Now this one has been a long time coming. I’ve been meaning to write a post about why I quit science to travel ever since I finished my PhD in Chemistry in 2013 and went on an around the world trip. Why did it take so long? Well, I got a little distracted along the way. And maybe I felt a little scared, too.
But let’s go back a few years…. it was the winter of 1982, I was born in Munich just after Christmas….
Ok, maybe that’s too far back. Let’s start with the science!
I was never a very keen student in high school. I did ok, without putting too much effort in, but I was never particularly interested in anything. That was, until organic chemistry came along. What I loved about it was that it explained everything. If you could understand chemistry, you understand the whole world, the plants, the bees, the rocks, the seas…everything. Or so I thought.
So, off I went to study chemistry at my local university in Munich. Being a German university this meant 5.5 years of regular study time until I got my Masters. We take a little longer here in the cradle of Naturwissenschaften (one of those long German words for natural science), but studying was also free.
Studying chemistry is not exactly the easiest choice. We had lectures from 8 til 12 every day, and then were sent to the lab for 5 hours every single day, for 5 years. Literally hundreds of exams and thousands of lab hours later, I was completely in love with research. I loved everything about it. Especially, that I was going to move to London to pursue a PhD at Imperial College, a very prestigious university, or so I was told. The truth is, I hadn’t even heard of Imperial before, but I was just dying to get to the hustle and bustle of London, so why not do a PhD along the way. Surely it was going to be just the same as a long Master’s thesis, right?
Nope, not at all.
It’s a pity it took me over a year to realise how much I actually hated my research. There might be a few reasons for that–a disinterested supervisor and semi-interesting (i.e. boring as hell) topic might have played a part. But to be honest, I think I was never really cut out for proper in-depth research. Ok, I loved running reactions, playing with cute flasks and equipment (I even had my own spatula collection, no joke) and I look great in a lab coat and goggles (if I may say so myself). But when it came to dedicating 3–4 years of my life to ONE SINGLE problem (one that had been solved in a more effective and elegant way 20 years before I had even started my PhD) I realised that my passion for chemistry might not be as deep as I thought.
In fact, this realisation came to me one day while working at my fume hood. We were listening to some sort of cheese on BBC Radio 1 (which I hate to this day) and I started crying into my test tubes. Why was I crying, you ask?
I was literally bored to tears. Why was I sitting here on a sunny May afternoon (ok, it might have been a rainy February day, but you get the picture) instead of following my passions? Hang on, what exactly where my passions anyway? I didn’t even know. For the last 6 years I had focused solely on becoming a good chemist and had neglected almost everything else along the way.
Well, there was only one thing I could do–ignore it, go to the pub and drown my sorrows with cheap cider. And that’s what I did, for a while.
Then, a few months later, my first holidays as a PhD student rolled around. I was off to Israel on my first-ever solo trip! Ten days of sun, sea, falafels, and me!
And that’s what changed everything.
Those 10 days of ultimate freedom, not knowing anyone, being able to be who ever and wherever I wanted, was incredible.
But the most important factor was the people I met–a whole bunch of ragamuffins from around the world. A French girl who worked at the hostel, an American dude with a chicken tattoo on his belly, Israeli soldiers, an Austrian girl who was in Israel to carry out research on queer Hebrew films for her PhD (yep, apparently that’s a thing). All of them were travelling without a return flight. They’d been to countries I’d never even heard of, or that I’d given up dreaming about a long time ago. They weren’t dreaming, they were actually doing it.
That’s when I knew that I had to travel
And I realised that deep down I’d always known I wanted to travel. I went on a school exchange to the States when I was 14 (they sent us to Albany, NY; nobody will ever know why), that trip to Jamaica I’d saved up for after high school (and then spent all the money for it on beer at Oktoberfest), moving to London on a whim! Suddenly it all made sense and I knew I had to change my life to travel.
My new friends tried to convince me to stay in Israel. I almost did. But I told myself I didn’t have enough money, I’d just moved into a new house in London, and it was irresponsible. I flipped a 10 shekel coin at the beach in Tel Aviv on my last night. It told me to stay, but I ignored it and flew back to London the next morning anyway.
When I returned to lab the next day I told everybody I was quitting my PhD. I told my friends, my supervisor, my housemates, and parents. I even listed my room on spareroom.com. But in the end I stayed. There was something inside me that didn’t let me go, yet. I’m not sure what it was, to be honest, probably plain old fear and FOMO (I’ve already invested so many years in my education, blah blah, the usual). Maybe I wasn’t quite done with London yet. I’ll never know and for years I regretted the decision.
In the end, I’m happy that I stayed. It was a horrible 3 years finishing my PhD, I only managed it kicking and screaming, and am not particularly proud of my research. But I am proud of getting through it. And those 3–4 years were probably the most formative of my life. I changed a lot. To distract myself from boring chemistry and PhD duties I joined every committee, club and charity I could find. I became a student chairperson, president of the post graduate social committee, volunteered for my local Greenpeace group, which I ended up running for over a year. I also moved into halls as a warden, looking after the rosy-cheeked first-year students who had just moved to London (and to save money for travel as I lived rent free there). Oh, and I began to blog.
More than anything though, I focused on traveling. I took any chance I got to travel; my supervisor even sent me to Johannesburg in South Africa for 3 months (part of me still thinks he wanted to get rid of me, sending me to the former murder capital of the world). I took it as a practice run for my big trip after graduation.
And I planned. I read almost every travel blog under the sun. I spent hundreds of pounds on Lonely Planets, some for countries I wasn’t even planning on visiting. I combed through endless packing lists and bought a ton of “essential” travel equipment (half of this stuff I don’t carry around anymore, turns out not much stuff is actually essential). I got shots for every imaginable disease, from rabies to Japanese Encephalitis. And in the meantime, I met my boyfriend and travel partner, Simon.
I am very lucky to have found someone who was similarly disheartened with chemistry and willing to drop everything to traipse around the world with me.
After graduation, I visited Munich to say goodbye to friends and family (and to visit Oktoberfest, of course, this time not spending all my travel money) and off we went, just a month after I officially became a Doctor.
We have since explored 6 continents and 20 countries together. Have run out of money, worked in bars in Australia to save up again, started our own businesses (i.e. freelancing careers) from scratch and transitioned into full time digital nomads. All this in just 2.5 years.
And did I ever regret that I quit science to travel?
Not even for a minute. Yes, I am now technically classified as “homeless”. I earn about a quarter of what I probably would by now, had I gone into pharmaceutical research. And yes, my friends still ask me when I will finally settle down (hopefully never). But I met the most incredible people, have toughened up like crazy (24 hours bus ride across three borders you say? Dengue fever in a Mexican hostel? No problemo), have tried the most delicious (and disgusting) dishes from around the world (deep-fried tarantulas anybody?) and have had one hell of an adventure.
Yes, I gave up 10 years of education for this. But maybe it was meant to be like this. Maybe science and research have made me tougher and more confident and ultimately helped me along this path.
The main message here is: do what makes you happy. Don’t ever base your decisions and happiness on “all those years you’ve already invested in XYZ”, because guess what? If you invest a few more years it’s not gonna make it any better, you are just taking more years away from what you actually want to do.
As some famous clever person once said: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”
So if you’re itching to go travelling, take the leap, you never know what other opportunities will come knocking on your door. And remember, you can always get your old job back.