Why I will probably be that 50-year-old research assistant & my journey to recovery
Did the title intrigue you? Did I get your attention? Well, let me start with a little story about myself. I am a dentist and in the next few lines I will be telling you my struggle with an obsession, a very difficult obsession that controlled many aspects of my life for almost two decades.
When I first graduated college I immediately pursued post graduate studies, entirely convinced that I will not amount to anything without a degree, spoiler alert; I already had a degree and a license to practice dentistry. I just didn’t have those alluring three letters that adorn people’s names; MSc, PhD, etc. I started applying here and there and got rejected here and there and I have to say that moving from one rejection to another was not easy at all to navigate. Being young and inexperienced left me unable to see the big picture. I was feeling extremely frustrated that I cannot pursue my dream and feeling stifled while trying to find a place to practice that allowed me to make a living without working myself to death, and striving so hard to be useful and do something that positively contributes to my sense of self-worth and my self confidence that were absolutely plummeting to the ground. Finally, after a couple of years of unpaid “internships” that offered very little learning opportunities and a lot of responsibilities, I was able, through some friends, to find a dodgy little clinic where I had to buy all the supplies, but at least I could practice, right? At least I could finally have a paying job instead of spending countless hours assisting, for free in dental clinics. Well, no! That was not the case, only few people visited the clinic, especially during the morning which left me unable to get a decent pay as my income was dependent on the number of patients I treated.
While most of my colleagues had, more or less, similar struggles, I was strictly convinced that this was my very own personal failure, that I didn’t have high enough grades to allow me to pursue a graduate degree, which I have decided was the reason why my career was not moving forward. I didn’t spend much time analyzing the association I have created in my head between my career progression and having a degree. I just presented it to myself as a hard fact. And my obsession with graduate degrees kept getting exaggerated until I ultimately felt I was worth nothing and that my bachelor’s was worthless. Needless to say, I fell into a deep pit of depression and, of course, working in the dodgy, little clinic didn’t help at all. I felt so isolated and lonely. I decided I had one final attempt before I was going to completely give up. I wanted to apply to a potential vacancy in the children cancer hospital of my hometown, in the dental clinic. I was so desperate that I broke one of the many rules that controlled my life and I made my mother call someone on the inside. Well, that person was even stricter with himself than I was. He simply stated that he couldn’t help with the dental clinic but if I wanted to, they were looking to hire in the research department. I was desperate for a cause, even more than I was in need of a job or an income. I needed an outlet for all that energy and that passion that were driving me crazy. All I had to do is understand what research was and prepare for and pass a series of interviews (one of which left me in tears for an hour but that’s a story for another day), so that’ easy right, do a bit of reading and prepare to be interviewed for a job that you never even heard about until a few hours earlier, yes the interview was the day following that phone call. Long story short; I got the job! I just had to endure three months of unpaid work! Thankfully; those 3 months were reduced to only one and I ultimately joined the underpaid, overworked research community.
Let me try to explain to you how gratifying this place was to my ego. How could it not be when I was not just working in the children cancer hospital, the noblest of all causes but I was also working in the research department, where word was we were “the crème de la crème”. But if you think that my obsession with having a graduate degree was attenuated after finding a cause, think again, the obsession was only inflated. Nothing I was obsessed about ever compares to the ultimate explosion that took place when I was working at the hospital in a setting that was as close to academia as I had ever experienced. I saw no future for myself without a Master’s that was to be followed, fast, with a PhD. I associated all potential success and career progress with degrees, and I saw no other truth. I couldn’t fathom having any future without having a bunch of letters following me name. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted, a degree that allowed me to keep my job at the hospital. I was 28 at the time and I was convinced that I was too old to take time off to study. I felt too much time was wasted already and that I needed to make up for it fast so I started to look for online degrees. At the age of 29, I was blessed to be married and have the financial support required to be able to save my entire salary for a year. I was able to pay for the registration fees and only one module in that first year of my distance learning Msc degree.
Four years, 2 babies and 3 countries later, I was on the hunt of a PhD. And while my husband constantly argued against, I always counter argued that I absolutely had no future in academia without a PhD. But what I truly meant was that I had no value, no worth. And it ultimately wrecked my sense of self-worth to not have a PhD. The story goes on to me not being able to afford a single PhD program of the ones I am interested in, and not willing to put myself up for rejection by applying to a scholarship, I just had to wait and see. I started a new job as a research assistant and got working with some really inspiring people and started realizing that all through my career I had the chance to work with a mix between a group of some brilliant people who don’t have any graduate degrees who had stable jobs and were on the fast track in a prestigious career and another group of numb nuts who were PhDs, post docs or professors, you name it, and all of this made me question my reasoning. I also cannot deny how ridiculous it was when this person I know -who was absolutely frustrated with her work situation- called me and she just screamed at me over the phone: “I will not accept a research assistant position, I HAVE A PHD!” and that was the ultimate slap on the face, a slap that didn’t offend me but what it did was wake me up. At first, I just couldn’t believe the audacity; her saying this to me, the RA, as if accepting a position like mine would be the ultimate humiliation to a person of her caliber. But then it sounded like an absolutely non-sensical, unfounded and ridiculous argument. Let alone the fact that her PhD is completely irrelevant to the work she is doing, and the fact that she is being taught how to do this work at hand, it also seemed like her degree worked more against her then it did for her. It gave her a sense of entitlement that was unfounded since she is in a beginner’s position in this new lab and she actually is being taught how to do stuff by, guess what? You guessed right, a research assistant, who also happens to be a fresh grad.
I have to say that, as annoying as this phone call was, it was the best wake up call for the insanity I was putting myself through. I then started thinking about why I want this PhD and I decided to be pragmatic with myself and not to use words like “dream” or “passion”. I asked myself what it was that I wanted. All the answers that I came up with were clear and concise once I had emotions removed from the equation. My reasons were: wanting to have a job that I enjoyed, a line of work that eventually had an impact on peoples’ lives. I wanted work that I believed in, work that challenges me in many ways and I wanted to be a life-long learner. What I realized was not a surprise; I already have all that and more in my current job. I am currently not micromanaged, I am seen and heard, my contribution is appreciated, and I am growing. My title might not be that senior or that fancy, but my contribution is meaningful, and it leaves me feeling accomplished. I am continuously motivated and inspired by the work I do or by the team I work with. I feel that I am able to inspire others and enjoy working amongst a group.
I learn every day; I acquire new skills and do things for the first time which keeps my sharp and continuously hones my skills. Not so surprisingly, this has always been my experience in all my RA jobs. I was always challenged and inspired, and I always did a lot more than what was required. That is greatly attributed to my luck in working with people who were self-confident enough to give me opportunities to absolutely learn and grow. And when I asked myself the question of whether I see myself having this role for the next 20 years per se, the answer was clear to me; absolutely yes. If I keep learning new things and if I keep getting better at the things I already know how to do. If I keep finding meaningful projects and if I wake up everyday with a sense of purpose, then the title wouldn’t matter and having a degree or not won’t bother me.
Now I am not writing all this to dissuade anyone from seeking degrees, I am not even trying to evaluate how important they are. I am just sharing my own experience where my own obsession with advancing in academia was only seen through one light only, degrees, while there are other ways to advance your career. Also, because my own perspective tainted my reality for years and made me live in a race through a bunch of boxes I had to check before I could enjoy any of my accomplishments. And that’s what I think is unrealistic and detrimental to mental health. I am, also, still open for the idea of pursuing a PhD as a challenge that I find interesting to go through…. I hear laughter in the back. What I started doing is think of a degree less as my last resort for success and more as an opportunity to learn and be challenged.
I am writing because I hope that if you choose to pursue any opportunities in the future, that you know that they are aligned with your wants and needs. Now I know that academia can be that awful and toxic place, but a PhD will not be the safety vest that will protect you from criticism, better yet, it will never protect you from your affliction with imposter syndrome.
Finally; it is very important to state that the degree of privilege one enjoys is an important component of the decisions one makes about career. And I have been blessed in many ways. I was able to take unpaid internships while living with my parents. I was able to take jobs that paid less or that were unsponsored or offered no benefits because my husband’s job covered those expenses. I was able to save enough to fully pay for my degree without the burden of a loan or waiting for a scholarship.