A Year Can Change A Lot: Part 1

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Yesterday on Twitter I said, “If you would have told me 1 year ago what my life would be like today I never would have believed you.”

After I said that, some of you asked me to share my experience. Since the story is a bit longer than 140 characters, I decided to write a post (or two or three depending how long it takes) to talk about the life lessons that I have learned over the past two years. I always get a lot of questions about my career change so I thought I would finally do that now that I have some clarity and perspective.

Let me preface this story by telling you a few things about myself:

  • I have generally stayed inside the lines throughout my life (i.e., didn’t take risks)
  • I have always had a lot of anxiety and I never did many things that took me outside of my comfort zone.
  • I have done many things in my life because I thought it would make other people happy.
  • I never had any idea what my passions were (see here for more info)

With this in mind, let’s begin the journey of the past 2 years of my life, shall we?

My Undergraduate Dreams…

Throughout my undergraduate program in psychology all I ever wanted was to get into grad school. This was mainly because once I was enrolled in psychology, I quickly realized that there weren’t many job options for someone with a BAH in psychology. So I worked hard at getting into grad school. I figured it was my only hope.

When I was selected out of 300 applicants to be 1 of 4 students to enter a grad school, I was literally on cloud 9. I couldn’t believe it. All the hard work during my undergrad had paid off. All of the studying, applications , major exams, thesis, and the interviews paid off. I applied to 5 schools and was accepted to 1. Of course, I accepted it.

But, I will tell you what my gut feeling was. It was bad. That little voice in my head was trying to tell me that this school was not a perfect fit for me. But I told myself I would be crazy to pass it up. So many students would kill to be in my shoes. So I accepted it and said I would make the best of it.

I thought to myself that I was now going to be ok. I was going to go to grad school and get my Masters and PhD degrees and become a Professor. I would make lots of money and have a respected career. I would do research that I love. Life was going to work out.

Well, life doesn’t always work out as we plan and things aren’t always what they seem…

I entered grad school, Fall 2007:

The four of us who were selected into the program were immediately called the ‘Fab Four’ by our advisors and professors. There was a lot of pressure put on us right from the beginning. They frequently told us that they saw so much promise in us and couldn’t wait until we cultivated our research talents.

Secretly, we all felt like we didn’t measure up. They quickly told us that we would likely have the Imposter Syndrome which was when new grad students think that they got accepted by mistake and everyone else is smarter than them.

During the first week of grad school, we had a Grad School 101 presentation where we were told just exactly how this grad school thing works. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, you can imagine our shock when we were told that we should have 2-3 published articles by the end of our Master’s program, and 8-10 published articles by the end of our PhD career if we wanted to be competitive in the job market. Oh and not just any publishing’s either.  We should have publishing’s in top tier journals! We were also told that we needed to put about 60-70 hours a week into our studies, readings, research, and thesis. We would not expect a social life by the way. On top of that we should join committees, volunteer, and schmooze with top notch researchers to get our foot in the door. We were told to live and breathe psychology.

I went home the first week of grad school and cried my eyes out.

I didn’t let anyone see me. I told myself to pull it together and deal with it. I wouldn’t even tell Eric that I had doubts my first week.

I hoped that the stress would pass. I thought that my intense anxiety was a result of the adjustment phase and I would soon become accustomed to the culture I was now embedded in.

But I was sadly mistaken.

The demands piled up. The stress got bigger. Weekly brown bags frequently reminded us of the intense competition in the job market. Oh and don’t expect to apply for a job directly after finishing your PhD either. You need to secure a post-doc to be competitive. And not just any post-doc, a post-doc with a top tier institution! To become a Professor of psychology (in Canada anyways), you are looking at 2 years for your Masters + 4-5 years for your Doctorate + 1 for Post-Doc. The average is around 7-8 years. I knew many people that took much longer though.

Luckily throughout all of this stress, I could vent to a fellow Fab Four member who I had become good friends with named Jane. We frequently vented to each other about the stresses placed upon us and we quickly become disenchanted with our experience. Grad school was nothing like we envisioned it to be. I am forever grateful for meeting Jane because she got me through some really low moments. I don’t know what I would have done without her.

Then there was the MA Thesis.

I did proposal, after proposal, after proposal. Nothing was good enough. My thesis drafts and preliminary studies were scraped one after another and I began to lose hope. Once I finally had a study underway, I was in over my head with statistical analyses so complex I had to seek out PhD students for desperate help. I was lost in analyses for months and months.

There is much more to the story than this, but I can’t really talk about it publicly on the blog.

I left campus, walking back to my car, and cried. On numerous occasions. I cried so many drives home, calling Eric and just bawling my eyes out in frustration. I remember one time it was pouring out on my drive home. I called Eric crying and I had to pull over at a gas station because I couldn’t see the road through my tears and the rain.

As the pressure got more intense, eating resurfaced as a battle in my life. All the progress I had made with beating the disordered eating started to slide away. I had no hope. I started restricting my intake to gain control (or so I thought). I started to count calories and weigh myself each morning as a way to obtain some false sense of control over my life.

I was going backwards, yet the days moved forward.

Even though Eric and I were happily engaged since December 2007, the stress in my life started to negatively affect our relationship. Eric felt helpless because nothing he said or did could help my situation. I felt helpless. I frequently snapped at him for no reason. I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated dropping out of the program, but deep down I knew I could never do it.

April 2008:

Then in April 2008 I did something really stupid…

~~~~~

To be continued…

Part 2: My new career as a researcher + finishing my degree + The hardest thing I have ever done.

~~~~~

Today’s Question: Have you ever had a hard time in school? Or in a certain course? Or with a professor?

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Julie May 28, 2015

Thanks for sharing your story. It’s amazing how much impact one person’s journey can have on others! I feel ya….similar boat (Masters level researcher, long commute, not sure what passions are, so tired all the time) except my stresses are different. I have an almost 2 year old and a mother with Alzheimer’s (and no father). I keep wondering if working is my only “break” in life, even though it’s not something I’m passionate about and it eats up soooo much of my day, thoughts, and energy. I would love to feel free enough to pursue something without the worry of money or reputation, but, I think having a kid and the circumstances I have makes it harder. Do you think you would have made the same leap post-child? I’m just curious if you think timing is actually everything…..

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Jessie November 14, 2009

I am a new reader, so please pardon me for being behind. I can relate to you not know what your passions were. That is the reason I satrted blogging. I usually feel so consumed with me frustrations over work that I don’t take time to enjoy life and pursue things I love.

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nic - the auspicious squirrel October 19, 2009

I love your honesty and felt compelled to respond. I’ve only just recently found your blog and have been catching up for days :) I am looking forward to reading the rest of your journey, but first, I thought I’d give a little of mine.

I thought I wanted to be a doctor, since the 7th grade. I was a really sickly kid, and with U.S. Army doctors I didn’t always get the best treatment, so I thought I’d be ‘that’ doctor that wouldn’t be scary.

I had a 10 year plan, I even chose a university that also had a medical program so that I wouldn’t have to transfer.

What I didn’t realize was that by being sickly, I was an average student in high school and didn’t really have the basics. I hadn’t taken chemistry, physics, or calculus in high school. I was definitely not prepared for a pre-med major. College was HARD. I always felt like I had missed some ‘special class’ where everyone was given the information that I didn’t understand. I struggled, retook classes multiple times to try to raise my GPA. My parents kept telling me ‘Cs won’t make it into medical school’. I took physics 3 times and couldn’t get a grade higher than a D. I was frustrated, but I wouldn’t give up (and I couldn’t see that it wasn’t a good fit for me). I changed my major to ‘Family Studies’, one to have a better ‘bed-side manner’, and two to ease up on all the science classes that were kicking my butt. After 6 years in undergrad, my parents were not happy, they said, ‘just get your degree!’. So I took the last few classes to get my Family Studies degree with a minor in Science. Much like psychology, a graduate degree in Family Studies is needed to get a decent job. But I didn’t want to be a family counselor… it wasn’t my plan to get THAT degree.

As far as most employers are concerned, I might as well have an ‘underwater basket-weaving’ degree. For years, I was a secretary, or administrative assistant, or some low level library employee. I was miserable.

I actually have tried twice (on my own dime, not my parents’ dime) to get other undergraduate degrees, but after a few semesters, I knew it still wasn’t the fit.

I am currently unemployed, but I am studying at home on my own. I have two passions that compete with each other causing me to constantly be unsure of my future. One is computer programming and the other is vegan baking/cooking.

I know better, now, that when you set about with a 10 year plan you WILL be devastated when it doesn’t pan out. So I am trying to live in the moment and see where my passions take me. I am fortunate enough to have a loving and understanding husband, who is quite happy enjoying my baking/cooking experiments and letting me decide what direction I want to go in. He is a computer geek, so he is also enjoying me being able to keep up with his conversations.

Sorry about the novel, but you and your site have such an easy-going-ness that lends itself to revealing yourself and your fears. It feels safe. So, thank you.

I will now get back to reading about YOUR journey. ;)

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AGS September 25, 2009

I read your parts 1-3 backwards. . . yikes. And Wow. I understand your idea of “oh she glows” better now, because I can tell you went through a very non-glowing period of time.

Quick — give us part 4 so that we can believe in the light at the end of the tunnel!!! ;)

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Madelin @ What is for breakfast? September 25, 2009

What a fantastic post Angela! It is so reassuring sometimes to hear other peoples experiences and see they aren’t always good ones, in fact far from it! I really feel for Morgan above and all I can say is that maybe not doing the bar exam is a good thing! I went to law school (6 months of it on exchange at UBC in Vancouver in fact!) and then did 6 years of private practice only to quit in May this year. It was such a relief. During those 6 years I had 4 jobs, some better than others, but the whole time I kept thinking, just 1 more workplace, maybe it might be different, maybe I will like it if I just change jobs again. The important thing for me was to realise that I didn’t actually like practicing law itself and I wasn’t happy and needed to get out and try something different! There are HEAPS of things you can do with a degree that aren’t necessarily in the field you graduated. I am now working as a Senior Policy Officer for a government department which is so different and is giving me new skills but also lets me use the skills I learnt at uni, which they saw as adding value to the division. The key is to think outside the box and if you hate something and its making you unhappy then leave! I also felt a lot of pressure from my family and uni to go into law and then into private practice when maybe I should have thought outside the box straight away! Anyway, enough rambling! Can’t wait for the next part :).

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EatingRD September 24, 2009

wow, what a great, down to earth post Angela. It was very touching to me. I myself just started grad school for an ms in exercise physiology. I sure hope it goes well. I feel somewhat confident in my abilities, but am overwhelmed to tell the truth. I’ve been sleep deprived with trying to work and go to school and I’m wondering if this is worth the money and stress. It’s not as intense as your program and they let me choose a topic even when I was asking suggestions because I didn’t think my topic would be good enough. I’m having trouble just getting in touch with one of the professors that specializes in nutrition & ex phys b/c that is what I want to specialize in so that is frustrating. I also wish the program had more nutrition-based classes, but with the budget cuts it’s disappointing.
I love sports nutrition and want to advance my career by getting an MS because it’s hard having just an RD and wanting to do something other than clinical. But, deep down inside I just want to go to culinary school and specialize in culinary nutrition someway. That is what my gut is telling me, but I still feel like I want to go for the masters experience too.
Thank you so much for your story :)

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