The Unexpected: Choosing a Career and the Great Grad School Debate

We just wrapped up our second-to-last week as Summer Sea Scholars, culminating in the final science symposium. We’ve been preparing for both our final presentations and our posters for most of the summer, but I felt like I had been preparing for most of my life. Let me explain.
Most of my summer I’ve debating the question, “To go to grad school now or to not go to grad school now?” But more importantly, “What do I want to do with my life? What do I see myself becoming?” I thought that I should figure that out before applying to (most likely very expensive) graduate school. After all, isn’t grad school supposed to prepare you for what you want to be? How could I enroll in something that prepares me for an unknown end goal?
I’ve talked to quite a few people over the years about the pros and cons of taking a “gap year” between undergrad and graduate. A few moments of advice stand out:


I was sitting in one of my professors’ office my freshmen year, trying to debate if I should continue on with Political Science, or have more of a Biology focus, when he asked me a simple question, “What makes you the happiest?” I didn’t hesitate, “I really love when there is something that I love, or think is fascinating, and then I tell someone else about it, and then they think that it’s really fascinating too.” “You know there’s a name for that?” “Really, what?” He paused, and then said, “Teaching”. In that one simple statement, my world was shaken. I knew what I wanted to do without ever realizing it. But teaching could come in a variety of careers, even if that isn’t the specific focus. And what would I teach? And that still didn’t tell me if I should go to graduate school, in what field, or when…
When I told my advisor that I wanted to be a professor, he responded, “Well, you certainly have the brains for it.” This amazed me; he had only witnessed a semester’s worth of my research capabilities, and he whole-heartedly believed that I could have a career in research and teaching others to do the same. Later he cautioned me when looking at my 4-year undergrad plan, worried that I may experience “burn-out” if I went straight to grad school. He had seen quite a few people that simply got bogged down with the research after being in school for so long, and they never finished. He doesn’t want the same for me.


And so that brought me to this summer, where I tried to picture myself in the future. While there were quite a few positions where I think I would be happy, I truly believe that I’ll be the happiest as a professor. But it was still hard to truly know that I would love that position without actually being immersed in the workload. Spending my time looking through GRE vocab cards and taking practice exams, I want to make sure that my time is well spent, especially since I’m making the decision to steer my life in this direction – not just studying for the GRE, but applying to graduate school and scholarships, attending 5-7+ more years of school … a huge time commitment that could be spent doing so many different things. I needed a sign to make sure that this was really what I wanted to spend my life doing.
Fast forward to this past week, where I spent most of my time preparing my speech – writing, practicing, cutting, and repeating, until I got to one final polished piece that I was immensely proud of – it was clear, concise, and discussed all of the most important information of my summer research. Nonetheless, I was really still nervous before I presented. When Haley was introducing me, I checked my pulse – incredibly fast and completely erratic. A few more advice-givers came to mind, “Think of it as a conversation,” one of my best friends told me once, “You are just telling the audience a story, so act like you’re just telling me something that you find fascinating;” This, along with Collin’s advice to play a cool catchy song before presenting, helped me to stroll to the front of the room with “Sunglasses at Night” strumming in my head. Timing out my presentation also helped, as I was able to check my watch, to watch my pace. I also reminded myself to breathe – this helped with pauses.
So that’s what I did, I talked like I was having a conversation with a group of people. It honestly surprised me how engaged they were – the questions that were asked were spot-on bits of information that I pulled from my presentation for time-sake – it was like I planted them in the audience! But it demonstrated just how much they were listening, like in a (good) conversation. The poster fair was no different, with more people introducing themselves and asking me more of what I wished I had been able to cover in my presentation, and I was immensely grateful to be able to continue the discussion.
I was surprised on multiple fronts – I was surprised at how interested everyone in the audience was in my topic. I was surprised at how I was able to convey the information that I wanted, and engage them in a way that they could follow (I typically speak at a million miles an hour, jump around, and lose everyone). I was surprised by how much I thoroughly enjoyed answering questions that I knew about from my research, and I was the most surprised/fulfilled when someone asked me questions about my research that I hadn’t considered. Their fresh perspectives helped me to be more curious about new and different aspects of my projects. Wow.

But, above all, I got my sign. This short afternoon experience offered me the insight that I was hoping for. If the life of a professor is spent researching, [also in meetings and more meetings], engaging others, and constantly being inspired to new research, then I am incredibly excited for my life to come (and for moments like these that I’m sure I will continue to experience throughout my life – the great thing about learning is that it happens everywhere).
Current plan? Apply to grad school, with my experience in hand, my end-goal in sight, and the passion in my heart, leading me and fulfilling me as I engage with my colleagues and fellow students everyday. Thanks so much to all of those in Oregon Sea Grant who selected me to take part in this amazing opportunity, allowing me insight into my career, and setting me on this path towards my exciting future.

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3 thoughts on “The Unexpected: Choosing a Career and the Great Grad School Debate

  1. Wow! That’s such a cool summary of the experience. And I’m thrilled that you got your answer! Best of luck, and please let me know if I can do anything to help.

  2. Great post, Lexi. I loved reading about your decision-making process. Graduate school is certainly a big decision, and one it sounds like you are vetting thoroughly. I am glad you found that preparing for your presentation, as well as taking a few tips and tricks paid off. You were great!

  3. I echo everything that Mary and Sarah said! That was such an inspiring post to go through your process of self reflection, and for it to have such a concrete conclusion was incredibly satisfying! You will make an amazing researcher/professor because you are personable, intelligent and overall great at explaining your research to a general audience, as seen in the final symposium. I’m stoked to see where you choose to pursue grad school! Keep me updated :)

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