Reason for leaving: Self advocacy and academic ableism

reason for leavingHi gang! How we all doing today? It’s been a couple of weeks now since I announced I was quitting my PhD, although I have yet to send my official withdrawal form to the uni, mostly because I’m waiting until I can renew my student railcard. Is that dreadful? Oh well. While I am still convinced that leaving my toxic PhD was a good choice and the right decision for me, there have been a few things recently that have forced me to reflect upon my reasons for leaving. I’m going to try and bring them all together here. Might be a beautiful symphony, might be a discordant mess. Let’s find out!

So, I’m currently unemployed. I have found out that I am not very good at being unemployed. Applying for jobs is a bit soul destroying and the isolation of sitting at home and pretending to work on application while watching countless episodes of Alias has not been particularly good for my mental state. One thing I have found particularly difficult in filling out application forms is that little column beside your employment history which says “reason for leaving”. Oh the hours of woe that little box has caused me. In person, I can explain quite coherently why I felt that my PhD was not for me, why leaving was the right decision for me and how I have learned all sorts of skills. However, when faced with this stark little box, my mind goes blank. How to explain in the space of a few words all the reasons why I felt that continuing with my PhD was not an option for me?

Enter this excellent piece by the Thesis Whisperer, who is studying the comments left on BJ Epstein’s post on whether you should quit your PhD to identify some of the underlying reasons behind PhD attrition. The reasons that she identifies for leaving the PhD, both from her own data and from the literature, read like a checklist of my experience. Problems with motivation? Check. Mental health issues? Check. Intellectual isolation? Check. Supervision problems? Check. Feeling like you don’t belong in the discipline? Check. All of these issues contributed to my decision to leave my PhD. However, one of the biggest factors for me is not one of the themes to come out of this data. The biggest barrier to me in going back to my PhD is that, often, academia is not an environment with is supportive of disability.

This issue has been raging across my twitter feed for the last few days, spearheaded by the force of nature that is @zaranosaur and the hashtag, AcademicAbleism. Through the power of social media, a growing community of has been coming together to discuss the difficulties in negotiating the ableist minefield that is academia and to offer support to one another. These discussions have inspired a number of blog posts, including this fantastic piece on disability and self advocacy. The thing that struck my hardest about #AcademicAbleism is how collectively sick we are of being told that our issues with access, with time missed due to illness, and with necessary adjustments are due to our own, apparently unusual and unreasonable, requirements. We are fed up of having to constantly, repeatedly self-advocate for the help that we need to carry out the work that we KNOW we are capable of. We are constantly having to contact counselors, disability services, supervisors and advisers, to disclose our issues over and over again in the hope of accessing the resources that we need. We have to do all of this on top of the demands of trying to keep up with our own work and the restrictions placed upon us my our mental or physical disabilities.

This brings me, finally, to my somewhat roundabout point. In order to advocate for yourself, you have to believe that you and your work are worth advocating for. When you struggle with depression, as I do, you feel that you are worth nothing at all. In your own mind, you are the worst person imaginable, a complete waste of oxygen, incapable of producing anything of use. Some days you can barely leave your bed, pinned down by thoughts of the worthlessness of your existence. How do you then muster the self-belief and the energy required to fight for help? And how do we do this in an environment which treats us as if we have less of a right to be there if we are unable to comply with the way things have always been done.

It is at this time, when we feel that we are not worth fighting for, that we most need an academic environment that fights for us and makes us feel that we are worth just as much as anyone. Unfortunately, this was not my experience. Disclosing my mental health issues resulted in it being made quite clear to me that confidence had been lost in my ability to complete a PhD. While the option to return to work on my PhD was given to me and lip service was paid to the provision of necessary adjustments, the onus was quite clearly on me to fight for the help I needed and to prove to the department that I was worth the hassle. In the end, this was the problem at the heart of my decision to leave my PhD. Neither I nor my department thought I was worth the hassle. It is my opinion that this epitomises the current attitude in academia towards disabled students.

Depression and other mental health issues are particularly common among PhD students. This leads we to wonder how many students are lost because they do not feel that they are worth advocating for? How many students just quietly give up the fight and slip away because they are part of an institution which perpetuates the idea that a different model of study is wrong and that that those who are unable to thrive in the current environment have less to contribute to academic society?

Well, this turned into more of a rant than I was expecting. If you think that I’m talking nonsense or presenting one anecdotal negative experience as evidence, go and check out #AcademicAbleism to see just how intrinsic these issues are to the experiences of those negotiating disability in the world of academia.

2 responses to “Reason for leaving: Self advocacy and academic ableism

  1. “In order to advocate for yourself, you have to believe that you and your work are worth advocating for.”
    I think this is very important and much overlooked. thank you for expressing it so clearly!

    A doctorate is quite different to an undergraduate degree in that the work you do can be a strong reflection of you as a person. So much thought and effort has been invested that it can sometimes feel like that work is a part of you and your identity as a person. If you view your self as not worthwhile, it is unlikely that you will view any products of that self as worthwhile, or worth advocating for.

  2. I appreciate your post. I am entering a PhD program in the fall and am wary of how I will adjust or if I should disclose my mental disability. Thank you for sharing and best of luck to you 🙂

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