How We Become Digital Nomads…with PhDs

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Let’s just dispense with the subtleties, and get right to it; by most people’s definition we are crazy.

If you are the type of person who prefers templates, clearly marked trials, conformity, movies with predictable endings, pop music and the like, it will be much easier for you to digest the following information if you just keep this notion in the background: these people are mentally unhinged.

Don’t believe me?

Then continue reading.

Us having a jumping contest in the salt flats of Bolivia. The winner is obvious;)

How we came to be PhD Nomads

With the initial intent of becoming tenured professors at prestigious research universities, we spent a ton of time and effort, made countless sacrifices, and amassed 2 bachelor’s, 1 master’s, and 2 doctorates between the two of us within a combined 2 decades of university education.

Disenchanted with our potential careers and lives as professors/scientists, we began saying ‘no’ to all the projects/jobs/opportunities to which we previously, albeit begrudgingly, said ‘yes’. We sold all our belongings, and traveled through South America until we ran out of money.

Overeducated and broke; quite the cliché, right?

After semi-voluntarily returning to Canada, we lived with my folks for a couple of months and tried to find employment that would allow us to capitalize on our academic/scientific skills without tying us down to a tenure-track professor position (the goldmine for those on the academic treadmill).

So, not only were we refusing to look for work for which we were most qualified, we were also living with my parents in the suburbs of a town affectionately referred to as the Dirty ‘Shwa – this more than anything should be a testament to our mental instability.

Once we made a few bucks doing freelance medical writing work, we moved out of my parent’s home with a bag of clothes, our 2 laptops, a box of books, and my guitar – all transported in my malfunction-prone ’98 Acura Integra.

Instead of doing the regular ritual of signing a 12-month lease on a property, getting furniture to fill said place, and settling down, we opted to sublet a furnished home.

Rather than getting a regular job, I continued to work remotely as a medical writer, essentially spending 100% of my working time doing the one thing that first got me into and subsequently pulled me through graduate school: writing about science. As my freelance work started to pick up, actual ‘sitting at a desk in an office, reporting to a boss, attending meetings, and commuting’ job offers came in. Despite the unpredictability of the freelance employment situation, I turned down everything that came along.

What the *&%# was I thinking, right?

Well, once you start making an income while sitting in your pajamas in the comfort of your temporary home, it’s tough to even contemplate going back to a structured work environment. So I declined interviews for positions I would have previously killed for. After every “Thanks, but no thanks” response, I sat in shock while Marina assured me that we were doing the right thing. During the process, Marina distanced herself from her regular university gig as a professor and research facilitator, and also became a freelance medical writer.

Another day at the office...

Today we remain as flexible and untethered as we’ve ever been. We attain this flexibility by not owning any property or furniture, not buying things that might tie us down, and generally being elusive in terms of a permanent residence.

For the foreseeable future we are taking a workation – that is, slowly traveling the world by living for 1-4 months in each location, while continuing to work remotely.

Why are we doing this?

Life is relatively short.

We refuse to spend our best years chasing the American dream, doing the 9-5 grind, accumulating unnecessary products to keep up with the Joneses, remedying our misery with hours of reality television, and conforming to the status quo, all the while living an unexamined life.

Instead, our lives are driven by this very simple notion:

“You’re sitting with your grandchildren on your lap telling them about your exploits. What stories are you telling them?”

In other words, we want to live a life that becomes a story worth telling.

Still think we’re nuts?

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Peter and Marina

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The end or a new beginning?

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“I’m really sad.”

“Me too. But somehow I think being sad right now is a good thing.”

Marina looks at me through teary eyes with puzzlement.

“It simply means we had a fantastic time during the past 3 months, right up until the very end. We left on a good note.”

Marina goes back to nibbling at her muffin as she considers my suggestion.

“Think about the alternative: if we were now sitting here discussing how relieved we were to head back to Canada, it would imply that we prefer stability and comfort to the uncertainty of adventure.”

I finish off the last of my yogurt with granola, as we sit together in a silent and empty Starbucks in the Miami airport, waiting for our connecting flight to Toronto.

It is approximately 6:00am.

We had just gotten off our mostly sleepless red-eye flight from Rio, and we’re both a bit knackered.

This may explain why we’re getting a bit emotional.

Alternatively, it may simply be that we really didn’t want this adventure to end.

I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that had money not been an issue, I would have easily stayed in Rio for much longer, if not permanently.

On the other hand, over the past week, while we were enjoying ourselves lounging on the beach, it struck me that I had gotten out of this “life detour” exactly what I needed: perspective.

The clarity I was desperately missing back in April I have more or less achieved (for the time being).

It is certainly sad to put an end to what I consider to be the best 3 months of my life.

However, rather than an end, I see this adventure as merely the beginning of the next chapter of our lives.

Let the fun begin…

Peter

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