Back in 2011, I was hitting a stride. I had recently graduated as a chemical engineer. I completed an internship with General Electric over the summer. Next, I was College Station, TX enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Texas A&M. Everything was falling into place and I was holding on for the ride. What I didn’t know is that the car was old, the engine was bad and the driver (ME) wasn’t making good decisions at the wheel!
In college, I loved research. I love that I was contributing to a world that was full of people that I admired. I loved figuring out what results meant, applying them and even presenting the findings was enjoyable. That’s why I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to one day lead my research and decide what I wanted to work on. That was my expectation going into graduate school. Research, research, research.
As soon as I saw my first-year workload, I got worried. The only thing on the list was classes. Super hard, super intense…classes. That’s not at all what I was expecting but this was an opportunity for me to buckle down, focus and push through to get to the goal I wanted. I did NONE of that. I buckled down on my Netflix subscription, half-heartedly completed assignments, bombed exams and by the end was barely attending classes.
So, guess what happened. That’s right, I got kicked out of the program. But, let me set the stage for what that meant to me. I was an immigrant and my core family lived in Jamaica. I had no family in Texas (that I knew at least). Graduate school was also my livelihood. I was able to pay rent and eat food because I got a stipend while in my program. My parents, family, and friends all thought things were going wonderfully for me. So, I realized that I was in deep, deep, sh…trouble.
My initial reaction was copious amounts of TV and movies, that and sleep. I was immobilized. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. Worse yet, I didn’t want to. That winter, I went home to visit my parents and I don’t think I told them what was going on, even though they could tell that something was off. To be honest, much of that time where I was trying to digest what was happening is a bit of a blur.
After a few weeks of indecision, I jumped online and started applying to as many jobs as I could find. I got in touch with a couple of recruiters and even managed to get a few phone interviews but nothing was panning out. On top of all of that, money was running out. My savings kept dipping further and further down. That’s actually when things started to turn around for me.
I needed to make a living and I wasn’t going to find a job and start working in a month. So, I started applying to whatever job I could find. At one point I was holding down 3 jobs. I stocked shelves at Michaels, I was an associate in the computer section at Best Buy and I was a server at Olive Garden. I made the most money at Olive Garden but my favorite place to work was Best Buy. Getting out of the apartment, living and being able to pay my bills help to change my perspective.
I decided that online applications were not going to help me since most of the entry-level jobs were probably going to be filled by the previous year’s interns. So, I attended career fairs since they would likely show up with jobs to offer. The first one I attended wasn’t very productive. The next one was difficult to make happen. I had to fly to Pittsburg. I had to crash with some friends because, not much money. On top of that, I couldn’t get time off work so I went thinking that I would have one less job when I got back.
In the end, it all worked out and that’s how I got my first job.
What I Learned
It’s become a cliche now to talk about embracing your failure, but I honestly don’t know if I’d be where I am if I hadn’t failed so spectacularly and so early. As I mentioned, I was not a focused or diligent graduate student. That was the same mentality I had all through the last half of my undergraduate studies and it worked out there. If things had worked out in graduate school I’d likely have had the same attitude through the rest of my life. Not to mention, having to work 3 jobs helped to shape the same work ethic that I have today. Perhaps most importantly, it also helped to open me up to be more empathetic to where everyone is on their journey.
Saying No to a Good Thing
One of the best lessons I learned from the whole ordeal is one that I still find difficult to implement today. Graduate school wasn’t the right choice for me at that moment and I knew it. However, I had the opportunity to do it and so I said yes. That will always be a tough decision for me. Now, however, I try to take the time to think about what my goals and values are and if the opportunities that I’m being offered support those goals and values.
Patience and Consistency
This was an overwhelming time in my life where I didn’t feel like I had my feet underneath me. I felt extremely uncertain and anxious. However, I did also learn the value of just doing the work. Whether that was applying to jobs, talking to recruiters or taking the bus to work every day. There aren’t any shortcuts and progress won’t happen overnight just because you want it to. There is a lot of waiting for something to click and then being ready to take advantage of it when it does. This time in my life is what helped cement consistency as one of my core values.
To be honest, I was a bit intimidated to share this story about how I failed so spectacularly at graduate school. But, then I realized that it’s a little selfish and doesn’t help anyone to feel that way. We have all failed. We have all gained knowledge and experience from those failures. If sharing them can help someone else avoid similar situations or learn to be better prepared, then they were more than worth it. Failures have been a fantastic teacher for me and they can be for all of us if we let them.