Three years ago I was accepted into a fully funded doctoral program in my dream field. I quit my job, loaded up a UHaul and moved to sunny San Diego.
Then, my father was given months to live. Prostate cancer. And my mother, who had long suffered from bipolar disorder, stopped taking her medication. I flew to St. Louis, Missouri and drove hours until I reached a remote hospital near the Arkansas border. I scooped up my mother, like I had so many times growing up, and brought her home.
Assignments now competed for precious time with my ailing parents. In an instant, reading and writing about preventing chronic disease became meaningless.
And I began to question everything. Why did I want a PhD? Did I really want to become a professor? Would academia provide the necessary vehicle to change the world?
I had answers. The PhD, those magic letters that would appear at the end of my name, would give me credibility. I imagined breaking into a board room of old white men who were about to rule against the little guy and, even though I was young, and a woman, they would listen to me because I was Dr. Katharine Alexander.
In addition, my own experience growing up on welfare with a single mother left me with an almost unhealthy self-appointed mandate to serve the poor. While an undergrad at UCLA, I taught HIV/AIDS education in South Africa, helped run a mobile clinic for the homeless in West Hollywood and created Proyecto Chalco– a student group that traveled to Mexico City’s post NAFTA urban sprawl to conduct health assessments– all while maintaining a rigorous load of science courses in preparation for graduate school.
I had big plans to change the world, and I needed a big degree to do it.
My professors proved to be relatively flexible with my assignments and I finished my first semester. A few days later, as I was holding his hand, my father took his last breath. This was a profound loss and I was deeply grateful for those final moments with him.
I returned to my program in January, motivated to get back on course. But it wasn’t long before the questioning returned.
Why was I pursuing this degree? What was the point?
When I scratched the surface even further, I became aware of my deep, irrational fear of being destitute. I was terrified of being poor, and that fear had played a role in pushing myself towards a professional degree. Now, this same fear of poverty was keeping me from leaving.
In addition, I was told that my independent funding would allow me to create my own research project. I drew up a proposal and got verbal approval to move forward. But a week later my adviser rescinded: I was to work solely on her research. I was crushed. It felt like the program was not about nurturing me as an independent researcher, but about training me to be a cog in the academic machine.This, and my existential crisis, left little motivation to continue, and months later I withdrew from my program.
I had no money, no job, and no degree to strive towards. My source of identity was gone. I had spent the last decade deriving meaning from the work I did, and without the work, I had no meaning.
This is what I learned:
1. Face your fears head on
Dropping out of my program — with no job and no money — was one of the best things I did. I was living my greatest fear, confronting it head on. After a few weeks, I got a job through a temp agency and I was not destitute after all. In addition, I now know that I can take risks in my career, walk away from jobs, etc. and I will land on my feet.
2. Family is more important than career
When it came down to it, my parents needed me and I was there for them. I have no regrets around my father’s passing, although I would have regretted missing out on precious time with him due to slaving away at a career I didn’t really want.
3. Question your motives
Why are you on the path that you’re on? Is this really what you want to be doing? Although it may be a difficult process to uncover the answer, it will be worth it in the end.
4. You don’t need grad school
I was waiting for graduate school to deliver a magical career on my lap and take away all my problems. It doesn’t work like that. In fact, grad school can actually get in the way of finding meaningful work.
5. Be true to yourself
The months after leaving my program involved the deepest soul searching I have ever done. Everything was under scrutiny. I let go of what I had thought was important to me, and was left with a glaring, empty canvas. What to replace it with? How could I be sure I wouldn’t fill it back up with more of the same?
Enter: the beachwalk. I would walk for hours along the ocean until the critical self-talk in my head was slowly replaced with the calming, rhythmic sound of waves crashing. One day, a whisper came. ‘Be true to yourself’, it said. I walked and repeated those words to myself over and over again, like a mantra, while the backdrop of waves endlessly lapping on the shore reminded me that I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, try to control everything and be everything. Whatever my path will be, I need to carve it out in a way that honors who I am.
I still want to radically make the world a better place, but I am going to attempt it in my own way. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like. I do know that I’ve committed to the wonderful journey of figuring it out.