Twenty years ago today, I received a Ph.D in sociomedical sciences, a branch of public health. It was my greatest accomplishment to date and something I’d dreamed of achieving for years, a desire that began while I was still an undergraduate. It was also the hardest goal I’d ever set for myself — by far. It took 7 long, painful, challenging years and I often feared I’d never quite get there. To mark the accomplishment, I had the privilege of attending 3 different graduations (one for PhD students only, one for all students receiving any degree, and one for those of us at the School of Public Health.) On both days, New York delivered a stunning spring. It was dry and sunny, the trees were lush with leaves in a range of green shades, and the fragrance of flowers bursting forth in their array of pinks and purples and reds and yellows signaled that a major celebration was underway. My parents came all the way from Nigeria to New York for the first time in my years there and one sister flew over from London. We had a joyful and memorable time together and it marked the last overseas trip my father took before he passed away very suddenly less than 2 years later.
When I defended my dissertation, my committee awarded it a distinction. I was floored, and then I received an additional departmental award at the School of Public Health graduation. I hadn’t expected either accolade and so they made the accomplishment that much sweeter– particularly as I’d failed my first comprehensive exam at the end of my second year. That was a life-altering traumatic experience which propelled me into a downward spiral for the next year but ultimately drew me back to a rich life of faith in Jesus.
Two decades on, after all those years of working toward that goal and excelling, I no longer work in the field of public health. About 10 years ago, I left the career I’d trained so diligently for, burned out and disillusioned. After several invigorating stints in rural Uganda with a mission agency, I found myself back in New York City working for my church investing in the care of people’s souls. And several months ago, I began working for London City Mission, supporting missionaries spread out across the west of London from Islington to Hounslow, north of the Thames. I joked with my faculty advisor, who I’m still in touch with, that this latest role confirms that I’ve definitely shifted from focusing on public health to spiritual health!
So today, I’m not the tenured professor on a progressive university campus that I envisioned myself becoming on that May afternoon in Manhattan two decades ago. On the other hand, many of my graduate school friends and colleagues have gone onto publish papers, write influential and award-winning books, chair departments and even occupy endowed professorships. I’d be lying if I said that sometimes when I get the Alumni magazines or see a notice on-line announcing one of their upcoming talks, I don’t experience a twinge of envy. But I can honestly say, I also don’t have any regrets that that’s not the path my life has taken.
Because the truth is, I was determined to get a Ph.D.: 1) to prove that I could do it, and 2) to prove to myself (and everybody else) that I was “smart and competent.” Neither of these reasons are particularly noble or wise. I quickly discovered that building my life and my reputation on a degree — even if it was an advanced one from an elite university — was a proverbial form of sinking sand. Despite having the credential, there were always people close by who were more accomplished and more intelligent and younger and brighter. Trying to keep up and measuring myself against them became exhausting. When I had had enough, I released the grip I’d had on my degree and opened myself up to another career – even if it meant leaving what I’d worked towards for almost 20 years.
I can’t tell you how glad that way of living is behind me.
And I don’t for one minute miss the exhaustion.
I also don’t know what the next 20 years will hold, but if they continue to bring less fatigue and greater freedom and joy, sans degree, bring them on!