Recently a friend and I were having a discussion. She was trying to decide whether to pursue graduate studies when she finished her university degree or start seriously working on getting a job in her chosen field. It took me back to my own decision on academics or life.
My family places a great deal of respect on academic credentials. Most of the compliments my sisters and I received as children had to do with how smart we were and how one day we would likely have Masters degrees or possibly Ph.D.s. I assumed it was an inevitable trajectory. Elementary school, high school, university, graduate work.
About halfway through my university degree, I started realizing that I wasn't particularly enjoying academic life any more. I loved going to lectures (and was such a huge nerd that I would go to classes I wasn't registered in) and having educated debates on various issues. But I didn't enjoy the cramp it put on my creative mind. I had to give up recreational reading in order to get my class reading done (usually I had reading assignments of about a thousand to fifteen hundred pages per week) and biweekly 5000 word papers took up most of my creative writing energy as well.
It came as a real shock to realize that something I had planned and counted on wasn't what I wanted to do. I spent a long time wondering if I really didn't like it or simply was dealing with bad classes (One idiot of a professor insisted that Christianity was unique among world religions because it was based on a historical figure... unlike Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism, I guess - dude gave me a bad grade when I pointed out the error).
I started to realize that the halls of academia were not filled with men and women struggling to find higher truths and knowledge to improve humanity's lot in life. Instead, there were only people. People with blindspots, prejudices, ambitions and delusions of grandeur. There were some amazing professors whom I was honoured to learn from, but I began to realize that most of them saw their classes as a waste of time or an opportunity to stroke their own egos.
I began to question whether or not I really wanted to spend the next 6-10 years of my life fighting for a place among them if that wasn't the life I wanted. The real clincher came in my third year, when talking with a professor I greatly respected. She asked me what my plans were after graduation and I confessed that I wasn't really sure any more. She thought for a moment and then told me that she'd be happy to recommend me for a fellowship to pay my way, but that she didn't think I'd be happy pursuing a Masters. She advised me to head out there and spend a few years paying the bills to purge the academic expectations from my system. Then I could sit down and figure out what my real vocation was.
I hesitated, pointing out how much I enjoyed certain aspects of university life. She laughed a little (I was so serious!) and said that she had no doubt that I would keep learning my whole life, that I enjoyed it too much to let it go. And moreover, she was certain I would be able to keep my mind open, incorporating everything I learned into new and more comprehensive understandings of the world around me.
Since graduation, I like to think I've proved her right. I seek out new areas of knowledge and I'm starting to grasp how complicated the world can truly be, despite how much we want it to be simple. So many things are interconnected and interbalanced, it can be hard to figure out how to shift things without sending the entire system into a collapse. I found my passions in my family and in writing. I accepted that work is always going to be a 9 to 5 endeavour that gives me the money to pursue what I really want, instead of a stepping stone to a high-powered career. And I may not be able to afford new semesters at university, but I can always find new books at the library or documentaries to watch to increase my knowledge of the world around me.
To me, the happiness I've carved out for myself is much more valuable than an alphabet soup of letters after my name. Even if Dr. Lewis does have a nice ring to it.