#220: Doing what you’re good at isn’t the same as doing what you love.

"Man, wish someone would tell me what my destiny wa- what's this?"

Humblest apologies from your friend Commander Logic as I figured out exactly what the eff WordPress was up to and could not locate the “preview” button. Away we go!

Dear Captain Awkward,

I need your help. It is three months till I graduate and I hate my degree and I hate the course I am doing and I have done for the last few years. I am the first person in my family who had the potential to go to university and to do a hard Science degree, I was always interested in Science and Biology and I thought it would transition well, but it hasn’t. I can’t tell my family how much I hate it because they are so proud of me and I really don’t want to disappoint them, I can’t tell my friends because there is a pervasive sense of elitism and I am afraid they will think I am worthless. My grades are not brilliant and I have only been passing by accident and I am afraid that my life will be ruined because my degree grade will not be high enough – people will know I am a fake and a phoney.

All this would be bearable if I knew what the hell I wanted to do with my life after – but I have not the faintest idea. I am currently making efforts into arranging some sort of treatment certain mental health issues (depression that runs in the family) and other family issues, but I feel I can’t admit this to anyone and I can’t let anyone know how badly this shakes me because they will consider me a failure.

How does one figure out what to do with one’s life? Is there a plan or some sort of code that helps you realise your ultimate purpose? Stupid question, but any advice would be worth hearing.

Yours sincerely,

Lost and Confused

Let’s start with this: YES IT IS GOOD THAT YOU ARE ARRANGING THERAPY.  Arrange the fuck out of that therapy and go to it. Going to therapy is not a failure. Say it out loud for me, okay? Going to therapy is not a failure.  You say yourself that you feel you have no one to talk to who won’t judge you, and a therapist (well, decent human ones) will not judge you.  You need someone like that because everyone needs someone like that, not because you’re a failure.  Got it?

Now, your questions, I’m going to answer your second one first:

“Is there a plan or code that helps you realize your ultimate purpose?”


Next questio- Oh, fine.

Stories are assholes. You hear a story or the same framework of a story your whole life and it gets under your skin and into your DNA, and it makes you think that the story is how things are. You are the hero of your own story, and in every hero’s story, the hero is The Chosen One with a Destiny that will be fulfilled. Harry gets a letter telling him that he’s a wizard. Buffy gets a Watcher who tells her she’s the Slayer. Luke is told over and over again how the force is strong in him, be a Jedi. It’s big! It’s obvious! It’s momentous! It’s totally not how things actually work.

Here’s my story of being good at math and science:

I was the only kindergartener in the whole district who answered the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with “Scientist.” I skipped the 8th grade, breezed by AP Chem and AP Bio, applied to Harvard (waitlisted, but did not ultimately get in), started pre-Med, got As in a VERY competitive chemistry course, and decided that I hated everything and double majored in English and Theater instead.

ENGLISH AND THEATER.  You can still hear the echoes of my mother’s howls of indignation in some areas of the Upper Midwest.


I didn’t see how those degrees would transition to anything either, but you know what? I am a killer project manager because of all my theater work. How could I or my mom have known that wrangling 15-50 flaky people to make something specific happen at a specific time and place would pay off as an experience? Would 16yo me be appalled that I have not even come CLOSE to curing cancer? You bet. But am I happy? Completely.

What I’m saying here is that you don’t know what will happen, you don’t know your purpose, and that’s okay. You don’t need an ultimate purpose, which is kind of an end-of-life-what’s-it-all-mean sort of thing.  You need a goal.

Which is what your second question was about.

“How does one figure out what to do with one’s life?”

You don’t know what the hell you want to do with your life. Welcome to the club, population 95% of humanity.  People who know what it is they want, and then succeed wildly at it are pretty goddamn rare, and certified letters telling you what you’re good at are even rarer.  The fact that 95% of us don’t know what to do should clue you into the fact that this is the least stupid question you could ask.

I will refer you to another post I made on this subject, How to get unstuck.

To sum up:

You are under extreme pressure right now, and that is no way to make decisions. So.

1 – Take a holiday from responsibility for a short while (3 weeks is my recommendation for complete decompression, but the important thing is to have a concrete end date so you don’t end up mired in apathy)

2 – Don’t think about the future during that time

3 – Do small things that you think will make you happy (walks, conversations with strangers, museum visits, road trips, other travel, all day in a movie theater, whatever)

4 – At the end of your holiday (NOT BEFORE) begin thinking about what would make you happy as a career.

Nothing says "Chosen One" quite like a dragon on your shoulder.

5 – Get a job, not necessarily related to your career, so that you can support yourself while you figure things out/follow your dream.

But also, since you are still in school, I will make this appeal: Stick it out. It’s only three months, and then you will have your degree, hated or not.  Carry with you the knowledge that you do not have to do anything further in Science or Biology, and you can take your holiday right after graduation.  Your mantra for any inevitable questions at graduation parties can be “I’m going to take a well-deserved break for [Time] and then figure that out.”  (Also “That’s an interesting idea! I’ll think about that!” You do not have to actually think about their boring/annoying/horrifying idea for your future.)

I want to spend a minute with this: my life will be ruined because my degree grade will not be high enough  Oh, honey.  No.  I’m trying to figure out how you could ruin a life with a 2.5 rather than a 3.5 GPA and I just can’t.  Also, if your grades are high enough then you get… more hated classes? Why would you do that? And if your grades are too low for the degree at all then you get… no more hated classes?  I’m not saying fail on purpose, but maybe just stop leaning on the “grades!” panic button, and relax.

Finally, I want you to know that the world will not end if you disappoint your family.  Your friends will not think you are worthless (if they do, then they are not your friends). Imposter syndrome is something all us relatively intelligent people face. And your ultimate purpose is….

To be yourself. As fully and happily as you can.

Jedi Hugs, from one who knows,

Commander Logic

P.S. The Cap sent me a lovely link that may help you in your thinkings. Check it out!

90 thoughts on “#220: Doing what you’re good at isn’t the same as doing what you love.

  1. There are a million and one jobs out there that only require a 4 year degree. It doesn’t matter what kind of 4 year degree. It could be in underwater basket weaving. They just want to see that you’ve completed 4 years of something. I say this as an English major who has never had a job specifically related to my degree.

    In addition, there are a ton of jobs out there that require knowledge of the sciences but aren’t research jobs: teaching, environmental law and probably other kinds of law, medicine, grant writing, anything related to scientific patents, marketing job for a science company, editor for a science journal, management position for a science company, ect. Having your particular degree can open you up to a million different jobs that don’t have you doing research.

    Finally I will mention a friend with a humanities degree who discovered she loved numbers and went back to get her AA in accounting while working at a numbers job. She loves it and is making way more money than she would have if she’d stuck to her expected career path.
    Best of luck!

    1. I love it that your wonderful outcome involves accounting and that’s what my reply is trying to get away from. See, LW? None of us knows which end is up!

    2. To add to the list of that “ton of jobs”: science writer (as in, can translate from science to English), technical writer, textbook illustrator, working at a science museum. The intro bio course at my university has 11 people working full-time behind the scenes so the labs will run smoothly. There’s lots of stuff out there that’s science-flavored without being actual research science. I love, love, love biology. I totally suck at original scientific research, and have no desire to go to med school, and I’ve managed to make that work for me. (I’m one of the aforementioned 11 people.) And if you decide you hate biology, then once you finish your degree, just say “fuck it” and join the Peace Corps or Teach for America (or your national equivalent). There are options.

      And definitely get the mental health help. It makes a huge difference. Depression is a defect of chemistry, not of character.

      One last thing: life does get better. One of the things that got me and my sister through our late teens/early twenties was my dad’s firm belief that people who say that those are the best years of your life either have had fairly pathetic lives or don’t remember what it was really like and are just thinking how nice it would be not to have a mortgage (but to magically retain all accrued adult wisdom). If I had actually believed that my life at 16, or 19, or 22, was the best it was ever going to be… well, it wouldn’t have been good.

      1. “that people who say that those are the best years of your life either have had fairly pathetic lives or don’t remember what it was really like”

        This times a million. I hated high school and slept through college (literally, as in I took naps in some of my intro classes with 500 students). Now, I love life. I figure that every year is going to be slightly better than the previous, with rather rare years that just suck ass, so the best years of my life are like in my eighties!

  2. I thought I had it all figured out when I was 18 and decided to major in accounting. Ha ha. I enjoyed my major all through college, but enjoying the topic of my studies is WAY different than enjoying the 40 hours at a desk job that it got me. I don’t hate it (yet) but it sure isn’t something I’m wild and crazy about!

    I think the people most important to you in life will, on some level, get the fact that what you thought you wanted turns out to be not so much. Because as Cmdr. Logic says, hello, welcome to the club. It probably happens more than you think. Come to think of it, we probably don’t talk about it as much as we should, because OMG WHAT WOULD PEOPLE THINK? Hell, why do you think that lotto jackpot got so big – because people love going into work every day?

    I have no advice on how to change it (I know the direction I want to go, but can’t seem to hoist myself out of my comfort zone to do it) but rest assured you are not alone. Hopefully that relieves some of the stress.

  3. Oh look, LW, you are me. I also did biology (biochemistry) and while it was interesting, my marks weren’t that great. I also realized early on that my original goal (medicine) was not for me. I started a masters but had a bad time with mental illness and my lab becoming a bad work environment. My therapist really helped turn me around and help me find a new path; luckily I had the resources to go back to school, and now I’m doing engineering and my marks are great because there’s much less memorization, something that frustrated and bored me in biochem. I was worried that my degree and failed masters would be an albatross and symbols of my failure, but it has opened numerous doors for me and given me background and confidence for my second degree.

    DO take a holiday, DO seek therapy, and DON’T feel like a failure. Your degree (when you get it!) is a symbol of your hard work and you are worthy of it. You did it! …now you’re just going to do something else.

  4. And this is why I’m a 30 year old renter living an incredibly nomadic lifestyle. Because, well, finding your niche is hard and the getting into your niche once you’ve discovered what it is is also hard. My husband has more careers and degrees than any 3 people really need– he’s got a music degree, a philosophy degree, and two science degrees. Now he’s decided that he’d dearly love to be a computer programmer. He’s not a “professional student” and he works very hard at whatever it is he’s working at (generally while at the same time pursuing a course of study). He’s been a classical guitarist, a studio recording engineer, a banker, a research scientist and I have no doubts that he’ll be a brilliant programmer. Our cultural script would paint him as a failure and I have to ask, why. He’s always supported himself, he hasn’t got an outrageous student loan debt. It’s true we don’t own a house, or have kids and a dog, but all of the bills and taxes get paid on time. I count that as success.

    My story is that I was always “the smart one” growing up. My parents always had me in advanced classes and in high school I took AP everything. They had big dreams that I’d be a doctor or a lawyer or something else brilliant and rich. I got to college and took…. art. Yup, AP studio art was the only class in high school I ever failed, but I got my bachelor’s degree in studio art and later a master’s degree. And ya know what, the world did not end. My mother still nags me endlessly, but I’m perfectly capable of hanging up the phone.

    So, dear LW, you are in good company. If you want to switch around jobs for a while to see what suits you, it’s nobody’s business but yours so long as you’re paying your own bills. Stick it out with the college thing and get your piece of paper at the end. That’s what most employers will be looking for anyway, the piece of paper that says you went somewhere and studied something and came out (mostly) intact. Congratulations.

    And here’s our theme song…

  5. I am at work, taking a snack break, and this may come out oddly, but I want to offer many Jedi hugs to you, Lost and Confused! My story is that I have been diagnosed with a disorder that makes it hard to do what I love, and getting a diagnosis helped me see that I’m not really doing what I love right now. I am terrified that I’ll be unemployed in a few months, and I have a freaking PhD. But you know what? FarmerStina is absolutely right: some employers will just want to know that have a degree, because it signals the ability to work and to get something done, and that means that both you and I can get out there and find jobs. (And there are many jobs that are sort of science but sort of not, and if you want to hear more about that, let me know, because I am happy to share the resources I’ve been gathering.)

    Commander Logic’s advice to you is beyond excellent! Take some time to be nice to yourself. Enjoy what makes you happy as a human being, without worrying about work. And remember: you’re not alone in this, and you are NOT a failure. It feels like failure, because you’re unhappy and it seems like an avoidable mistake, but it’s just how things are – and recognizing that you’re unhappy and working to get yourself to a place you like more is a measure of how awesome you are.

    1. Hey, LW, I wanted to come back when I had more time to give you a couple more thoughts. Sorry this got super long, but hopefully these can help other people in similar situations – there are many of us struggling.

      You said, “I was always interested in Science and Biology and I thought it would transition well, but it hasn’t.

      What was it that you were interested in? When I was a kid, I loved fossils and butterfly raising kits, but when I first got to use microscopes, I was hooked. If there’s something you love about biology or another science, you might try to find it now. Even those of us who have known since childhood that we wanted to be scientists have gone through phases where science was the last thing on the planet we wanted to do – my fellow PhD students and I chatted about our “if I leave here, I would do _____ ” plans A LOT. (Mine? Librarian.)

      Academic science is a culture that…has some problems. People tend to admire it a lot – like your family! – but it’s just another thing to do, not inferior or superior to politics or poetry or plumbing. There’s this focus on making scientists that are all the same kind of person (the lab coat, hardass researcher & professor), but science isn’t one thing, and the people who do it should be encouraged to find what’s in their hearts and go for it.

      If you DO want to keep to something science-y, in addition to the things that FarmerStina and OtherBecky and Latining listed as jobs, here are ideas (US biased, since I want jobs here, but there should be national equivalents):
      – non-profits devoted to conservation, education, biotechnology
      – startups in biotech and medicine
      – groups like National Geographic, national/local/university-based science museums, acquariums, Discovery Channel, etc.
      – international groups, like UNESCO or WHO, or other aid organizations
      – science reporting, working for publishers of science textbooks and popular press books (my friends did this! they acquired book projects, managed them, etc., and knowing biology helped so much), science libraries
      – governments often need science policy advisors
      – administrative assistants (in a variety of flavors) to help manage programs in science, or to work for companies who do science – accountants and business managers and schedulers and IT and all sorts of people who know about the biology? INVALUABLE
      – customer service, troubleshooting, etc.; field scientists who teach people how to use equipment or to implement methods in their own labs
      – fisheries observing, crop management, wildlife management, forestry, farming
      – crop improvement (breeding, pathogen testing, genetics of other sorts)
      – epidemiology and public health, from statistical analysis to surveys to emergency planning for emerging diseases to intervention plans for ongoing problems and public interaction
      – park rangers, field guides, naturalists
      – pharmaceutical companies need people to do research, sales, marketing, patient monitoring, patient communication, policy/legal advising
      – tutoring, afterschool programming
      – technicians! so many labs need someone to help keep things clean and stocked, or help with generating some data – tons of levels of experience are okay here – and this applies to hospitals as well as academic/research institutions

      There are many, many jobs out there for people who have a degree in biology or science. A lot of them are for a year or two. If you opt for those, you are not committed to staying in science! You can just work to pay the bills for a bit! And if you find that your heart is leading you in another direction, or you’re not sure, that’s okay, too.

      1. This this this this this, LW. Oh god, if you listen to anybody here, listen to Elysia please.

        Even those of us who have known since childhood that we wanted to be scientists have gone through phases where science was the last thing on the planet we wanted to do
        *wild applause.*

        (Mine? Librarian.)
        Mine = science writer and editor, partner’s = organic farmer. Having backup plans at various stages of realism and development is pretty much par for the course in science/academia. Every single scientist I know, from geophysicist to clinical scientist, has at least one other hat (jazz drummer, lumberjack, professional hula hooper, landlord, science journalist) in a field that they have training and success in. Everyone should have a backup plan, and the nice thing about science is that it’s flexible/crazy enough for you to invest in one.

        Academic science is a culture that…has some problems
        Oh god, LW, again, if you take one thing away from all this, take this pleasethanks. It is not just you.

        As I was reading these comments (and wishing I could have coffee with everyone, especially Elysia) I also had another thought for you, LW – your parents. They’re a problem. A wonderful, loving problem that will fuck you up if you keep letting them. Address them. Address their fears and concerns, but don’t take offer to take them on any more. Explain to them, if you can and want to, but be aware that they won’t always hear what you’re trying to say. A really difficult thing about the parents of academic scientists is that they aren’t aware of what you actually do and how you actually do it; they assume that if you’re smart, you’re good at science. If you’re good at science, then you get your BSc. When you have your BSc, you just go to grad school (parents envision this as just like undergrad, but with, perhaps, slightly harder exams or something.) Then you immediately move to MIT and start working as a lecturer, perhaps – parents aren’t clear on this. Parents have not heard of post-docs, grants, fellowships, visas, or the two-body problem; they think that you actually have a choice in where you live and work. Parents only have a misty idea about what publications are, and what authorship is. But within a few years, parents know, the Tenure Fairy bops you on the head and you become a professor who makes $100,000 a year; parents are very, very sure on this part. Poor parents! When you actually explain to them who you are and what you love and what you do, they begin to cry because all they hear is “I will never own a BMW! I won’t be able to support you in your retirement! You have failed as parents! Hahaha!” In parent-logic, you are their wonderful smart child, and so you Deserve to be Rewarded with jobs, prestige, privilege and cash. Where is your job just out of college? they ask. Where is your spouse? Your house? Your doctorate? Your children? Why haven’t you achieved X milestone by Y? Shouldn’t you have a Nobel Prize?

        Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this, and luckily the reasons are mostly rooted in love, but you’ve got to address them. To members of the previous generation, things like the recession, the stagnation of American science funding, the secret sucking lack of academic research positions, the rise of the global market, increased competition, inflation, the unrealistic expectations engendered by the Baby Boom and the American Dream, and Tedious Old White Guys Clinging to Their Tenured Positions With Their Cold Withered Clawlike Hands are things that will not affect your job prospects, because you’re smart and they were good parents. They honestly do think that slapping a PhD on yourself will mean that you will never flip burgers, because they raised you to believe that PhDs are easy, but flipping burgers is a dehumanizing and degrading symbol of your entire family’s failure. Parents, no matter how liberal their politics, want to believe that their child will win the race by being smart and working hard. That mindset has a lot of cultural roots, but for various reasons, it’s pretty damaging, because our generation lives in a much different world than our parents thought they were building. A lot of the things they’re pressuring you to achieve just can’t be done, LW. None of us can do them. It’s okay. You’ve got to stop internalizing these expectations. You’ve got to redefine success. You might not be able to convince your parents and friends, but you damn well better learn to convince yourself.

        1. *Kermit applause dance for Elodie* Do you accept cookies? Because I feel like I should send you science cookies! I laughed so hard that I teared up reading this comment, because this is SO TRUE. I’ve tried explaining to my family How Academia Works, and my folks have professor friends, and we *still* have a lot of misunderstandings and dramatic conversations.

          And, LW, between Elodie’s magical words and my rereading your letter, I want to pass on a final piece of advice that a dear friend gave me: remember that your life is not an experiment. That you used the words “plan” and “code” reminds me of myself, and my desperate wish that life were as straightforward as I pretend my experiments are. Even if you’re not going to pursue science, you’ve been steeped in it, and that atmosphere encourages you to approach everything in terms of logical, objective steps to answer a question. How To Be Happy is, frustratingly, not something you can necessarily figure out that way! Writing to Captain Awkward, I hope, helps you find your path to more happiness.

  6. I feel this.

    I love my degree. Love it. Love it with the power of a thousand suns, but it is SO MUCH WORK. So even though I’m enjoying what I’m doing, I have breakdowns where I’ll sit on the couch crying about how I hate my degree and I hate my life and I don’t want to do anything involving Classics ever again and I am going to change my name and move to Mexico. (I feel you on the grades too. Are you in a field where a B is bad? I am. I hate that. Hate that, hate that, hate that.)

    Anyway, spring rolls around and I take a week or so off from everything, and after a few days or weeks I find myself picking up a poem (usually a fragment and harder than is assigned in class) and working on it. Or I’ll sight read a play for fun. Or I’ll pick up a textbook and read through it because learning just feels good. My point is, stress from school can kill what love you have for the subject, but taking time off can make you remember what it is you liked about it.

    There’s nothing wrong with having back-up jobs. If I can’t hack grad school, or decide I just don’t want to continue with academia, I have backups. I enjoy research and teaching, so I’m eying museum jobs and educational positions. It’s a far cry from dig sites, but not different at all in terms of what’s important to me.

    So take some time off and see what’s important to you. Maybe you spend three weeks playing video games. Cool. Lots of game developers need science consultants, same as TV producers. Maybe you decide you really like the story in video games. Did you know that Video Game Studies (as a subset of English/Film) is a big thing right now? If you like academia but don’t like the science aspect, you can always get another degree and work from there.

    Just think about what makes you happy and do that. Nobody is ever stuck in a box.*

    *Unless you’re one of those kinky porn stars and that’s your calling, in which case get down with your weird self.

  7. I majored in anthropology and minored in Chinese language and literature. About 6 months before I graduated college, I realized I really, really wished I’d at least minored in environmental science, but there just wasn’t time. Six months after graduation, I went on to get a job doing environmental science research at an organization where I was the only person who didn’t have a degree in any kind of hard science at the time that I applied for the job. This is pretty much the ideal job I was picturing at graduation time, but now I’m plotting my escape plan to move to a community I love and get a job that just pays the bills so I can hold myself to a rigorous schedule of Writing For Myself.

    It might be a total disaster! I’m pretty scared! But this plan is the result of learning two important things that I think might be useful for you to think about, LW, because I remember when I felt a lot like how you’re feeling right now. Those two things are:

    1) It’s okay to change your mind about your career, jobs, passions, etc. It’s also ok just to not know what you want. Some people want to do a lot of different kinds of work or want to focus on their family or their garden rather than on a career. That’s cool too.

    2) You don’t have to get the Perfect Career Job right away. You don’t even have to get a Perfect Career Job ever, because your job (what pays the bills) and your career (the work you do that matters to you) might not even end up being the same thing.

    I know you have a lot of pressure on you because of being the first person in your family who got the opportunities you’ve had, and I can’t speak to that because that’s not my experience. But I will say that at the end of the day, what matters is whether you feel fulfilled by what you’re doing with your life. For those people who have different expectations, sticking to your guns and taking pride in what you do could help them (eventually) see that your version of success is okay, even if it’s not the same as theirs.

    And, by the way? That science degree is in no danger of going to waste. Even if you never ever get a job that has anything to do with science, you will have learned about how to think scientifically and about how the world works. Those things are invaluable lessons that will contribute in small, important ways to anything you choose to do.


    Hang on, I’ll say that again in smaller letters. Imagine that I am sitting near you and pushing a lovely cup full of your favorite beverage across the table, and offering a hand to hold while I tell you this: It is going to be okay.

    I had a whole paragraph in here about how literally the only person in my family not doing what they went to school for is my sister, because she is still in college – and she changed her major. Nothing in your life is permanent. I’m happier now than I would have been I would second the Commander to finish your degree while getting some serious therapy, because it is only three months. And it’s unfortunately true that you will be a big step ahead with a finished degree. But you can get through this and then decide that you want nothing to do with science for the rest of your life, and that will be okay. That will not make you a failure. That will make you what you already are: an interesting and complex person with many skills and talents, some of which make you happy and some of which just contribute to your overall awesomeness.

  9. So–

    1) I wanted to be a professional classical flutist, and then I wanted to cure cancer, and then I wanted to be a vet, and then I had no idea what I wanted to do, and then I wanted to be a sex educator, and then I STILL had no idea what I wanted to do. Seriously, I graduated with a job because I had to make money, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.

    Working for two years helped me make the decision to continue on with science, and now I’m in a PhD program. But don’t ask me what I want to do with the PhD because I will come up with about five different answers, followed by, “But I’m really not sure.”

    2) A college degree will not hurt you, usually (usually!). It doesn’t even really matter what the degree is in. My current principal investigator, who is a seriously influential scientist, has a BA in English. My mother is a successful and wildly popular first-grade teacher who majored in Chinese, planned to work at the UN, and then was a stay-at-home mother for 22 years. My sister-in-law has a BA and MA in Italian, and now is in medical school. So, whatever your degree is in, it doesn’t really matter.

    3) GPA means almost nothing. It depends on the school you go to, what you major in, the other classes you take, what your personal life and health are like, and for all I can tell, astrology. There are people in my program (competitive PhD program) with GPAs below 3. There are people with nearly 4.0s. It doesn’t really matter all that much.

    4) If you hate science, then please, do me a favor, and do not be a scientist. Not because I don’t think you’d make incredible discoveries and be totally badass and all, but because I think you have this one short, beautiful life, and you should not resign yourself to a career path that does not make you happy.


    1) I still don’t know what I want to be, and I’m in a PhD program.
    2) I know plenty of people who studied one thing in college and went on to do something completely different.
    3) GPA is so relative that it’s really not meaningful out of context.
    4) If you do not know what will make you happy, at the very least, do not do something that makes you miserable!!

    1. Not the OP, but that is such comforting knowledge about the GPA. All the academic advisors at my university really hang on it, which drive stress levels way, way up.

      1. People will look at your GPA and transcript if you are applying to grad school especially if you’re applying for funding/scholarships.

        Good news! Most employers (other people, etc.) don’t give a fuck about your GPA OR your major.

        1. And some grad programs only calculate the GPA for the classes required for that program. So if the LW decides to go into something completely unrelated to the sciences, her grades in science classes may not matter all that much to the admissions staff.

          If the LW DOES decide to apply to a grad program where her science grades matter: 1) one less-than-stellar semester might not screw up her chances as much as he or she thinks; 2) there is always the option of retaking those classes when it’s time to apply, getting a better grade (which almost always happens when you’re not burned out anymore and are super motivated toward the next thing) and submitting that new shiny partial transcript with your application.

          LW, all that should be far from your mind right now. Just know that no matter what happens, you will be all right! And no matter what sort of work you end up doing, the best part is you won’t have the career your family picked out for you, OR the job your teenage self picked out for you. You’ll have the career Adult You wants and has made.

          1. LW doesn’t say what country she’s in, so I’d like to say that in the UK, so long as you have a 2:1 (3.0 GPA, maybe?) they’ll use your references and interview to decide if you get a PhD place, extra marks on top of that don’t really matter. All exam results show is you can do exams. Heck, they’ll probably take you if you have a Third (2.0?) but you can show that you love the subject.

            Also, in her 20-year career my stepmother has been asked where her degree is from once, and what it was in no times. And she works in IT. With an English and History degree. My mum has a Masters in Education, she’s going to be a midwife when the last of us grows up. My aunt gave up accountancy to become a circus performer. Your degree does not determine your future in the slightest.

        2. Also, depending on the grad programme, if you have several years of work experience/interesting life experience stuff between undergrad and applying to grad school, they may weigh GPA less, and some only average your best three years or drop your four to twelve lowest credits.

          Personal anecdote time! I am about to start law school this fall. My freshman year of uni was a disaster that should have been accompanied by the academic equivalent of cartoon explosions, falling anvils, and a soundtrack involving kazoos. I caught pneumonia halfway through the winter term and as a result ended up failing an eight-credit class because the prof wouldn’t accept the medical note for the classes I missed due to being in hospital with a tube down my throat. (She had a “Miss x number of classes for any reason–>automatic fail” policy.) Even the school’s ombud office couldn’t budge her. Needless to say, this tanked my GPA (which was not awesome to begin with because beer and new friends and exploring exciting new city > studying. Oh, youth).

          However, I took a break from academics, got a horrible soul-sucking job in law enforcement that I quickly became desperate to escape, and because I was so tired of crying myself to sleep and waking up vomiting every day from said soul-sucking job, I transferred to another fancy-pants university where I had strong upward trend in my grades because if I didn’t finish my BA and move on with my life I was probably going to make the news as the first confirmed case of spontaneous human combustion. So, determined to get the hell out of there, I absolutely killed my last three years of undergrad, enough to graduate with honours despite my rocky beginning, and applied to law school. By that time I had accrued ten years of work experience at the $Department of Horrible, and as a result I was able to write a compelling enough personal statement that I recently found myself in the happy position of having to choose between three of North America’s top law programmes. It certainly was not my grades or decidedly meh LSAT score that got me in–my grades and scores were decent but that could be said of pretty much everyone applying to those schools, and mine were below the medians.

          I know that applying to law school is a different beastie than applying to Masters or PhD programmes, but a few years down the road your undergrad grades matter less to the admissions committees if you can show that you have matured, have something at which you’ve excelled to point to, and have a demonstrated passion and purpose for the studies you intend to undertake. All is not lost if it took you some time to get your footing or change direction as many times as you need to; indeed, taking time to explore who you are and what you want out of a career and out of life will likely serve you well in the long run. Don’t spend years like I did where every night either involved crying until I vomited or vomiting until I cried just because you don’t see a way out and don’t know what else to do and don’t want to disappoint your family. There is always a way out, and there is always at least one strong alternate option, and your family can either cope or can not cope out of your sight. LW, you will be fine.

      2. Once you leave college, no one will ever give a shit about your GPA. Remember in grade school when they’d threaten to put things on your Permanent Record? GPA is the college equivalent of that.

    2. +1 on the GPA thing.

      It might matter a little bit if you want to continue on in Academia, depending on the program you’re interested in. But most graduate programs seem more interested in your ideas, opinions, and the projects you’ve done than they are in that GPA. Graduate school teachers have to work closely with their grad students and they want to admit people that they are compatible with as long as they feel the student can complete the program.

      I have also never had an employer ask about my GPA. The first one out of college might if you don’t have any other job experience, but in my experience, they’re much more interested in your work ethic on a job than they are in your test-taking abilities.

  10. Dear Letter Writer:

    I am good at computer languages. I really am! When I take classes for computer languages, or put any effort into learning them at all, I pick it up really easily. It’s one of my talents, and when I started college I decided I was going to be a programmer or something.

    That… it didn’t go well. I don’t really enjoy it, and I wound up dropping out of school because I thought I was disappointing everybody. I don’t want to work with computers at all. On them, fine, but I don’t want to deal with their guts, be it software or hardware.

    It’s been close to ten years since I dropped out (I’ve started picking up some classes here and there, trying to knock a lot of the gen eds out of the way) and I *still* don’t know what I want to major in. I do know what I want to do with my life, but my degree doesn’t particularly matter (or even if I have one) so it’s still all up in the air.

    1. Agh, posted early. The point I was getting to was that it doesn’t matter what you do with your degree, or even if you “use” it. Soon you’ll have a piece of paper that says I STUCK IT OUT FOR FOUR YEARS and you don’t have to use it to do science. You don’t have to use it at all, if you don’t want to.

  11. Dear god I see this every day. People do things because they are prestigious, or because they have a guarunteed job at the end of them, and it is utterly silly. But then, we’re all utterly silly.

    First off: don’t become a teacher just because there’s a deficit of teachers. So many people think teaching is the easy way out. It’s a demanding career and if you don’t want to do it then you’re not going to be good at it. I know you didn’t mention it, but everyone thinks about it at some point. In fact, don’t choose a career because it’s easy to get into. Jobs, sure, careers, hell no, have another reason at least.

    Also, you’re not alone. There are so many people on my Maths degree that aren’t meant to be there, and thought it would be like school maths. You never know what it’s going to be like until you get there. And not all of these people are going to fail at life.

    I haven’t lived enough to give any other advice, I’m afraid.

    1. Dear god, yes. This.

      The only reason to become a teacher is if you can’t possibly see yourself as anything but a teacher AND you’ve got teacher friends/family who have told you what it’s all about AND you know that you WILL be overworked (10+ hours a day), underpaid, disrespected (or sainted, which is just as bad) by EVERYBODY, and in March you get your pink slip. If you’re really, truly, positively OK with all of that – then teach.

      Teaching is not one of those “if I can’t do anything else” jobs. Kids are people, and the only way to get them to learn from you is if you are willing to see them as individual people even when they’re at their most cranky and if you’re willing to give them as many parts of yourself as they need to grow up sane and responsible individuals. If you can’t or aren’t willing to do that, DON’T TEACH.

      And by the way, teaching is not an easy field to get into and there are not jobs dangling from trees like low-hanging fruit. I’m a history teacher – for the several hundred of us who graduated with social studies credentials last year, there were about 15 jobs. It’s not uncommon to get hired in September or October, seven months after the hiring season starts, and it’s HELL to break into teaching with so many experienced teachers also looking for work right now. A good friend of mine has had her credential for a while now and is still waitressing. She has an MA in US history and a credential and she’s *still waitressing.*

      1. Oops, forgot that non-shortage subjects aren’t easy to get into. Maths means I’ll probably get a place, and hilarious amounts of funding, so I forget about the horribly-competitive humanities. Primary (Elementary?) Education is even more competitive.

        Oh so much with the “kids are people” thing. Nobody seems to remember that when they were a child, that was the oldest they’d ever been, and they were definitely a person then. And the cuteness wears off after a few days even if they had it in the first place.

  12. Oh, LW, you could be one of my students, if I taught bio.

    Your family ideally would be proud of you no matter what, but in this case, make sure you graduate. They can be proud of the degree. What you do with the degree is an entirely separate issue. Also not completing the degree will have bigger consequences than completing it and then chucking it to become an expert basket weaver.

    If anyone asks you your plans, tell them “I’m concentrating on graduating right now.” If they persist say “I am looking at the job market.” If they still persist and ask what kind of jobs you’re looking for (and this goes especially for the snobby people in your field you mentioned in your letter) say in a very depressed voice “Well, you know, with the economy, I’m trying to be realistic and not just look for jobs in this field, but I don’t really want to talk about it.” Some of that may be a lie, but it will help keep people off your back about your plans. You are not obligated to tell anyone what you plan to do either, so it’s perfectly okay to draw a boundary and stick to it here.

    Lastly, your first job out of school has about a .01% likelihood of being The Job You Want Forever. You’re young, you’ll be in entry level work. You’ll move around, possibly a lot. This is okay. This is what EVERYBODY does. I’ve had about 10 different jobs if you count my longer term temp assignments, and I’m about to chuck 6 years of teaching to do Something Else, Not Sure Exactly What Yet. Very few people have a “calling” to a particular field that lasts them a lifetime. You are not a failure if you don’t have one. Hell my HOBBIES are not that consistent.

    Find a job you can do without hating it all the time, with people who you feel okay around. That’s a good goal. You’ll notice the lack of what type of job it has to be, or in what field, because that’s a lot less important than not working at something you loathe. And the only way to figure out what that job is? Is to try different types of jobs and find out. I’ve been teaching for 10 years at the college level and I can tell you straight up, no class will ever simulate the experience of working in a field completely, day after day, for years. You only know what that’s like by doing it. So it’s okay if you try a job and dislike it and move on – it’s not a failure to not know by some omniscient power what you’re going to really be interested in and really want to do!

    Unfortunately this is one of those “you can only swim if you jump out of the boat” things. You gotta do it.

    1. Also don’t go to grad school now. Wait a few years, and if you develop a particular interest in something that really needs a higher level degree, then go. Don’t go just to have something to do.

  13. I have a degree in Film & Rhetoric. Loved getting it, loved filmmaking, loved debate and persuasive writing, absolutely had a blast in the classes.

    I got out and there was nothing I could do with that degree. I spent a bit more than a year alternating between “working on indie film production, fun, no money” and “working on corporate production, 14 hours a day of fetching coffee and licking boots,” and at the end of that time I had no savings left and no career path and I just gave up.

    Faced with “learn something marketable or start flipping burgers,” I signed up for EMT training. I felt a bit stupid, having spent four years and $OMG on a bachelor’s degree, only to go to a program I could’ve entered right out of high school, but you know what? I freaking loved being an EMT. It was work I could get, work that made me happy, work that didn’t make me rich but paid the rent.

    Switching tracks entirely, being willing to give up on my sunk costs and try something out of left field, was the best decision I ever made. After six years of work in healthcare I’m in nursing school right now and I’m doing great.

    So the thing I want to say to the LW: sometimes changing paths, even abruptly, even in a way that seems like a “step down” in prestige, can absolutely fix your life. I don’t know if it’ll work for you and of course I don’t know if EMTing is for you, but if you hate science and you have just no idea where to start your career in science–maybe you should apprentice as a carpenter? Apply for police academy? Learn to fix motorboats?

    Yes, you probably will get a bit of a “all that studying and you’re going off to go fix motorboats?” guilt trip from your family and friends. That’s too bad but it shouldn’t change your decision. It’s your life and you’re the one who has to live it.

  14. I’m in the rare position of doing exactly what I planned to do with my life when I was a kid, and I love it and I’m good at it, and I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. It’s weird, but I feel like maybe no one (not even the people who are doing the things they always wanted to do and still love doing) really knows what they want to do.

    The unfortunate thing right now is that there is no guarantee that anyone will get a job. There’s no particular field or credential or anything that will get you a job, and that sucks and makes the world really scary, but maybe it also means that you really don’t have to feel guilty about trying new things in different fields to see what you like, even if it means trying something in a field that seems less lucrative. I mean, you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about it anyway, but if people are giving you grief, you can use this as an excuse, either for yourself or for them.

    Commander Logic is totally right. Finish your degree (because that will make your life a little easier, but not necessarily easy), take some time to yourself, and then try to find a job that pays the bills while you go out in search of your dream life. And yes, get therapy. It is not even close to being a failure.

  15. I wanted to be a scientist, but couldn’t cut the math requirement, so I went to school and majored in what I was good at – English. And I hated it. I HATED it. I stuck it out til I was one semester away from graduating, and then I burned out, quit going to school, and got Fs in all those classes because I didn’t file the paperwork.

    Later I discovered that I love history. I had no idea! So I went back and did that instead. And believe me – I graduated with a 2.58 GPA after spending six years in night school to raise my GPA from the crash-and-burn I experienced in English. It was too low to get me into grad school, and it was too low to get me into a teaching credential program, but I applied for both anyway and I showed them my night school grades (all As) and explained to them about how I was a much better student now (and fortunately I test very well) and I got in to both.

    I am very happy as a history teacher, though I am coming into my career later in life than I might wish. I would advise you to NOT drop all your classes and drop out, because making up for that sucks, but you are not stuck and you can go back and discover what you love. Finish your coursework and then go take a few fun classes at the local community college. You never know – could be that the science dovetails nicely with what you discover you love. English, though I hated it as a subject, has ensured that I write competently – and that’s important in history.

    And you never know what you’ll need the science degree for. A friend of mine double-majored in zoology and marine biology and that qualified her to be the receptionist at an aquarium filter manufacturing plant. I kid you not. I hope you get a better job than that – but you don’t have to be a scientist. There are a lot of things you can be. Like computer technician – I have yet to meet a computer specialist with a degree in computers!

  16. I’ll be 60 this year and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I have changed my mind several (well more than several) times, and have fistfuls of laughably conflicting qualifications. Some of the most ‘useless’ of them taught me the best things I’ll ever know, one of which is that ‘ultimate’ isn’t a word you should be using at your age. Don’t worry so much, there’s nothing so sure as change, so roll with it.

  17. LW, I have a master’s degree in a field I loved, and a career in a vaguely related field I really love with 9 years of experience in my chosen field. And I still feel like an imposter on a somewhat regular basis. Which I’m finally starting to think is pretty normal. Some days, it just seems like everyone else knows more and is way more secure in their life choices than you are. They mostly aren’t.

    I’d have to say I agree — take a break, take some time. Then go do something. Find something you can do, and take as much time as you need to figure out what you want to do. For now.

    Despite all the statistics out there saying that most people change jobs frequently and almost always even careers, for some reason college or grad school make you honestly believe that you have to make The One Decision, Right Now, about the path you will then be on forever and ever. Amen. And by the way, don’t screw it up. It’s not true, and I don’t think anyone smart would tell you that — you can change your mind and do something scary and new whenever you decide to. You are in charge of your life.

    Good luck LW. People choosing their own paths always make interesting choices.

  18. It’s more normal than not to change your mind on your life’s work. I have changed careers more than once, and I have to say the change of social status is the most difficult thing about it.

    On the other hand, social status is arbitrary and going from “Hero to Zero” happens all the time for completely random reasons, so it’s best to lose your attachment to it now.

  19. I think that Commander Logic has really told you everything that you need to know about this, but it is always nice to hear all of the other stories in the comments that let you know you really are not alone in this sort of dilemma.

    – I have an Arts (Honours) degree that I have never practically used. Having it has helped me get positions that have nothing to do with the things I’ve studied.
    – I am on my fourth career (not job but career, and yes I do count my degree and what I had envisioned doing with it as one of those).
    – I am about to turn 40 and I still don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up.
    – None of my friends or even work colleagues who I have spoken to about this know what they want to be, or feel that they have found the career that they trully want.

    I did an activity as part of my Year of TED (www.kyliedunn.com) to try to find out what drives me and what my why might actually be. On reflection I think that I have come up with this, but I am not yet at the point where I know how to turn this into a career (http://bit.ly/y9qbvL).

    You are not alone, and I think that this is something that more people need to understand. I completely agree that you should stick it out and finish your degree, just having finished it is enough. Then take some time, see what opportunities life throws your way, because I have found that the completely unexpected and unplanned for opportunities in my career have often been the ones that have given me the most satisfaction and education.

    Good luck and enjoy the ride.

    1. I read through your graphic, and the whole time I was thinking, “Is this person a librarian? No, really, are they?”

      But then again, I’m a librarian. (And an underemployed one, at that. I love this field, so I’m very sorry to say this, but… don’t be a librarian.)

      1. Seriously considered it at one stage, but realised it’s not really for me. Completely understand the warning though.

  20. I’ll share my anecdata too. When I was in high school, I expected to go to college all the way to PhD. I knew I was going to major in biology and become a researcher in a vague way. In college, I toyed with the possibility of an interdisciplinary or double major: biology/psychology, biology/anthropology, etc. But I was a lackadaisical student, so I complete the BA in biology in 4 years (because that’s all the financial aid I was guaranteed). My first job was volunteering at a national park, and I loved, loved, loved it. It was my first exposure to camping (backpacking!) and the realization that it was possible (and okay!) to have a career without having to climb the unending ladder of prestige, responsibility, pay grade, ambition, what have you.That winter I worked at a ski resort, again, great experience, but completely unexpected, having never skied before. From there I spent two years in Peace Corps, which gave me lots of perspective and time to ponder. I realized I was never going to become an academicor pursue a PhD.

    When I returned to the USA, I spent four summers as a wildland firefighter–again, loved the work, thought it was going to be my career. I spent my winters doing whatever job would pay the bills. Also very worthwhile experiences in a range of fields, from bank annuities department to dairy farm. I went to graduate school with the idea of becoming a fire manager. This time, I had a specific goal and a plan. I got a MS in land resources, an interdisciplinary program that could be tailored to the needs of the particular grad student. But when I graduated five years later, again I was confused and lost my sense of purpose. I applied for fire jobs and got nowhere. But I did get land management jobs and was working in my field. Then I started working as an editorial assistant at an ecological journal–again, loved, loved, loved the work. Now I’m the managing editor of a medical journal and still I’m happy with what I’m doing.

    From the outside, it may look like my career path was a carefully plotted course building on previous experience and all based on my science degrees. No such thing. So much was serendipity, opportunity, quixotic desires to be here or move there. Many people assume now that I’m an editor that I must have a background in English or journalism. No. My last English class was high school.

    But I read a lot, converse often, and write some and can be very good at synthesizing and extrapolating information and ideas. In the course of preparing two theses, countless class papers, and TAing a lab class, I have developed my skills of argumentation and presenting evidence. Practice, not formal training, experience, not certification are what prepared me for my current editorial role. And in every job I’ve had, I’ve worked with colleagues who often came from completely different backgrounds and had completely unrelated education. “Transferable skills” of critical thinking, clear communication, and empathy can make ahelluva difference in the workplace. and smart employers and supervisors will value those in you.

    But paperwork still matters, and finishing your degree now will save you extra hassles down the road. I agree with others who’ve suggested taking a break to sort things out. Get out in the world and get experience. You may come into contact with something (or many things) you love that you never considered. That’s the way it was with wildland fire for me–the only time I felt any certainty about my future. Your youth should be about exploring the world and yourself.

    Finally, another piece of advice that I haven’t seen mentioned yet. Read. Books that I found helpful during one of my periods of struggle were What Should I Do with My Life by Po Bronson and Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. Others have recommended The Best Work of Your Life and What Color Is Your Parachute? These are useful for more specific job hunting and less for the existential questions you seem to be grappling. And if you want to explore various avenues, do the informational interview thing with people. Shadow people at their jobs. Find blogs by people in those fields. Again, explore your world, consider possibilities that you’ve never heard of before, do something completely different for awhile. It’s okay to simply exist for awhile (or a long while or the rest of your life, if that’s what brings you contentment). You don’t need to have the answer (as if there’s really only one), and you don’t need to have it now. Good luck.

  21. I was going to be a scientist too. I had it all planned out. Things didn’t work out that way.
    I discovered computers in HS, tried a double major (Biochem/Computer Science) in College, cut back to Microbiology to get the degree in 4 years instead of 5 (and leave Spring afternoons free for archery practice. Priorities!). Got the degree. Tried an MS in Forensic Science. Hated It! Back to thinking (with a 4 month break). Applied for a masters program in Microbio (because I knew I could get in), managed to get a thesis project that involved programming…

    My first job was a programming job in a Biotech company (thesis was good for something!). I haven’t done any bench science in many years and I’m relatively happy. My resume is eclectic – programming, technical writing, some QA, some user support, no science… and I’m dong well.

    The moral of the story? University is where you learn _more_ about what you enjoy and may want to do. It’s not where you make final decisions. The secret of the story? You never have to make a “final” decision. You can always be learning what you want to do.

    Good luck to you.

  22. Dear LW

    You Don’t Have to Make Your Parents Proud! Or happy, or anything really. I know that parental validation is a big deal and it can feel really good, but ultimately your parents don’t have to live your life, you do. So when making life decisions the one and only person whose feelings you need to consult are your own,

  23. One of my friends has a degree in pure mathematics from Berkeley and draws comic books for a living. Mathematical comic books.

    For most people, college isn’t very good at preparing you for a specific career path. What it’s good for is preparing you to grab the flotsam and jetsam the universe throws at you and kludge it together into a life. Roger Ebert summed it up as, “Find out all you can, and see what you can do with it.”

    Also, once you get out of the academic environment, very few people will care about your major and no one will care about your test scores or GPA, so don’t sweat that stuff.

    1. Errrrrr would you like to link these comic books? My math department would love them a lot!

  24. LW! I wanted to be a librarian, then got really into hard sciences in high school, got to college, switched to anthropology, after graduation, fluctuating between wishing I had done sociology or biology, went to South Korea and taught English for two years, and now am back home and unemployed, trying to wiggle my way into the non-profit world in my city. My plan is to do that until I get bored and then go to grad school (in what?! Bat rehabilitation? Cultural geography? How To Be An Awesome Badass?), but I have serious fantasies still about farming, becoming a burlesque dancer, and opening a yoga studio for people of size with a punny name.

    I would recommend taking some time with your therapist not only to work on those Issues, but also to explore what makes you happy, and what you think you might like as a career (or careers! It is okay if you think of 800000000000 like me – just put the intention out there, and you’ll find opportunities in something – take that road while you like it, and when it is not working for you, you can change tracks! I swear, almost all experience is applicable to almost all jobs, because all jobs are done by humans, and often with humans, and definitely with human brains, and experience is stretching the brain in new ways).

    I have a friend who is graduating in Chemistry and wants to work in restaurants after graduation, because that is one thing he likes.

    It will be okay! Also, I think your university probably has a career counseling office – go see them! Their job is to help you figure out what you want to do, and you should definitely be straight up with them about never wanting to Do Science, if that is what you decide. Go, and say “Don’t tell my parents, but I hate science! Ack!” They can help you translate all your science-y experience in college into a solid set of transferable skills.

    Experiments: critical thinking, critical analysis, problem solving, trouble shooting, planning, keeping excellent records.

    Writing reports: writing skills! record keeping! reflection! critical thinking again!

    That is the kind of stuff they SHOULD be helping you do. You can totally do stuff, LW. Jedi hugs from someone in the Imposter boat as well. But really, in my non-anxious moments, I know that EVERYONE is more or less making it up as they go along. Why do you think hospitals have legal Standard of Care policies? (To keep them from improvising too much by making them memorize things!) (Isn’t that a scary thought?!)

  25. Was math-man for most of my youth. Best in state on various tests, attended national math competitions. Math was clearly part of what got me into college.

    Where I abandoned it entirely after my Freshman year showed me that I enjoyed my English classes much more. You’ve only got one life, so you may as well live it for yourself.

  26. I did the thing movies and books consider hip right now and became a pastry chef. I was good at lots of other things (I’m still good at lots of other things) but that’s what I got my degree in and that’s what I’ve been doing for 16 years. It’s only the past few years that I gave myself permission to get out of the super high end restaurants and hotels because I was so sick of working long hours for crap pay, having no social life, and realizing I’d have to work longer hours for crappier pay to be taken seriously and advance. If you’re going to do the fancy stuff right, you have to completely devote your life to it and I wasn’t and am still not prepared to give up everything else for it.

    I now work at an incredibly rich, private boarding school right now (seriously, they have their own pastry chef) and the load is lighter, but I still can’t shake the feeling that I could be doing something I’d like better if I’d just let go of my degree and the money it took to get it. I’m not actively unhappy, but I think I can do better. Even the most promising person that I graduated with worked her way up through the ranks, was the pastry chef at a fancy hotel, and first chance she got ditched it all to go teach at our alma mater because she liked that way better.

    As for my husband, he started with a degree in Computer Science, got a job, worked it for 7 years, and then the job went to China without him. Instead of getting a new job in the same work, he went to grad school. He got a degree in what I like to call ‘Maps’ and now works for fancy insurance companies making computer models of natural disasters so people can see how much damage would be done if there was tornadoes in Burma and things like that.

    Even though he’s more satisfied with his current job than his old one, he’d ditch it in a minute if SCUBA or ski instructors were better paid.

    I read somewhere recently that art is whatever you do when you stop getting paid. Go make some art for a while, LW, and find something you’re more happy with. Life’s too short to be miserable.

  27. First, sorry for my English…;)
    Secondly, thanks Captain Akward for this article!
    it’s funny, I’m into a situation slightly different from the case here exposed, but the point is similar: how to discover what you are good at? What do you do with your life? I realized by myself that what you do well, as a natural talent, is not always what you really want to do.
    Blessed are those who love what they have received as a natural gift (drawing, singing, sharp intellect, strong logical abilities etc) or feel a sort of “vocation” (doctors, lawyers etc).
    It took me a lot to understand and to be aware of this difference, it required lot of analysis of myself and my own capabilities. The process is still “on” and this article came at the right moment!
    Thanks again! 🙂

  28. I’m an “English” person whose strengths were always in creative endeavors; my weakness is arithmetic. So obviously everybody pushed me towards what they saw as my Calling: ELODIE IS AN ENGLISH PERSON! I had a professor in college write a plaintive comment on one of my essays: “Would you reconsider going to graduate school in English?” There is always this perception that one shouldn’t ‘waste’ their ‘talents,’ that you can only do One Thing With Your Life, that science/math/technology are completely incompatible with art/theater/English and the skills you need for them are never found in the same person, that all scientists are uptight logical nerds WHO ARE TOTALLY CURING CANCER SO THEY ARE BETTER THAN EVERYONE!!!1!! And meanwhile all liberal arts majors are fun creative freaks who HAD THE COURAGE TO FOLLOW THEIR DREAMZ GUYS WE ARE MUCH BRAVER AND AWESOMER THAN PEOPLE WHO FOLLOWED THE MONEYS!!!1!

    When actually there is no such thing as any of that. Just like there is no wrong way to be a woman – no matter how much everybody wants to squish you into the mold of Princess or Tomboy – there is no wrong way to be a scientist, a creative person, an academic, a person.

    There is this massive perception that You Cannot Be Happy in Science (ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A CREATIVE PERSON WITH A SOUL), and I see that in a lot of the comments here. Without contradicting the wonderful advice you’ve already received, I want to point out that they all reflect the dichotomy you mentioned: that people are going to interpret your dissatisfaction with your educational experience as a sign that YOU WERE BORN TO BE A LIBERAL ARTIST NOW COME SIT WITH US COOLER KIDS. It doesn’t have to be that way – not if you don’t want it to be. You define yourself, sweet pea. You always have and you always will. When you strip away the pressure of other people’s expectations and interpretations, you’ll find yourself at the core; burning brightly, fierce and beautiful, a scientist and a writer and an artist and a student and a person and more than a person; an entire universe, an ecosystem, a library, a story.

    And here is something I can promise you: Every molecule of ATP in your body crackles with your electrical purpose. Every twisting spiral helix of your DNA is purpose. Every cell in your body (and there are many) sings to help you. Every boring textbook protein, every stupid cycle, every annoying molecule has been supporting you all along, patiently and faithfully rooting for you, turning sugar into life for you, hoping that you’ll do well. The neurons you’ve burned out during classes – they’ve grown back for you, stronger and more connected than before. When your nerves burned with pain, they did it to save you from being hurt again. The fragile beauty of your bones supports you. You are architecture and electricity. You are story and song, ancient and young. You are made out of stardust and memories; you are an ambitious bony fish. Every scrap of you is independent, living, thriving, burning with purpose. Even when your brain is tired and you’ve used up all your serotonin and all you can bring yourself to do is eat Reese’s cups and mainline LotR, you’ve already made it, you’re already wonderful and whole and complete. In the center of you is a little glowing golden thing that begs for a calling. What if I told you that your problem wasn’t necessarily science, but fear and sadness? That you might be quite good at biology, but you enjoy Evolution more than Molecular? (God who doesn’t though.) That actually, you want to study dinosaurs instead of cancer? (Do it!) That the pressure you’re feeling is because you feel like you have to be some person that you’re not? When Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin “discovered” DNA, they didn’t invent it; it was a double helix, inside everything living, all along. All they did was hack their way to it, lost and confused and crying out. The answer was there. The answer is in you. Not in other people. That’s where the code you’re asking for is. It’ll be hard work to find it – sorry.

    I majored in General Biology and minored in English. Surprisingly, despite everybody telling me that I was too pretty/fun/creative/flighty and would HATE THE WORK AND SUCK AT IT, I’m a scientist, a happy one. While I don’t have a master’s or PhD, I’m a damn good technician. I get my name on papers, I contribute intellectually to important research, I earn a steady and respectable salary, and I regularly beat out postdocs for positions. (You don’t have to do arithmetic in lab/research settings, BTW – we have these amazing widgets called calculators!) And surprisingly, following science does not automatically equate to following the moneys. There have been periods in my life where I was a starving scientist. Quite literally – working on the Cure for Cancer while actually going hungry. Science is not a stable, secure position. Like any other form of academia, it is nomadic, competitive, and poorly paid. So don’t do it if you don’t love it – and don’t decide you hate it until you understand what it means to you. The last year of my Biology/English degree was absolutely miserable, as I constantly wailed that what I wanted to do was to take off all my clothes and run screaming into the woods so that nobody else could write their feelings on me.

    What if you like science, but only as a friend? If you became a starving artist instead, would you still have a deep and abiding sense of wonder in the natural world? Would you still watch David Attenborough documentaries and love them? Would you buy your children a toy microscope? Would you identify cool trees every time you go hiking, and notice the different biomes and ecosystems, and explain them to their friends so that they got excited too? Would you play Pin the Beak on the Finch for Darwin Day? Maybe you just don’t like science! But if you think you’d still probably do any of those things, than at least you’ve had an education that taught you important skills about critical thinking, the scientific method, observational skills, making connections, seeing the microscopic and the macroscopic in the same picture. And that will inform your future careers in essay-writing and law and music and politics – a biology degree is a lovely useful thing – and you can walk away and be grateful at the same time.

    Nice to meet you, by the way. I’m Elodie. I’ve been a paleontologist, neurobiologist, population geneticist, biochemist, molecular biologist, cancer biologist – and a writer (science AND creative writing, thankyouverymuch) artist, activist, art model, storyteller. I have done what I’m good at and what I was terrible at, what I loved and what I’ve hated. I learned everything about myself and what I wanted to do. I got better at things I was bad at. And I’ve felt what you’re feeling now, when I was where you are now, and I didn’t get to Happiness by letting anybody – no matter how wise they were, no matter how much they loved me – tell me what would make me happy. I found it by listening to the little glowing golden thing, and not other people. Good luck, darling; I am rooting for you and your truth, more than you know.

    1. Elodie,

      I have to say that your post was thoughtful, eloquent, and beautiful. Well said.

      LW, I never went to college, so I’m not sure what to say about that. What I have done is this;

      I had a perfectly respectable government job. In that perfectly respectable government job, I made some money. But I would go to work and cry while I was working. I hated my job. It was eating my soul.

      So even without a college degree, I quit my job to stay home and be a legal transcriptionist instead. Now I make a quarter of the income, and every day is a struggle, I’m not kidding, but there is a roof over my head, and my kids are fed every night.

      So what I am trying to say, LW, is that life is too short to be miserable. You owe it not only to yourself but to your family to find your true path. Or at least, a path that doesn’t innvolve tears. Hugs and love and blessings.


    2. Um, Elodie, your comment is absolutely stunningly amazing. TIMES A THOUSAND everything you’ve said. I also think that the idea that scientists are all logical, uncreative types is totally wrong. We’re all PEOPLE with interests and hobbies and lives! I’ve never been one to devote all my time to research, even though I care about it deeply; I majored in Women’s Studies as well because I only want to do college once, and I loved studying it.

      So now I’m a biology PhD student who spends time with friends, plays with her cute pet birdie, spends lots of non-academic time with her partner, goes on feminist rants, reads for pleasure, gets drunk with friends, loves fashion, likes to go running … YOU define YOURSELF.

      Your comment about ATP basically made by day, by the way. So awesome.

    3. That section that begins “Every molecule of ATP in your body crackles with your electrical purpose” made me want to cry and sing and think noble thoughts. Are you sure you’re not a theologian as well?

  29. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    I do agree with your plan above and to “Stick It Out” for 3 months to get your degree and FINISH.

    Next with your Career Center and your Theraphist, you will need to determine what you are Good At AND what you Enjoy and LOVE. What are your ultimate goals? What kind of a life do you want 5/10/15/20 years from now? You’re young….all things are possible but you need to have a goal and work very hard to get there…..and you may need to Pray. Also when looking into the future, weave in Personal, Professional and FUN stuff….and make sure you reward yourself everytime you work hard and accomplish a step however little.

    Best of Wishes on Your Journey….Live Your Best Life and Enjoy It.

    1. I’d say, for that first entry-level job out of college, completely take the pressure off to find something you LOVE that is about your ULTIMATE GOALS OMG.

      The goal should be “a job that pays rent, etc.” and “is not in a soul-sucking shithole” – first jobs are about trying things out.

      I do NOTHING related to my undergrad degree, btw.

      1. Also, unless you really do fall in love, do not marry your first job out of college. Do not feel indebted to people you are working for; do not feel grateful to them for letting you staple things. Remember that it’s not really what you want to do–even if you’re good at it, and even if they love you. (If you’re a capable, trustworthy person, lots of people will love you and want you to stick around–get used to disappointing them occasionally.)

        And if you hate it or the people are mean to you or you get any evil-bees feelings, leave as soon as you can find something else. Don’t worry about the reference or the line on your resume, get the fuck out of that place right away.

      2. Oh, I so agree with that. When I graduated from college with an art history degree, I my plan was to go to grad school in a few years and get my PhD in Byzantine art. In the meantime, I decided I the coolest jobs I could think of to have for a few years were to work in a bicycle shop or at a florists. I got a bicycle shop job working for a major bicycle company figuring out how to sell bikes in a way that focused on actual customer need and understanding how they rode instead of just selling them the shiny red bike.

        Now, ten years later, I’ve finally figured out what I want to do with my life and it focusing a lot on figuring out how to more empathically build and sell products to customers in large-scale markets.

        So wander, letter writer! Have fun! Trust that you like the things you like for a reason and not everything you do has to make sense and fit into a perfect plan before you start. Your perfect field and job may not even exist yet.

      3. Agreed that your first ‘out-of-college’ job does not have to be all that.

        My first job out of school was to be the web designer for an ammo company in a podunk town. Once they ran out of work for me to do, I helped make 50 .cal bullets. All of it paid about minimum wage and the job itself lasted 5 months total.

        The point wasn’t finding The One Job (to Rule Them All). It was just about getting experience, figuring out how to adjust to job-life as opposed to school-life, and socking away funds so I was better prepared to move to the next job. Certainly no dream occupation, but it did the trick.

  30. Yep…I agree that your first job out of college is about “trying it out”.

    If your folks are supportive….let them know that “you will be graduating soon and so happy that you finished & got your degree.

    If they are supportive….you may consider moving back home when you take a break and hopefully you have some money to travel in that break (a lot of kids from Europe and Australia, etc. take a year sabatical after graduating to see and experience the world).

    When you get back from your break & soul searching, let your folks know that your first job is about trying it out.

    ….hopefully from there, new pathways will open up for you to try.

    Hope this helps.

  31. I’m a writer, and I told myself for years and years that I really wanted to be a painter. (For various reasons, mostly doubt and the fact that my dad is way more invested in me as an artist than as a writer, because he can see paintings and my paintings are pretty.) Now I’m figuring out that I desperately want to be a writer, and definitely don’t want to be a teacher (plus one infinity to the comments above), and really should have gotten that master’s degree ten years ago. It’s not fun to retrace my steps, but the sooner I get started, the sooner I’ll head in the right direction.

    It’s not easy to walk away; I think the sunk cost fallacy must be deeply embedded in our reptile brains, so that we can sustain endeavors like children and gardening. But the thing is, you will never make yourself happy when you’re not. You’ll always be subtly miserable in the vocation you don’t really want, and it will color everything you do. You’re lucky; many people go ten or fifteen or twenty-five years without figuring out that they want something else.

    Like everyone else is saying, there’s nothing useless about a degree in hard sciences–you can certainly get entry-level work with that, and you might be able to find something truly interesting–the Peace Corps, for example, might need someone with exactly your skills to go work on the other wise of the world. You’ll find something interesting soon, and you’ll be much happier.

    1. “I think the sunk cost fallacy must be deeply embedded in our reptile brains, so that we can sustain endeavors like children…” I am actually laughing out loud in pain and acknowledgement of the truth of this.

    2. I think the sunk cost fallacy must be deeply embedded in our reptile brains, so that we can sustain endeavors like children and gardening.


      There is an entire essay to be written on this sentence and the relationships between reward, entitlement, investment and patience. Humans are scared to walk away from everything that we've built, so whenever I hear a story like yours, about walking away from an entire career in pursuit of your truth, I just want to clap like a trained seal in recognition of that level of bravery.

      1. Well, walked away…More like, spent about a decade arguing with people on the internet. I guess I have thus polished my writing skills? Now I am finally writing plays.

        My biggest problem is, well, see above: I have a very, very hard time walking away from the stupid office job. I kept my first job out of college for four years. And I got some stuff out of that! My resume looks pretty good for my craven fidelity. I come off as extremely loyal and dependable. But on the other hand, like Captain Awkward said: the reward for shitty work is more shitty work. And now I have a resume that would make me a kickass…high-level legal secretary, with a few more years of training, except OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD NO PLEASE NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

        Now I’m trying to become a writer who gets paid a little bit to write, but also a translator, which might be one of the lowest-paying dayjobs there is.

  32. Awww, damn, there are tears in my eyes. I’m a PhD student in molecular biology/cell signalling, playing at being Dr Evil with Lasers. I’m so goram bored in my work! I’m half way through my second of four years and I’ve no frigging clue what I want to do when I finish. Academia ain’t it, that’s for sure.

    As a teen I wanted to 1) become a politician to fix things, 2) study ancient languages and be like Tolkein, creating a whole new world (I still have several chapters of my epic to prove it!), 3) become a scientist, 4) become an artist (not taking Art A-level was my biggest regret), 5) become a sailor on proper ships – this is still by far the most tempting option, and is one I reconsider every time I panic about not knowing what I want to do with my life.
    What I’ve never wanted to do is a) teach or b) work as a nurse in the NHS. Two more fiscally undervalued roles I’ve never seen.

    Anyway, what I also wanted to say was thanks to every one who’s shared their life stories. It’s great to know it’s not set in stone!

    I also don’t have much to add, LW, other than, seriously, stick out the rest of the academic year and graduate. I know I panicked massively about it, and whether I’d get decent grades, and it turned out fine. It was horrible going through it though, so talk to your counsellor. Also, think gowns at graduation! No seriously, of course I wasn’t pretending to be in Hogwarts! 😉

    love and hugs

    1. Second year in the British system is the perfect year to build the next stage of your career. Get thee to the Leaving Academia series of courses at your university, and learn thee the ways of the Interview, and yea, the Secrets of Employability, that thou might not flail about and have to volunteer at Oxfam in order to learn The Art of the Till. And the Books of Jobs After Academia are wrought in gold and will cheer thy heart to read them. For you are not alone, and verily, my partner is waxing quite serious about starting a goat farm in Wiltshire, and I am indeed this girl:

      1. 😀 ahhh, gotta love that video. And shed a tear. Hope your project picks up soon.
        I have already mastered The Art of the Till, the Art of Photocopying, and the Art of Envelope Stuffing. That qualifies me for… more filing? A desk job? Woot. Careers service it is.

  33. Awesome advice already given, but I’d like to add a book to the list: What Should I Do With My Life? by Po Brunson: http://www.amazon.com/What-Should-Do-My-Life/dp/0345485920/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333472003&sr=1-1 “In What Should I Do with My Life? Po Bronson tells the inspirational true stories of people who have found the most meaningful answers to that great question. With humor, empathy, and insight, Bronson writes of remarkable individuals—from young to old, from those just starting out to those in a second career—who have overcome fear and confusion to find a larger truth about their lives and, in doing so, have been transformed by the experience.”

    This book really helped me. It doesn’t sit you down and give you a list of things to do so you can find your omgpurposeinlife. It just tells the stories of people that were lost and floundering in their life/careers, and how they realized what they were really supposed to do with their lives. It helped steer me away from the question of “WHAT DO I WANT TO BE” and helped me start thinking about “what do I like doing?” in the very smallest sense, not in a career sense. Things like, I like scheduling people and projects and staying on a timeline. I like organizing things. I do not like food service. etc etc. Thinking really small and not pressuring myself to figure out “BUT HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO WORKING AND MAKING MONEY” helped me a lot.

  34. First time commenter! I wanted to add my own story of how I didn’t ruin my life with a bad GPA. I went to undergrad with no kind of plan besides “go to college because that’s what you do after high school”, majored in philosophy which I enjoyed but had no idea what to with, slacked off a lot and finished with a 2.6 GPA, which I figured didn’t matter because I had no plans to attend grad school.

    Fast forward a few years and I figured out that what I’m good at AND want to do is in a field where I need a Master’s degree if I’m ever going to be able to get the kind of jobs I really want. Yay! And when I first looked into degree programs, I kept seeing 3.0 GPA requirements and it felt like hitting a giant wall of no. But then I found out that there are programs that would admit me with a lower GPA if my GRE scores were good enough, or if I took some classes as a non-degree student to be like “look, I was a slacker in undergrad but now I’m not! :D?” So it’s taking a lot longer and is probably going to cost a lot more to get my Master’s degree than it would have if I’d graduated with a better GPA, but there are still multiple ways I can achieve my goal.

    So, yeah, graduating with a lower GPA than you’d like might be a stumbling block, but it’s not a dead end. And a degree in some kind of hard science strikes me as a good thing to have under your belt no matter what you end up doing. I definitely agree with the advice to take some time off and then think about what you really want–I didn’t know what I wanted to do for years after graduating, and I just wish I’d spent those years knowing that having that uncertainty was totally okay.

  35. Hey, LW, you say:

    My grades are not brilliant and I have only been passing by accident and I am afraid that my life will be ruined because my degree grade will not be high enough – people will know I am a fake and a phoney,

    and I wonder if you are experiencing impostor syndrome? And if that’s the case, it might not help to switch focus, because that’s not your problem. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome)

    Warning, ableist title, but here’s a story about someone who went through this: http://geekfeminism.org/2012/02/02/i-was-crippled-by-impostor-syndrome-one-womans-story/

    I experience this a lot, because I am at a smart school in a smart program surrounded by smart people, but you can work through it! And yeah, yeah, therapy helps. So does having at least one friend you can have coffee with sometimes who is supportive.

  36. Posting again to leave another book recommendation: “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius. It’s more pitched at people who have already put the time in for a PhD, but I found it really helpful as far as figuring out what I did want to do since I was apparently not going to become a professor and ain’t nobody going to pay me to read Latin and Greek for funsies. And it also has some good advice on how to pitch to the job market that you’re doing stuff that is not what you ostensibly went to school for. Which is a) something that will get easier to talk about the more you do it, and b) matter less as you get further away from school.

    Also everybody here is being really amazing and I would like to go for drinks with all of you.

  37. I was the science/maths girl as a kid, liked them well enough in secondary school and then hit a third level science course and was miserable for an entire year. I only stuck out the year because my mom convinced me to, but she was supportive about my changing courses. Due to finances, I couldn’t move cities, so ended up doing a random joint English degree. Which I turned out to love beyond all reason. Now? I’m published in my field and doing my PhD on my absolute favourite subject ever, something I was always told not to expect a career in.

    Was my mom disappointed I gave up on science? Sure, but she likes seeing me happy more than she liked me being a scientist. What I think disappoints most parents is seeing their children unhappy and not knowing how to fix it, and often not even realising that they contributed to it. The Captain’s advice is awesome, and sometimes you’ll go ages before you know what you really want to do, and trying random things (like awesome English courses, in my case) can sometimes show you what you really like to do in life.

    And I know it’s scary to jump into random stuff when you don’t know what kind of future is waiting for you, but I honestly think it’s better to take a risk for happiness than a guarantee of misery. Good luck, LW, and remember, one set of average grades does not equal an end of all good things in your life, just one of those things that add up to make you who are you.

  38. Gosh, LW and commenters and Captain Awkward, you are all so great. It is such a relief to know that I’m not the only one “not using” my degree (degree in psychology, so I use the knowledge daily, but I’m a retail manager.) I’ve had a bunch of types of jobs, with varying degrees of financial success and emotional fulfillment, but always felt bad that I didn’t marry a specific job right out of college and then move up in that job a thousand times by now (I’m 27.)

    I think reading this entry + comments has really helped me shake the “you aren’t living up to your potential” that I heard so often from age ten until now. Because I’ve had interesting experiences, I have a lovely husband and good friends, my finances are okay, and I like my current job, and if I don’t in the future, well, I can go do something different. And I can’t get hung up about what other people think about my “potential”, because a) I read a lot of advice columns and I don’t think ANYONE has their shit completely together, and b) I don’t care what random other people think I should do, because I have to live with it, and they don’t.

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