I Left My Ph.D. To Follow My Creative Calling


When the pandemic began, this new way of life required all of us to adapt. One thing the transition did for me was strip away all the distractions I used to avoid acknowledging my own unhappiness as a doctoral student in psychology. With most worldly interruptions gone, my focus narrowed on my work with data and research. Even on a good day, I was merely complacent.

Something needed to change, but I was looking for every reason to stay in the program. After all, I had worked my entire life to become a graduate student. What else would I be doing? But I wondered: How do we know if we’re experiencing universal challenges that can be overcome with time or simply a deep disconnect between our purpose and our circumstance?

One day, as I was reading, four words on the page jumped out at me. Be Still and Know. Something inexplicably powerful came rushing over me. I burst into tears. My mind let go, and my body took over. I ran my fingers along my upper left rib cage, just below my heart, where I have those exact words tattooed in permanent ink. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks: I hadn’t been still. I hadn’t been still in over a year. On the contrary, I’d been hurrying and consuming and seeking and doubting.

At that moment, I sat up and relinquished all control. I surrendered, letting my shoulders fall away from my ears, my lower jaw release its tension, and my eyelids close shut. And what I discovered was that I did know. I had known all along but never stayed still long enough to let the truth land on me. A voice inside me spoke: This is not meant to be your path. This is draining your creativity and confidence. It’s causing you to hold values that you don’t share. It’s stifling your strengths and capitalizing on your weaknesses. It’s forcing you into a box that you were never meant to fit inside. Time to go another way. 

I began to understand my doubts were never about being intelligent or capable or resourceful enough. It was never about self-efficacy, it was about self-preservation. I knew I could finish the doctoral program. But at what cost? Four more years of misery at worst or apathy at best? That’s not a cost we should ever have to pay. The risks of ignoring what we know to be true are so much higher than the risks of walking away from the career path we’ve built.

Although there was now a deep knowing I needed to change course, the fear that accompanied it ran just as deep. Withdrawing felt scary and risky, while staying felt safe and predictable. So, what do most of us do when faced with a predicament like this? We put off action. We delay the uncomfortable conversations. We avoid the difficult decision because of the uncertain outcome.

Of course, avoiding our problems only backfires. Hiding gives fear more power. When we refuse to act, someone pays the price. Every lie costs someone something. But surrendering control of the outcome does not mean we must surrender control of our choices. When we make the decision to listen to our intuition and take a risk, we are also choosing to relinquish control. We can’t be free and controlled by fear at the same time. We can’t make the jump while still clinging to the edge. It doesn’t work that way.

When I finally gathered the courage to share my official decision to withdraw from the Ph.D. program, the responses were full of compassion, understanding, and support. I returned to the creative endeavors I previously gave up in pursuit of academic prestige.

In determining your calling or purpose, there are some important questions to ask yourself. What makes you forget time? What inspires you to speak, to act, and to listen? What makes you fall in love and breaks your heart at the same time? What scares you yet excites you? Perhaps most importantly, what satisfies your curiosity?

It might take some exploring before you find your answer. But I have a feeling it’s the answer that has always lived inside of you. It doesn’t have to be the thing that pays your bills. It can be what you do outside of the job that puts food on the table. The truth is there is no valid step-by-step process on how to easily discover your calling. There is no universal checklist of things that must happen before you can know you’re on the right path. Just like falling in love, the answer is found in a gut feeling.

It will require great risk to pursue, but the strength of your faith will outweigh the fear if you let it. It will bring peace, not confusion. Connection, not isolation. Stillness, not hustle. And just like we might fall in love with a few of the wrong people before we find the right one, we might have to take a few wrong turns on the journey before we take the right one.

After walking away from my dream career in academia, I realized with a renewed clarity that my answer to all those important questions is one word. It’s one word that was stitched into my heart before I even had the capacity to write.

Stories. It doesn’t matter whether I’m reading, writing, or listening to them. Stories breathe new life into me every time. I was designed to tell them. Our lives are stories, unfolding before our eyes every day like the turn of a fresh page. Some chapters we write, some happen to us, some we love, and some we can barely get through. But together they equate to a masterpiece of beauty and destruction, victory and defeat, pain and euphoria. And to write the ending, all it takes is the courage to own them all.