A PhD Drapetomaniac
Updated: Mar 14
Do you think people leave any course/job because they were not mentally strong enough to pursue it?
If someone asks me to describe my PhD journey in a word, that word for me will be ‘persevere’. I have persevered in the last four years of my life, and I’m unsure for how many years I will have to do that. My lab seat is just next to the window, and on most days, I look out, wishing for the sun to set. In 1851, Samuel A cartwright suggested that enslaved people ran from the captivity of their white masters because of some form of mania, now known as Drapetomania. He and other officials believed that the life of a slave was so pleasant that only the mentally ill would want to escape. Though the term is no longer in use, if any student wishes to drop their PhD program, this is what the P.I.’s and their peers think that they were not mentally strong enough to pursue. The uncontrollable urge to run away from this place is present. But, I don’t wish to leave this place without a reward because if I do so, I won’t have any motivation to start anything new. But you may ask, do we even need motivation? My friend once told me that, "motivation is a ruse; it is all in the discipline". We have to be disciplined. You can try to follow this for a couple of days, but you cannot continue in the absence of that drive to pursue the action, which comes only when you receive a reward or trick your brain into believing so. Deep within your brain lies the structures called the limbic system, which attaches a positive valence to a particular activity or thing. When you repeat this activity, these areas get activated and release a chemical signal called dopamine which makes you feel nice. During my PhD years, I kept fooling my reward circuitry by showing the rewards it would get in the future. But now it, has realized that we are on a treadmill and the doughnut hanging as a low fruit in front of us is a trick to keep us running. We won’t be able to have it, no matter how hard we try. Despite everything being beautiful here, nothing makes sense anymore.
But if I stop, it will be only to become the next drapetomaniac.