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I'm (Not) A Slave 4 U: On Putting My PhD On Pause

After two years in my PhD, I informed my department I am taking a one year leave of absence.

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Bills Bills Bills

We all have our personal reasons, beliefs and criterias which make sense to us, individually, in order to do a PhD.

I had the passion for research, I thought I had a chance of landing a faculty position even if everyone was telling me otherwise (lol), and I did not want to get into a mountain of debt just to add three letters beside my name.

So I knew from the beginning I needed to get a governmental bursary in order to finance my PhD (I had departmental support for the first two years only).

This I knew technically, practically; what I did not know was the symbolic value of those governmental bursaries (these are the federal and the provincial bursaries, since I'm Canadian) on a PhD candidate's CV.

It's only once I was in the academic system for long enough, from the inside, that I could measure the importance of landing one of these two bursaries.

The thing is, you only get two shots at each bursaries. In my case, I had quite a nightmare story for my second shot with one of these bursaries, since a reference letter was not submitted on time, and I was subsequently disqualified.

I suddenly had something in common with bankers and investors of this world: I "maybe lost thousands of dollars" because of circumstances which were not under my control. Even if it obviously made me feel terrible and "it just did not feel right", I was informed there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

So I sucked it up, and chose not to play the victim card.

As I said previously, these bursaries have a huge impact on your chances of getting hired as a full-time faculty professor after. But how big of an impact? I did a research on full-time faculty professors' PhD grants in departments I qualify to work for in my city, since I don't want to relocate (even though it seems silly to aim for a faculty position without wanting to move, it seems even more silly to me to leave a city, a partner and friends I love behind).

The result I got was that a crushing 95% of the professors landed those bursaries during their PhD.

I don't know how you sleep at night with a 5% chance of landing the one job your PhD makes you qualified for, but for myself, that doesn't make me sleep very well.

Now, pair the value of the governmental bursaries to the growing gap between the number of PhD graduates VS the number of full-time faculty positions available, and mix it up with the governmental cuts in culture and university funding, and we got a big, beautiful paradigm.

I'm Going to Make You An Offer You Cannot Refuse

Also, while most of my friends who I started the PhD with got teaching offers right on track with their research subjects, I recall a very memorable email I got a few months back. I was offered to teach a class on 19th century art and architecture for the upcoming semester, and I was told in this email that both my supervisor and the graduate program director supported the idea of me teaching the class.

I was given four days to answer, and four months to prepare for the class, if I were to say yes.

Although I now know for a fact these kinds of deadlines are very common in academia, it still does not mean we should all tolerate it.

But here comes the crucial problem. And I cannot make this clearer: I don't know shit about 19th century art and architecture. And it makes me sick that over a hundred students could have been taught this class by someone who could have pretended to be qualified enough for this topic, while the actual motifs would have probably been money related and/or getting that extra line on the CV.

Again, we could just file this under common practice in academia, but I think we are not helping anyone thinking that way. It's worth thinking about how this came to happen - and how fucked up this is.

Call Me Maybe

Maybe 23 years old is too young to apply for a PhD?

Probably. For all the times I was told by fellow PhD students that I had a huge advantage over them, what I can say I did not have, in opposition, was a plan. A clear 4-5-6 years plan of how the PhD actually fits into my life. How a very fluctuating budget fits in the student debt I already got; how a 4-5-6 years delay in my first full-time job would not affect my career too much; how and when, good Lord, should I make babies?

Maybe my supervisor thinks academia is a broken system as well?

Yup. This is one of the things we talked about when I informed her I was taking a one year leave of absence from the PhD program (apart from the full-time position I'll be working at – hint: it's outside of academia).

I showed her my research on the crushing 95% of faculty members who obtained governmental support during their PhD (to which she responded with both surprise for the number and fascination for my determination and research skills). We then exchanged on how there is just virtually no full-time faculty positions.

As I was leaving her office, she told me I got everything it takes to do a PhD, to which I answered a confident "I know, but that's just not the problem here.", to which she simply replied "I know."

It's funny, because you would assume it would be more on us, the PhD candidates, on the feasibility and logic of completing our PhD, but it's really just a fraction of it.

So this is how I got to leave my supervisor's office with her benediction on my PhD leave, which felt very strange and so right, at the same time.

Since that meeting, I often find myself wondering on how that came to happen. How on Earth is it possible to have your PhD supervisor telling you you're making the right decision when you are actually leaving the program?

I guess this is the kind of situation which can only happen in a broken system, unfortunately.

So, dear PhD, I say to you: Sayonara (for now).

P.S. I should add that after I got home from the meeting, my upstairs musicians neighbors were playing If It Makes You Happy by Sheryl Crow on their guitars and singing it at the top of their lungs. So I sang with them softly from below, and smiled to myself. Because this decision really does makes me happy. I read this as a good sign.

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