Overcoming the Fear of “Wasting”

I’ve had this experience several times now. During the course of a conversation with someone who knows that I work at a yarn and fabric shop, they learn that I have a PhD from Yale in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. I get this dumbfounded look, like something just doesn’t jive.

They can’t figure out how I got from there to here.

I spent a lot of years in graduate school. Six to be precise, since I was definitely counting. I had always wanted a PhD in some kind of biological science. It was the only goal I had as far as careers went. Never mind that having a PhD does not a career make.

The thing was — that PhD was my plan, and I didn’t want to fail at it.

Those six years were long. Very very very long. I had always loved school, but working in a lab turned out not to be for me. But I stuck it out. And I graduated. The paper that says so is tucked away in the back of some closet or shelf somewhere.

I even managed to find a job that required that PhD, but didn’t require me to work in a lab. I was overjoyed! But after nearly ten years and several jobs on this career path, I was feeling…what? Burned out? Maybe so.

I started thinking about doing something else.

Something that didn’t require that PhD. And I had a hard time with that. After all those long years of school (that I hated oh so much) and the years I had spent building the career that I had, could I just drop it and go some other way?

It just didn’t seem right.

My whole life everyone I knew wanted a good secure job that they could do until they retired. No one — no stable, intelligent, sensible, well-adjusted person — would “waste” an education. These thoughts of what I had heard my entire life, what I knew to be the way that reasonable people acted, made me feel guilty about even considering doing something else with my life. And that just wasn’t right either.

I finally came to the realization that everything I’ve done up to this point in my life — everything, including all those years I spent on that PhD — has made me the person that I am. (Call it character building if you like, but it’s true.) Everything that I have done and experienced up until now has provided me with a more concrete awareness of who I am. And I’m happy with my life and the person that I am (for the most part — I’m still a work in progress!).

It’s like that old saying about not throwing good money after bad.

That might be a little bit harsh, but I think it makes the point. Just because I spent all that time getting a PhD doesn’t mean that I *have* to do something that requires that PhD, if doing so doesn’t make me happy. And that’s pretty much the bottom line.

It’s about moving forward.

I don’t know what the future holds at the moment. I might find myself back in another science job that requires my PhD. And if I do, you better believe it will be because I think it will make me happy, not because I feel like I’m “wasting” my PhD otherwise.

Don’t give in to what society tells you should be doing with your life. It’s really all about you.

Be happy!

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17 comments to Overcoming the Fear of “Wasting”

  • You are quite right. I use my PhD daily (I am a professor), and I love what I do. But if I didn’t, it would not be worth it to continue in a job that demands many more hours than the clock allows, not to mention years of schooling for a starting salary that was less than my chronological age (in 1000s). Life is too short to persevere in something that has no personal reward. And I have no doubt that your research training developed your critical thinking skills – which is infinitely generalizable to other areas in life. Education is never wasted – and university is so much more than just job training.

  • We are the sum of the choices we make.

    I remember the moment I defended my Master’s thesis and my boyfriend was there. I looked at him and said, “What now? Get married and have kids? What was the point of school?” He laughed and said no, that I was going to put myself to work and make my life. And 10 years later I quit my “real job” to be home with my kids, write, and live a new life. And not a thing was wasted. (Even that boyfriend, not my husband.)

  • You don’t want to waste your life just to avoid wasting your degree. I think the degree has intrinsic value, and just having it is enough.

  • I have a “wasted” master’s degree, but it really wasn’t wasted. I enjoyed getting the degree and learned a lot and it took me through part of my life. Good post!

  • You are awesome, Amy! What a lovely post.

  • Very well said. I don’t have a PHD but I did spend my time getting an art degree with a minor in child dev. I get to use both today and I love it. I would like to go back and get my PHD when my kiddies are older. I hated high school but enjoyed University and I think a large part of that and life is finding who you are suppose to become.

    As long as you are on happy path or evolving to be better, then I don’t think you can go wrong.

  • Bridget

    Thanks for this post it helps me clarify a lot of issues I’ve felt myself. I graduated with a degree in chemistry four and a half years ago, since then I’ve had 4 different jobs none of which have directly “used” my degree. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life and it’s quite possible I never will. I find it difficult at times not having a direction and career path to follow but these things are quite rare these days and every choice I make makes me who I am. I’ll always have a deep love and interest in science but that doesn’t I should let it limit and restrict the choices I make in my life.

  • What a great post. I’m in my fourth year of a PhD program and I struggle with staying the course a lot. I think I have a year before I’ll finish, but I’m starting to be at peace with the fact that I’ll probably take a job that doesn’t require my degree and I’m okay with that. I agree with you that it’s about what makes you happy. A friend once asked me a really great question that clarified so much for me, that I think might also resonate with you: “Are you doing that because you want to, or because your path is leading you there?”

  • Thank you for the post. It’s very inspiring (I also am very well schooled and yet feel pulled toward different areas and then feel guilty about it) and just what the doctor ordered today.

    have a good one.

  • Andrea

    It took several years and a lot of hard work to get my MBA. As soon as I graduated, my husband and I found out that we were pregnant. 11 years later, I’ve never used my degree. But I have the best job in the world…being a mom. I am so blessed and fortunate to be an at home mom. Even if I’ve never used the degree, I know that I set a goal and achieved it and no one can take that accomplishment away from me. Do what makes you happy!

  • I have this argument in my head all the time – I went to school for a PhD (but decided to leave early and get a Masters instead) and have a job that uses my education that I don’t enjoy. Every time I think about branching out and trying to make it in a field that in no way uses my degrees, I feel like I’m ‘wasting’ all those years of schooling and hard work. What Shasta said is right – you don’t want to waste your life just to avoid wasting your degree! Thanks for an inspiring post!

  • great post! and so true: it´s important what you want not where your path seems to lead you.
    kudos to your braveness!

  • such a great post, with a message that applies to so many people. i know few who are currently “using” their degree, but you’re right- it made them who they are today. i am one of those people.

  • I can relate to your point here! I was one of those people who got a job out of college as you were supposed to do. I pursued a career vigorously, in a field I thought I was supposed to be in. Then one day, I realized I had become disgruntled, angry with myself and unhappy. I just quit and decided to pursue something that was more “me”. Thank goodness! I hope you find the path you want to be on too!

  • M.R.

    You must be older than I thought you were! 🙂

    I am always so impressed with how talented you are at design and how productively you use those talents in the execution of those designs. What bravery it must have taken to leave the well trodden path and follow your heart.

  • maget

    The timing of this set of musings couldn’t be more helpful. I’ve been contemplating diving in for another 4years for my PhD in wildlife biology, but I’ve been feeling rather torn about the entire process. Mostly I’ve been thinking along the lines of “how will the PhD help my job prospects?”. Probably, honestly, not much. But the reminder to do what I love is apt. I LOVE doing research. It’s all about the process. Thanks for the inspiration!

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