Confessions of a PhDropout Turned PhDIY-er

In the time it’s (theoretically) supposed to take someone to finish an undergraduate degree – I started, at first thrived in, then massively struggled with, and eventually parted ways from a PhD program. Even now when I look back, I continue to appreciate my PhD program for all it gave me – if not a fancy hat and new letters after my name.

(If you know how much I like hats, especially goofy ones, then you’ll understand the real tragedy of this whole thing…)

Making the decision to discontinue my doctoral studies was, and still is, one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever been through, and not just academically. To change your mind midway through a major aspiration is disorienting and disheartening. Being half in my PhD program while internally questioning whether I should withdraw was completely draining, and ultimately, I became exhausted with the process of willing myself to do something that deep down, I just didn’t want to do anymore. Facing my advisor on a weekly basis and acknowledging that I still wasn’t making progress was difficult, but admitting defeat to myself was the hardest part of all.

The truth is, while I spent three years in my PhD program and traveled across the country to complete 9/10 required residencies, I only got through maybe 30% of the required reading and written work in that time. In year three, I was still doing first year assignments, and I just couldn’t find my path through the program. While I absolutely adored my unbelievably patient advisor, our brilliant faculty, and our incredibly dynamic cohort – I had to own up to the fact that when it came down to it, I wasn’t doing the work – and then I had to do the even harder work of figuring out why.

Shoutout to my amazing PhD cohort and forever friends who still inspire me to be my best self! A special callout to Drs. Kim Walker, Brittany Motley, Sara Safari, Kelly Cerialo, J. Love Benton, and Mike Bills for doing the damn thing. So unspeakably proud of and inspired by you all – and the rest of you still repping our cohort for keeping at it. YOU GOT THIS!

As with most things in life, time and distance have inspired new perspective. Instead of beating myself up for being a gutless quitter and sinking into deep despair over my monthly student loan bill for a degree I’ll never get, I gradually decided to reframe the situation as an opportunity and a gift. (But real talk, if anyone knows a kindly benefactor looking to adopt a spunky, self-sufficient, adult child in their mid-thirties, or has any other bright ideas for paying off my massive student loan debt, get at me!!!)

Truly though, here’s what I’ve realized:

Even without the degree to back it up, I belong to a remarkably small percentage of the world’s population to attempt a PhD. This alone is a privilege, and one I don’t take lightly. In three years, I learned an incredible amount about leadership, organizational development, and change management…but even more so, I learned to be curious, compassionate, and courageous. Staying true to my character, I’ve traded in my sense of defeat for something a little more upbeat…a PhDIY.

Ashley Blackburn, Ph.DIY

Today, I’ve come to embrace my identity not as a PhDropout but a PhDIY-er: a lifelong learner and entrepreneurial risk-taker taking ownership for my growth and fulfillment as a human being in this world every day, willing to admit when I’m wrong and shift gears in a new direction to get wherever it is I’m bound to go next. Like a true DIY-er, I’m putting a coat of chalk paint on the past few years – not to cover up my mistakes or hide where I’ve been, but to give my experiences new life and make sure that the ideas sparked during my doctoral studies have a second chance to shine somewhere else. Luckily shabby chic is in vogue, because I’m a DIY intellectual at heart, constantly seeking to advance my understanding of anything that interests me and always on the lookout for the next great idea that I can dust off and polish up.

So, what does it actually mean to be a PhDIY-er? To me, it’s not just a random or spontaneous collection of activities and interests that I pursue or pivot away from on a whim – it’s much more purposeful than that. Taking what I learned in my PhD program, I intentionally create structure around my ideas and endeavors, then hold myself accountable. An educator to the very core of my being, I take a learning-centered approach to life. I’ve even been known to create a “happiness curriculum” for myself, with goals and objectives grouped into categories and aligned with specific action items. Extremely nerdy, but also highly effective!

A sneak peek back at my 2016-17 happiness curriculum.

My DIY approach to learning and living has resulted in all sorts of adventures and accomplishments, including:

  • Starting the John Kehoe Story, a memoir project with my uncle to honor my dad’s life.
  • Braving the stage and taking an improv class at Laugh out Loud theater despite my preference for being behind the scenes.
  • Taking Yale’s hit “Science of Wellbeing” course online to learn more about the logic behind happiness and how to cultivate it through daily practices and tiny actions.
  • Getting trained in Whole Brain® Thinking to become a better leader, coach, and colleague.
  • Planting a garden and trying to learn how to keep it alive and thriving – still an ongoing, probably never-ending, pursuit.
  • Taking a course in Online Humor Writing to lean-in to my love of comedy, or at least get me one step closer to clown college.
  • Launching Great Full Plate private chef service with my husband – combining our superpowers and chasing down a shared lifelong dream of starting our own business.

These are all things I may never have done without a structured series of goals purposefully crafted to guide my way through the world – and none of them required me to have a PhD.

PhDIY Methodology

My underlying goal as a PhDIY-er is to make sure I’m giving the same time, attention, energy, and effort to my personal development – intellectually, culturally, socially, and spiritually – as I do to my career, my family, my chores, etc. So, here’s how I do it:

  • If you dream it, theme it: I tend to treat life as one big theme party and often give my years or projects an overarching, energizing mission. (Don’t judge me, Rebel Wilson does it too.) I’ve actually done this long before I started my PhD, and find it helps give me something to center on when I inevitably start to feel lost along the way. I try to choose themes big and broad enough to encompass all the different aspects of life, but specific enough to resonate and keep me on track. Here are some examples:
    • In 2013, I focused on “living the dream” – and then had to define what that meant to me. It resulted in uprooting my life and moving to a new state 1,000 miles away to take a chance on a new location and career, all on my own.
    • In 2017, I channeled all my energy into “love” – not just finding a partner but approaching everything in my life with a spirit of genuine love and appreciation, including self-love. (Fun fact: 2017 is actually the year I met my now husband.)
  • After a rocky 2019 in my personal world, the irony is not lost on me that I chose “stability” as my theme for 2020 – and it turned out to be the most insane year on record, worldwide. But still, staying true to the goal, we started a business, saved money, and bought a house in 2020. Even, or maybe especially, in turbulent times, a theme can be a truly grounding force.
  • This year, my theme is “having fun in 2021” – and surprisingly even to me, one of the first things to come out of that has been a dedicated wellness journey. I wouldn’t have considered eating healthy and becoming a fitness junkie “fun” by any stretch, but I realized that in order to truly enjoy life, what I wanted deep down was to get healthy. I’ve lost 30 pounds this year, and am making some real lifestyle changes to improve my health. Trust me, no one is more shocked by how these themes play out than I am!
  • Chunk it out: I break the year into segments and create specific goals for each, just like running a business. Sometimes I break the year into quarters, other times I tackle a month at a time, and occasionally, I do both and map my monthly-to-quarterly goals to make sure they line up. Then, when I’m really on it, I evaluate my performance metrics at the end of the term. Did I do what I said I’d do? Where did I miss my targets, and what am I going to do about it next quarter? What did I accomplish that I can celebrate? I found a really cool planner I absolutely love that has a “mission board” for each month, so I take the time to think through my hopes and dreams, then align my goals with specific actions, for each area of my life:
  • See it and believe it: Every new year, I make a vision board with images that represent my biggest dreams and deepest desires for the year ahead. (Yes, I realize how cheesy this is, and I assure you I’m not someone who believes that we can manifest riches from the universe with our thoughts.) However, I do believe there’s something to the process of intentionally reflecting on what we really want out of life and then seeing our dreams stare back at us every day. Sometimes without even realizing it, I start making moves toward the life I want for myself, my family, and my friends. The key is, you have to see it – and believe it. Look at your dreams every day, while also knowing that they’re within your reach.

So, there you have it. I may never be a doctor, but I am definitely a do-it-yourselfer – and I’ve learned to embrace that.

Who’s coming with me on this PhDIY journey and where are we heading next?