By Kirsty Jackson (@kjjscience)
If you are a high achiever, it can be assumed that you will be able to conquer everything put before you with ease. Achievements that would be mammoth for the average person are supposed to be run of the mill for you. When you have spent all of your life hitting every goal set for you, it becomes impossible for people to imagine that you will fail at anything. Some lucky few live their lives never encountering failure, but the majority of us we will come across something, that no matter how hard we try, we cannot succeed in. Most people experience failure when they are younger and as such learn how to rationalise that failure and how to learn from it. This poses a philosophical question – If you learn from a failure, is it really a failure?
I have spent all of my life getting the best grades and fulfilling every expectation held for me, so when I did not pass my PhD viva exam I entered a difficult period. There was still a belief in me, and from others, that I had what it took to gain the PhD and should work to get the qualification because I had already sacrificed so much in an effort to gain it. I ploughed on ahead, fighting against the anguish I felt at not passing first time and trying desperately to keep up with what people expected of me. I kept being told I was “clever”, I was “technically proficient” enough to do it and I shouldn’t “waste all the time” I had already given to study. But I still awoke every morning feeling like I had barely slept and with a dread about taking myself back into the lab.
I’ve always had a determined, almost mule like, spirit when I decide I want to do something, but even this seemed to have deserted me. I didn’t feel like myself at all. This descended into me spending my evenings in tears and overeating to comfort myself. But still I continued to battle against all of my emotions because I MUST NOT FAIL. This became almost like a mantra and it didn’t matter how ill I was making myself. I was getting increasingly anxious and wanted to spend less and less time in the company of others, which is completely against my character. This was affecting my work: no matter how hard I was trying, my tiredness was not helping me gain those precious results I needed in the lab. Experiments that were almost routine to me were not working and I could not figure out why – which only added to my despair.
I started to think about what I would do if I ran out of time and funding to complete the experiments that were required for me to complete the PhD. I had been offered a Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) after my viva exam, but it is unusual to spend four years studying for an MPhil in science in the UK, so it could be a sign to others that I hadn’t managed to get a PhD. I started to think about what I would say to potential future employers, how I would have to re-live my failure every time I had a job interview and the questions that might arise. Then I thought about my family and how proud they had been of me, coming from a working class, separated family in London, rising through comprehensive schooling to the almost unimaginable heights of a PhD student. I was going to be a Dr, and in me I held all of their hopes and dreams. These things made me feel physically sick. I was going to be failing my family, and to me that was worse than failing myself. I had even been told by my husband that I should think myself lucky to have even had the chance to get a PhD.
I was spiralling down mentally and physically and was losing my ability to cope with the situation. I would look in the mirror and not even recognise the woman looking back at me. One day, when sat in a pool of used tissues, I felt something break within me. I knew that if I was going to carry on down this route I might not make it out the other side in a functional state. I have never been one to thrive on adrenaline and even theme park rides turn me into a jabbering wreck. The levels of stress I was going through was starting to damage my health. I knew then that I needed to get out, but still felt it was an impossible task.
I managed to pluck up the courage to talk about how I was feeling with a close friend (who had graduated recently with a PhD) and a couple of close family members. It started to become clear to me that my health was more important than the title I was chasing. I reflected upon everything I learned during my time studying for the PhD and it was anything but a waste of time. I had learned how to handle myself in difficult situations and become more organised. I had tons of self-discipline and my presentation skills, task management, problem solving skills, communication skills and critique skills had all vastly improved. I now also had in-depth knowledge of science research and how science works as a career.
Now that I had established that a life in science research was not going to be for me, I spent more time thinking about what I actually wanted to do with my life. During my undergraduate and my postgraduate studies I had participated in a lot of science outreach, teaching children about a variety of science topics far outside my specialism. I had always known that I enjoyed these school visits far more than I enjoyed my time in the lab. Teaching had crossed my mind when I was finishing my undergraduate degree, but I felt too young and inexperienced to make a good teacher. There is also a great stigma attached to becoming a teacher in this country with phrases like “If you can’t do, teach” being a common jibe at the profession. After investigation, it was clear that having a MPhil instead of a PhD would not make a large difference to me getting a place on a teacher-training course. It would mean a slightly smaller training bursary, but it definitely wasn’t a deal breaking difference. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, but after five months of wrestling with it and a lot of discussions, I decided that I was going to be better off calling it a day and accepting the MPhil.
That just left one last hurdle, my Dad. I knew he wasn’t going to take my decision well. He had always been the one pushing my brother and me to try and always win, and always get the highest and best of everything possible. He saw the PhD as learning the skills to be a scientist, in the same way an apprentice learns the skills of a trade. It took another massive struggle within myself to call him. The conversation was short and carried a mixed message, his words saying one thing and the tone of his voice saying another. None the less, it was over. I sat on my sofa feeling both sad at his response, but strangely freed of a great burden. I am no longer “perfect”. I can now concentrate on finding that happy, confident young woman who used to stand before me in the mirror. I can put my efforts into fulfilling all the things I need to do to become a teacher in a subject that I still find fascinating, and pour my passion into something that I feel is truly worthwhile.
About the author: Kirsty Jackson has recently completed a MPhil in Plant Science in Norwich, UK. She intends to pursue a career in teaching so she can use her scientific knowledge to inspire the next generation of scientists. Follow her on twitter (@kjjscience).