The most eventful thing that has happened since my disappearance from WordPress was that I more or less decided my entire future, particularly the next five years.
This was a huge decision.
I had been applying to chemistry Ph.D. programs in the United States, which entails a commitment of roughly five years. Some get out early, some stay later, but the average is five. These five years will ultimately determine where my future takes me. Basically, as with pretty much every form of higher education, once you’re accepted into an institution, the one you attended previously doesn’t matter very much. Therefore, where I attend grad school will most likely determine where I end up working once I stop being a student (if that’ll ever happen—it seems like I just keep tacking on extra schooling). This is also a huger deal than deciding on an undergrad because, if I make the wrong decision, I can’t just switch schools. Switching programs once I’ve already started looks kind of bad, and so, unless I absolutely hate it and for some reason cannot fathomably finish out at a school, I’ll have to stay there until the very end.
This puts a ton of stress on the decision-making process, but on top of that, I’m entering a whole new territory geographically, too. I was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, lived in the same exact house from conception to high school graduation, and then attended college at a Pennsylvania school merely hours away. I’ve never really branched out.
When I started applying to grad schools, my number one criterion was that it could not be located in Pennsylvania. I figured if I don’t get out now, I never will. There’s nothing wrong with this state; I just don’t want to live my entire life in a small town bubble. All of the schools I applied to ended up being in the Midwest, except for one in California and one in Arizona, just to spice things up.
Now, as you may remember, I had never even been on a plane prior to last August, so this was a huge leap for me. I would officially be completely out of my comfort zone, and it only served to raise the stakes on my decision.
Still, I was able to add some degree of tangibility to the schools I applied to. I applied to eight, and I ended up flying out to visit my top four choices. This really helped me to determine where my place would be.
One of the schools I was able to rule out right away. As soon as I got there, I hated it. The town was almost as small as the one I grew up in. The current grad students seemed tense and generally unhappy. The professors didn’t really get along with each other, and the department seemed to cater to one high-profile professor. The research wasn’t diverse, and there was an air of snobbery lingering in the department. Most importantly, I had an awful feeling about the place. I could not wait to get out of there.
Another school was difficult to rule out, but it was clear it wasn’t the best choice. There was nothing wrong with it, and I the research and professors were fantastic, but it clearly wasn’t as good of a fit for me as the remaining two.
However, it was excruciating trying to decide between the last two. The one school I had visited in September (you may remember) and fell absolutely in love with. My second visit only further intensified this love. I’ll call this school Marco. I was pretty certain I was going to go there until I visited the second school. I’ll call this school Polo. I immediately fell in love with Polo as soon as I arrived there and, again, the feeling only intensified until, the last night of the visit and after a few tequila shots with two of the professors, I decided Polo was the one.
But, of course, you can’t make decisions like this while you’re caught up in the moment (and a few too many drinks deep). I had to go back to Pennsylvania and think about things rationally.
While Marco and Polo both appeared to be the school of my dreams, they were very different. They were both very highly ranked, but only Marco had the competitive spirit in its students. They worked long hours in the lab, anywhere from sixty to eighty hours per week. Students competed for lab groups and didn’t seem to mingle a whole lot outside of their groups. Every student I talked to seemed very happy, but also very, very stressed. The professors seemed like great people to work for, but they were entirely down to business and always focused on getting stuff done.
Polo was almost the exact opposite. Located in a much smaller town than Marco, students were relaxed. They worked nine to five and had weekends off. They were all friends (at least, in the analytical division because those were the only people I met at Polo) and hung out a lot together outside of the lab. The professors were fun and laid back. It was a wonder how both schools had similar national rankings, with Polo being slightly higher.
I would have gone with Polo just because of how nice the atmosphere was with all else being the same, but there was one factor I just could not ignore: the research. The research is without a doubt the most important thing because, obviously, that’s what you’re there for. There just weren’t enough projects at Polo I was interested in, while at Marco, there were at least seven that I know I’d be interested in, and the professors working on each project seemed like great people to get along with. There was only one research group at Polo that I knew I’d be interested in, and I just could not justify settling on this matter.
Therefore, I made the decision to go to Marco. It was, after all, my first love, and looking back, I realize that I work much better in a stressed environment, even if it is a killer on my nervous system. I made the formal decision three days before the deadline, and, after sending some sad emails to Polo, never looked back.
Life is full of difficult decisions like this, I’m realizing, and they get even harder as we get older because they become more definitive. We have less and less of our lives ahead of us, and so the decisions we make have more of an impact on the rest of our lives. Marco will be better for me in the long term, and it will still be an enjoyable place to be for the short term, and so I know I’ve made the best decision for myself, and now I get to rest knowing that my future is pretty much set in stone for the next five years, aside from still needing to choose a research group.
I’ve realized that Polo is the kind of place where I would like to be a tenured professor. It has a nice environment and fantastic resources, and as a professor, I would determine my own research projects. Then again, there are so many places out there I still have yet to discover, and so who really knows where I’ll end up?