The one big lesson I learned about life after getting my PhD

Happiness is learning to love who you are, degree by degree.

By Astrid Radermacher

People do PhDs for a variety of reasons. I will admit that my reasons were ill-informed at best, comedic if you are generous, and tragic at worst.

The path that led me there is long, winding, and definitely not bite-sized enough for this article.

Suffice it to say, it was not the journey of curiosity people make it out to be. I ended up doing a PhD because I believed I needed to continue on a very narrow trajectory and if I didn’t, I would be a failure and not good enough.

Doing a PhD gave me purpose and meaning – it made me feel important. The PhD was, and is, a mark of competence.

But looking back, I realise I needed to feel competent and accomplished to feel worthy as a human being. I told you – tragic.

The pursuit of the PhD eclipsed all other basic needs in my life. I did not go to the dentist for over four years, or the gynae, or the optometrist.

I was making no plans for my retirement (cries in compound interest). I wasn’t there when my grandmother passed away, though I should have been.

This is a tale as old as time for PhD students, or people with a singular focus on something that just needs to get done.

You neglect yourself and those around you. I realised, too, that there was a single thread that ran through all of this – the belief that I was not inherently worth looking after.

The idea, deeply planted within me, that my worth came from what I could produce, not who I am. The self-neglect and the overworking for the PhD were all part of the same toxic soup.

So, I handed in my thesis. The heavens, annoyingly, did not part. Eventually I got a poorly scanned PDF with comments from reviewers. I had passed without corrections. Which really never happens.

Despite reaching the pinnacle of academic excellence, I felt kind of … meh. I was at a crossroads. I could either continue on a trajectory in academia or transition into industry.

By the end of the PhD, I realised that I cared about my topic (plant cell death processes in resurrection plants), kind of.

Which is to say I found it interesting, but not interesting enough to sustain a life in the hellscape that is being an academic in the 21st century.

So, industry it was. I learnt to code during my PhD because plant genes unfortunately don’t just tell you what they are doing – you need to extract this information from them.

I found coding really intimidating, then really frustrating, then extremely frustrating, then honestly just pathetic.

Finally something started to give (my ego mostly) and it started to click.

Fast forward through a graduation and a few anxious months of figuring out how to land a non-academic job, I am now employed as a data scientist.

Data science leverages my curiosity, coding skills, research mindset, and the tenacity I cultivated during the PhD.

It requires that a person remains open and eager to learning new things. It also pays pretty well.

A quick note on academic funding for those who are unaware: if you have the charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent to get one, bursaries are generally paid out in lump sums twice a year.

For the first few months, you are ballin’ out of control. The last few are definitely lean.

The funding offices at universities are notoriously inconsistent with when payments happen, and it feels really bad to have to rely on others for months where you have no money but plenty of bills.

If you even have people in your life who can lend you money. This is how I lived for years and years – most of my 20s.

It takes extreme restraint to not blow 100K as soon as it hits your account. I quickly figured out that the best way to do this is to get a separate savings account, and then pay myself a ‘salary’ each month.

Getting a salary for the first time was definitely weird for me. But good, melt-in-your mouth, snuggle-up-by-the-fire weird.

This big change in financial format coincided with an awakening in me. For the first time in my life, I decided to really invest in myself.

I can afford consistent therapy for the first time. I can afford more pilates classes. I can afford good dental care. I can afford good quality shoes. I can afford to save.

I have also become very intentional about where and how I spend my money. My purchases have been about filling my cup of self-care wherever possible so that I can be a better friend, partner, colleague, ally, and human being.

I am deeply grateful for this privilege. I know I don’t deserve these things more than the next person.

We all deserve a dignified existence where our basic needs are met well. We all deserve dignified work. We all deserve good quality healthcare.

We also need to look into how our future thought leaders are being treated at tertiary institutions – it is really, really difficult to focus on big ideas when you are stressing about money. Fear kills creativity.

Something I wish early 20s Astrid had known is how everything changes when you love yourself. No amount of grinding at work gives you this.

Choosing to use my money to take care of my needs in an intentional and thoughtful way has been one branch of my little sapling of self-love.

The other branches are generosity, bodywork, community, creativity, joy, pleasure, and love. Each branch needs careful tending.

This is my new mantra: I deserve love, especially from myself. And so do you.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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