You Know What You Need To Do. You’re Just Scared.

By:Deb Knobelman, PhD
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Or, lessons learned from slogging through a PhD.

I have a lifelong love affair with math and science.

Given my family, my parents took for granted that I would excel in those areas. And excel I did.

At the end of college, I had no practical ideas about what to do with my life. I knew I was good at school. I knew I liked science. But I was afraid. Afraid to make a choice that my parents wouldn’t approve. Afraid that I would be judged. So, I found my way to a PhD program. A PhD, I thought, why not. That should give me purpose for the next few years.

The first two years of my program were like college. Days consisted of classes, including some with the medical students. Intense, isolating at times, but more of what I expected. I read, I studied, I learned.

After the first two years, I started my thesis work in a laboratory. I chose to study serotonin receptors. The biological basis of behavior and mental illness has always fascinated me.

As I dove into working in a laboratory full time, I thrived on the “science” part — what is going on in the brain? How can we prove it? I loved the rigor that came with those discussions. I loved the planning and the cautious optimism that our hypothesis would prove true.

But the reality of academic science was different than I expected. My life involved repeating the exact same experiment over and over, for months. A sort of scientific Ground Hog’s Day.

I felt frustrated and unhappy. But I didn’t talk about it. I assumed I wasn’t as tough as everyone else around me. That my feelings were wrong.

I told myself that quitting was the worst possible choice, impractical. But in any list of pros and cons I made, the only pros were: get those 3 letters after my name, and make my parents proud. My heart wasn’t in it. But I was too scared do make the choice that I knew was right for me.

I kept at it, in abject misery, for another 3 years or so until I completed the program and received my degree.

After grad school, I began working in another, related industry. It was fast paced and challenging. I loved it.

But the job didn’t require a PhD. It took me awhile to realize. I could have made this choice years ago.

I couldn’t believe that I could have chosen to be happy. That I could have made the choice years ago. That my feelings and actions could be aligned.

It was only then that I understood that I chose to stay in graduate school for the wrong reasons. I spent 3 years of my life headed down a path that didn’t feel right to me. So that I could look right to other people.

As a type A high-achiever, I thought there was never, ever, any excuse to quit something that you started. I have since realized how much I worried about other people’s perception of me if I did choose to quit.

Sometimes, it is braver to quit than it is to stay. I was not brave enough to make that choice.

To anyone gritting their teeth through something. To people who feel trapped. To people who are confusing what they WANT to do with what they SHOULD do.

my advice is this: you know what your heart is telling you to do. You know it. You’re just scared. You are staying for the wrong reasons.

Make sure the course that you have set brings you closer the goals that you want for yourself. Not the ones that you think others want for you. And if you think the course you are on is not true to your own goals or happiness, be brave and make a change.