On (not) applying to grad school

Was I really ready to commit the next 5 years of my life to another Ivory Tower?

As I’ve muddled my way through three years of college, the questions people have asked me about my studies have changed. It started with possibility and exploration – “what are you studying?” and “ooh, chemistry was my worst subject!” – but when I returned home this summer, the question “and what are you going to do next?” reared its ugly head.

Grad school, followed by academic research, had always been my default answer. It’s what my dad did with his psychology degree, it’s very close to what my mom did with her English degree (until she turned off on a veering path through secondary education, administration, web development, and consulting). Perhaps more importantly, it’s the path most visible to students actually in university, surrounded as we are with, well, grad students and academics. Especially at Princeton (where research in even the “applied” sciences tends towards the theoretical), there’s a dearth of visibility of other paths.

But my last couple of research projects have been frustratingly slow. Yes, science goes slowly, when it moves forward at all. And yes, each individual research project has taught me more than I can say. But the lack of progress – and worse, the lack of inspiration – was enough to make me wonder whether the slog of research was really my calling.

You’ve probably been warned about impostor syndrome – that insidious sense that everyone is ahead of you, that you don’t belong, which, paradoxically, nearly every student here feels at some point. I know, intellectually, that a couple of disappointing research experiences don’t prove that I’m not cut out to be a researcher, or that I wouldn’t make it in grad school. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not quite what I’m supposed to be doing.

This allows me – in fact, forces me – to pursue opportunities I may not have given enough attention to otherwise.

These questions and doubts were heavy enough that I realized this summer I couldn’t get excited about applying to grad school. With that in mind, I decided not to apply to PhD programs at all this fall. This allows me – in fact, forces me – to pursue opportunities I may not have given enough attention to otherwise, from international research fellowships to careers outside research: advocacy and journalism and (sigh) consulting.

The path after graduation will be neither as obvious nor as straight as I’d thought

Veering away from grad school, at least temporarily, doesn’t constrain me as much as I’d feared. I’m well-positioned to make this decision for a couple of different reasons. I’d already found a passion outside research – namely writing – which could form the basis of my vocation. And the support networks available to me – from alumni and classmates for networking to family for moving back in with – make this a considerably less-risky decision that it might otherwise be.

I’d always imagined my future as similar to my Dad’s straight path through academia, but paths like Mom’s, with many jobs on a tangled path towards meaningful and gainful employment, seem to be much more the norm, especially for our generation. So I’ll take some time to find myself. I can return to grad school in a year, or five, or not at all. In the meantime, the traits I learned as an undergraduate researcher here – curiosity, logical and creative thinking, empiricism, and a passion for moving society forward – will serve me well on my future path.

Now all I have to do is figure out what the first step on that path looks like.

– Bennett McIntosh, Natural Sciences Correspondent