A Letter

I wrote an email last night to undergrad chemistry professor and mentor that I’ve known since freshman year of college. I mentioned that I will be needing a reference letter from him soon, if he doesn’t mind writing me one, for an NSF grad fellowship I’m applying for. I also wrote it to ask for his advice on this situation. I respect this man a lot and look up to him. I feel we have very similar personalities and that if he enjoyed this research business, geez, well maybe I could too.

His response shocked and amazed me. It propelled my mind into actually having the courage to consider leaving grad school as a sane possibility. I won’t say his name to protect his identity, but I want to copy part of the email he sent me:

“Hey Sarah,
Great to hear from you. I would be happy to write a letter for you. I
was about to go to sleep and decided to check my email.  I’m glad I
did.

A little secret here that I don’t tell anyone- I am burnt out from
research.  It happen about 3-4 years ago.  I had a dry spell of funding
and it took an emotional toll on me.  I expected once I got my funding
back I would be excited again.  I have enough grant funding now,
however the spark has not returned.  I feel much research is very
unimportant.  It has no practical benefits.  I am not really sure what
happened to me.  I thought I was really happy here for the first 7 or
so years.  This is a great place to work, however research stress burnt
me out.

I have had past students that went on to graduate school and also did
not like research.  I am doing a sabbatical this semester
and half the students in the lab I work in do not want to do academic
research after they graduate.  Research seems like a romantic thing on
the outside.

From my experiences, I know what I am going to tell my kids: find what
you like to do, but don’t expect that you will do it all your life,
because a career is too long a time.”

I can’t believe that he was unhappy all that time; I’ve known him that whole time and he is just the sweetest man that I want so badly for him to enjoy whatever he’s doing because he deserves it. But at the same time, I don’t want to end up like that…feeling like I’ve wasted all my time in something I don’t love. Life is too short.

One of the reasons I felt so strongly about coming here, as I’ve said before, was that I thought there was no chance for me to get in grad school just after undergrad. My GRE scores were abysmal. I was having a meltdown with life. But God opened that door for me, and I couldn’t say no. I had wanted this for almost half my life. When I found out I’m not so passionate about it anymore, I still had that old fall-back of “but this is where God led me. I don’t know why, but there has to be a reason I’m here.” And now I think I know what it is. God knew, as I did, that if I never got the chance to try this of my own accord, I would always regret it and wonder “what if” the rest of my life. Who wants to live like that? I couldn’t. But this email from my professor, confiding in me he’s not passionate about it anymore–am I lucky that I’ve discovered this so early–while I still have ample opportunity to explore other possibilities and don’t feel stuck yet? I think so.

I was talking to my friend Jacob last night as he was driving through Wyoming on this roadtrip he has planned for this month. He is such a different and less confused individual from 2 years ago. He had a major freak-out the last 2 years of undergrad, which sort of sparked my freak-out too (another long story that most of you already know), but the really cool thing I realized is that now I completely understand where he was coming from. He was the golden boy of the chem department and all the professors had really high hopes for him to continue on in chemistry, but he realized he didn’t like research…he didn’t even like lab work. I think he had so much pressure on him from them because that’s what everyone expected him to do. That’s how I feel in this program…except I don’t mind working in a lab…I just hate research. And he got talked into applying for this Goldwater scholarship (very prestigious, basically pays for school/books/tuition, etc.), which he didn’t feel right about at the beginning because he had realized all of the above. He felt like he was lying. This is what I’m anticipating with this NSF fellowship the lab PI wants us to apply for…I feel like I’m lying. Anyway, he ended up getting it, and feeling really guilty for still accepting it. I was happy for him that he got it, but also upset because my other best friend/roommate from school also applied and didn’t get it. She so wanted to do research too and go to grad school. It was just unfair. I thought he was a mess because he was so confused about what he wanted to do and where to go next after graduation. I had always known where I’d like to try to go…CofC marine biology. I didn’t understand not having any kind of goal.

But now I’m here. And I don’t love it. I don’t love it enough to want to continue this degree that I feel holds no bearing over my future happiness, just over whether or not I will have regrets–and now, thanks to God, I feel I won’t. I gave it a shot. I tried to like it. I tried really hard to like it. I just…don’t. And that’s ok. And now I feel this whole other world of possibility is open to me for the first time, because I’ve never really let myself consider other things…ever. I haven’t been able to see past this huge goal I’ve had for myself since I was 10 years old, and now I can. It feels good to have realized this.

I guess all that’s left now is to figure out where to go next while I still have money to pay the bills. And prayer. Lots and lots of prayers. Love you guys for letting me talk this out loud with you.


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2 responses

  1. Sarah, hang in there, I think most of us are still trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives. I realized a few years ago that my heart was no longer in academics and since then, honestly, I’ve lost my way a little. I used to define myself so strongly by my grades and what my intellectual achievements and goals were that once my focus changed I didn’t know who I was anymore. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do and what makes me happy and it’s hard. Just know that you’re incredibly intelligent and talented and whenever you find your way I’m sure you’ll succeed in whatever your dreams lead you to.

  2. See above post! It must’ve been your comment that had me seeing that song in a different light.

    I think part of the problem is we were raised thinking that we’d find our career interest, go to school for it, and then graduate, get a job in that field, and spend the rest of our working lives in that profession. That just isn’t reality today. We can’t blame our parents for raising us that way because that’s typically how it happened for them, but as I said before, graduating from grad school now is almost expected when it used to just be going to and graduating from college (undergrad).

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