Confessions of a Failed Academic

When the hell does the PhD envy subside?


Anyone who struggles with clinical depression gets to know their red flags, those tired old mental tracks whose reappearance into consciousness signifies that your brain has once again broken down.

For me it’s repetitive to the point of being embarrassing. It’s always the same six words: I never should have left academia.

In this latest depressive episode, which I am currently clawing my way out of, my attack of academia anxiety was even more acute than before. As an employee at the University of Alberta I found myself skulking the hallways of the history department with no particular purpose, wallowing in self-pity while beating myself up over a path I didn’t choose. I even dropped in on a couple of old profs of mine to reminisce over old times and casually insert questions about possible PhD directions into the conversation, but with no real intention of following through on this. That train has sailed. I know this.

And yet the PhD envy persists to this day like a recurring migraine that flares up anytime my mental health is compromised. And I have yet to figure out how to kill it.

The irony of my PhD envy is that at no point in my younger days did I particularly want to be a university professor, let alone a history professor specifically. It always felt like sort of a fallback profession in case other more exciting options failed to play out. Now in my early forties it feels like a lofty, prestigious career achievement that is now truly out of reach.

I ended up going to grad school in the early 2000s and ended up completing an MA in Japanese history. My reasons for doing this were threefold: a) After several years of teaching ESL in Japan I still didn’t really know what to do with my life and figured further education was just generally a good idea; b) I had majored in history as an undergrad and knew I liked it; and c) I knew I wanted to bone up my Japanese to the point of fluency. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as an MA student, and by the end of it figured I would continue on to a PhD — and the seemingly obvious academic path.

It was when I returned to Japan as a research scholar ostensibly doing preparatory doctoral research that my life changed direction dramatically. I got engaged and married and while in Tokyo I decided I enjoyed doing freelance travel writing far more than writing dry peer-review articles on obscure points of Japanese history that hardly anybody would ever read. Meanwhile, my Japanese language skills continued to improve and I eventually got a full-time job at a translation firm, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

For a time I felt like I was flying high and on top of the world.

Then the wheels fell off the bus. A family tragedy precipitated a move back to Canada — a move that coincided with the global economic crash of 2008. Unable to find work in my native BC my wife and I decamped to Alberta, where I reinvented myself as a communications professional. After a frustrating start my career advanced.

While to all outside appearances I was doing well in my career, I found myself fighting off one depressive valley after another. I was no stranger to depression before 2008, having battled mood disorders since junior high school, but things seemed to get worse in my thirties. The previous decade of my life, which had been spent either in Japan or immersed in Japanese studies, now felt as inconsequential to my professional life as a diploma in buggy-whip manufacturing. My language skills and intercultural communication background seemed to have no currency whatsoever.

I was just another working Joe, and a decade older than most of the people at my level of seniority at that.

Not surprisingly, I explored the possibility of returning to academia to pursue a PhD upon my return to Canada. Even then I knew deep down that this was a pipe dream. Even with full funding and a teaching assistantship I would not be in a position to support my wife, who had already committed to returning to school. Moreover, since the passing of my old mentor Dr. Sinh Vinh at the University of Alberta there was no longer anybody at the university in a position to supervise me. This simply was not in the cards.

A decade later, and once again battling the twin demons Coulda and Shoulda, I ventured into the history department once again. This time I was told in no uncertain terms that unless I was independently wealthy and in a position to do it just for the intellectual enrichment, I would be foolish to shift back into academic gear. At my age I would be in my late forties before completing a PhD, meaning that funding would be unlikely and a tenure-track position even less likely. While a decade previous I was told it was still doable, now I was officially too old.

That door is now closed. But I’m still mourning the academic career I never had, and struggling to figure out what to do with my restless intellect and insatiable desire for both higher learning and for recognition. I guess I still don’t quite know what to do with myself.

The irony of course is that I have no delusions of what academic life is really like. I have numerous friends and family members in the ivory tower, and I know that the reality of it is as far from romantic as can be imagined. All of them are overworked, overburdened by teaching and research responsibilities, and underpaid for what they do, and most live in perpetual anxiety over their continued employment.

This isn’t just my circle. Read just about any article about academic employment and the news is pessimistic to say the least. Indeed, a good number of my colleagues with PhDs have abandoned the tower for work with not-for-profits or the private sector. Forget trying to get a tenured professorship in my late forties — getting one in my early thirties would probably be just as difficult, especially in a subject like Japanese history. The jobs just don’t seem to exist anymore.

So no, I don’t suffer from any romantic delusions about what the life of a university professor is like. And yet the academia envy still eats me up, and it’s gotten all the worse since beginning my job at the university. Perhaps it’s because I’m surrounded by profs and academics on a daily basis and as such am reminded of the path I didn’t take. Perhaps it’s all the glowing articles about “promising young grads” and “successful alumni” I’m required to write on a weekly basis. Perhaps it’s because I’m forced to walk past the buildings where I used to attend classes every morning and afternoon. It’s probably all of the above.

What makes matters worse is that when I explain my academic insecurities to others, be they therapists or group meetings, I feel like I sound like a pompous, entitled jerk. Compared with the problems that so many people with mental illness suffer, my “problems” seem almost offensively trivial. Therapists typically shake their heads when I recount my academic anxieties and expectations for myself and tell me I have impossibly high standards for myself. This is probably true, but aren’t you supposed to have high standards for yourself? Isn’t that what all the motivational memes tell you to do?

So what am I to do? If it’s indeed too late to go the distance with my history scholarship, what am I to do with this insatiable itch for learning and scholarship that seems to only get fiercer by the year?

On Missing The Struggle

It took me a while after returning to Canada from Japan to realize what the source of much of my boredom and frustration with life was. It was simply this: living in Japan and functioning in a Japanese-language context meant that every day was an intellectual challenge. After many years my brain was used to the workout pace of an ultramarathoner and had found itself relegated to relative sedentarism.

In recent years I’ve taken up the challenge of long-distance running with great enthusiasm. I did this in part as a support for my sobriety — after all the brain chemicals I get from running are the closest thing I’ve been able to find to what alcohol used to give me. I also did it to give me something tangible I could strive for at a time of employment insecurity and mental fragility. But another factor, I think, was a profound love of overcoming challenges and struggle. With no comparable intellectual hurdles to throw in front of myself, an athletic one seemed a good replacement.

But as much as I love the running, I still on a basic level feel cheated out of the baseline intellectual upstream swimming that used to define my life. This is in large part what still draws me to the academic life. There are few other professions that offer that kind of ongoing intellectual stimulation and provide you with a support structure for ongoing learning. Sure, many jobs will pay for training in this, that, and the other thing, but only inasmuch as they apply to what you’ve been hired to do. In academia the ongoing augmentation of your intellectual armamentarium is the whole point.

The search for something similarly stimulating and challenging goes on.

The Pesky Academic Ego

Of course there’s nothing stopping me from pursuing historical scholarship on an independent basis, spending my evenings in libraries and archives doing the sort of work I used to do in my own time. Nor is there anything stopping me from continuing to hone my language skills and applying myself to any other academic discipline — perhaps something completely new.

But there’s a problem with this, and it’s one that I’m sure bedevils many people like me who abandoned the academic path but still crave many aspects of it. It’s also the part that’s slightly embarrassing.

I don’t want to just study on my own. I also deeply crave recognition. Yes, I’ll come straight out and admit it. It’s not enough for me to know that I’m smart. I want other people to know it too, and acknowledge it. I would further venture that this is true of just about everybody involved in any sort of academic pursuit, and that anybody who says otherwise is either lying or is a far more enlightened being than I am.

Of course, being in academia in and of itself offers no protection from academic ego insecurity. Any reasonably honest academic will tell you that the ivory tower is a cesspool of politics, backbiting, and simmering resentment over who got Grant X or Prize Y or whatever other accolades are on offer. And then there’s tenure — the ultimate prize for any new professor. Had I gone this route I would no doubt be suffering from exactly the same type of gnawing insecurity, just with slightly different shades of the same issues.

But as an academic outsider, there’s really no way to be an active and acknowledged contributor to any serious scholarly field. With no academic institution underpinning my name and mere evening and weekend hours to do work on any field, the academic mainstream all but bars the door to any “independent” scholarship. Of course there are alternate ways of getting your writing out there, but as a lone voice on the Internet, carving out any sort of real niche feels like an impossible struggle.

Of course there are some outliers out there. Dan Carlin, creator of the utterly fantastic podcast series Hardcore History and arguably the most compelling historian out there at the moment, does not have a graduate degree — and yet he has a massive audience and a bigger platform than the vast majority of history professors. But Dan also benefited from a great jump-start to his career as a journalist covering the 1992 Los Angeles riots. He is also the son of Hollywood parents and presumably well connected from the get go. Not that this detracts one iota from his talent, but it’s certainly a helpful advantage if you’re looking to rise above the academic rank and file.

I nonetheless continue to plug out my writing in the hopes that it will reach people. I have to do it. It’s what gets me up in the morning. My latest depressive episode has also been my most productive ever — I’ve literally been trying to write my way out of my funk, all the while processing out loud the issues and insecurities that continue to gnaw away at my self-esteem and sense of well being. It’s been an interesting process, and one that seems to have worked better than most of the therapy I’ve undergone in my life.


Are there better ways of doing all this?

It seems to me that the current academic model is broken. I’m not a post-secondary policy expert, but from everything I’ve read or heard anecdotally it would seem that the ivory tower is rife with deeply dissatisfied people, with far too many scholars vying for far too few positions and funding streams, while at the same time people like me who would love to contribute to the scholarly lifeblood of our society have very few opportunities to do so in any serious way.

So what are we to do about it?

While I’ve been deeply critical of religion and religious institutions elsewhere in my writing, I readily acknowledge that secular institutions have a long way to go in fostering the type of community engagement that has long been the purview of their religious counterparts. Not only do churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples offer community in the most basic sense, they also offer — or seem to offer — opportunities for anybody to delve deep into religious texts and extrapolate new interpretations and meaning, and communicate these to their coreligionists. Depending on the type of place of worship or the whims of the congregation, anybody who wants to can preach or do outreach or otherwise spread the good word. After all that’s kind of the point.

Sadly, the secular world offers scant opportunities to do this. Sure you can start a blog about whatever subject interests you, but without the requisite aptitudes, good fortune, and search engine optimization, you might well be writing to an audience of two or three people — and probably people you will never meet in real life. To do Christianity or Islam all you have to do is show up at a church or mosque and get yourself learned up on the Bible or the Qur’an. The same is not true of quantum physics or evolutionary biology, or the majority of other academic subjects. There simply aren’t opportunities for people outside the university system to engage with the people in it.

As somebody who loves scholarship but who exists outside the ivory tower, I would dearly love to be proven wrong on all this. I would also love to hear from readers, both academics and non-academics, on any of the matters I touch on here. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who feels a sense of exclusion from academic discourse, but at the same time is both unable and not particularly inclined to throw my lot into a world that seems to be in a state of perpetual contraction.

I would love to think that the future of the pursuit of knowledge involves a breaking down of the wall between academics and non-academics and allow for broader partnerships and intellectual exchange. If anybody else has any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.

For anybody interested in a taste of my academic work from a lifetime ago, here is a link to an article I wrote for Kyoto Journal in 2006 based on my 2003 MA thesis research on the convergence between minority religious sects and far-right militarism in Japan between the two world wars. I still have hopes of teaming up with an illustrator to create a graphic novel based on the stranger-than-fiction story of the Deguchi Onisaburō and the interwar Ōmoto sect.

If that sounds like you, feel free to reach out to me!