For some time, I’ve been unhappy. This was a difficult realization to swallow. I like to pretend I’m self-aware. I’ve known I’m not where I want to be ultimately in life, but I’m getting there, swimming steadily, treading occasionally, but always content with my speed.
However, my crisis came to a head several weeks ago at a conference. I had been looking forward to this conference for some time. The topic centered on my personal research interests in my field (mathematics). But after two days of sitting through academics grandstanding and discussing minutia I gave not a damn about and seeing the passion these people displayed for the subject, I realized this was not my future, this was not my happiness, and, by God, this was not me. But this was theirs.
When I applied for grad school half a decade ago, I did not question my path. Getting a PhD seemed like a natural next step, and even now when I recall where I was in life then, I would make the same decision over again. I have never hated my PhD program. I don’t view it as a waste of my time or my life or my career prospects.
Through the course of my program, I faced several quarter-life breakdowns that were the result of nothing short of thinking, I don’t want this. At the end of my first year, I considered dropping out. Two years later, I thought the same, but decided I’m too far in now. And two months ago, I grappled with the same nightmare. I took two nights off to lay in bed, stare at my ceiling, Google blogs about dropping out of PhD programs, and then I recovered.
Or I thought I did.
Then I showed up to a conference where I couldn’t relate to my peers’ enthusiasm, I could not answer what I wanted to do when I finish (will I ever finish?), and I asked myself (in a hotel mirror) if I even cared if I finished. This fantasy went as far as me imagining how I would share with the world (on Facebook) that I dropped out of my PhD program, but no, this wasn’t an embarrassment, please don’t feel sorry for me, I am perfectly happy dropping out. And no, bish, I did not fail out.
Not giving a f*ck about things can help you a lot in life, but there are some things you need to give a f*ck about. My future is one. I was warned when I applied to a PhD program that you need to love it if you’re going to do it. And I didn’t love it then, but I thought I would still survive. The fact is, you can graduate (theoretically) without loving it – but do you want to?
At 6 AM on the last day of the conference, I found myself in the hotel gym when it crashed over me – the f*ck I gave: F*ck no, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. I do not enjoy this. I enjoy many things about my life: Richmond, my friends, volunteering, photography, traveling. But my PhD? F*ck no.
And no, this was not a begrudging student complaining about their workload. This was me admitting I refuse to do this forever because I just don’t enjoy it enough.
You don’t need to be in a PhD program to experience this type of revelation. It’s like waking up in the passenger’s seat on a road trip and realizing you’re bound for Vegas, but you meant to go to Miami – but you’ve been too busy enjoying the pit stops along the way (if I can even say that; I think I can say that).
Of course, what is metaphorical Miami? Where am I actually trying to go? I’ve decided I’m not on the right path, but what is the right path? And where is the next cutover?
I tried to identify what I enjoyed and could see myself doing for the “rest of my life.” I easily settled on three things that weren’t clear answers, but more cardinal directions (a love for nonprofits, public health, and travel).
As I stood on this highway, staring at the west but trying to get back to the east, I wondered if this is what they call a quarter-life crisis.
Society tends to paint such crises as glamorous in an Eat Pray Love, find-yourself perspective, but guess what? Part of these crises is realizing life is not Hollywood. Pumping the brakes on your future is not desirable from the perch of a 401(k), your parents, or when you’re blowing out your 26th birthday candles. It’s fine to have some unknowns, but it is not okay for everything to be unknown.
What do I want to do, Mom and Dad? Heck if I know!
A few months ago, I battled this same question – I realized this while writing this very blog and remembering the post I wrote. So why am I battling it again? In that piece, I concluded that no one really knows what’s next. I wrote that then, and I believe it now.
In the days following me pulling my car off the highway to Vegas, I’ve begun to recognize everyone else is also in the same crisis. Maybe they’re not as overt, maybe they don’t even know it, but I watch friends struggle with what job they want and who or if they want to marry (by who, it’s usually do I marry a.) current boo thang or b.) someone else who I’ve yet to meet).
I see friends post articles about getting older. People who (seemingly) have it all together like tweets about life falling apart. I also think of the people my age who have kids. I imagine they clutch their forehead once they’re done changing the diaper and think, What am I doing? Even if they love their child and everything else, it’s still okay to question it all and wonder how you got here. (Because what are you doing with a kid?!)
The most pertinent anecdote to me was visiting my friend in Costa Rica. She’s part of the Peace Corps, which is something I’ve long dreamed about doing and waver about pursuing (okay, I really want to do it, but I worry about how it sounds to be 27 and run off to Africa without ever working a 9-5). I met another Peace Corps volunteer who was on her way out, and I asked what she planned on doing. She looked at me and said, “I don’t know.” She joined not knowing, which is one of the Peace Corps’ attractions—you don’t need to know the next step when you enter—and she still didn’t know as she wrapped up.
I don’t have much more optimism to offer you than we’re all in this together. We’re all living, we’re all struggling, and most of us are questioning. And the best of us aren’t afraid to pump the brakes and ask what’s next and maybe explore a few side roads. We will survive and maybe even end up in Key West—after we make it to metaphorical Miami, which I hope is a metaphor, because Miami’s too hot. Or maybe we’ll end up in Alberta, Canada, but we won’t even miss Miami.
At least I tell myself all this. So, I’m going to get back on the highway, I’m going to make it Denver (that’s where I metaphorically finish my PhD), and then I’m probably going to turn around and head for Miami. I’m not sure the path, but I know the direction – and that’s better than feeling lost.