Not Getting on (the PhD) Track
Not until senior year in college did I learn that not everyone has to earn PhD. That’s how I used to put it, anyway, and only half joking.
My parents both had PhDs, their friends all (seemingly) had PhDs. I certainly knew that plenty of adults I interacted with on a daily basis—family members included—didn’t go to graduate school or college. Still, I always assumed the trajectory of my education, like that of my parents and their science-y friends, would hurl me unerringly from pre-K to graduate school, terminating, finally, in acknowledgement of true scholarship and personal worthiness, the PhD.
Did my parents expect me to get a PhD? Perhaps. I seemed to have the aptitude and interest. But were they disappointed when I took another path? Unlikely. Yet at the time that I got my Masters in Teaching and did not continue my graduate work, I felt unsuccessful in their eyes. I felt unworthy. I had internalized the Academic’s measuring stick of success: higher degree plus career requiring such a degree (and publication in the field). Surely, I was the only one judging me against this limited view of success.
In my studies to become a health coach with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, the director, Joshua Rosenthal lectures about a concept he refers to as “fitting out”. That is, don’t try to fit in, but do the opposite. Be yourself. It seems obvious, but I am sure I am not the only one to find out later in life that in some ways, I have not been true to myself.
I have always gleefully “fit out” in certain ways throughout my life. I took up recreational cross country skiing and whitewater canoeing rather than team sports and preferred to brave the elements rather than go shopping. I liked to think I followed the beat of my own drum.
Yet there were important ways in which I felt the need to fit in. I wanted the respect of my family, which I thought meant higher education. Well, that’s only part of the story since I also love being a student and would probably go to various schools collecting degrees just for fun, had I the funds to do so.
For some 14 years, I had a good job as a public school teacher and I could see I was making a difference in kids’ lives. I felt I had at least minimally met my family’s expectations in this way: earning a good living and doing good in the world.
Opportunity Came Knocking (In the Form of a Chair Hitting Me in the Head)
Then complications from a concussion kept me out of work for over two years. For much of the time away from work I spent my days trying to recover, but aside from the crippling symptoms, another cloud hung over me: fear of what “everyone” thought of my absence from work. I felt I had to justify why I wasn’t working to colleagues and even strangers. I felt they must be wondering why (when I looked just fine) I was not participating in the workforce as a “productive member of society.”
My school held my job for me for three years, but then I had to decide on my future as a teacher. My doctors and I had to ponder if I was able to return to that work and if it was healthy for me to return. I loved teaching English. Perhaps, I thought, I could fight the fatigue and difficulty reading and still do a good job teaching English. I wondered if the need to work through my midday malaise and struggle to read in longer than short bursts would force my brain to cooperate. Yet I could not deny that my job was stressful, and that stress might set back my brain’s recovery. It certainly affected my health in general. For those reasons, a quiet, brave voice inside me dared to ask: was returning to work the right choice for me?
After months of hand wringing and waffling, I submitted my letter of resignation to the district.
Finding My Way to Fitting Out
At first I was elated to have made a decision, any decision, and stopping agonizing over the choice. I felt relieved to have consciously chosen to be healthier, if not so financially stable.
It was not easy going from there, however. I stumbled along the beginnings of a number of paths for a while, still feeling the need to justify to the world and myself why I didn’t have a 9 to 5 job. I considered going back to school, unsurprisingly, and getting a higher degree. I also wondered how I could have given up my teaching job.
One idea floating through my head was becoming a health coach. The job doesn’t require a higher degree, however, and I worried about what my family would think, what my former colleagues would think, and how I would be judged by everyone. I worried about how I would feel about myself.
Then one day as I was sharing some information I’d read with someone who asked me at the gym, the answer to my own questions became obvious. Who cared what others might think? I should do what uses my talents and interests and helps others—by becoming a health coach. Do other people really care and are they really judging me? Maybe some are. But I think most people are too wrapped up in their own lives and struggles to care about what I do for a living. If they do care it is perhaps because they regret their own career choices. Or they are judgmental people who would always find something to look down upon.
Most importantly, I had to “fit out” of the insistent voice in my head telling me what counted as success. I always expected myself to be an academic and I measured my achievements and worth by standards of Academia (degrees, publications, college teaching jobs). I had to let go of those benchmarks, and so too, my own long-held expectations for myself.
I had to fit out of my own definition of success. Only since I accomplished this feat have I been able to wake up with a smile on my face and purpose in my step.