First of all, congratulations on being accepted to one of the top-tier graduate institutions in the country! That is an enormous accomplishment, and you should be proud of yourself for that. But, if you’re like me, that was only the first step towards your larger goal of that dream career. This is the first rung of the ladder.
For me, that dream career was becoming a neuroscience professor and running my own lab. I worked extremely hard for years just picturing how amazing that life would be. I wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. Apart from one brief lapse of judgement in the fourth grade where I was convinced I was destined to be a historian, all of my interests surrounded the life sciences. In undergrad, I took the hardest courses available and worked in multiple labs just trying to understand how the brain worked, as that was the most interesting mystery to me. Then I packed everything in a truck and moved here because I had the opportunity to work in the coolest lab ever with possibly the best mentor who ever existed. I decided to come early and spend my summer before graduate school picking up some skills I would use in the lab. This was the first rung of the ladder of academia, and I wanted to get to the top. Then, two weeks before my program’s boot camp started, my dog, Apollo, died.
There are a lot of moments in life that change how you see things. When you were a kid, maybe you wanted to be an astronaut, but then you learned you hate roller coasters. When you were in high school, maybe you really wanted to be a doctor, but then you broke your arm and realized you can’t stand the sight of blood. Apollo dying was my moment. Academia is hard and stressful and demanding. In order to get ahead, I unknowingly made the choice to spend the last 5 weeks of my very old dog’s life in a lab instead of with him because I felt I really needed to climb that ladder. Looking back now, I don’t believe the top of the ladder is worth losing that time. In one day, my goals changed. Suddenly, I had to figure out what I wanted to do with a graduate degree all over again.
The whole point of this blog post is to say this: If you don’t know what you want to do with your graduate degree once you get it, that’s fine. If your career path changes, that’s fine, too. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t passionate or serious about succeeding in graduate school. It doesn’t mean you can’t commit. It just means that you haven’t decided what you want to do when you’re finished. There’s nothing wrong with living in the moment a little. But when I told my PI that I didn’t know what I wanted to work towards anymore, this was the advice he gave me: “Find out what your core passions are and center your efforts on them. That way, you’ll learn what it is you want to do and by the time you get your degree, you’ll have the experiences and knowledge to be able to go do it.”
A lot of people in graduate school are driven, ambitious, amazing people, and many of them know what that larger goal is that they want to achieve. If you are one of the unsure ones, don’t let that intimidate you. You are surrounded by resources and opportunities to explore all sorts of possible careers, and you have plenty of time to figure it out. The early stages of deciding on a career path can be stressful and isolating, but talking to potential mentors and friends helps. Find the things that interest you or just make you happy and focus on them. Most importantly, don’t feel like you owe it to anyone to enter a specific career. You are going to be here for 2-6 years. If you spend all of them pretending you want to follow a certain career path solely because your friends or superiors expect it of you, you’re going to miss all of the opportunities to start becoming what you actually want to be.