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 day we met Jennifer Lopez in New York City

Peter and Papparazzi

“Hey, look!”

“Paparazzi!”

“I wonder who’s there?” I question as we nonchalantly run up to the half dozen frenzied camera-wielding celebrity stalkers who are shooting photos through the windows of one of the wildest toy stores in the world.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Big with Tom Hanks, you might have a sense of the magnetism of one of the most extravagant toy stores in the world: FAO Schwarz. Not surprisingly, the store was ranked prominently on our list of must-see sights in New York City.

On Friday, just after lunch, we decided to head over to the store to check out the gigantic stuffed animals and play on the giant, foot-played piano.

Quickly, our fascination with giant toys was overshadowed by the fact that Jennifer Lopez, her husband, Marc Anthony and their two kids were currently shopping inside the store.

Hence the reason for the rabid photographers.

Marina snaps a pic of Marc Anthony while battling paparazzi.

As Marina was battling for window space with the paparazzi to get a good photo of the celeb family, I realized a critical thing: we were NOT paparazzi.

“Marina! Let’s go inside and see them! The paparazzi are not allowed, but we’re just customers!”

We quickly run to the door, and briskly enter FAO Schwarz with our target in sight.

“We should walk slower, so as not to rouse suspicion”, I mutter to Marina as we slow our excited pace while approaching J Lo’s clan, including a handful of security guards.

“Hi…” Marina and I say simultaneously, as we get to within 10 feet of Jennifer Lopez.

J Lo looks at us, smiles and waves, and says: “Hello!”

My mind goes blank: Jennifer Lopez is real and she acknowledged our existence.

We stand there transfixed, trying to act natural and managing to come off as anything but.

A number of lines run through my head as to how to start a conversation with one of my biggest celebrity crushes of all time.

And yet I continue to stand there, beside Marina. Neither of us are saying anything.

J Lo picks up one of her toddlers, who looks exactly like you would expect them to look given her parents, while Marc is occupied with the other twin.

Another bystander gets swiftly told to put away his camera phone by an intense security guard.

“Come on, the children are here!” says the guard, automatically disarming all bystanders from taking photos by virtue of guilt.

As we stand there looking at this otherwise normal family as though they are some sort of circus attraction, I realize just how difficult it must be to lead a normal life once that level of celebrity is reached.

I certainly felt guilty gawking at them, but to be honest, I couldn’t tear myself away.

I mean, right in front of me was Jennifer Lopez! I was a fan of hers even back during her “Fly Girls” stint on “In Living Colour” back in the early 90’s. And she looked just as gorgeous as she does on television.

But, there they stood with their kids, trying to have a normal trip to the toy store and they were surrounded by 3 layers of piercing eyes: a internal layer of body guards, a middle layer of random bystanders (including us), and finally the paparazzi just beyond the windows.

Eventually, we regained control of our bodies and continued to walk slowly past the family, and before long, they were escorted out the back entrance of the store.

We tried to enjoy the giant stuffed animals, and checked out the giant piano, but it was useless: we were still in a daze.

We walked over to the Apple store (the construction of which is highly reminiscent of the Louvre in Paris), and I tweeted about our recent encounter with J Lo et al.

We continued walking after, but our conversation was constantly interrupted with:

“Can you believe we just said ‘Hi’ to J Lo!?”

This was quickly followed by:
“I wish we said (insert lame attempt at striking a conversation with celebrity here) to her!”

Only in New York

BTW – In case you were wondering what Jennifer Lopez looked like when we saw her, check out these paparazzi pics.

We didn’t get a single picture of J Lo, and have been kicking ourselves in the behind ever since.

Peter

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