In 2013 I packed my life into a suitcase and headed across the Irish Sea. I was twenty-two at the time and had been offered a Ph.D. scholarship and studentship at Northern Ireland’s most prestigious university. I would be the first Dr in my family, and a female one at that. All those hours spent in the library pouring over books and flicking through Jstor had paid off. I was one step closer to my dream of becoming a university lecturer. So why, three years later, did I decide to walk away from academia?
I have been known to flip a board game or two when things aren’t going my way. Throwing a Monopoly piece at your winning (and hugely irritating) older brother is pathetic but is unlikely to cause severe emotional distress. Academia is different. I can’t throw a Monopoly piece at the student next to me who has just chewed up and spat out my paper in front of the entire faculty. I have to kindly smile and say ‘thank you for your comments’.
Every Ph.D. student has heard of ‘impostor syndrome’. It’s a term used to describe the overwhelming sense of inadequacy you experience when you work with a bunch of over-achievers. And I’m one of many who suffers from it. The further I moved up the academic ladder the more I felt like a failure. It didn’t matter that my friends and family thought I was doing great. The only thing that mattered was that I couldn’t reach my own, slightly unrealistic, goals. And I took it personally. It’s hard to keep up with the people around you. There will always be people who are smarter, more dedicated and more stable than you. But academia doesn’t care much for personal problems. It cares about numbers and league tables.
I used to equate success with being the best at what I did. I thought that if I became the Queen B of university lecturing the crippling anxiety would magically go away. If someone had told me that I’d receive a pet unicorn and an Umpa-Lumpa as a classroom assistant upon becoming a lecturer I’d probably have believed them. There are very few academics that aren’t battling anxiety, poor work-life balance and isolation. When I moved to Northern Ireland my fellow Ph.D. students and I were told that 40% of us would be diagnosed with depression. And there’s a good reason for this. The dog-eat-dog world of academia is highly competitive. Only the fittest and/or heavily medicated stand a good chance of survival, and I’m neither.
Success should not be measured by the amount of articles you publish or those pieces of paper you’re awarded at graduation. Success should be measured by happiness. I’d sacrificed relationships and my sanity for a Ph.D., but it didn’t make me happy. I felt lonely, miserable and out of my depth.
Welcome to Job Seekers! After finishing your Ph.D. reality has a habit of slapping you across the face with a wet fish. You know the Great Recession of 2008? Well there’s been fewer jobs ever since and thousands of currently unemployed postgrads who are applying for the same job as you. Hurray!
If you aren’t one of the lucky few that walk into an academic job right off the bat you should probably think about getting a ‘normal’ job. And here we encounter problem number 1. You’re too overqualified. The head of frozen foods at your local Asda (the UK equivalent of Walmart) starts asking questions like ‘how do I know you’re not going to leave in a month?’ ‘why do you want to work in a place like this?’ etc. And you have to present your case to head of frozen foods-come-Judge Judy. This obviously means lying through your teeth. Tell him/her you spent the last four years of your life studying the mating process of chimpanzees so you’d know how to better handle the late night costumers. After nailing the interview you’ll spend the next year asking yourself why you bothered. But, hey, at least you have a job and a staff discount.
But that isn’t the worst of it. Here’s problem number 2. After going to Job Seekers they often advise you to remove your MA and Ph.D. from your CV to avoid aforementioned questions. This can be pretty soul destroying.
But here is the BIGGEST and far more serious reason why I walked away from academia….
Sexism in the workplace is a huge problem. Women aren’t strangers to off-handed remarks, Victorian dress-codes to physical assault and rape. But, naively, I thought academia would be different. The brilliant and encouraging male professors that had taught me in the past had convinced me that academia was a glossy bubble of politeness and acceptance. This bubble quickly burst when three months into my studies a student told me about what my then supervisor had said about me. No, he didn’t tell the student about the merits of my research, he told them I had an ‘amazing arse’ and he wanted to ‘hook up’ with me. I contacted him immediately, demanding answers. He denied it all and I believed him.
A week later I was in his office, Marvin Gaye playing from the speakers behind him. We talked about work, as usual. But just as I was about to leave he said ‘I’d tell you why I said those things but I don’t think I should’. I nodded my head and left. Hindsight is a brilliant thing. I wish I’d reported him, asked for a new supervisor and carried on. But I didn’t. Things don’t get better once a supervisor crosses that metaphorical line and this case wasn’t the exception.
In the last few years I’ve been the recipient of verbal abuse and sexual assault, not by senseless thugs, by professors. Seeing how women are treated in academia made me question if this is the right environment for me to be in. More than the competitive nature of academia or fear over employability, sexism shattered the idea of academia that I had built up in my head. Things need to change. And they can only change if more women become lecturers. So, ladies, don’t let this put you off if you’re thinking of applying for a Ph.D. This is just my experience and, perhaps, a bit of a warning.