As children, we all probably encountered the question:
What do you want to be when you grow up?
As adults, many of us have encountered adult versions of that question:
Where do you want to work?
What’s your dream job?
Where do you want to settle down?
What do you want to do with your life?
The problem with those questions is that they assume some kind of finite end, as if there is only one place we want to work, or one dream job, or one place we want to settle down, or one thing we want to do with our lives. That’s not a surprising assumption if you grew up in the United States (or any country with compulsory education), where your childhood follows a fairly linear trajectory. For thirteen years or so, you go to school and are expected to move from one grade level to the next. But once we finish high school, our roads diverge—we are no longer inching along the same path towards graduation. And for those of us who manage to finish college, that seemingly linear path disappears once we realize that getting a Bachelor’s degree does not guarantee a corresponding career.
In academia, the underlying assumption of a Ph.D. is that it puts you back on a linear trajectory. You finish this terminal degree as an expert in your field so that you may continue moving up the academic ladder in your career. You want to work in a prestigious university, your dream job is to be a tenured professor, you want to settle down in a college town, and you want to do research and teach for the rest of your life.
But what if you don’t want that one path?
I spent my twenties trying to reconcile with the fact that my life is not linear, that there isn’t a logical “next step” to take after each job. If anything, spending most of my twenties abroad taught me to be adaptable and resourceful in a way that I had never imagined for myself. Likewise, being a qualitative researcher as a doctoral student has taught me to be resourceful and adapt my research methods to my research questions. Yet believing that life isn’t linear, that there isn’t only “one way” to do things, has instilled in me another kind of fear—FOBO—fear of better options.
It’s been hard for me to admit that the biggest struggle I’ve had while doing this Ph.D. is not the actual work itself, but rather the fear that I’ve missed a better option by choosing this path. By committing myself to a Ph.D. program in a city where I didn’t know anyone, I couldn’t help but wonder if staying in the Bay Area—where most of my networks were—would have been a better choice for me professionally. More importantly, the cult of academia had been convincing me that there was only one path to take after completing my Ph.D., which was not the path I wanted to take.
It was only last winter that my FOBO started to dissipate. I was back in San Francisco, catching up with a friend over dinner, telling her about my research, when I finally admitted to her that I was not happy about my Ph.D. decision because I had no clue what I wanted to do afterwards. That’s when she suggested that I look into UX Research.
Me: “UX Research?”
Her: “Yeah. User Experience Research.”
Me: “What is that?”
After she explained what it was, it dawned on me that perhaps this is why the Ph.D. path was right for me. You see, when I left my teaching job in Hong Kong, I only had a vague sense of what research looked like. My Master’s degree had equipped me with some basic knowledge of research design, but I really hadn’t delved into research methodologies. These last three years of immersing myself in research as a Ph.D. student has deepened my knowledge of not only my field, but also quantitative and qualitative research methods. And after reading more about UX research, and talking to Ph.D.’s working in the field, I’m pretty confident that the skills I’ve developed in my Ph.D. work will help me pivot into a career in UX research.
Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” has often been interpreted in two ways. One is a hackneyed interpretation of the poem: a triumphant assertion that choosing the path less traveled was the right choice. The other, perhaps lesser known interpretation, is that it doesn’t matter which road is taken, for it’s all the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Part of me has been trying to justify my Ph.D. decision by convincing myself that it is leading me to a better path. For me, that has been my coping mechanism whenever I question my decisions and wonder, “what if.” But in the end, it doesn’t really matter—not because of some deterministic belief that every decision leads to the same end, but because I will never know what would have happened had I taken a different path. The only thing that matters is that because of that conversation with my friend, I now have a concrete idea of my next career move. Even if I don’t end up becoming a UX Researcher, at least I now know that there isn’t one path I must take after my Ph.D. journey ends. And that has made all the difference for me.