Moving on is the Hardest Part: Leaving with my Masters

It's been a bittersweet day today...

A few months ago, I thought that I'd be joking about starting my 21st year of school today. But instead, last week, I made one of the most terrifying decisions of my life....

...I decided to leave my graduate program with my Master's. 

Yup. I'm serious.

It's a decision that might shock many people. Some people might say I made a mistake, might not get why I would leave, might be scared for me or think it was dumb. And trust me there's a big part of me that's freaking out about what this means. The life I had planned on for the last decade or more of my life is not happening anymore. And its' terrifying. 

but, it was the right choice for me...

I spent much of the last 12-18 months dreading going into lab, not having much of any enthusiasm for what I was doing, and it was sucking the life out of me. I watched other students present their data and, positive or not, and they were so excited. So passionate. And that wasn't me. That wasn't how I felt. I would've given anything to feel that way, but I didn't. And it sucked. I would literally drag myself into lab, jaded and hopeless. I was empty.

My mom, who I jokingly say is the intuition I don't have, said to me in the days leading up to my decision..."You're like your dad. You stay in something come hell or high water because you committed to it. And that's no reason to stay."

I had been dealing with intense bouts of unhappiness because I felt like I had to and should stick it out. I had no reason other than that's the path I've been on. The one I chose. I had spent so much of my adult life planning on this career trajectory, and this future that I saw for myself. When I decided on research and on science I thought that it would be my career for the rest of my life. And when I started to realize it wasn't, I was basically in denial and trying to force it. I kept telling myself "You want this - you just need to change your attitude...You've wanted this for the last 10-15 years....Just keep plugging away. It will get better." I had to constantly have these internal battles with myself.

Science was my identity in so many ways. I mean, how many of you identified me as a PhD student or a scientist? Who, when we'd chat online or via text, one of your first questions was to ask me how school was going and when I'd be done? Even when I sat in on an MBA class earlier this summer, they all saw me, and occasionally called me, "the PhD student". Being in science, doing research, and being a PhD student has been my identity to myself and to others for the past 3 years. So, the idea of not being that anymore was terrifying. "Who am I without that?" I would often catch myself thinking. 

Honestly, I'm still figuring that out. All I know is that I couldn't justify staying, continuing anymore. It had become too hard to blatantly lie to myself about how I felt about science and doing research anymore. 

Honestly, I found myself trying to convince myself that this was what I wanted. And that's not how it should be. I should love it. I know some people believe that work is work and you're going to dread it no matter what. But I don't believe that. I believe that every person has a calling and a passion, and ya there's going to be shitty moments and things that you dread doing. But that shouldn't be the norm. That shouldn't be what you feel all the time. And that's what I felt.

I mean, I feel like it says something when two of your good friends and former PhD students in the program say to you: "You're not happy. Get out now. It's not worth it." 

I had gotten to the point where everything I used to love about doing research I didn't love anymore. And my frustrations were getting to the point where they were driving be away from science, period. And I didn't want that. I love science. I do. And every moment I had to drag myself forward and further, I was losing that.

When I was in lab, or in class, or collaborating with people, I was becoming a version of myself that I didn't like. Someone who bitched and grumbled, who glared and was defensive, who was negative and pessimistic. That light, enthusiasm, and energy that I had when I started graduate school...I didn't have it anymore. And I was taking out all my frustrations on the people around me. I maintain that I would've had a significantly better relationship with one of my lab mates if I had just realized sooner how much pursuing this degree was changing me. But I didn't. I just kept being this soul-sucking, complaining, angry person that I didn't want to be. That I knew I wasn't.

I can't tell you how many times I felt horrible after bitching to my friends about how miserable I was. I felt like it was all I ever talked about, and I felt like shit. I mean, I'm a firm believer that in our relationships, we owe that honesty to people. But when that kind of negativity, frustration, and complaining are what they're hearing all the time, something is wrong. And something was very wrong for me. That's not the person I want to be. That's not the person I am. But it was the person I had become, and I think that was the hardest thing for me to stomach.

I kept waiting for it to get better, BUT, HONESTLY, IT NEVER DID...

And in the last 6 months, things started triggering me to really think about this more seriously. I had tried and failed to find something, anything outside of lab that would sustain me enough to keep me going. To keep my enthusiasm up. Modeling, science writing, more coaching...but none of it really helped fill that pit in my stomach. I tried to spend more time with the people who motivated me and made me happy, and they were wonderful! But that didn't do it either.

I think the biggest push for me was when my grandpa passed away. It hurt more than I can possibly say to not be there with my brother, cousins, aunts, uncles and my grandma in the immediate aftermath. I wanted to hug them all so badly, and I felt so alone in the 3-4 days that it took before I could fly back. It made me reflect on everything that I'd missed. The birth of my best friend's kids. Family get togethers. So many birthdays! I haven't been able to actually celebrate a birthday with my mom since I was in high school. And that was so hard for me. And it made me realize something...

 If was going to do this, finish the program, if I was going to dedicate 3+ years of my life to this, to be 3000 miles away from my family and my home and so many of the people that I love. If I was going to miss birthdays and births and all those wonderful little moments that I'd been missing for the last however many years, I needed to love what I was pursuing. I needed to be passionate about it. And I wasn't.

I gave myself a little more time after I got back to see if I could do it. To see if a newfound motivation of "Grandpa would want me to finish. He would be so proud..." would be enough to keep me motivated. But it wasn't. That kind of external motivation has never been enough for me. 

So, after months and months of backing forth, of bitching to my friends (I'm so sorry guys!), of being one of the worst versions of myself when I was in lab and school...I really just couldn't do it anymore.

I know that you feel what you focus on, and in so many ways I was focusing on the negative. But i'm not going to lie, there was very little positive left that resonated with me. And each night I'd go to sleep thinking I'd wake up feeling differently, but every morning I would wake up, excitedly work on other projects, and as soon as I realized I needed to shower and get ready to go into lab, I'd get upset. I was dreading it. I got like this pit in my stomach.

I had 3 reasons for staying in the program: 1) PhD sounds good at the end of your name because it breeds credibility, 2) My family and friends are proud of and brag about my being in a PhD program, and 3) it was my income. Those were my reasons to stay. That and I was so scared to leave, to regret it, to change my mind. I was scared of what people would think and if they'd lose respect for me. I was scared of letting my family down. It's the same thing I always came back to. I knew I wanted to leave because - bottom line - it would make me so much happier. But I was terrified of the uncertainty that came with that decision. At one point I told my friend:

It’s like there’s nothing good about grad school anymore other than the handful of people that I like. I don’t feel good about myself here. I don’t feel like I’m learning. I don’t feel like i’m growing. I just feel like I care less and less, I get more and more unhappy, and I get more and more depressed.

It was like being in a bad relationship. We don't want to focus on the bad. We're blinded by the good times and all the dreams of what could happen. But, then we suddenly realize after far too long that those "what ifs" aren't enough anymore. It's really hard to move on, but it's the best possible thing we can do for ourselves.

DECIDING TO LEAVE WAS ONE OF THE HARDEST THINGS I'VE EVER DONE...

I was holding on so tightly. I had to talk to not one, not two, but 5 people. With each conversation I had the realization became even more profound. "It hasn't made you happy for a LONG time," someone would say and I would break down crying and lose all composure because it was so true.

I did nothing but cry about it in the week leading up to finally making the decision. But, as soon as I did I realized how right it felt and how happy it made me to just think about it being done. That's when I knew it was the right decision.

And now that I have made it, I have honestly never felt so liberated.

The best way I can possible describe it is to say that I feel like I've been released from a straight jacket. Seriously. In-authenticity is a straight-jacket. And once I allowed myself to feel that authentic emotion, to know that this was the right choice for me, suddenly I felt like I could move again, like I could breathe deeper, like a ton of weight had just been removed from by shoulders. It might seem melodramatic. But that's exactly how the days following making my decision.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't and am not still scared...

I'm terrified. I'm terrified of regretting my choice. I'm terrified of the lack of certainty. I'm terrified of letting people down or disappointing my friends and family. I'm terrified of people's judgments.

That was probably one of my biggest fears. As much as we can try not to be affected by people's judgments of us, on some level we always are. And because this has been my identity for so long, hell ya I'm scared of being judged for my decision. By my classmates and peers. By my superiors. By my family. By my friends. I'm fucking terrified.

But, so far everyone I've told has been great. I've been pleasantly surprised that even the people I thought I would be disappointing the most have said things like how my choice is "brave," who were sending me blessings, hugs, and were so happy for me doing the best thing for me. It's brought me to tears - I know I'm being such a crier - legitimately how supportive people have been and continue to be. Those fears of disappointing people and being judged have so far not come to fruition. Isn't that amazing? One of my most paralyzing fears about this decision, and it didn't even remotely pan out that way. But, that's a whole other blog post in and of itself...

So what now?

Short answer. I don't know. Part of me is still scared to admit how much I want to coach. Part of me is still curious about exploring science communication. Part of me is curious about teaching. And yet another part of me wonders about going back to school.

I'm really not sure. And ya that uncertainty is so scary. But, do I feel like this is the wrong choice for me? No. My interests and my direction in life have changed so much in the last 3 years, that I don't know that there's another choice I could've made.

But the bottom line is this. If I come back to science research, I will be coming back when my heart is in it. I won't be wasting my time and the of other's when it isn't. 

And if I don't come back to science, I'll be doing something I love.

And that's fucking worth it.

So - here's to new chapters! To feeling fear and acting anyway. To knowing yourself to know when something is really wrong in your life. And to moving onward and upward. :-)