And so, my PhD journey ends here…

“Apa pun (kenikmatan) yang diberikan kepadamu, maka itu adalah kesenangan hidup di dunia. Sedangkan apa (kenikmatan) yang ada di sini Allah lebih baik dan lebih kekal bagi orang yang beriman, dan hanya kepada Tuhan mereka bertawakal”. Asy-Syura ayat 36.

Five months ago, about three weeks before Ramadhan, I tendered my resignation as a tutor in the Faculty of Petroleum Engineering and Renewable Energy (FPREE), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. A month afterwards, I sent an email to the Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London – to withdraw from the PhD programme. And on the day I arrived in Makkah, I received an official email from Imperial College confirming my withdrawal.

I am no longer a PhD student.

And so, my PhD journey finally meets its end – but in a way I never wanted it to be. Who does? But I am grateful, for Allah is very Merciful. This episode in my life has definitely taught me thousands of valuable life lessons – and ultimately shaped me to become a much better person.
I stated two reasons for my resignation from UTM and the withdrawal from Imperial College PhD programme. The first one is stalled PhD progress. I could not do work for more than a year long and I haven’t even started my real data collection due to a necessary change in the direction of my work. It almost felt like I am starting all over again, and I will need (at least) 2 years to complete it – 2 years on top of all the things that I have gone through.

And the second one, clinical depression.

Yes, apparently, the prolonged and deep emotional, mental and psychological stresses have led me to become clinically depressed. Depression is a mental health illness, caused by an imbalance of a chemical hormone inside the brain called serotonin. Constant and extreme stress can cause this hormone level to drop, leading to effects such as loss of motivation, constant sadness, tearfulness, and death thoughts. I experienced all those, and at one point, I was under such enormous stress and anxiety torn between anger, despair and hopelessness, I snapped mentally and emotionally. I just stood and stare blankly – could not move, could not think, could not feel. That was when my husband realised, that this is a serious matter. This whole thing is affecting me, badly.

Technically, in terms of the research work and capability, I may still have a chance of success. But in reality, it is very hard – very, very hard, for me to complete my PhD due to a lot of factors, and on top of that, I have been diagnosed as suffering from depression. I needed time to recover, and time was something I did not have anymore. Things were not working for me, because the tables have turned a long time ago – when I became pregnant with Ihsan. Coupled with the situation at that time when my husband was also struggling to complete his PhD. Something has to go, someone has to sacrifice. We planned but Allah is The Best Planner. After that, I was just basically trying to hold on, to keep moving even though the grounds kept falling down beneath me. It was just too hard to keep ploughing in the dark tunnel, until finally, it was apparent to me that the only way out was something which is inevitable – to call it a day.

I will always remember what my dear supervisor said to me five months back, when she asked me to think carefully what I wanted to do. She said, “Putri, whatever decision you make, it is a strong decision. If you decide to continue, it is a strong decision. I could not do it myself, if I were you. If you decide to stop, it is not a weak decision. Don’t ever think of it that way, and don’t let anyone makes you think of it that way”.

At the peak of my turmoil, I was at a crossroad having to choose only one option. A decision that will cost me either my sanity and my family, or my career, reputation and – a lot of money. I could no longer strike a healthy balance between the two options anymore. Some may think it will be a natural choice for me to choose my family but it wasn’t easy because I had ambitions. Dreams. Aspirations. And it wasn’t easy not because I did not know what I wanted, nor because I will be left in a huge debt, but because I could not keep to my word – to do what I said to others that I will do – finish my PhD. It was very crushing. I lost my confidence. Shattered. I lost my self-esteem. Broken. I was a wreck. An emotional wreck. I could no longer trust myself – to the point that I could not make my own decision – I was asking others to make a decision about me on my behalf. As an adult, to me, this is not me. And at that point, PhD doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.

But Allah is Great. Allah is Most Merciful. I have been praying, asking Allah to ease my burden – and He did. It doesn’t end the way I like it, but Allah has mentioned in Surah Al-Baqarah, “…and it may be that you dislike a thing while it is good for you, and it may be that you love a thing while it is evil for you, and Allah knows, while you do not know.” (2: 216). I fully accept His will.

Those who do a PhD know that there are two things you need to embrace: Patience and Perseverance. And those who are unable to complete their PhD, like me, have to embrace another one on top of that – Acceptance. And we also need hold on to our patience, a lot longer and stronger – for we need it to face the criticism, cynicism and cocktails of our ‘failure story’ concocted and then shared for generations across academic institutions as “examples to avoid”. I say concocted because in my case, no one really knows and will understand why certain decisions were made regarding my PhD and the thought processes behind it, except me and my husband. No one should judge. But people will judge. And I cannot stop that.

Nevertheless, I truly believe that things happen for a reason, that Allah knows what’s best for me. Segala sesuatu yang berlaku pasti ada hikmahnya. Pasti. I could not help but to feel that Allah loves me, for He has already immediately replaced what I ‘lost’ with something better. A million times better.

When He calls me to perform Hajj.

I must say, a lot of my worldly views have changed after Hajj. Because you really feel like there is nothing more you want in this life, in this world, except for His forgiveness. Because in the end, all you want is the acceptance into His paradise. Therefore in this world, you only want to do things that will help you get there. And to focus on getting there. If I will be so stressed about my work, so busy until I lose my priorities, and so entangled in the ongoing conflict of interest as a working mother and wife – surely there is a better way to live my life? I leave it all to Allah, and it does feel, now that I am back at home with my husband and kids, things are going to be better. InsyaAllah.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of you – my family and friends, who have been supporting and praying for me (and my husband and kids) throughout my journey. Your thoughts and prayers were surely not wasted as Allah has indeed answered the prayers. I want to especially thank my parents, parents-in-law and brothers and sisters-in-law. And my biggest gratitude goes to my husband M Tazli Azizan, for being my partner in this miraculous journey.

As for my depression, I have taken medication in the first two months, and I’m okay now. But insyaAllah, I’m making it a point to talk about depression to create awareness and erase misconceptions about the illness. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about – but so many people out there hides it away when they actually needed help to recover from it. As for what I am going to do next, on a full-time basis I am going to help a dear friend of mine with her children’s activity centre. For my long-term source of income (to pay my future debt) – I have been thinking of something – I just need Allah to help me make it happen, insyaAllah. And no – I’m not going back into full-time lecturing. I will not be able to compete in the academic world without a research qualification. Will I miss academic life? I don’t know. Will I ever do a PhD again? Ask me again in 10 years time.

Above all, I have only praises to Allah the All-Mighty, The One who puts your life in the best of orders. He knows it all, He knows it best.

So – PhD? Been there, done that. And I’m glad – it’s finally over.