Sunday, 1 September 2013

From overachiever to underachiever

I was shopping at a bookstore the other day, and happened to browse through Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?, by Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig (a mother-daughter team). There was one particular story that jumped out at me while I was flipping through, and I wanted to share this familiar story here.

Jean Li completed her PhD in Chemistry at Columbia, but realized that although she excelled at chemistry, she didn't actually enjoy doing it for a living. She smartly decided to pursue corporate consulting work (hurrah for post-academic career paths-- congrats, Jean!) but still feels "burned out and cynical about research and the academic world."

Jean's full story, as related in Twentysomething, is definitely worth reading: you can view her story over two pages at this link. But the part of this book that really grabbed me was a quote from the author after relating her story.

The authors noted that "[Jean] finished her doctorate-- she's thorough that way-- but now she isn't sure what to do next. Whatever it is, she is going to have to deal with the shift from precocious achiever to late bloomer, having lost precious time getting started on her 'real' career." [link]

Perhaps this shift is what stings the most as we transition from academic to post-academic career paths. It hurts to feel like you're moving from overachiever to underachiever in one fell swoop. The majority of us who pursued graduate work were excellent students, consistently at the top of our class. We went on to do higher levels of specialized academic work because we were smart, because we were good at what we did, because we were exceptional. We were in the top 10% (or 5%, or 1%) in our fields. We stood out.

Now? We feel like we're starting all over again, but with the disadvantage of time having passed. We fear that to the outside world we simply look like book-smart nerds who poured time, energy, and resources into useless degrees. We fear, even more, that those outside observers just might be right. We're no longer special, no longer exceptional, no longer high achievers for our age. It stings to lose the advantages for which we've fought so hard and bitterly.

On a more positive note, Julie Clarenbach recently wrote an insightful post over at Escape the Ivory Tower, entitled "You Don't Cease Being Smart." Her conclusion to the post was particularly comforting:
It’s part of why we resist leaving, even when we know we’d be happier elsewhere. What if leaving means we weren’t really that smart after all?

But you are that smart after all. Leaving or staying has nothing to do with how smart you are. It only has to do with the situation at hand: what jobs are available, how well or ill your values and priorities match up with the market, and what actually makes you happy.
So if that fear is rattling around in your brain, bring it into the light. Look at it. Feel some compassion for the young, scared part of you who is worried it means you’re not special anymore. Sweetie, you are special, and you are that smart. And you will continue to be special and smart wherever you land. [read full post here]
I love Julie's perspective, but I confess that I'm not quite there yet. I feel like if I'd been smarter, I would have left sooner. I wouldn't have been suckered into doing the PhD in the first place. I would have pursued a career path that challenged me and rewarded me for my effort in practical terms (meaningful work, salary, benefits, security, seniority).

Instead, I feel like I'm no better off than I was at the end of undergrad. Where would I have been if I'd pursued a career path straight out of my bachelor's? Or at least right after my master's? Would I be happier? More fulfilled? Would I be enjoying my life? Or would I ironically regret not having done my PhD?

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