Redefining Success Stories and Breaking the Stigma: Tiffany Horan

For some, remaining in academia is the right choice. For Tiffany, the academic environment she found herself in was one which was stifling her growth, rather than encouraging it. Tiffany made the decision to leave academia; it was her decision to make, and hers only. Below are excerpts from a blog on her experiences as an autistic in academia, originally published on her blog:


I don’t think there was ever a time that I found being around my fellow human beings easy. It has never been easy. I refuse to pretend that being autistic is easy; it is not. For example, as an autistic, a misunderstanding in your own language between two native speakers can have a devastating effect on both parties involved. In my case, it’s much easier to deal with misunderstandings when one of the parties involved has my native language as a second language, as communication for them takes a little more effort and time, time which I need to communicate effectively.

When I applied to my philosophy PhD program in Poland, I cried during the initial interview. I was overwhelmed and intimidated by the six men and one woman I’d never met before. The smell of old carpets and coffee, along with the architecture, were overwhelming and distracting, as were the sound of the Old Town and people coming in through the open window. I was debilitated by my inability to speak in public without a script, and clutched my iPad. I was sweating profusely and fully aware of the marks my hands were making on the black leather of the iPad case. I would switch from wiping my hands on my trousers and clutching my device.

My admission folder was white; it was new, bought especially for the occasion. It was in pristine condition, with every document carefully placed how the institution had asked me: my photographs, evidence, proposal, and more; it was all in there.

On more than one occasion, I wondered whether my reviewers had even thoroughly read my proposal. I was asked heavily loaded questions about my work being political even though at no point during my proposal were politics mentioned. After composing myself, I began to explain my proposal and discuss why I wanted to study at their institution, how I intended to go about my research, and what both the institution and I could gain from this.

Shortly after the interview, I met the secretary. This woman saved my life. She was the only rock most of the students here had. She was honest, kind, and I will always be grateful to her for helping me when I was struggling. She knew everything there was to know about the institution, including its flaws.

There were no undergraduate students here, funding wasn’t an option, and I worked full time. This was a very different institutional structure to anything I’d come across in the UK, largely due to what I saw as a lack of organization: constant and unexpected changes were rife.

It seemed no one asked, “how will this affect the students?” but rather, “what is easiest for the professors?” Because I was financially supporting myself, classes that were required for credits but I found irrelevant were troublesome. My employer at the time (I worked as an interdisciplinary teacher), was flexible and changed my schedules to fit my own. But when the university changed their schedules, I had to go back and change my work one again. This continued for some time, understandably frustrating my employer. My mental health suffered enormously.

During class, when I was no longer able to concentrate on the lecturer over the sound of students clicking pens, flickering lights, and construction site noises, I’d leave the room and wouldn’t return. Lectures and seminars which lasted for several hours with few breaks were too long. Once, I had a meltdown in the toilets when no one but me had read a specific text and I felt as though I had wasted my time.

I found that as an autistic in academia, the one thing I could’ve used more of was a combination of time and patience from others. A large number of the inspiring individuals I met while studying gave me their time and put in the additional effort it takes to get to know me.

Not long into my second year, I was told that my chosen classes were to be dropped and that I “could become a sociologist or political scientist instead.” As someone who was interested in studying philosophy, this was not an option. I was there to gain insight from incredible human beings so that I too might be able to impart knowledge in a similar way.

In the end, when I had left and moved to another city, I realised that most of the issues I have with people are in my head: people do seem to like me, even with my unusual behavior or intense (sometimes viewed as aggressive or strange) conversational skills. I couldn’t understand why anyone would like me though, because more often than not, I don’t like myself, so I distance myself and lose out on forming strong connections with anyone.

Because I don’t tend to ask anything of anyone, problems tend to build up. Then, I erupt. The self-destructive nature of my reactions is one way to lead an unsuccessful life, or, in this case, an unsuccessful academic career. It’s no wonder I took such a keen interest in the philosophy of self, the rational and the corporeal. Perhaps one day, I will write about autism, the self, and Plotinus.

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Tiffany Horan is a Squared Online graduate, Philosophy PhD dropout, engagement manager at Appnroll, a freelance content writer, European nomad and forever expat. She is also the founder of the Women in Tech Chat initiative, inspiring women worldwide to start their STEM careers.

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