Personal Statement: A graduate student's quarter-life crisis

Monday, September 25, 2017 - 6:53pm

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Courtesy of Irene Park

 

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

This is a pretty common question for kids, but to someone who is almost 30? Actually, I often ask myself that same question, although in a slightly different way: What do I want to do with my life?

My career trajectory has never been linear. My goals changed constantly growing, shifting from actress to physician and everything in between. I started out as a pre-med biology major while an undergrad because I liked biology and I liked how medicine could make positive contributions to the society. But after researching at a plant pathology lab during my sophomore year, I realized I liked asking questions and finding answers in a lab more than learning from lectures. I was no longer looking up information about MCATs and medical schools but instead looking into doctoral programs and taking as many advanced, more focused biology classes to try to find my niche in biology. Of all branches in biology, genetics interested me the most, and so I decided to apply and join the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Michigan.

I thought: The decision was a drastic change in my plans, and I was set for life. All I needed to worry about was doing great science, and I would get to where I want to be. But like many things in life, it turns out you don’t really learn what a specific job entails until you’re fully immersed in it.

As a graduate student, I am expected to do much more than work on my thesis. I had two years of classes before I could even obtain my Ph.D. candidacy and work full time on my thesis. Achieving candidacy marks the transition between learning about your field from lectures to producing a body of cutting-edge work to push the field forward.

Becoming a Ph.D. candidate is not an easy feat. For my department, students have to write a six-page grant proposal answering a question that is unrelated to their thesis projects. We have about a month to do background research, write a proposal and present the hypothetical project to five faculty members, who then grill us with questions for two hours before concluding whether a student is competent enough to pursue the track. I passed, but it is still a mystery to me how I survived the process without quitting or breaking down (although I did have a couple of panic attacks). Looking back, I think what got me through was the hope that I could finally work on my thesis project after this grueling process.

But after finally becoming a Ph.D. candidate, other obligations ensued: departmental activities like seminars, retreats and new student recruitment, fellowship applications, conferences, meetings with faculty members, and training junior lab members. With these overwhelming administrative tasks and other non-thesis-related obligations, I simply did not feel as if I were in school to ask questions, perform experiments and learn science anymore. Most of all, I felt extremely uninspired. Doing research became more tolerable as I became more used to the system, but that was it — a tolerable day job. I felt like a robot.

In the middle of my third year, I began exploring career options outside academia. I evaluated why I was unhappy. First, I was expected to work on only a couple of projects for almost six years. Second, I was too focused on one specific topic — I was actually interested in many different topics in biology, not just one. My thesis project is about how cells minimize DNA errors, but I’m interested in other branches of biology too, like neuroscience. For instance, I love coffee, so I’ve written a couple times about how caffeine affects the brain. Last, I felt awfully isolated since only a few people in the world fully understand my thesis project. When work is such a big part of my life, not being able to talk about and share the same enthusiasm with most people is quite depressing.

One alternative route I thought of was science writing, specifically writing for the public. Writing has a shorter timeline — I can write about many different scientific topics, not just on topics that pertain to my thesis project. And my work will be read and understood by more than just a few. Plus, I’ve always liked writing and I’d begun to realize the growing need for clear, accurate and engaging science to general audiences. This is especially true now, as “alternative” and nonscientific facts (i.e., false statements) are readily accepted: climate change denial, the anti-vaccine movement, GMO fearmongering and even the faux benefits of a gluten-free diet.

Even though Ph.D.-holders are pursuing nonacademic careers at an increasing rate, many programs are unequipped — even unsupportive — of students making that transition. I have sent countless emails to people I’d never even met at the University to see if they knew anything about science writing. While many responses were rather supportive (“It’s great to see a scientist interested in science writing!”), most couldn’t help (“But I know nothing about the field, so I cannot help you. Sorry!”).

The help came from somewhere unexpected. A friend of mine, whom I met during a graduate school interview, quit school to pursue science writing full time as a freelancer. We’d kept in contact on social media even after the interview, and when she saw several statuses about my quarter-life crisis, she contacted me. We had a conversation over Facebook and email, and I decided to give it one last try — I cold-emailed one more person, the current summer managing news editor at The Michigan Daily.

Since then, I’ve been involved with the Daily for almost two-and-a-half years as a news reporter and editor. Before I decided to leave to focus on my thesis project, I covered a broad range of topics from cutting-edge cancer research to a candlelit Black Lives Matter vigil at the Diag. I also helped launch MiSciWriters, a student organization that focuses on science writing and maintains a blog for trainees to practice writing and editing about science accessible to the public.

Some graduate students have told me that I am courageous (or insane — I’ve heard both) since being a graduate student is more than a full-time job, and being involved in extracurricular activities does not help me complete my thesis. But these extracurricular activities offered me one big component that scientific research alone cannot offer: people.

Scientists are people; we have to deal with human problems during our research — having other obligations outside work and school, getting sick, making mistakes, and having feelings and bias. Perhaps what really excites me about science writing is the opportunity to develop and hone my people skills on the job — the ability to share cool scientific facts, start discussions about controversial topics in science and portray scientists as people with feelings and problems, not callous robots.

I’ve met many fantastic people in my effort to transition into writing from academia, and they are the driving force behind my thesis work. Sometimes hearing supportive words or talking to inspiring people motivates me more than seeing numbers on an excel sheet. Documentaries, books, shows and other forms of storytelling inspired me to go into science — not numbers or graphs.

What do I want to be when I am done with my Ph.D.? What do I want to do for rest of my life? If you really think about it, the two questions are the same. We don’t expect an answer like “I want to be a good person” to either question. Instead, we expect to hear specific careers. But if you ask me right now, I can’t give you a normal answer. I don’t know what specific position I want, but I know I want to feel a little more human.