Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Intuition and the unhappy grad student

I've been dutifully completing the exercises for my Mondo Beyondo class, like the good student I am. It's been really fun. Today's "assignment" was to blog about a time where we took action based on our intuition.

Despite being such a logical person, I do trust my intuition. My "gut feel" rarely leads me astray so I try to be quiet enough to hear that little voice. The first time I really noticed was one of the biggest decisions I've ever made.

Flashback to 1998. Summer in Seattle. (Cue horrible late 90s music like "Tumpthumping".) Best time of the year, and a *real* summer unlike the impostor we had this year.

I was a poor grad student in biology, preparing to take my qualifying exam before beginning my PhD research for realz. I worked at the shiny new Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research center for a professor I really liked and respected. I was long-distance dating my college boyfriend, and I lived in a house with 2 of my college friends. Life was good on the surface but I JUST.WASN'T.HAPPY.

I put in the long hours required of me in lab, just like my fellow grad students. I got good grades in my required classes. I liked being a teaching assistant and mentoring a local science teacher for a summer program. I was working on a paper with my research advisor. Sounds great, right? But I couldn't shake the unhappiness. It wasn't a "take to my bed" kind of major depression, but kind of a low-level funk that hovered under the surface, popping up in my quiet moments.

One late night, I meandered through the library at "the Hutch" as it's affectionately known. I happened to notice a section of science-related books that *wasn't* scientific journals, which is a rarity for a science library. I idly chose one from the shelf and opened the page to a quote by Barbara McClintock, who is the only woman to win an unshared Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

"I couldn’t wait to get into the laboratory in the morning and I just hated sleeping.  I couldn't imagine a better life."

That quote hit me like lightning. I realized I was supposed to be *excited* about my job, and if I didn't like what I was doing, I needed to find something else to do. But I was in the midst of a PhD program, for which I had received a fancy-schmancy training grant from NIH, and furthermore, it was exactly what I had studied for at Caltech and worked for every summer in between. I had NO idea what I would do next.

But I knew I had to take action or else I'd find myself in the same place, a year or two later.  At that point I would feel like I had put too much time into my PhD program, and would be compelled to "stick it out" for the 5+ years it would take to finish. And I knew I'd be miserable every minute.

So I gathered my courage and spoke to my research advisor about it.  Amazingly, he went out of his way to show me the options for alternative careers in science.  I visited a local biotech firm with him and met some scientists in industry.  He introduced me to a colleague of his who was working on her own research to start a company.  He encouraged me to take another computer programming class that quarter as well.  I did not expect that from a "manager", whose "employee" essentially told him she was ready to quit.

At the same time, I signed myself up at the career center at the university *and* prepped for the LSAT, anticipating applying to law school as a backup plan if I was unemployable.  I took advantage of all the resources: company visits, on campus interviews, career fairs, etc.  I landed a couple of job offers, and picked the one from Deloitte Consulting, which lured me in with the shiny travel, paid expenses, and TONS of training in a completely new field.

It was exactly the right choice for me, and turned into a job (and career!) which I loved, and was good at. I no longer had the underlying ick feeling and felt a huge burden lifted the day I defended my proposal research to officially get my "consolation prize" Master's Degree.  The courage to make that HUGE change also catalyzed other big changes for me - I ended that relationship which I knew was really not good for me, and found the motivation to lose 35 pounds.

I still work in the same field, for a great company that lets me balance my work life and my home life.  I don't regret "dropping out" of my PhD program *at all*, not even a teeny wistful pang of "I wish I could be called Dr. HouseofPeanut".  Nothing.  Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. 

That's how I know it was the right decision for me.  And I owe everything to Dr. Barbara McClintock, who was dedicated to science in a way I most certainly was NOT, and the courage to do what my gut was telling me.  Woot!

Barbara McClintock, 1947. (from Wikipedia)


  1. I had no idea our grad school experiences were so similar, right down to the good grades. I didn't have the guts to talk to my adviser about it, but I left my PhD program, too, and haven't regretted it for an instant.

  2. Wow, Stephanie! I had no idea either! You really should move to Seattle ;) or maybe I should quit my job and move to Utah and we could hang out...

  3. Ooh, this is a good reminder just when I need it. I'm thinking about going back to work and need to remember not to apply to jobs just because I get paid.

  4. @r&c - yes, job satisfaction is HUGE, probably even huger than the $ since you have been living without the income for a while, right?

  5. It's so interesting how when you identify what's really at the heart of things, all of the other "issues" that hung on with it fall away, everything clicks and falls into place. I think what people often struggle with is that they expect if they are in the "wrong place" it will feel BIG bad, so if it's just sort of icky, like you said, they think it's something wrong with their perception, and they hang on, hang in, hang out. Good for you for listening, and trusting what you heard.

  6. @Jill - thanks for visiting. And yes, it's amazing how everything came together all at once!

  7. The most important thing you did, I think, was to take the required action, after your intuition pointed you in another direction! Even though Appa and I were disappointed when you first told us about abandoning your PhD program, we are just SO happy that your life has turned out the way it has. Takes a lot of courage to make a big change. Good for you!!


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