Last August was the beginning of my third year in chemistry PhD school and things were not going well. I was having trouble staying motivated, couldn’t seem to get to work on time, and once there I would pitter around till it was time to leave again. I resorted to buying one of those polygonal desk toys that Facebook advertised to help me track my productivity. I neatly organized my time into reading papers, doing bench work, analyzing results, and preparing research presentations. But of course, that’s not where most of my time was going. Instead, I felt an unrelenting desire to talk to people about science.
Sure, I was surrounded by scientists who were ready and willing to go into the nitty gritty of each experimental detail. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I’m interested in the “big picture”, like where do science and technology fit in with our society, how can we apply the philosophy of the scientific method to everyday debates, what is your favorite dinosaur and how do you feel about bringing it back to life?
I spent every spare minute teaching chemistry to jocks and poets as a teaching assistant, taking classes on science journalism, hosting seminars to help other graduate students learn how to speak clearly about their research to any audience. Countless hours of my week that were taking away from my real job as a chemist: doing chemistry.
My advisor was not happy about the distraction. To his credit, he did his best to let me explore my interests while not so gently bringing me back to the bench. We would have the same conversation over and over again about how maybe now wasn’t the right time to found a new club or spearhead a new outreach project. Maybe after I wrote my first paper, I could start thinking about taking more classes on teaching. Maybe after I had more data, I could start thinking about what I really wanted with my degree.
In my mind though, I was doing everything I was supposed to. The data would come, but a PhD was of no use if I couldn’t actually use it after I graduated. My whole life up to this point centered around completing my name with the prefix “Doctor”. Of course, when I was younger, the goal had been to become a medical doctor like my parents. In my mother’s mind, my decision to go to science doctor school was a betrayal of the sacrifices she and my grandparents had made for me to live the American dream.
But even being a scientist and not a “real doctor” was important in my family to prove that I was worthy of the world’s grand stage they had so lovingly prepared for me to be the star of. Without those few letters, I would be nothing. Just another nobody with nothing to say and no one to listen. I didn’t deserve an audience unless I did the work and I was determined to earn that right. And so I tried to bury myself in my work, even if it did make me miserable. I needed to leave being “happy” for lazy people with no ambition.
Except every August. At the end of August in the week before labor day, I put all of that aside and adventure into a big, bright, shining city in the dust of Nevada’s black rock desert. The Burning Man community has been a fixture in my life since moving to San Diego five years ago. I have made some of my closest friends in Black Rock City and I encourage anyone who’s interested to go at least once. It’s a place like no other.
This year’s burn started out like my three previous years, with months of prep organizing gear and logistics, a long drive from San Diego to Reno in a 26’ box truck full of art, camp infrastructure for over 100 people, (and other people’s drugs), then finally getting to the playa just in time to watch the city slowly build itself before the gates opened to the rest of the 90,000 people who call it home.
The 10 days I spent there were a technicolored dreamscape punctuated with moments of belly-aching laughter, tears of joy, cheeks sore from so much smiling. I have one memory in particular of riding my bike across the open desert, stars bright against a velvet night sky, rainbow lights blinking all across the horizon. I could feel every breath connect me with the universe around me. The world was vibrant and beautiful, and I felt the warmth of that beauty inside of me because I knew I was a part of it. I didn’t have to do anything, just exist as myself and marvel at the wonder of the world that accepted me as I was. I screamed back at my friend Josh, “Do you get it yet? Why I wanted to you come?”
Of course what I really wanted to ask was “do you get me yet?” Josh, like so many of my friends from grad school, had only known me through our shared connection to laboratory life. But I felt so insecure about my life as a graduate student that I didn’t really trust my friendships with people from my program. I wanted friends who knew every part of me, the chemist and the burner. It meant a lot to me that he and my friend Anna, his girlfriend, had come to the burn with me that year. Because I needed someone from my life as a chemist to witness my unadulterated happiness.
And so I came back from the desert refreshed. I was filled with love from friends and family who were there to support me as I continued to climb the mountain that was grad school. I was ready to do the work that needed to be done to progress my research and get my degree. That first morning back to work, I woke up on time, arrived to campus early enough to find parking, and walked into the lab with a fresh cup of coffee ready to conquer the day.
Of course, more than a few coworkers were curious about my trip. Sean, a fellow third year, asked me about my favorite part of the vacation and I thought back on that night, riding through the desert, feeling so supremely connected with the world around me because I felt so completely myself.
But when I tried to put that into words, when I tried to express myself as I had been in that moment of ecstasy, a bunch of hot garbage came out. I sounded like a fucking nut job. I could see it on Sean’s face. He was being polite in trying to hear me out, but it was obvious that nothing I said made any sense to him. There was no way to communicate my experience, no matter how hard I tried.
In that moment, the air felt a little too thick to breathe. My heart began to race. The room felt too bright. The quiet clicking and whooshing of instrumentation suddenly felt unbearably loud. There was a light tingling in my fingers that I tried to wish away with deep, steady intakes of breath. I quickly packed up my belongings and rushed out of the building. A crushing wave of anxiety brought me crumpled in the driver’s seat of my car sobbing uncontrollably. I think I made it home on some combination of benzos and autopilot because the next thing I remember is staring blankly at my ceiling, having shed all my tears and feeling nothing but raw and empty.
This feeling went on for days. I was worried about having a full blown mental breakdown. I was worried about missing too much more time from work. I was worried about getting results to my boss to stave of the look of disappointment I knew was waiting for me. But I was also so fucking exhausted.
My psychiatrist is an older woman with frizzy hair whose roots are always grey. She wears these old people sneakers that are white with really thick soles that look curved like little boats. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her on a life alert commercial. When I finally got an appointment, she sat patiently and let me explain what was going on. She wanted to know every detail of the panic attack and its aftermath. I again struggled to put it into words.
But I told her the truth. That it had been so long since I had felt happy, truly happy, that I had almost convinced myself it wasn’t a feeling I was allowed to have. I hadn’t earned it. I didn’t deserve it. I had resigned myself to that for a long time now, because that was the only way to get through my day as a grad student. Until of course, I felt it that one night with the bikes. That one, glorious, beautiful night that I had tried so desperately to share and had failed.
Because being in lab brought me no joy. I would never be happy as a chemist. I would never be happy as a research scientist no matter how many degrees I accumulated. Sure, climbing the mountain is hard work, work that would earn me the esteem of my friends and colleagues and family, but I had a deep suspicion that I was on the wrong fucking mountain. And that was terrifying. I didn’t want to be a quitter. I didn’t want to give up my dream of being a doctor. But I also didn’t want to be miserable. Now that I knew what it was like to be happy, it was too heartbreaking to think about going back to the way things were.
And so I started making a plan, or rather, following through with plans I had been making without wanting to admit it. I wrote personal statements and got letters of recommendation to apply to other programs. I attended conferences with people interested in science communication and writing. I even got an offer to join the UC San Diego History Department for their history of science masters program.
I really did make an honest effort to try to make my program fit my interests, including asking for more time to complete my PhD so that I could do the history program alongside my lab work. But at the end of the day, my heart wasn’t in it. So in March of this year, I left grad school and set out on my own.
Well, not completely on my own. Because within a week of quitting, I got my official offer from UC Santa Cruz to join their Masters in Science Communication Program, my dream career development move, on a full scholarship. It’s a super intense, one year program where I will live and breathe writing. Where I will learn to talk to anyone and everyone about science and why it matters.
I don’t regret any of my time in PhD school. I learned a lot about research and science in my five year stint as a bona fide chemist. But more than anything, I am happy to be done. I’m on to bigger and better things. Because now that I know what happy is, I’m never letting go.
This piece was created with the help of So Say We All as part of their VAMP series. The theme for this show was Vamanos and it was performed live at the Whistle Stop in June of 2019.
One thought on “On Quitting Grad School (And How Burning Man Helped)”
You are a fantastic writer and one of my favorite science bloggers. That was such a courageous decision and I’m sending you lots of support (and lowkey happy that the world gets to see more of your writing). Good luck on your new path!