of the idea of locking myself up for as long as it took to complete my dissertation, only to discover that there were no jobs for me at the other end, and that I had lost touch with my community and the people around me.
I decided to go into teaching middle school and although I loved that gig, I still did not feel fulfilled.
I now make and design jewelry for a living, and hope to open my own store-front in the near future.
Although I have taken a massive pay cut, I now find myself doing what I love, living my passion, and able to spend time with my kids. As a single mother, this is very important to me.
Roy Dykstra, Omemee, ON
Cultural studies to crane operator
Elise Thorburn, St. John's
Media studies to medical school
The life I'd grown accustomed to — with control over my schedule, long chunks of time to research, think, read, and write, and opportunities to teach — was growing further from reality with each year that the universities tried to "control costs through attrition in hiring."
I must have applied to at least 100 jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, and funding opportunities. I won some grants, got a couple of post-docs, interviewed for three jobs without success. The more time I dedicated to applying to jobs without even a form rejection letter in response, the more frustrated and devastated I felt.
As an academic, a lot of your identity is wrapped up in your work and the successes you obtain. Realizing that despite a lengthy CV of academic success there just might not be a place for you, can really shatter your whole sense of who you are and your self-worth. No wonder so many students and graduates have mental health issues.
After graduating and picking up work as a contract faculty or as a postdoctoral researcher for embarrassingly low sums of money, I realized that not only was the dream of an academic job not really realistic, it wasn't even that desirable. The university has changed so much — thoughtfulness and scholarship no longer seem its central mandates. I felt isolated and alone, my work having limited impact on the world and my contacts with others infrequent.
Even though I have never taken a science class in my entire life, I have trained for over a decade in the art of study. In the summer of 2016 I bought all of the MCAT books and taught myself organic chemistry from scratch in my spare time.
I wrote the MCAT, applied to medical school, was accepted on my second try, and I start this fall.
I am happy now with a new direction -— and one where the job prospects, as well as potential for making a real impact and actually connecting with people, are high.
My time in a PhD wasn't wasted. The ways I learned to think, listen, and see will serve me well in my new career as a doctor. But I also think universities are doing a huge disservice to people by accepting so many into doctoral programs when the jobs just aren't there.
I was able to bounce back — I have a partner with a good job who can support me while I find my new path. But so many aren't this lucky, and get caught in the grind of teaching on contract with no job security and low pay.
Subsidizing a wealthy institution with our shamefully low-paid labour is no way to build a life and no way to create a thoughtful society with people in it who can confront the terrifying challenges we all face. Something has to change.
Rob Cantrup, Burnaby, B.C.
Developmental biology to electrician apprentice
I'm in the exact same position as all those you interviewed. I also thought I would be a professor with my own research lab, with my own graduate students. But a multitude of factors, some very similar to those you interviewed, caused me to also take the road of the "recovering academic."
I suffered two bouts of serious clinical depression during my attempt to climb the ladder of academia, which ultimately led to my departure from the life. Recent publications have shown rates of anxiety and depression in grad students to be much higher than that in the general population.
I have a master's in neuroscience, and a PhD in developmental neurobiology. After my PhD, I attempted to do another master's degree in a clinical health care field called genetic counselling. The stress from this training program was overwhelming. I just hit a wall, and I hit the wall hard.
After some short stints as a host and server at a Vancouver pub and a short contract as a biology tutor at a Vancouver community college (which did not lead to something more permanent), I found an apprentice electrician training program that I started this past November. I have been absolutely loving it so far!
Andrea Alter, Montreal
Post-doc to Paramedic
I recently gave up a career in academia (including a PhD and post-doc in human genetics) to return to school with those half my age, to become a paramedic.
I absolutely love it! I look forward to every single shift. I feel challenged and fulfilled everyday — something I never felt in research, despite numerous publications and scholarships.
Stories of "PhD U-turns" bring so much insight about the meanings of passion, fulfilment and happiness.
No regrets for quitting my PhD in English. I have better job security and satisfaction working in the labour movement. Plus I get to keep teaching thanks to labour education—@offhandremarks
I left PhD studies due to lack of departmental support once my advisor left for personal reasons. But I believe the situation was ultimately a gift. I found a surprising career w a NGO whose ethics grabbed me & haven't looked back. I feel more balanced & healthy. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/dropoutlife?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#dropoutlife</a>—@royalyoness
I’m also a proud PhD dropout. The son of two profs (and brother of another), I decided after 4+ yrs languishing at <a href="https://twitter.com/uofg?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@uofg</a> that the anxiety, guilt, dread & abuse weren’t worth it! I now run a boutique branding & publishing company and couldn’t be happier! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/abdforlife?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#abdforlife</a>—@chris_tiessen