For those of you who might be considering graduate school, or those of you who have no idea what you want to do next, I would like to tell you a story. This is the story of my first big failure, and how it changed everything I thought I knew.
In high school, I played by all the rules. I got good grades, I had good relationships with all my teachers, and I did all of the right things to get into college so that I could move out of my hometown. I remember the day I got my acceptance to Northeastern so vividly both because of my excitement, and because my mom argued with me for 20 minutes about how the acceptance couldn’t be real because it didn’t arrive by snail mail.
That fall I started my amazing four and a half years as a student at Northeastern. I had great friends, I loved being part of Husky Ambassadors, and I had three co-ops where I felt I was really figuring out both what I did and didn’t want to do as a career. After my first co-op as a nurse assistant, I knew that absolutely wasn’t for me. So I decided to try research, and after the few weeks at my second co-op I was hooked. I loved the idea of asking questions that didn’t have answers and then pursuing those answers. The thought of discovering something amazing was so glamorous it carried me through both my second and third co-ops and it was during my third co-op (also doing research) that I decided I wanted to get my Ph.D. So the fall of my final year at Northeastern I did some research and applied to four of the best schools with biomedical science programs around the country, and I waited excitedly for the chance to choose between them.
The spring rolled around and as my friends started getting invitations to interview, I was getting rejection letters. It wasn’t long before I had been outright rejected from all of the schools I had applied to and I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself until I could apply again. The simplest way to describe this time in my life is that I was absolutely crushed. In college, I had done all of the “right” things. I was involved on campus with leadership roles, I volunteered, and I worked hard at my co-ops, so I just assumed that all of the doors I wanted would be open to me. Luckily, I had continued working at my third co-op part time and then they offered me a full-time job after graduation.
At Northeastern they say that “we will help guide you and offer support, but it’s up you to work through challenges, failures and learn from them during your six months on co-op” and I found out how true that really was. For just six months, the failed experiments, the stress, and the day to day of repeating the same experiment over and over again were manageable because it was a means to an end. After graduation, the failed experiments and additional stress started getting to me. Eventually, I began to question if this was even that I wanted to do and I became almost grateful for the rejection letters I had gotten. At least I hadn’t committed to five more years of this job I had grown to resent, right? It was in this conflicted state that something amazing happened. I started talking to the people around me. I started asking the right questions. Instead of, what school has the highest rankings? I started questioning what my other options were, instead of just blindly pursuing Ph.D. programs. I ultimately decided that pursuing a Ph.D. was the right option for me, but not for the reasons I had applied the first time.
The second time I applied, it was with the goal of opening doors for myself, not because I was in love with research. Some schools are set on training all of their students to be research faculty, which is a career that a small percentage of PhDs actually pursue. UNC was like a breath of fresh air because not only were they open to my perspective, they have programs designed to help prepare students for any career in the sciences they want. Now, two years into a Ph.D. program at UNC, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. But I shudder to think where I would be if I had gotten in the first time I applied. Ultimately, it was my complete failure to do what I thought I wanted, that forced me to really question my goals and how best to accomplish them.
Blog Post submitted by Katie Stember, a Northeastern Alumni (Class of ’13) who was involved with Husky Ambassadors as a student. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Biomedical Sciences at UNC Chapel Hill studying an autoimmune disease called ANCA Vasculitis. She’s a proud cat mom and in her free time does volunteer photography for a local animal shelter. Feel free to contact her at email@example.com.