Four years ago I messed up a life-changing opportunity. I was mid-way through a top PhD program when the department head--the person who had originally recruited me--kicked me out over email without so much as a word of notice. The justifications he gave were weak, even contradictory, but he had enough power within the department that he could do whatever he wanted.
In the ensuing time I have slowly been rebuilding my life. It's been incredibly hard. At times the depression was so thick it felt like I was moving through water. I lost nearly all of my friends--either through my anger at having not been defended by them, or from the shame at what happened. I've watched them all get plum job that I would have done anything for. Meanwhile I'm barely treading water, both financially and emotionally.
I'm starting to gain some traction in life, but still I wake up every day and think how much I screwed up. I know I could have tried harder. Much of my day is spent in this emotional miasma trying to move forward but thinking constantly about the past.
How do I move past this? I've tried everything I can think of: I've been in near constant therapy, I'm on medication for depression. I've read books on forgiveness, practiced meditation and mindfulness. These things help in the short term, but I never seem to make escape velocity from feeling like garbage about myself. Every thing I read about staying positive bounces off my mind and the things that stick are confirmations of my worthlessness.
I know this isn't the worst thing to have happened to someone. I know there are people who through their actions or not have suffered real loss. I'm no stranger to loss myself, having grown up in a less than ideal environment. And yet, this is a big, ugly, tangible, personal loss. There's no way to spin this positively as much as I try.
Having had not too dissimilar experience on my second post-doc (after a good PhD and 1st post-doc), you have my sympathies. I saw out the post-doc, however, there was no love lost between the prof. and myself when I left. Basically, it was largely responsible for the possibility of a research career path.
I ended up leaving without a reference and a mixture of being "overqualified" for various normal jobs and the lack of a reference from my most recent job caused a great deal of difficulty. It took me a year to find employment outside academia and research. That year now means these days I'm simply grateful to have a job. I know there's no going back now.
I can't give an easy answer to your problem, except you have to move on from your dismissal from your PhD. If you don't, it will continue to eat you up inside and you'll find yourself in a vicious circle of depression and doubt you seem to be in. Other personal circumstances meant I psychologically had to move on and stop thinking about what happened, and once I stopped thinking about it as I moved further into my non-academic job then began to feel happier.
As regards your employment situation, can you not sell yourself on skills gained during your studies (i.e. analytical and research skills, networking, experimental techniques if science-based, knowledge gained, etc.)? How can you be an asset to a potential employer rather than just looking to fill a job?
As regards the dismissal, can I ask why you were asked to leave? Whilst you have clearly lashed out at people around you (this is never a good plan), there's an element of you blaming yourself with you mentioning the shame you feel. As I intimated above, you need to move on from this.
Would apologising to them allow you to reform these friendships and at least allow you some degree of support?
I'm sorry to hear you've had a related experience. I don't think I've moved on from mine. I'm still mired in it, trying to make the best of it.
> As regards the dismissal, can I ask why you were asked to leave?
You know, whenever I talk to Americans they always assume I did something wrong. "Oh, you must have done something. They wouldn't just kick you out for no reason." People from outside America get that bad shit sometimes happens to good people. Sometimes mean people do mean things.
The reasons I was kicked out make no sense: I had an A- average in coursework, and yet the professor claimed I didn't have the grades to stay in. I had passed my comps (15 months prior to being kicked out!) and the professor said ex post that it was only a "marginal pass". I was doing research and presenting at conferences and yet this professor said I lacked the drive to complete original work. He fabricated some interaction in his office--I really had very few interactions with him to begin with--where he claimed I said all sorts of things. Suffice it to say, he wanted me out and had the power to do so.
This kind of thing happens. I didn't ask or judge the reasons things went sour with your professor. Things just sometimes go bad through no fault of our own, and judgments of these kind don't help.
> Would apologising to them allow you to reform these friendships and at least allow you some degree of > support?
Consciously I have no desire to rebuild those friendships. Why would I want fair-weather friends? The issue is the guilt and shame around the fact those relationships have atrophied or crumbled. I don't know how to manage that.
How did you move on? No offense, but you left with the degree, and I have nothing to show for my years of work.
Hi lostandquestioning. What a horrible thing to happen, it must be really tough.
It's the way you talk about your situation - "I messed up", "I screwed up" - and the guilt and shame you express that suggest you feel you did something wrong. I don't believe Mackem_Beefy was judging you.
I'm no psychologist but it's intriguing that you use this language about a situation that's clearly not your fault.
Bullying in the academic workplace is incredibly common...bullying in the workplace full stop is incredibly common. I am sorry that this happened to you. A similar thing happened to me in the second year of my PhD but my Dean, who was and is an incredibly upstanding person, shut my supervisor down, took over as my supervisor and was the single biggest reason why and how I finished my PhD.
Fast forward to 9 years later and I'm trying to figure out what to do with my fallow career. I have 10 years of teaching and research experience in academe and 8 years as a senior public servant but I left my last job 15 months ago because I was bullied to the point I got the Human Rights Commission involved. This was the 5th bullying boss I'd had in 8 years. I've published my PhD in the intervening time and done some normal jobs but I'd really like a half time research position within a normal, functioning dept.
What I think I"m trying to say is that there are no guarantees of plum jobs even when you finish. I made a six figure salary in my last position but it was a horrendous environment and my boss was a nightmare. As were 4 bosses prior to him (I worked a lot of contract and fixed term positions). I'm unemployed, jobs are scarce at the moment, funding is even scarcer. I'm working to identify what else I can and want to do, and I'm thinking of doing an acupuncture and Chinese medicine degree. We'll see. I wish you the best in whatever you decide.
So sorry to hear your story. Having had a bad experience with my supervisor myself I can easily understand your feelings. I did manage to complete and get my PhD, but this is because I was a mature student and had enough experience of life to deal with the situation/ person. I am not sure what the outcome would have been if I were in my twenties.
Be kind to yourself. Sadly people like your supervisor can be found anywhere, but now you are much more able to deal with them, should something similar happen again. What I learned is that dealing with difficult people is a skill that it is vital to acquire if you don't want to spend the rest of your life feeling overwhelmed and bitter.
I understand why you don't want to hang out with your old friends - there is little friendship in academia to start with, and people will always support the "winner". This is actually a good thing because it enables you to start afresh.
I think that although the implications of what happened might have an impact on your future choices, you still have many options in front of you - although they may not be evident at the moment.
I am in a similar situation to you albeit recently, and it was a tough graduate committee rather than my supervisors who decided they didn't like my project and booted me out with only a masters. In my case it was the combined disaster of a bad project, personal problems and a lack of competent disability support that led to my failure to complete the PhD. However regardless of the reason I can understand how victimised you feel; the PhD system is not particularly fair, some people seem to sail through in 3 years while other have to fight tooth and nail to finish in 8, and in the end it all comes down to an academic judgement that you have little say in.
Given this, it's important to limit how angry you feel with yourself. Circumstances just came against you, and of course it isn't fair at all. However allow yourself to be angry sometimes with the world, heck even be angry at other people who actively worked against you or just didn't support you - I too know the resentment of seeing other succeed where you have failed with no apparent difference in skill.
I am still at the start of my "screw the PhD system, I'm doing something else!" journey, but know you are not alone. There's a lot of blogs out there by people who quit or just couldn't manage graduate school and are moving on. Also if it's been 4 years now it sounds like you may also have ongoing issues with depression which should be talked about with a doctor.
Finally, even if you HAD completed the PhD there's a chance your job prospects would have been a nightmare (see the "disposable academic" article in an earlier thread). Perhaps you should think about it as a good thing that you left the arbitrary and exploitative world of graduate degrees and university research behind?
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