We came back from vacation in the United States at the beginning of June, actually a month ago. Few days before we got on the plane back, I received a notification that the paper I’ve submitted at the end of March has been rejected.
Being at that time in San Francisco, almost at the end of our road trip, it made me think. What do I want? What do I want to do? What do I want to achieve? Where do I want to do it?
I decided there that I don’t want to continue with the PhD.
We took a walk from the Fisherman’s Wharf towards the Palace of Fine Arts and talked about it with Gabi. I can pinpoint the exact bench at the Palace park where I decided that I’m not happy in the current situation and I that want to do something about it.
I haven’t been happy for some time. I’ve actually debated it (and leaned towards leaving) at least twice before. Once after my first paper got accepted and I felt like I don’t really to do this all over again (two more times). The second occasion for my “PhD crisis” was last November, right before my supervisor gave me a strong direction for what my second paper should be about.
This time it was after a rejection, but I like to think that it wasn’t because I got discouraged by it. It just made me realize that I don’t have the necessary passion for research and academia.
I’m gonna say it—I am not excited about writing papers. I don’t see myself as an academic/researcher. I don’t like to think about a project in terms of how it differs from stuff published before (the “related work”). I believe that nothing is completely new, somebody’s already had your idea before, maybe in a different context, maybe in a different application, but it’s there. And your job as a researcher is to defend your work, find the specific arguments why what you came up with is new, novel. For some reason this defensive approach to creating is bothering me. And, most importantly, I realized that a paper is not a satisfying end-product to me, a fulfilling result of my work enough to justify the energy that’s needed. I look back and I feel almost zero pride about the work that I did in the last two years. That’s, at least in my book, a strong indicator.
I know that a part of being successful is getting rejected and afterwards improving as much as you can (and minimize the random chance factor of the process by simply doing great work). But honestly I just don’t want to improve in this. I don’t want to shape my skills in the discipline of getting papers accepted at conferences and journals.
Finally, I’ve got to the point where I have a great need to find my place outside of the school/university environment. I’ve been at some school for most of my life and I want to break away from that so much. I want to figure out if I can survive in the “real world”, find my place in it. This might sound like a pretty stupid reason to quit (of course academia is real world too) but at this moment this is how I feel about it.
Couple of other factors contributed to my decision that I want to leave academia and once I came back to Vienna I started talking to people. I told my supervisor about my decision to quit the PhD, talked with other senior people, told my colleague/friend. This time I was determined to do something about it and the most appropriate solution was to just quit. However, once I started talking with people, other factors came into question and another option opened up.
The thing is, I still believe that PhD can give you a lot when it’s structured in the right way, you find the right environment and know what you want from it. There are aspects that I definitely appreciate. You learn how to express ideas, how to put them in context with what’s already out there (not that it’s my most favorite thing to do, but it’s nevertheless an important skill). I’ve had the opportunity to practice presenting our work on several occasions (internal meetings, talking with international guests, presenting at a top conference) which is something I’ve actually quite welcomed and enjoyed. Lastly, even though I don’t enjoy writing papers as much, I do like writing in general. And if I’m to judge, I did get better at it thanks to my time in academia.
I also started to feel a bit bad about leaving my last work unfinished—as I started reading the reviews and thinking how it could be improved. Even though the initial instinct was to just “fuck it all”, I would still like to finish what I started (at least to some extent). And of course there’s “sunk cost fallacy” which makes me feel like I’ve already invested this whole time into the degree, so I might stick it out for a bit more and then get it (even though getting the degree wasn’t ever the main goal for me).
In the end, the situation right now is this: we are moving from Vienna back to Czech Republic, which is going to put us closer to our friends and family, and basically give me a better (familiar) support network for deciding what to do next. I will still be employed at TU Wien and staying in the PhD programme for the time being. Working remotely, I’ll finish a revision for the rejected paper, and afterwards, until my contract runs out at the beginning next year, either try to go for a quick third paper or try to wrap up the degree somehow. We’ll see how everything works out (lots of unknowns).
It took me a long time to put this together because I’ve been chasing and connecting different thoughts. There are some significant changes coming and it does make me excited (and scared obviously). I’m excited because I’ve come to realize that a very important thing for me is to live my life on my own terms, powered by my own motivations. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m being pushed into some direction. I want to take action.