Materials Girl: Looking back… and forward

[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

At the beginning of grad school I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to tackle the challenges of being a Master’s student. I went to bed early, then eagerly got up in the morning to continue working. I even won a few awards, thanks in part to jumping into a good research topic. Unfortunately, my youthful fire was extinguished within two years, and wasn’t boosted after deciding to stay for a PhD. Additionally, I was unexpectedly bumped to entirely new projects almost annually — it’s been a challenge to settle on a thesis topic. When the new school year started a few months back, other students in my cohort had similar feelings of stagnation with their research. We’re all getting angsty about graduation (and funding!). Maybe the fifth year’s the charm for us?

Outside of school, fellow students from my undergrad internship [at chemistry R&D division of big company] have taken an amazing array of routes. Recently we had a giant chat on Facebook, catching up on what we’ve done in the past 6 (?!) years and where we’re headed. Our paths include:

– Materials Engineering PhD at U. of Illinois, turned ME Master’s, followed by a Master’s in Teaching of Chemistry. Goal: Teaching middle- or high-school chemistry.
– Law school at Stanford. Goal: Practicing intellectual property.
– Medical school, followed by cardiothoracic surgery in Detroit. Goal: Critical care.
– Psychology PhD at Cornell, turned Master’s. Goal: Working with animal shelters, or teaching math.
– Chemical Engineering PhD at Princeton. Goal: Undecided, with mention of the “3rd year -black hole”.
– Med school prereqs, followed by Teach For America, followed by programming jobs, followed by management at MIT, followed by entrepreneurship. Goal: ??

The rest of us PhD-pursuers are scattered around the likes of Caltech, Cornell, and Berkeley, pursuing research in chemistry, biochemistry, and/or materials. None of us feel strongly inclined towards staying in academia, and some are decidedly against it. (However I’ve seen people go the industry route, then within months are headed back to universities). Two of the bunch are set to graduate next year, and the rest are more in the “??” category. Regardless of our waffling, I’m proud to be part of such a talented group! Seeing the diversity (and number of grad school switcheroos) of my fellows gives me hope. We’re still young, and just at the beginning of our careers. There are still places to go, mistakes to make, and careers to choose — and maybe re-choose!

For readers who’ve gone all the way through the PhD path, where are you now? Was it what you imagined while in school? What words of wisdom would you give a bunch of mid-20-year-old kids?

Note: post updated on the day of posting to include a few minor edits.