Last week, I had a breakfast meeting with my friend BL. I hadn’t seen her in a while and I wanted to catch up, but I also wanted to pick her brain about business ideas. See, BL is my inspiration for where I want to be – not only does she have a successful corporate career, but she has an equally successful side venture. In short, she’s doing what I want to do, so it makes sense to go to someone who is doing what you’re looking to do, right?
Over some yummy breakfast food, I walked BL through my ideas, my frustrations, and my fear of putting myself out there and trying something new. She gave me encouragement, some ideas and some advice. She also gave me a bit of a wake-up, when she looked at me and proclaimed, “dude, you married someone from Twitter, you’re already brave!” Ha. Yes, to most folks, marrying a person you met on social media seems like a crazy idea, so in that regard, I’m extremely brave. But I get what she meant – I’ve already conquered a fear and come out on top, so I simply need to do it again.
Later that day, as I was processing the day and everything we talked about, it dawned on me that there was another time in my life when I conquered a fear and came out on top. Ten years ago, I was a PhD student at my dream school. Up until that point, I’d achieved everything I’d set out to do. I’d made a few adjustments to my life plan, but overall I was still on the path that I’d set out for myself as a young teen, when I decided to pursue scientific research as a career. A PhD in chemistry was my last step before I embarked on an academic research and teaching career. There was just one problem – I was miserable! No one truly explained to me that life as a PhD student wasn’t as easy as they make it seem. I found myself working all the time, either in the lab, or teaching, or taking my own courses. Once my coursework was completed, my workload grew due to qualifying exams and other commitments. I enjoyed my research, and I learned a lot, but I hated the other parts that came along with research. I hated spending hours running NMR samples, or analyzing GC-MS results, because using industry-standard spectral libraries wasn’t allowed. Each Sunday, I got a pit in my stomach, because Monday was coming and that meant it was time for another meeting with my research group. I would sit in those meetings and pray that I had analyzed all my results correctly and prepped adequately, because if I hadn’t, I’d be publicly berated by my research adviser.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I hated my PhD program so much that it manifested as physical illness. I already suffered from migraines, but they became more frequent in the second year of my program. I also developed tension headaches, which forced me to abandon my lab in the middle of work and seek a quiet, dark place to recuperate. A visit to the health center diagnosed me, and I was given drugs to help the symptoms, but they did not give much relief. As my headaches got worse, my confidence and self-esteem suffered as well. I’d always felt I was smarter than the average bear, but graduate school made me question my abilities. Almost every day I had an experience with a professor or postdoc that left me wondering if I even belonged there. Of course, it wasn’t just me – we all swapped stories of how a professor treated us like garbage for not knowing the answer to a question, or received a bad test grade. My other classmates took it as par for the course, but I internalized a lot of the criticism I received.
The stress, the criticism, my health issues – I couldn’t take it anymore. I considered other options, such as transferring to a different school, or changing advisers. In the end, it was clear to me that simply changing schools wouldn’t solve my problem, because my problem was rooted in the PhD experience. A change of scenery or a different adviser wouldn’t change that. I toyed with switching to a public policy degree, but while I enjoyed the courses and learning something new, but my heart was still in the sciences and laboratory work.
And that’s when I pulled the trigger – I applied to graduate with a Master’s in chemistry, instead of staying to finish my PhD.
I could have pushed through three more years of research, and late nights in the lab, and writing papers. I could have written a dissertation and defended and graduated as Dr. Tucker. But it wasn’t worth it to me anymore. My health was suffering, both physically and mentally, and I realized that a PhD wasn’t worth my health. But it was so scary to make that decision. I feared judgement and ridicule from my peers, family and friends. I didn’t want to be a quitter. I wanted to make people proud of me. And I wanted to fulfill that childhood dream of an academic research career. Quitting my PhD meant saying goodbye to that.
Looking back, I see now how brave I was to give up the path I’d been on for years, and decide to pursue something new. As much as I wanted a PhD, I learned that it wasn’t meant for me. Leaving school and starting my career turned out to be a good decision and a blessing. But in the moment, it was scary and I was unsure it would pay off. Fast forward ten years, and now I feel the same way, only this time I want to walk away from a traditional corporate career. The fear I feel is bigger this time, because I have more riding on it – I’m not a broke PhD student living off ramen noodles, now I have bills and I’ve gotten very comfortable making good money. But my career is also a gift, and I have the luxury to pursue other passions while I work my day job, until I’m ready to make a move. And I have great friends to give me the push I need to take the first steps towards fulfilling my dreams and passions.
Big steps towards my dreams are coming soon – stay tuned!