Dropping out of my Ph.D.saved my life part II

Wow did yesterday’s post get a lot of conversation going! That was amazing, thank you all so much for commenting! Sharing my drop out story was awesome, felt good. But I wasn’t totally honest. I dropped out only after trying to move programs because my supervisor died.

Ok, let’s back up. So I’m flaming out in my first year of the program and I go to the head of the graduate program and tell her that I am taking a leave of absence for medical reasons. I confide in her and tell her that my supervisor has been bullying and demeaning me and I tell her I want to quit the program essentially because I’m a total fraud who can’t hack it. Do you know what she said to me? Bullshit. She said, “Janet, this isn’t about your abilities, you’re amazing. You need to find a supervisor who will support you and help you get this done if that’s what you want. Don’t quit because of someone else, quit only because you don’t want to do it for yourself anymore”. Wow. Powerful words. So I said to her, ok, I want you to supervise me, can you do that? And she said yes, just change your topic so that it’s in my area of expertise.

So I did. I had a completely new topic (same general theoretical area of expertise), a new committee of advisor, and a comprehensive list. If you’re like what the hell is a comprehensive list, in the second year of a most social sciences Ph.D. programs, students have to pull together a comprehensive list of readings, do the readings, and then write the mother of all exams on them. Once you’ve done that successfully, you can move on to actually write the damn thing. So I had pulled myself together, I was moving forward with a new topic and a wonderful supervisor. And then she died, one day, of a massive brain aneurysm. It was the second loss I’d suffered since my mom died eight years before. It was horrible, I was devastated. And then I realized, it was over. My academic career died with her. I only had two years of funding left, no supervisor, no ability to do my comps and I fled the province.

But even then, I didn’t totally quit. I tried to go back to Queen’s to keep going (foolish). Tried to get a new topic (even more foolish). Tried so hard to cling to the idea that I was my work, my life was my achievement. Failure, even at this point, wasn’t an option. But it was already done. And the downward spiral really started at that point. This was 2003 and into 2004. I can’t tell that story yet, I’m not ready. But if you are wiling to share, please tell me in the comments, how did you survive a big failure? What made you walk away from something so hard? What helped you to leave? What did you learn? I’d love to know. xo Janet

Dropping out of my Ph.D. saved my life

I like to say on this blog that my midlife crisis started three years ago, which is essentially true, but the fact of the matter is, I’ve been in crisis most of my life. The the real flame out started in 2001 when I started a Ph.D. program. I went back to Vancouver after very successfully finishing a Master of Arts in Sociology at Queen’s in 2001. I hadn’t taken a break from academic work since after my Mom died in 1995, a huge mistake. So after an honours BA at UBC and a Masters at Queen’s, I decided to move back to BC which was a huge mistake.

Saying that my trauma was triggered the minute I got off the plane is an understatement. I think I had a massive panic attack that lasted about 2 years. You think I may be exaggerating but I’m not. Genuinely not kidding, it lasted 2 years when I fled the province with Meg by car.

I started the Ph.D. program with the highest of hopes. I wanted to be an academic and I thought I would be a good one. I really did. But I couldn’t deal with my trauma, be in Vancouver, I was completed burned out from overworking myself and I flamed out. But let’s go back to what I think happened and then, with almost twenty years perspective, maybe did happen.

I started in 2001 and it seemed like it was going well. I had no idea what fresh hell awaited me – the people were competitive, the city was cold as hell (both the weather and the people) and I had no idea what I was doing there. But I faked it, sort of. My supervisor whom I gone to work with could clearly see me flaming out in my first year because she didn’t like my work and didn’t hold back in telling me. She told me on a weekly basis how truly terrible it was for someone in a downward depression/anxiety/shame spiral was super helpful.

But she didn’t know about the spiral and I didn’t tell her. In fact, I couldn’t tell anyone. I was so afraid and ashamed about having depression that I didn’t think I could be a Ph.D. student and be diagnosed with a mental illness. It was pretty dark and being in a doctoral program was soul crushing. I think the most mentally healthy of people suffer as doctoral students. The sole purpose of these programs is to strip students down. To make them prove their scholarly worth. To try to push every piece of ego out of their work, as has been done to them. It’s not only dehumanizing, it’s unconscionable.

So every time someone has asked me about doing a doctoral program, I’ve advised them against it. And not because I hold a grudge against the program or that I spent years feeling like a failure because I couldn’t finish it, it’s because I genuinely believe it’s not worth it. Very, very few people who get Ph.D.s these days get a full-time, tenure track jobs. That’s the golden carrot they dangle in front of you when you do a doctoral program. And it’s far too elusive these days to be worth the struggle. I’d love to hear from people who had a good recent experience with a Ph.D. program, it would make me believe more in the sacrifices required.

With 20 years hindsight, I can see that I was so unwell even before I got to that program. And going back to Vancouver, after being away from the pain and trauma for two years, was a huge mistake. I could feel the mistake in every bone of my body and I didn’t listen to it. I refused to listen to the voice that told me not to be there, to pull the plug. If I had known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done the Ph.D.program, I wouldn’t have gone back to Vancouver and I could have started my healthy life a lot earlier than I did. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get my shit together. But you all know what they say about hindsight. If you have the opportunity to listen to the voice that tells you, don’t do this, just tune in, just for a minute. It may pivot your life in ways that are a lot healthier. xo Janet

Janet’s Top Ten signs you need a break from work

10. You swear Jesus Christ at the top of your lungs to no one in particular when you’re reading something on your screen.

9. You read your emails and start immediately rolling your eyes or shaking your head. Again, saying nothing and directed at no one in particular.

8. You can’t remember the last time you went to the bathroom but you’ve been at work for at least 4 hours.

7. You are eating lunch at 3pm and are grateful just to be putting food in your mouth.

6. You run between meetings. Not figuratively, literally, running between meetings because you’re so behind in your day.

5. You look around at all of your colleagues, who are all lovely people, and think, if I have to spend one more minute with you I’m going to lose my shit.

4. You start micro-managing everything – emails, meetings, people, documents. Everything looks wrong to you even though it’s a document you’ve probably seen at least once before and though, yeah, this is fine.

3. You walk into a meeting room and forget why you’re there. You know you have a meeting but you’re so overwhelmed by everything that you’ve forgotten what you’re there to discuss.

2. You start presentations to people by saying, I’m sorry I’m so disorganized but I’ve been really busy lately. And then proceed to give half of the right presentation and half of the wrong one.

and the #1 sign you know you need a break from work:

You’re in a meeting with your entire management team and your boss and you say far too loudly, “if we don’t stop talking about this subject, I think my head is going to explode all over this table”.

Ref: me at work on Tuesday. I tried very hard to maintain my cool but couldn’t and I blurted this out. I was, in my defense, trying to be funny and also move the conversation along. But there was some truth in it as well. Thankfully, I’m taking two weeks off, starting next week. Happy summer everyone, see you in August! xo Janet

leadership is courageous and courage can be learned

Credit: American Nurse Today

I’m creating my summer reading list right, which is to say, I’m making a list of all the books I want to read while on vacation and will read, if I’m lucky, one of those books. On the top of my list is Educated by Tara Westover and the other is Brene Brown’s, Dare to Lead. I’ve always loved BrenĂ© Brown’s work, she really gets the whole vulnerability and imperfection thing that I’ve got going on lately. Her books, Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly have inspired a lot of thinking that has gone into this blog. So, being a leader, and being someone who gotten dirty in Brown’s proverbial gladiator ring, I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy Dare to Lead.

Here’s the thing they don’t teach you about leadership: you need courage, a lot of it. And sometimes, finding that courage can be challenging. There are difficult conversations (with oneself and others). There are difficult decisions that have to be made, trade offs and sacrifices. There are difficult messages that have be delivered. If you’re not courageous, it will be very hard and stressful to lead effectively.

Courage, comes from the Latin “cor” for heart. Corage is old French, courage is originally from Middle English, “denoting the heart, as the seat of feelings”. Courage then, comes from the heart, not the head. We think that one is courageous when they lead brashly or with conviction or confidence. This isn’t courage, it’s hubris. Courage then, is a set of teachable skills, this has become Brene Brown’s most recent work. She is teaching courage to leaders. How do you teach someone who has to lead others to be courageous? You show them how to be vulnerable. You help them show up as their “whole hearted selves”. I lead from the heart and sometimes that can be really tough. It can be tough on me because I care a lot about the work and the people I work with but it can also be tough because I can become reactive instead of thoughtful. This is my natural tendency and it’s not a bad thing, it just is. It’s just something I have to learn to watch and check at times.

I’m a courageous person because to be courageous is, by definition, “the ability to do something that frightens oneself” and, “strength in the face of pain or grief”. I don’t say this for praise, I say it as fact. I need to harness that courage at work as a leader, to do things that frighten me (e.g. things outside my comfort zone). But I’m hoping that BrenĂ©’s book will help me figure out how to harness my natural tendency to be emotional and by that I mean, outwardly demonstrative with my feelings, and at the same time, not succumb to those feelings or be overwhelmed by them (see post yesterday about emotional flooding/panic attacks). This is where the hard work in for me comes. And I look forward to that hard work because it scares me. And that I think makes me courageous. It makes you courageous too. Remember that you have shown strength in the face of pain or grief and you have probably at some point done something that frightens you. Courage mon ami, take heart. xo Janet

hard things are hard

Credit: Pete Souza

This is one my favourite Pete Souza photos. I have it saved on my Instagram as an important reminder that hard things are, indeed, hard. My dad used to say, “if it was easy, everyone would do it”. And he was right. If getting a graduate degree was easy, lots of people would have one. If being married was easy, fewer people would get divorced or separated. If raising children were easy, more kids would be well adjusted. Hard things are hard. Even President Obama knew it when he was in the White House and I have to remind myself of this when I have those days when I feel like stuff should be easier.

Should is a shitty word. Should is a word that I wish I hadn’t used so much in my life. My mom should still be alive. My childhood should have been easier. My work should be less stressful. My parenting should be perfect. I should be perfect. Life should be fair for everyone. You get the picture. It’s a word that causes enormous pain, albeit I think, for many people, in ways that are less obvious. On days when I use have those thoughts that have should in them, I get so upset. I get angry and resentful and anxious. I start to look around for ways to right-size my anxiety. I want the upsetness to go away. News flash: it normally doesn’t work unless I use the tools I’ve learned in therapy.

We hear so much about how to manage anxiety or worry or negative thoughts through a variety of means and let me tell you, I’m sure I’ve tried them all: medication, positive self talk, therapy, journaling, inspirational quotes hanging on my office wall, you name it. Much of it is crap. Junk science. Junk non-science. So when I started cognitive behavioural therapy in 2015, I was skeptical. After about six months, when I started to feel less anxious and have fewer negative thoughts each day, I started to believe it was something that could work for me longer term.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have those days, like yesterday for example. Lots of anxiety and negative thoughts. But I’m learning to breathe and calm my central nervous system. I’m learning to be less hard on myself. I remember that life is meant to be challenging. When you get into that space when you’re “shoulding” on yourself, remember: even President Obama needed a reminder from David Axelrod that hard things are hard. xo Janet


I’ve been called every name in the book for bossy: opinionated, strident, loud, overbearing, full of vinegar, pushy and domineering. This started a long time ago, when I was in elementary school. I was smart and bossy, really good at telling everyone what to do and how to do it. I was so unsure of myself and with everything going on at home, I didn’t really know how to make or keep friends. I really wanted people to like me though, I knew that much as a little girl. I wanted to be popular, I knew that too. And I never was. Not in elementary school or high school (I think we’ve covered that already if you’ve been reading this blog for a bit – see high school was hell). It’s a big part of the reason why I loved Tina Fey’s book, Bossy Pants.

This is on a card that my boss has in her office and it’s totally a boss move to have this card. Wish I knew where it was from.

I realize now that I really just wanted attention and I was so anxious as a kid that I used being smart as a way of getting praise. As I got older, this need to be the smartest and hardest working made me put incredible pressure on myself and drive myself pretty hard to achieve. As I got older, my bossiness was dampened by bullying and exclusion but it reared its head again in university. I became singularly focused on achievement again, drowning my grief and anxiety in my work. After undergrad, I went to graduate school where once again I worked myself to the bone trying to get the carrots that were in front of me: scholarships, internships, a spot in a coveted Ph.D. program.

It wasn’t until I really got into the world of work that I started to see myself as a leader, as someone who could helpfully guide and leverage the strengths of others in service of a common goal. This is genuinely what I love about leading: working with a team of people who are all talented and focused. I’m lucky that I get to lead, it’s a privilege many take for granted. xo Janet