Ever since I was little, I held a belief shared by many gifted kids–gifted kids who grow into overachieving teenagers and then sleepless college students and then budding doctors, lawyers, engineers, researchers, businesspeople, or just those legions of people who wear tailored suits and work in tall office buildings in lower Manhattan and do stuff with money on computers or something.
That belief was this: you must do everything you are capable of. Anything less than that, and you’re “selling yourself short.”
You must participate in every science fair. You must take every honors class. You must play every sport your body can reasonably perform. You must accept every social invitation you are offered. You must matriculate at the most elite college to which you are accepted. You must have as many majors and minors as you can fit into your schedule, and you must have as many leadership positions you can get yourself accepted for.
So last spring I applied and got into the honors program in psychology. This meant that I would spend my senior year designing, carrying out, and writing up my own research study. At the time I was still under the impression that I wanted to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology, so this was obviously something I felt I should do.
I was at least mildly excited about it, at first, or at least made a good imitation of being excited. I don’t remember which it was anymore.
But in any case, things soon deteriorated. I discovered that I would not be able to do the study I originally designed about the stigma of mental illness–a topic I care deeply about–because none of the faculty members who study it were able to advise my project for various reasons. I tried to find a different lab to work in, but literally every single professor whose work I found interesting–and there are quite a few–was either already advising too many other honors students or had a requirement that you needed to have worked in their lab first or whatever.
So I ended up in a lab that deals with something I knew little about and that had very little relevance to my future career–cultural neuroscience. Fascinating stuff, but difficult and unrewarding. I couldn’t understand half the words that came out of my adviser’s mouth. What little willingness I had to go through with the program faded away. But still, I did not quit it.
The reasons I gave myself and others for not quitting are interesting mainly due to their blatant inaccuracy:
- I felt that the department would be annoyed with me, but that’s silly since I was told I could withdraw at any time, and besides, if I quit that would free up resources for others.
- I worried that this would somehow hurt my chances for admission into graduate school, which is even sillier because I’m applying to do a masters in social work, where nobody will care about my lack of research experience (particularly not in cultural neuroscience).
- My parents told me not to, but so they did with journalism, and I quit that anyway and never looked back.
- And, perhaps most importantly, I thought that quitting would make me a failure, even though that’s just obviously false.
As it turns out, what it came down to wasn’t any logical reason, but rather a sense of obligation, an invisible hand shoving me forward into doing things that I have no interest in and that bring me little or no benefit.
It is incredible to me how powerful that force was. I have always stubbornly persevered when it comes to getting the things I want, but apparently not getting things I don’t want is a different story.
Several agonizing weeks went by and then The Weekend happened. The Weekend was this past weekend. I saw an amazing speaker talk about microaggressions. I spent hours with friends. I laid around in bed in the mornings. I had a friend visit–someone I care about deeply and am now proud to call more than just a friend.
And at one point, I was sitting in the living room looking at my two bookshelves, which are full of unread books that are calling my name. (A small sample: When Everything Changed, Microaggressions, Outdated, Delusions of Gender, Sex at Dawn, and Thinking Fast and Slow.) I often wonder when I’ll be able to read them. But this time, for some reason, the question took on a new urgency: Seriously, though, when the fuck am I going to read these amazing books?
And it hit me that for the first time, academics doesn’t have to define me anymore. It doesn’t have to be My Thing. I don’t have to throw myself into the work to forget the fact that I have no real friends and no actual meaning to my life, because suddenly, I do.
I have new friends all over the country who are quickly starting to feel like old friends. I have my writing and this blog, which is growing in popularity and bringing me even more good friends and interesting people to talk to. I have the work that I do with sexual and mental health–I could write a whole post about the projects I’m working on and how much they mean to me. I have a new partner I adore, who supported me through this decision rather than pushing me to do and be everything.
This city, this city I used to hate so much, is growing more beautiful and homey to me every day. We spend our weekends out in its streets and thrift stores and cafes and apartments. As the weather grows colder, my heart grows warmer.
The thing is, I can do and be a whole lot of things. If I really wanted to, I could do this thesis. (I could also get a PhD, which I recently decided not to–a decision that parallels this one in many ways.) In the grand scheme of things, a year is not that long of a time to do something I don’t like and don’t need (assuming, of course, that my mental health would survive the year-long onslaught, which I doubt).
I could toil away at it and add another line to my resume, not because this will help me get into a social work program or accomplish any of my actual goals, but just so I could feel a little bit smarter and more accomplished.
Life is just too fucking short.
It’s too short for this kind of crap.
And so I quit.
You have all of my support, dear friend! <2
I totally understand what you’re going through. I just finished my senior year at UChicago and it was, for lack of a better word, a bitch. Sometimes you just have to weigh the options and choose what makes you happiest. Realizing that you don’t have to do everything was one of the most important things I learned in college.
brava, brava, brava
you’re absolutely right, life is too short to waste on what you hate, what truly bores you, and what will not move you one gram closer to what you’re aiming for.
And now and then you should allow yourself a recess, a play period, a time to just stop running.
Good for you.
GO MIRIAM GO.
Miriam, even though we are really only Facebook friends, your posts are so inspiring and you really are the definition of a modern feminist, which is refreshing to see. I know exactly how you feel, since I went through the same system. In fact, for the longest time, I felt like a failure because I went to a “big public school” instead of a private school, but the pressures at my school are the same. THANK GOD you wrote this post, because someone needs to say that there is only so much a person can do, and that there are many ways to succeed. Seriously made my week.
Thank you so much! That’s some seriously fantastic praise. 😀 I hope you don’t feel like a failure anymore; from what I’ve heard OSU isn’t easy unless you want it to be. Ironically, I often wish I’d gone there instead of Northwestern. I would’ve had a full ride, just as good of an education, and probably a better social life too.
I’ve heard many people saying, and I believe myself, that a senior thesis can be a wonderful educational experience. You’re the first person to point out that there’s also value in NOT doing a senior thesis. Well done!
You said you originally wanted to do a project on stigma of mental illness because that’s a topic you care deeply about. Just to make sure you’ve considered all your options — would it be feasible to do a project on that topic *not* as a senior thesis? — maybe as a for-credit independent study, or maybe just voluntarily? Is there someone other than the faculty specializing in that area at your school who might be able to guide you? — or maybe you and some friends could figure it out together? Most importantly, would that be worthwhile to you?
Well, since none of the professors who study that sort of subject were willing to advise my project and I can’t do it on my own, it’s not really an option. You can’t do research without a faculty sponsor, especially not research that involves human participants.
And I guess I’m so tired of the whole concept of research that I wouldn’t want to anyway.
Hi Miriam! I’m several years too late to this discussion, but oh well. A senior research thesis was required for us to graduate, regardless of our future plans. No thesis meant no degree. The thing the professors in my department always tell us students was that doing a thesis is not just showing that we can do research, but that we can manage our time properly and to practice writing and communication skills. We get to work closely with our adviser, and there was no time limit for the thesis. Our professors tell us to emphasize the efforts we put into working on a thesis to future potential employers to somehow prove we are capable of handling and completing complicated and lengthy projects. Though, there are other things in life where we can learn to do that which can also be put on a resume. One of my research adviser’s favorite things to say is “it’s all about how you sell yourself.” However, there are still those who never finish the program, despite the leniency where the thesis can be something like a ~10 page research paper. So maybe making it optional would have been a sensible thing to do. (Though I suspect many of us might not have thought ourselves capable of doing a thesis if it wasn’t required.) It’s certainly one of those things where they say “the journey is more important than the destination.”
I respect your decision. I am neutral on the question of the value of doing a senior thesis. Perhaps the benefits of doing one are oversold. There are many projects in one’s life that may match or exceed the difficulty and complexity of a thesis, so whether or not a thesis is preparation in any way to meet those challenges, I don’t know yet. (I just graduated but am still working at the lab I did my thesis in.) I’ve already even forgotten the effort and stress I’ve put in it despite having spent a total of 9 months, mostly dealing with long experiment prep times and troubleshooting!
Well, it’s now a few years later, and I have absolutely zero regrets. My education/career are proceeding just great. I am quite confident in my ability to perform challenging tasks and projects, when I need to and/or when I actually care about them.