The Sunday Magazine

Life after academia: Your stories

After we aired a documentary about PhD students who bailed on academia, dozens of listeners wrote to us with stories of their own transitions out of higher education.
Ben Cowie is the owner of London Bicycle Cafe. He left academia after completing a post-doc in geochemistry at Harvard. (Donya Ziaee/CBC)

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.

They’ve come a long way from the sciences and humanities. A florist, an instrument maker, a carpenter and a bike shop owner on why they, like so many others, said goodbye to academia, and how they built their "post-ac" lives.

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. 

Here are five of the people who wrote to us. Some of their comments have been edited for clarity and length.

Nadeen El-Kassem bailed on academia to take up her passion for jewelry design. (Submitted by Nadeen El-Kassem)

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.

Nadeen El-Kassem's handmade jewelry and design kit. (Submitted by Nadeen El-Kassem)

Roy Dykstra, Omemee, ON
Cultural studies to crane operator

I dropped out of a PhD program after completing the first year. I now build and repair grain elevators and crop dryers and just completed my training to operate a crane! I enjoy my job and find each new project has new challenges and rewards. My best advice is to surround yourself with people who share your passion and encourage you to try new things.
Roy Dykstra spent 10 years in post-secondary school; he now repairs crop dryers, installs grain handling systems and operates a crane.

Elise Thorburn, St. John's
Media studies to medical school

Elise Thorbun left academia to become a medical doctor. She will be starting medical school this fall. (Submitted by Elise Thorburn)
I completed a PhD in Media and Technology Studies at Western University. I absolutely loved being a graduate student. But as I was approaching completion of my dissertation, I suddenly tuned in to the dismal state of job prospects in the academy.

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.

Elise Thorburn drinking from the 'Goblet of Knowledge' while her child breastfeeds. Taking this drink is a long-standing tradition for freshly-defended graduates at Western University, where Thorburn completed her PhD. (Submitted by Elise Thorburn)

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

Rob Cantrup is currently in an apprentice electrician training program, after completing a PhD in developmental neurobiology. (Submitted by Rob Cantrup)

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 on her very first shift as a paramedic. She had previously completed a post-doc in human genetics. (Submitted by Andrea Alter)

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. 

Have your own PhD story to share? Send us an email, find us on Twitter or write in the comments below.


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