I am often asked to elaborate on my experience getting a Ph.D. and how I juggle my pursuit of a doctorate with a determined and time-intensive dedication to rock-climbing. I am asked, most likely, because over time I have publicly insinuated certain discontent with my career path, although I am now content with these choices and my work.
Someone asked me to write about it, for a blog catered to graduate students and those interested in the experience of Ph.D. students. I agreed, neither entirely enthusiastic nor ambivalent.
As I sat down to write in July of 2020, this piece tore itself out of me. I wrote it in the span of an hour and the advice geared article I had intended became something else entirely. My story of my convoluted journey in one realm seemed to me simply one manifestation of a mindset I have cultivated and carried with me for my entire life – a mindset that has more often harmed than helped.
I will emphasize that we should not look to our past as an excuse for our behavior , but it is helpful to perhaps, look to it as a partial explanation. To realize that your choices are influenced by long forgotten memories, engrained habits, toxic childhood behavior and nebulous social norms and pressure can be extremely devastating in the moment, but upon reflection, ultimately freeing.
Understanding where people come from, understanding that a lot of who we are is borne from things we really had no control over – circumstances, luck, entropy, disaster, tragedy – can, I think, help cultivate compassion and empathy in a world that is increasingly fraught with loneliness , resentment and anger. It is human.
I have held onto the piece for more than half a year, my decision to publish coming in the middle of a long overdue self-reflection. I kept it for myself partly because of the vulnerability I would expose myself to upon publishing, but largely because I didn’t think it was fully formed. The thing is, I don’t think it will ever be. I wish I could be one of those reticent types who keep things guarded , but, I’ve come to respect my need for this nebulous void in which I throw my most confused, darkest and brightest thoughts – it means something to me that it’s out there.
Finally, people say we live in the stories we tell of ourselves. I’d like to free myself of this one, and so I want to tell it.
A final thanks to Chia-Yi Hou for her encouragement , thoughtful suggestions and copy editing. Check out her Medium page here.
“It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.”Barack Obama, A Promised Land
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will breakWilliam Shakespeare
Living in Fear
For my parents , with immense gratitude
I do not know where the courage came from when I walked into my advisor’s office on a gray December afternoon.
With five words I released what demons had been haunting me for the last year, as I moved apathetically through a Ph.D. program.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
When I woke up that morning, I had no intention of leaving. I had tried once before but was met with reasonable concessions that compelled me to stay. My adviser was considerate, suggesting I work remotely to counter my major complaint: living far from people and places I loved while doing work that interested me slightly at best.
Before going into the lab that day to continue the final stages of my largest experiment, I spoke to my boyfriend over the phone. A thousand miles apart, we had a petty argument about when I would come back. As he spoke, I watched the rain trickle down the window, one raindrop colliding with another until they hit the pane.
After we hung up, I continued to watch the rain fall. I caught my reflection in the pane of the window, the condensation from the storm rendering the image mute and blurry. It was then that the question finally came to me.
“What would you do if you did not think of him, or your parents, or your interns, or your work, or your friends or your adviser. What would you do if you just thought of yourself?”
The answer was so blatantly obvious it made me laugh ― I would quit.
At 28, I had finally begun to peel away at the layers of my life. I started to understand not only who I was, but what my priorities were, where my interests lay and what I could do.
I was born in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a year before a violent civil war began. My family fled and eventually settled in California. As far as I can remember, I was a content child. Still, the fundamental theme of my family’s early household was one of survival.
My parents gave us all the love they had, and, despite enormous obstacles, managed to find work, learn English and buy a house within six years of moving to California. In the early years, they worked odd jobs , we lived in a meager apartment and our life was subsidized by welfare and food stamps. However, my brother and I were never truly deprived of any resources. We were raised with devotion and attention.
Yet, our circumstances were certainly unique. There were no cousins, no aunts, no uncles. There were neither grandparents nor close family friends. There were few summer camps or trips to the mountains or lakes or beaches. At school, I would hear of plans of Thanksgiving and family reunions. I heard crisp, perfect English. At home, it became more difficult for me to understand the language my parents spoke in. It seemed like such a small thing – no family gatherings, no connection to any place, just my small family and me. It was my life and it seemed alright, I did not think much of it.
I was friendly , outgoing, energetic and always fit in with others at school. Still, it was obvious, at least subtly, that my background and my lack of a close connection set me apart from the community to which my peers belonged. Though I was born in Bosnia to two parents well-known in its community, I certainly did not identify with the circle in which my parents grew up in.
I felt , simply, that I was not “from” anywhere in particular. My life seemingly started from one violent break.
There were plenty of other Bosnian immigrants in my school. More so than the pain of being “different” from the Americans was being “different” from these students. Our circumstances were similar, yet they all seemed to speak the language, would visit the country often, knew of its culture and history. They had heritage. The comparison was easy to make. I, truly, did and do not. I was not ashamed of my family, in fact I relished telling the story of my parents’ former careers, their arduous and largely improbably journey to America.
Now, I know that we all need history and community in order to know ourselves, we need it to build a sense of identity and continuity. As I grew older, I would familiarize myself deeply with the consequences of such lacking. Then, I simply felt unformed , vacant.
Small observations accumulated in such a way that I seldom realized how deeply I internalized the idea that I was different. Raindrops trickled down the pane, one by one.
A hollowness began to grow inside of me that, now in my late 20s, I recognize immediately. I know its cycle – its sweeping beginning, its staggering rise, its steadied yet slow decline. Over the years, I have taught myself how to deal with it, how to control it.
Then, it was more difficult, Sometimes the feeling was remote, so omnipresent I would almost forget about it, a dull pain I taught myself to ignore. Other times, it would suddenly balloon inside of me, occupying a space so large that it would press up inside of me, truly hurting.
My brain became compelled to understand my emotion and label it, so that I could overcome it. But whenever I reached for language as a solace, a way to organize my thoughts, my mind would feel slippery. I would return frightened, wondering if maybe there was nothing there to explain, if maybe this was all just a part of who I was. Perhaps my overly introspective nature was not the result of something worth thinking about, but was a character flaw. I still do not know the answer to that question, and I likely never will.
Like a single drop of ink turns clear water black, entrenched feelings of a lack of belonging diffused inside of me and affected everything they touched. Like all of us, I had an inherent need to be accepted as part of a group larger than myself. I wanted to be known, to be heard, to have my identity recognized as unique yet also fit within the boundaries of a group. When that was not fulfilled, it came with consequences that manifested themselves, in my case, as ingrained self-deprecating thought patterns.
I did well in high-school, both scholastically and socially. I found photography and photojournalism. Still, the pattern continued in college, where I was exposed to many, many more people. I found myself around what I thought of as the “real thing” – people I found remarkable, smart, beautiful, strong, acutely aware of their desires and potential. Though I never deliberately voiced it or even had the courage to address the nagging pull of the emotion, I felt inferior as I saw many of my peers fall into and excel at hobbies or professions they had picked up from a family member, found at a camp or through a family friend, something they had the capacity and opportunity to be exposed to and to explore. I felt good enough to spot the difference I perceived existed between them and me. It was rare I deliberately considered such thought patterns, rather, it was an instinctual reaction, like putting on a jacket when I began to shiver.
Sometimes, I mistook this for insecurity, though I never was truly convinced it was so simple. I have never felt unworthy of affection, or that I was unable to learn a skill if taught. Certainly, these superficial explanations made sense. Yet, I did not even truly wish my circumstances were different, I simply, due to such circumstances, was missing the piece between belief and execution.
When seeking confidence in my decisions, I searched as a child and I search as an adult for a foundation to propel myself from, a landing I knew I could land on if I fell. Sometimes, it just doesn’t feel stable enough to risk the jump.
In college, I found rock-climbing on a whim, I was struck with how immediately comfortable I felt outdoors. Soon, I developed a curiosity for how the ecosystems around me functioned. When I learned that ecology could be studied, could be made into a career, I felt a great relief. This was my field. This is what I would do. I did not realize it at the time, but I was desperate to find something to ground me, because a skill or a career inherently came with a community, it inherently brought with it a level of confidence and recognition. It was a way to show aptitude and capability.
Yet, after graduating and working for a year, I quit my job at a nonprofit land management agency so that I could live in my car, travel and climb. The connection I felt to climbing and to its community was, retrospectively, what I had been subconsciously seeking all my life.
By that point, I found myself unmotivated by the traditional work schedule, the thought of continuing on such a path for the rest of my life felt unfathomable. Still, I decided to apply to graduate school, partly so that I could resist the traditional work schedule even longer, partly because I was chasing down the idea of a tangible skill.
Even then, my plans were short-term at best, I was still unaware of what it was that I really wanted.
When I chose to pursue a master’s degree in ecology, I was only slightly interested in my thesis topic, though I was genuinely intrigued by botany and had worked in the field for several years. I was also tantalized by the full funding and the local granite.
In the winter, I worked incessantly so that, for two days a week, I could drive six hours one way to slowly work on one of the most meaningful rock climbs I have ever tried. I was burning the candle on many ends, juggling a volunteer teaching gig, a side-job at a climbing gym, boyfriends, classes, my own research and a deep involvement in the sport I loved. Few people knew that I was trying to split my time between pursuit of mastery in two distinct fields and still have time to go to trivia night with my friends.
Somehow, I excelled. At the apex of my climbing season I found out that I was awarded a coveted fellowship that would fund three additional years of work. While considering whether to accept the award, I completed my climbing project.
My mind crackling with a refreshing and newfound confidence, I decided to accept the fellowship. It seemed perfect — if I continued with my current research, I would finish in five years, never have to consider funding, and continue to avoid the standard work schedule.
I drifted into the program without thoughtfully examining my reasons for embarking on a path leading me towards jobs I did not want. Predictably, I burnt out quickly. On the day my adviser suggested I work remotely to find a balance, I decided to make a truce with these thoughts. I did so because I was temporarily able to work from where and when I wanted, enabling me to better pursue other goals. I bundled my doubts together and pushed them inside. But it began to feel like a razor situated perfectly next to my ambition— one slip and it was lethal.
Climbing and research are similar. When it clicks, it’s like any other buzz. It is momentous and captivating, the beginning score of an orchestra rising suddenly from silence, full and roaring inside of you. However, most often, a jagged out of tune note thunders out of harmony. Your experiment fails, funding falls through, you make a mistake while executing a climb. It is a thin line — achieving the most meaningful accomplishments at a high-level requires a no guarantee investment of many bad days.
The accumulation of these bad days became intolerable. With neither an interest in the topic nor an interest in the path that a PhD entails, I became overwhelmed, constantly questioning my decisions. I daydreamed of the life I had tried to flee from, a simple job, where tasks are tedious and where completion is obvious, your mind let loose from work’s grip until the next day. My stress rose to a point that threatened to destroy the things I cherished most in my life. Ironically, that stress was borne from the task which I largely undertook to try to ensure that those things were always present.
A few days after I walked into my adviser’s office and found my voice, I finished the experiment and drove to another state. I staged my exit. My committee was gracious and understanding of my decision. The plan seemed ideal. I had half a year of income left, plenty of time to finish my experiment and save all I could. Afterwards, I would forge a new path. I would write more. Most importantly, I would have the time to at least explore these and other options.
We had hired two fabulous students to take the harvested plants, dry their tissue and prepare them for submission to a lab in California. The resulting data would provide the foundation for my most important chapter. They worked throughout the winter, meticulously preparing some 600 samples. It took a month of tedious effort.
But, as winter turned to spring, the world began to change.
When American society first truly began to shift due to the coronavirus, my partner and I decided to go to a remote area in Nevada we knew well. We could climb, I could analyze the incoming data from California and we could be alone.
As we prepared to leave at the end of April, I learned the lab in California was closing indefinitely, following local COVID guidelines. I quickly ran out of other things I could do as I waited for the data.
A month passed and I did not work. I took on another project, feeling indebted to my meager income.
Summer began to turn into early fall, the one-month delay turned into seven and by early September I still had not received the data. By that point, I had finished one project and started another. In the meantime, I saw my small investments plummet then bounce back only to dive again. Unemployment rates hit historic milestones each week. The economy was volatile, unpredictable.
And on the opposite side of my fierce passion, the voice that finally erupted out of my small frame and said “I can’t do this” festered an entrenched fear.
I was in my childhood apartment on Starbird circle. I saw my dad, a talented crossword writer by trade, leaving for his second job waitering at a restaurant in an upscale neighborhood. I heard his thick accent now, crackling over the phone as he explained to me why he was scared to retire from a job he truly hates, a job he had worked for 22 years, because he was never able to connect with American society. The job, no matter how horrible, was always a distraction. Sometimes, the immediacy with which I can relate to him frightens me. I recognize the profound fatigue in his voice, the kind that comes from a loneliness borne not of physical isolation, but rather of feeling chronically misunderstood.
I could see my mother, the most intelligent person I have ever known, making us dinner in a beatdown kitchen, walking to the store along sprawling suburban expressway because we could not afford a car. I saw her paying with food stamps, leaving for a job to clean houses.
These early memories suddenly erupted and tore me apart from the inside out, imbued with the context I received from adulthood. As I considered the person I may have been, I grew angry. I understood that most everything I struggled with was born and fed from events I had no control over. I finally saw the ink staining every decision I had ever made, and I grew furious.
I thought of rock-climbing. For me, climbing is precious, its ability to quiet my mind nearly qualifying it as sacrosanct. Yet, although it is largely a solo pursuit, the logistics of climbing demands partnerships and the force through which it changes lives fosters a unique and tight-knit community. Mostly, this helps me thrive. Yet , sometimes, sitting at a crowded crag, I feel the first sharp pitch of the hollowness rise. I felt that stranger come and tap me on the back and whisper into my ear “this isn’t for you.” In those self-sabotaging yet nearly instinctual moments, I hate myself.
I could not receive unemployment when I graduated. The job market for my very niche field – the one I now did not even want to pursue – was narrow to begin with. Even more narrow was the market for fledgling writers or anyone trying to shift careers. All of a sudden the stage was no longer set for me to “forge a new path” but rather to stay put.
The anger turned to sadness, and I crumpled, surrendering to its weight. I doubted my convictions, feeling suddenly confused and overpowered by a profound need to take everything that I was lucky to have and protect it fiercely. I realized, I have never felt safe with any of my affections, I have never felt safe with who I was, I was always on guard, waiting for it to go away. My lack of a sense of belonging to a culture or family came with it an identity that was not firmly rooted. Like a plant with shallow roots, it was less constrained, but more flimsy and vulnerable – the lightest breeze could shatter it.
I wrote to my committee. I met with each of them individually. I asked for them to take me back. I felt humiliated, defeated. I let myself down.
On a fall day, as I prepared my notes for my first committee meeting on Zoom, I thought about how much energy I put into this topic, how much knowledge I had accumulated about an interesting yet extremely niche subject matter. I wondered what else I could have done with such an investment of time. It was a blunt, precise blow to the chest, enough to take my breath away and leave me reeling from the blow, to realize these were the exact same questions that had led to my first decision to leave.
I sat with the lights off and stared at the ceiling. How could I go back.
In the sudden rush of returning to the PhD, in the odd comfort I felt at going back to something I knew, even if I didn’t want it, I forgot what it had all felt like, what had pushed me to quit in the first place.
I had forgotten the empty and painful pulse in my heart, the opposite of pride, but not quite shame. How wanting to give myself the chance to start again felt like dying of thirst. How fraudulent I felt in every room, with my peers, with my coworkers, with the climbing community, even with my family. The million thoughts swarming by become white noise and I couldn’t separate fact from fiction.
My ribcage expanded as I felt the familiar discomfort of the hollowness welling up and pushing against me. It grew from the vacancy I thought I had patched through my pursuit of a job, a hobby, a career. Yet, my own hands were tearing it open again, as I felt my life stutter and stall, the culprit of my indecision and my intense belief that I was inherently incompetent, inherently ignorant. A belief that is so firmly built into someone who never hears the words that give the affirmation, foundation, and comfort from which one can dare to find themselves – you belong here.
In Nevada, during our COVID refuge, there was a ridge a 20-minute walk away, where I could sometimes get service.
On a particularly cold day, I went for a walk.
This is when I felt my mind split in two. At first there was nothing, then a faint deliberate ripple in the darkness began to unfold.
I was driving through the Eastern Sierra Nevada when I told him about the time I found my grandmother’s books.
“It is in the middle of the city, a derelict building – you could still see the bullet holes, fifteen years after the war. I was bored, I did not want to be there. I was rummaging around when I found the books. I traced my fingers along her handwriting. I saw how diligently she had filled out each exercise, even in her late 70s, just so she could talk to us. My heart cracked in half.”
“That is so, so sad. I can’t believe how sad it is” he responded.
I clenched my jaw so tightly to avoid crying in front of him that I wondered if I’d break it.
I always envied his French-ness. His overwhelmingly attractive accent revealed just how from somewhere he was. I craved it.
Suddenly, surprised to be in my body , I blinked until the image of the snow-covered desert appeared, mute and out of focus.
The junipers of the Golden Gate Range know nothing of the Douglas Fir trees that tower over my favorite climbing areas in Washington. The Douglas Fir knows nothing of the claret-cup cactus clinging to an exposed rock face. The plant is unaware of anything besides its surroundings, no further than how far a volatile chemical can travel. Incapable of longing for anything – even memories – because nothing else exists.
I settled my gaze upon the Castilleja chromosa, pinpricks of red in an otherwise monochrome landscape. I thought about how I spent more than three years of my life studying this genus. I thought about how I am an expert in its biology. I thought about how Castilleja does not know anything about me and how I do not know anything about myself either. I hated myself for being here, a broke nearly apathetic PhD student who could not decide what she wanted. Simultaneously, I admired myself for being there, living in a van and traveling with a lover. Could the latter have happened without the former?
Though it was mid-April in the desert, it would not stop snowing. It often seemed to be passing, slowing down, only to get worse. All you can do is be patient, knowing it will turn. It must turn. Impermanence is built into life. It is simple ecology – life is borne of coincidence, circumstance, entropy. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Organisms resilient to change are generally rewarded.
Perhaps my lack of firm, solid roots, makes it easier for me to change, to move, to adapt, to be genuine. Perhaps a lack of a foundation brings with it a plasticity in identity.
When I shift the narrative, I do not feel deprived, but rather lucky. This side of me finds optimism in the PhD because it has taught me how to find the right questions and how to be autodidactic. This side of me finds opportunity in my indecision, opportunity in the life I have crafted for myself, opportunity in the blank slate onto which I was formed.
As I considered this, my identity quarreled with itself. “What would you do for yourself? What do you want?” I asked myself again, like I did on that rainy morning in Seattle. Something inside of me splintered. I let out a cry in a voice I did not recognize, with only the junipers and the Castilleja to hear.
Startled by my own ferocity, I felt much like the mountain lion whose tracks we had seen throughout the desert. Solitary, strong and daring, a mountain lion knows who she is and what she wants. She is not tethered to the past, she does not consider the distress of her prey, she does what she must do.
Though this big cat lives inside of me, I, more often than not, have kept my lion caged.
First find out what you are capable of, then decide who you are.
Tara Westover, Educated