How to be an old(er) undergraduate or How I learned to accept what I've been given

I’m giving a short presentation in a minute on how to choose an undergraduate chemistry research lab to a few students who are considering the research route at San Diego State University. I volunteered for the opportunity because I’m always looking for reasons to talk in front of people. I was a corporate trainer at one point and really developed a speaking style that I was proud of. Since then, I’ve done very little talking publicly and have since contracted a serious set of nerves about it. As such, I intend to beat down these nerves and address people more often.

Anyways, writing my notes for this presentation got me thinking about my past as a student and how far I’ve come as a person. I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve learned as the oldest dude in my graduating class (except that other guy).

On being an undergraduate (at 29)

Sticking on the course that I chose for myself almost 7 years ago and staying motivated to complete it has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s also been one of the best experiences I could ever hope for and one that’s absolutely altered everything about me and how I live.

One of the biggest things I’ve dealt with is the feeling of being “behind” in life. I’m one of the oldest undergraduates in my program (by about ~3-4 years) and, as such, I am constantly reminded that, in May, in terms of education, I’ll be 7 years behind most of the people I’m taking classes with. Just typing that knots my stomach up a bit. Having had the ability to choose my path at 17 when I graduated, I could be, best case scenario, 3 years post-PhD in whatever discipline I chose. I could celebrate my 30th as Dr. Cunningham making 6 figures and on the path to greatness (well, maybe). Instead, I’m going to celebrate my 30th completely exhausted with a BS in hand and, hopefully, an open spot waiting for me in a Master’s program for Computer Science (or Computational Science). Depressing when you put it like that, no?

Other considerations

Of course, this kind of comparison would be unfair. At 17, my direction in life was absolutely nil. In fact, I tried community college for one quarter, hated every second of it, and quickly decided to enter the workforce as a barista. This led to a severe (and still present) caffeine addiction combined with a solid pessimism directed towards the human race. There’s really nothing worse than being an already depressed teenager dealing with crowds of people desperate for their drug of choice. I still have bad dreams about that job. The point I’m trying to make is that I, at that point in life, was not only incapable of choosing a path for myself, I did not have the tools necessary to apply myself towards anything. I was listless and lazy and proud of it.

Additionally, I don’t know that I would have ever chosen chemistry as a discipline. I may have gone into computer science directly or biology or medicine (I did want to be a doctor but only for the parking space). I know now that I should be in chemistry, that this industry and I get along well, and that I understand it easily. Choosing the path for the rest of my life was a much easier task at 22 than it would have been at 17.

The most important thing, however, was what the 5 year delay in going to school taught me indirectly. I worked for a wireless company for almost 3 years before I decided to start taking classes again. In that 3 years I reached about 270 lbs, was completely inactive, smoked over a pack a day, was at a high point of anger and depression, and hated almost every second of my life. Looking back, I am very grateful for being able to experience what it is like to work for a good(-ish) company with good pay and good benefits doing something a computer program could do for 40 hours a week. I felt like a nothing and a nobody for 8 hours a day for several years and it taught me that I would never again accept that kind of position in life.

Without this working period, I would never have met the important people that I did, learned incredibly important life lessons, and built the confidence and ability that I have today. I would have entered with world with a PhD (maybe), some incredible experiences, but, quite possibly, very little respect for what else is out there.

There is no “behind”

The idea that someone can be behind in life is something that I’ve wanted to come completely to terms with but have a long way to go. I’m able to dismiss it slightly by realizing that this is primarily an American construct. Thinking that there is a goal to life or being worried about what you’ve accumulated or how much education you have or how far along you are (or are not) with your mortgage is something that we’re indirectly trained to believe in this country. People make job decisions based solely on how much they’re making with no consideration to what they are doing or who they might be harming… but I digress.

I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have a degree (yet), I don’t have a family of my own, I don’t have a wife, I don’t have any of that. As such, at 29, I am, in an American scale, behind… quite behind, actually.

I also don’t have a divorce, I don’t have a degree I’m not using, I don’t have credit card debt, I didn’t lose a lot of money when the economy crashed, I’m not drowning in student loans, I’m not upside-down on a car.

What do I have now? I have an amazing woman in my life (that, ironically, I met when I went to community college. Had I accepted my position to the UW when it was granted, we might have actually had a class together but never met when we did), I have close, close friends in several different states, I have a network of professors I can contact and learn from, I have a great GPA, I have 2 jobs, both of which are fairly stable, I am humble and respectful and can appreciate anyone’s lot in life, and I’m grateful for all of that.

Am I behind? Yup. Am I ahead? Yup. Is anyone keeping score? Only me if I decide to.

Thinking about going back to school in your 20s? 30s? 40s?

The easy answer would be “yes, do it! Do it for you and me and them! Go back! Always” but I’m not going to say that because I’ve also learned that college just isn’t for anyone. Here’s what I think:

  • If you go back, do it for something that excites you. I would have never stuck with this degree if I didn’t like the subject. As you get older, your time, especially your time off, becomes increasingly valuable. If you’re going to classes that aren’t interesting, skipping time with your family and friends to study, and generally “losing life” (that’s what it feels like sometimes) to your degree, the least you can do is study something that you find interesting.
  • Don’t go back without calculating the opportunity cost along with the actual cost. Here’s how…
    • Calculate the amount that the schooling will actually cost (tuition, books, supplies).
    • Calculate how much you’ll be making while in school (if anything) and multiply it by the time you’ll be in school (so if you can make $15,000/year in a part-time job and the school takes, say, 4 years, you’ll make $60,000 total during that time).
    • Now calculate how much you would be making if you WEREN’T in school (if you could make $40,000 per year average for those 4 years then you’re at $160,000 for four years).
    • Take what you will make during that time away from what you would make and add that to the actual cost to get your absolute cost ($160,000 – $60,000 + $20,000 = $120,000)
    • Now figure out how much you’re gaining after you get the degree (it’s been found that college graduates make about $20K more per year than those without… so it will take you 6 years to make that $120K back).
  • Nothing can make you feel older than hanging out with people 10 years younger than you are. Still, you have the advantage. You want this degree ten times more than most of the people around you. You’re also more likely to get more sleep, take better care of yourself, try harder, and do better. Attend a few study groups, gab about teenage drama, tell them about your wife or kids or mortgage… get in there and get the experience. I’ve learned a lot about myself through the young’uns I go to class with.

Update: 11/5/2014

I get feedback from people who read this post a few times a year and I thought I’d give a little update to folks that have read this and feel like they’re in a similar situation. Also, don’t be afraid to tell me your story in the comments below; it’s much easier to suffer in like-minded company than it is to suffer alone.

  • I never did get that Computer Science masters. I think about it on a fairly regular basis and I would probably go back if I suddenly became independently wealthy. But that path never really took hold of me. Before I graduated, I started building websites, left my lab job, and started down the web path. I’m now writing software freelance for clients and myself and truly enjoying it. I’d love to be able to extract some lesson from the path from this post to where I am now but it was mostly serendipitous. What I will say, though, is that programming and designing and writing really told hold of me, rather than the other way around. I was ready to take the next step with my chemistry education but writing code, solving problems, and making things fit me a lot better.
  • I’m now married to the same woman I talked about above and we have a delightful, adorable little daughter. She had a similar meandering path (less so than I) but what took hold of her was nursing. We have a house in Seattle near family and friends and are living a life we created, for the most part. We still have inklings in one direction or another – I think my wife would rather flip houses and blog about cooking while I can’t get the idea of starting a bottle shop/tap room out of my head – but we don’t feel boxed in. We kept choosing as wisely as we could, worked hard in whatever path we chose, and the outcome is our own.
  • I do, however, now have a degree I don’t use.
  • RE: going back to school … when my class graduated, the economy was starting to tank again and I knew several talented, well-paid chemists who were unceremoniously laid off and had a tough time finding another position right away. The students around me were nervously watching this happen and most of them defaulted to pursuing a graduate degree. In chemistry, like many other disciplines, you start working on a very (VERY) specific problem when you start towards a masters or PhD. You could work on the same thing for 5 years, meaning that you become an expert in something you had to choose when you still didn’t know everything that was out there. This is a relatively terrifying situation, in my mind. You could end up defaulting to a specialty that you have no passion for and have to survive a half-decade getting better and better at it, all the while wondering if there is something else out there for you. Hence, I still believe you need to be very intentional about school, partly because it’s expensive but mostly because it’s a long, hard road and it’s not worth it to lose that time. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting but unless you’re REALLY PSYCHED to start a program, don’t start it. IMHO.
  • I’m currently going through a very stressful situation with my family. While I’ve been helping someone through a really hard time, I’ve been forced to reflect on my upbringing. While I had it much better than a lot of people I know, I’ve also had to overcome more nature and nurture issues than I’ve ever realized. You might have all the trappings of someone who should have success – the right schools, the right support, the right socioeconomic advantages – and still have trouble reaching your “potential” (whatever that means). In my life, part of this comes from this concept of being behind: the people around you who seem to have achieved more are a great way to feel terrible about yourself but a terrible way to motivate yourself to do better. But another important component is how you view the things inside of you – lack of motivation, depression, anxiety, lack of focus – that hold you back. You can see these hindrances as an excuse to not act now or you can use them to make small victories seem much larger and more valuable. If you have a hard time concentrating on menial tasks and a negative internal voice, seeing your goal of, say, opening a restaurant will appear to be impossible and you’ll easily talk yourself out of the entire task. If, instead, you realize that opening a restaurant is a series of 1,000 small steps and you can keep finding the next little step, you’re likely to see the path not as an insurmountable wall but just a long staircase. This kind of thinking has helped me a lot.

“Do not fear going forward slowly; fear only to stand still.” – Chinese Proverb

Read More

Personal Development