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.”