I am recently getting a questions in my inbox from people considering Ph.D studies and/or professional lives devoted to research. Many of these questions can be boiled down to, How did you get to where you are? Here’s one version of my answer.
I had a strong suspicion beginning my second year of college that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I still had many lingering doubts. I applied to a fellowship program that would groom me for the GRE, independent research, and a life time in academia. I made it through to the final round, excited during the interviews and a nervous wreck about “signing away my life” during the breaks. I ultimately did not receive the fellowship, which felt devastating for 24 hours and then, a relief. I wasn’t sure at 20. I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I knew I loved numbers and surveys and reading endlessly and asking questions and investigating things. But I had trouble finding the right field for myself and I wanted to see what working life was like in the “real world.” Surely, I told myself, they still need researchers out there. So I put my Ph.D. dreams aside and decided to work for what I determined was a “respectable amount of time.”
In my head, this was meant to be a 2 year research job. But the job market is interesting and opaque and full of strange and unexpected results. I learned that job descriptions are rarely accurate, that I did not need to work anywhere near as hard as I did in college to still have excellent results and a social life(?!) and “research” in industry is sometimes a scary and terrifying Frankenstein version of what I wanted to do. It’s amazing what becomes “fact” when someone in a hierarchical organization determines it must be so. I worked in research in a financial company, a media company, and a tech start up. Each version of my job was interesting and had a lot of space for me to design what I was working on, but I was keenly aware of the holes in my skill set and the distance between what made me light up when I talked about it… and the research I did during my working hours.
I had a moment while fact checking where I was increasingly frustrated by the original research I was doing to patch up holes in an argument… knowing I would never get credit for the work… when I realized I wanted to do independent research. The questions and notes I had been scrawling away in notebooks and Evernote were haunting my dreams and making it very difficult to ignore any longer. I knew I needed more training to answer some of these questions and I knew I needed to work on them in a formal setting for people to take me seriously. So I approached my college advisors.
Absolutely no one in my life was even a little surprised when I told them. The scariest conversation (in my anticipation) was with my boss who did not bat an eyelash. She instead beamed at me and said she was thrilled and when did she need to turn in my recommendation letter?
See, I have always been a nerd. I obsess over things I am reading or decide to investigate for a long period of time not because it had a specific “end goal” but because it fascinated me and captured my imagination. My questions really do haunt me. Some kept me up all night. I would read for hours trying to answer my questions, even when I knew I had work the next day. I carried around a “field journal” for observations on communities I found interesting. I liked experiment design and talked about it long past the point of everyone else beginning to play with their phones. I break into a giant smile when I talk about theories I am playing with and successful days in the field.
Making money was nice, but it wasn’t enough. I realized the price of working on questions that didn’t interest me felt much more costly to me than I had understood. I was willing to take that pay cut — and sign up to be in grad school until I am at least 31 — because this time to read and study and design experiments and live my questions was what I needed to do to feel alive. It was worth leaving behind the experience I had built up over time, my comfortable salary and life style, and the networks of friends and colleagues I had built up because my questions called so loudly.
As one advisor told me when I told him about my plans, “I would not recommend this life style to anyone who could happily live a different life.” He told me, “you will spend the next few years becoming an expert on what feels like the handle of a single type of hammer in a tool shed. It drives most people insane. You need to be slightly insane to do this.” And I am. I tried and I cannot leave my questions behind. I returned to grad school because I know what I need to explore and answer with my life and I know what it will cost me to do so.
Sometimes people ask me if they should do this because they don’t know what else they would do. Don’t do that. Don’t come back until you have something you can hold on to when you are consumed with the self doubt and overwhelmed by the isolation that is part of independent research. I had to work for 4 years and try working in 3 totally different fields until I was ready. It’s ok to take your time and try giving yourself to another job, another field. Nothing you do, work-wise or research-wise will ever be absolutely perfect. It just won’t. But start by experimenting with the different variables that you can choose in this life. Maybe it’s money, location, or the type of work that you do. Find what matters to you. Pursue that.
For me, the type of work I do (research) and the specific questions I want to answer became a priority that I could no longer ignore. And it was an expensive decision to make, but I know in my heart this is where I am supposed to be.