My 2012 did not go According To Plan. In fact, it is fair to say that if 2012 looked at The Plan I had written for it, it was only to sneer at my words and contemptuously toss the sheet of paper into the bin.
I applied to graduate programs…then I didn’t get accepted into a single one.
I *did* have a back-up plan up my sleeve…but it wasn’t the one I thought I had.
I came back from abroad…and found a city in my native country that was more exotic, exciting and alluring than the foreign one I’d left.
I bombed an interview that should have been straightforward…then kicked ass at a series of visits I never thought I could pull off.
At the start of 2012 I must have thought that my PhD applications were water-tight. I had chalked up a lot of research experience and completed my undergraduate degree at one of the best universities in the UK. I knew the career path I wanted to pursue and clearly saw a PhD as the way to get what I wanted. In late 2011 I had formalised my decision to apply to some of the best universities the US (and ergo, the world) had to offer. All I had to do in early 2012 was wait for the offers of acceptance: I told my friends and colleagues that of course I didn’t expect all of my choices to make me an offer.
The rejection letters trickled back. Some were swift to reach me, others strung me along on a bitter chain of hope for several unhappy months. My research experience wasn’t enough. My academic background wasn’t enough. Me – the scientist – was not enough.
That was a shock to the system.
When I eventually realised I’d got nothing but rejections from the USA, my first instinct was to push on with Europe and get something sorted for Autumn 2012. It wasn’t long before I realised I was being held back for the same reasons I got rejected from the US schools: as a person I wasn’t well-known, my scientific credentials did not stand out. I refused to admit defeat and so kept pushing.
In May got invited at an interview at one of the top continental European universities. It would be a half day spent meeting the prospective supervisor and his research group then giving them a scientific presentation. I bought a new suit (costing ~ 200€) and drew up a PowerPoint.
I knew things were going badly when – barely 2 minutes after stepping into his office – the professor wasn’t making eye contact as he spoke to me. As told me that I was the last of 6 candidates interviewed, a warning light flashed: “He’s already made his mind up.”
There must have been an inflection in his tone. It’s not something you want to pick up on with 4 hours of “interview” remaining. I can’t begrudge the professor. On my part I failed to adequately prep for the presentation (I presented reactions where I was unable to explain the mechanism, and got caught out) and silently sat through a lot of group members talking about their work that day instead of asking them questions.
Despite suspecting the worst, his swift rejection email was painful and upsetting; it was fair to say that I was a mess for several days afterwards. Re-reading my diary account of the interview and fall-out many months later and I still feel the raw, hot emotions radiating off the paper. The email arrived late in the day, just before a major public holiday weekend. I kept myself together just long enough to finish up my laboratory work, then started to fracture as I informed my supervisor about the message. I remember rushing home as hastily as I could, to try and stop myself breaking down into pieces in the middle of Kleinbasel.
I knew the most important point of 2012 had been reached, because there was only one thing going through my mind as I hurried back to my room. There were no unanswerable questions – no ‘Why Me’ or ‘What Shall I Do’ – only a statement firing around my head again and again.
…This has *got* to stop.
The sensation of being broken by that rejection forced me to stop applying for 2012 admission to graduate programs. The stress and pressure had turned me into a person I did not want to be. I could see for myself that strict adherence to The Plan had caused a lot of damage. I felt so much happier once I lifted an impossible expectation from myself, it was incredible.
By the time I was over in the USA for my summer holidays I was meeting some Very Big Names in my field…and was asking a helluva lot of questions. I had to start from the expectation that I was nothing special in their eyes and work hard to convince them of the opposite. If I hadn’t suffered those rejections in early 2012 I don’t think I would be the inquisitive scientist I am come 2013. I wouldn’t have the burning motivation to do well that I have now. The complacency has mostly been shaken off, I’m very grateful for that.
It would have been convenient if things had gone according to The Plan: but that’s all. I’ve learnt that convenience does not necessarily make The Plan a good one. Maybe if I had rushed into a PhD program this year I would have made a miserable choice and had to quit 3 years in. What looks like the shortest, simplest route from my current perspective may be deceptive.
Perhaps 2013 will bring more system shocks and f*ck-ups. Maybe it will bring some easy successes. A mixture of both would be best for me though, I think.