Surviving the Quarter-Life Crisis

by Ada Hagan

“The two greatest moments in your life are the day you were born, and the day you figure out why”  

– Mark Twain

It started about a year ago. I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Ethiopia. My task? Teaching medical students at one of Ethiopia’s newest medical schools. The result? A crisis. Oh, don’t get me wrong! I loved the trip. The students were smart and taught me as much as I taught them. But when I returned, I felt simultaneously exhilarated and lost. You see, I entered graduate school with the intentions of becoming a Principal Investigator. I realized last year, maybe I didn’t. And to be honest, I don’t think I’m the only one who’s felt thisway. Understandably, many of us are drawn to follow in the footsteps of the brilliant minds who mentor us. Later, we see perhaps it isn’t the path for us. Maybe we’re more fascinated by the intersection of science and policy, or public health, or entrepreneurship. Or maybe we want a career with a different work/life balance than academia. Regardless, a common phenomenon for students entering graduate school is, what I’ve heard termed, “the quarter-life crisis”.

The following is my story about surviving the first year of my quarter-life crisis. Gory details of confounding life stresses included.

My last minute, one month experience completely altered what I considered my future. A disconcerting feeling with effects on my husband too. We were both prepared for the linear process of becoming an academician. Now, I had no idea where I wanted to go next and by extension, he was lost too.

We complicated matters by living apart. He works in another state and we needed to figure out how to work in the same state. If I don’t know what I “want to be when I grow up”, it’s tough to know what city I’ll end up in. What if I’m interested in policy? Well, Washington D.C. is my best bet. Government research? Maryland, or maybe Atlanta? You see the quandary. I’m sure many of you can understand, and empathize, when a career decision isn’t just our own. It also belongs to our spouse, or family, in a way. They have goals, ambitions and places they’re interested (or not!) in living. Combined with your own frustration about not knowing and it’s a lot of pressure to deal with!

I’ll spare you most of the details about my journey but I will share with you that it took almost a year. Being a scientist at heart, I wanted a protocol. Exactly what steps do I take to figure this out? Turns out, it doesn’t exist. So, I made my own. Fortunately, there is a smorgasbord of fantastic resources so I’ll share ones I incorporated into my “quarter-life crisis protocol”.


Selecting My Options:

First up, you need to figure out what the world has to offer and this is where the Science Careers myIDP fits in. What’s interesting about this Individual Development Plan is its fluidity. Completion of the myIDP involves responding to questions about your scientific interests, skills and values on a scale of 1 to 5. Every time you take it, your response reflects your current state of mind. Thus, the outcome changes as you do. The myIDP matches your responses with a series of career options based on skills and interest. You can evaluate these suggestions based on: 1) Skills, for instance, are there skills you can improve to make something a better match? 2) Values, in my case, sales was a top three suggestion for me. As I have a cognitive dissonance with sales, I set it aside. Science Careers also provides resources to learn more about each career option. If you feel stuck identifying your skills, ask someone! Your close friends, family and co-workers will be able to help identify things you excel at. My older sister was instrumental in helping me to identify communication, particularly of scientific concepts, as a skill.

Exploring My Options:

Many graduate schools offer workshops and panels for exploring careers. Activities I took advantage of include: 1) “Hot Coffee, Cold Calls: Advanced Career Exploration” (ACE) workshop, developed by UofM students and Rackham, featured by Science Careers. ACE taught me how to explore an entire career in less than a month. 2) “What Now” a two day workshop targeted towards different student groups (e.g. biological sciences, social sciences or humanities). In “What Now, Biological Sciences” I learned tips for creating useful resumes from our graduate school career, networked, and had “speed mentoring” sessions to learn from professionals in other fields. 3) Career panels are great opportunities to get perspectives from a number of people pursing different paths. Make an effort to talk to them one-on-one following the panel and follow up. Many alumni want to help other students succeed; ask if they know someone in your field of interest for an informational interview. Additionally, I took advantage of resources (and vendors!) at conferences I attended. Practicing cold calling and emailing with ACE gave me the confidence to talk with new people. Plus, many conferences now feature career exploration resources.

Practicing My Options:

The only way to know if you enjoy something, though, is to do it. Practice is especially important if you’re worried you aren’t skilled enough! Every skill takes practice, and practice is inevitably, failure. So if you want to be good, you have to fail over and over again. Intimidating, right? I certainly know the feeling, and I struggle every day to be “okay” with failing. This article, in fact, is a case in point. I worry I won’t be articulate enough, or my experience won’t be valuable for others, in which case, why am I even writing this? Because you (or I) don’t know until we try.

A fantastic part of being a graduate student is that whatever you decide to practice, or try on for a day, there’s going to be a way to do it! And if there isn’t, you can create it! As you’ve probably figured out, I’m trying my hand at writing, specifically science writing. Believe it or not, outside of some grant writing courses, the opportunity to practice science writing at my university was conspicuously absent. So I found some like-minded individuals (thanks to networking!) and we created an opportunity. That’s where the graduate student blog, MiSciWriters, originated.

Some great sources of professional development outside of your graduate school are your professional societies. The American Society for Microbiology is developing ways to help their students practice non-academic careers; I’m sure many others are doing the same. If that doesn’t work out, see what your network has to say. Informational interviews have been helpful in identifying new opportunities like fellowships. Once you find something interesting, try it! If the activity doesn’t click, no big deal! Move on to the next until you find where you fit.

The Bottom Line:

I’m pretty sure everyone in our generation hits the quarter-life crisis. We have so many options and opportunities it’s mindboggling. And overwhelming. Not to mention occasionally discouraging. But when you make it through?? Utterly satisfying and more than a little freeing. I wrote this hoping it will resonate with others. Take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone and you’ll make it to the other side. Maybe what worked for me will help you. If not, I’m sure your graduate school has other options that will, just ask!

Perhaps you’ll finish soul searching and choose a new career path to follow, or maybe you’ll become more enthusiastic and passionate about the path you’ve already chosen. Either way, don’t ignore the temporary crisis. Embrace it. Grow in it. Learn from it. Maybe you won’t find the reason you were born just yet, but as long as your work makes you happy and fulfilled, I’m sure you’ll find your answer eventually.


IMG_20150821_180518_12Ada Hagan is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan in the department of Microbiology and Immunology and co-founding editor of the student blog MiSciWriters. Follow her on Twitter (@adahagan).

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