The Reluctant Graduate Student

If you had told 17-year-old, graduating-high-school Christina that she should go for her PhD, she would have laughed in your face.

If you had said to 20-year-old, one-semester-of-undergrad-left-to-go Christina that she should go for her PhD, she would have laughed in your face.

If you had suggested to 23-year-old, mid-masters-degree Christina that she should continue on with a PhD, she would have laughed in your face.

And finally, if you asked 24-year-old, today’s Christina what she had planned next, she would proudly tell you that she’s starting her PhD program.

All four of these statements are completely true, but one is not like the others. One of these statements sticks out like a flashing neon sign on a dark night. And only one of these statements reflects a version of Christina that is completely confident in herself.

It wasn’t that I thought graduate school and getting a PhD weren’t right for me—with my love of learning, graduate school was the obvious next step for my future—it was that I was afraid to say out loud that I wanted it. Voicing that I wanted to go to graduate school (and subsequently that I wanted to get my PhD) meant admitting that it was a goal of mine; and once that goal was released into the universe, it was entirely possible that I could fail. You can never fail what you don’t attempt, and so I stayed in denial.

My high school chemistry teacher, my mom, my undergraduate professors and advisors, along with other students choosing to go to graduate school all asked the same question as I progressed from high school to the end of my undergrad program. In my head though I thought:

  • Why would I want to put myself through many more years of school?
  • Why would I want to be stressed out all the time and work around the clock?
  • Why would I want to go through the hassle of studying for months for a three day interrogation (aka qualifying exams)?

The more people asked me, the tighter I held on to the opinion that I didn’t want to go to graduate school, and I didn’t want a PhD. I call my response an opinion because it wasn’t based on fact; instead, my response was based on the fear of setting a big goal for myself and not achieving it.

So the obvious questions is: what changed? What changed is the Christina I am today has realized that in order to reach her full potential, she needs to go for that big dream. Even if there was a possibility to fail, she would never be fully happy if she didn’t explore what could have been.

Last fall I spent months looking for a job in industry that didn’t exist; a job where I could study what I wanted, share my knowledge with others, and inspire the next generation to find their passion. While that job may not exist in industry, it most certainly exists as a professor! When I made that realization, everything clicked into place. My dream job existed, and in order to reach it I would have to pursue not only my masters degree, but also a doctorate. I would have to go through the stressful life of a PhD student and I would have to be put through the academic ringer, but at the end of it was my dream job.

So here I am today: nervous about my upcoming masters defense, overwhelmed by the number of directions I want to take my PhD project, and wondering if I’ll make it out without my brain melting. Sounds stressful right? I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Now I want to hear from you! What is that big dream you’re scared of saying out loud? Are you working towards it today? If not, will you regret not going for it 10 years from now? Please share! By sharing I hope that we can support each other’s dreams 🙂



2 thoughts on “The Reluctant Graduate Student

  1. andromeda dumont

    this is something that I struggle with too! being okay with the possibility of failure. I think it’s ingrained in us A type personalities that we will succeed if we put in enough work—but the reality is that there are times we’ll fail no matter how much work we do. no one succeeds without trials. isn’t there a materials work for that type of hardening ? 😛


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