As my cohort mates from my PhD program are now finishing up and posting on Facebook about what colleges they will be teaching at, I have to admit that I’m a little jealous.
Deep down, I know that I’m in the right place where I am now. I love what I’m doing.
But I did earn my PhD, and put six years of work into it while balancing being diagnosed, and learning to live with, multiple chronic illnesses (and was among one of the first in my cohort to finish).
I didn’t expect to feel this way. I didn’t expect to feel like I took the road less traveled and am now watching what life would have looked like if I would have taken the more standard route.
I also have to give credence to the lessons I’ve learned, not just in the classroom, but from living with chronic illness. If I only give credence to my purely academic experience, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
And the reality is that I know I wouldn’t have been happy on that path.
My job as a patient advocate is stressful, to be sure, but the stress of third-year and tenure review seemed to me to be time sucks that I ultimately didn’t want to spend my limited time and energy on.
However, I do know that I let my dissertation committee down – they said it in so many words or less – and I still have yet to come clean to them about what I have been doing for the past year and a half. Although they are aware that whatever I was doing was somewhat outside of the academic realm.
I also know that there were many people who felt I shouldn’t be in graduate school because I was sick, and I’m sure now there are some who feel I shouldn’t have taken a spot in a PhD program from someone who would have gone into academia.
But I’m doing something good, I’m doing something that I hope is helping the world. And that should count for something. And so should my happiness.
I’m using my experience as a chronically ill student to help patients, with the ultimate goal of helping chronically ill students navigate the maze that is academia, and which is even more complicated when you are chronically ill.
If I had to do it all over again, would I?
That’s a complicated question. My first instinct is to say yes. If I had to do it all over again, I would have. I don’t think that I wasted six years of my life pursuing a PhD in sociology.
The reality is that had I not been in school and gotten sick, I really don’t know what life would have looked like. I had a flexible schedule to some degree – in terms of being in class for probably less than 20 hours a week. Even though my rheumatologist and others told me to quit school. That was the only thing that felt normal about my life after diagnosis. I knew school. I could do school.
And given all of my doctors’ appointments and tests, had I been working in a traditional job, I probably would have had to leave it.
Just as I am now in a place that I would never have imagined I would be, I also can’t imagine having done things differently in the absence of illness. Because I’ll never know what that would have looked like. I can only imagine that had I picked journalism school over a sociology PhD, I probably wouldn’t have been able to continue with that kind of a career either.
Plus, when I started my PhD program, I did believe that I wanted an academic job. That is what I thought going in. But when I got sick, my priorities changed, and I realized that I was meant to be on a different path, a path I never even knew existed before I got sick.
So while I might be envious of my cohort mates now settling into their academic jobs, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, both the six years in my PhD program, and the last year and a half in my Master’s program in Health Advocacy.
And I try not to second guess it too much. But there are days when the wisdom of my plan (or the lack thereof) wavers. I never anticipated doing more school beyond my PhD, but ultimately that’s what felt right and I had the undying support from those closest to me. And I never anticipated being diagnosed with lupus and RA at the age of 22, but I did.
So maybe the path not taken was indeed the path that I should not have taken.