Give Yourself Permission To Believe That You Can Accomplish Whatever You Put Your Mind To
Career Story Blog Post By Elaine Hill, PhD, Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences and Health Economist at University of Rochester
I am not particularly inclined to follow “the rules”. What do I mean by that? Well, for one, I don’t think that conventional wisdom about what I can and can’t do applies to me. And, I believe that goes for you, too. I also believe that only I can define myself as a scientist. In order for any career that you choose to be your own and to be intrinsically self-satisfying, you must define your identity. This means taking a step back and having a vision to guide your path as a scientist.
When I was a high school student at Brighton High School, here in Rochester, I was required to take economics my senior year. I took a full year accelerated class, even though we were only required to take a half-year class (in fact I could have tested out), and was enamored with economics immediately thanks to an amazing teacher, Mr. Noto. I didn’t yet have a clear vision of my career path, but I immediately knew that economics was going to be a major part of it.
After two weeks of class at Oberlin College in Econ 101, I approached my professor and asked what I had to do to get a PhD in economics. He said, “Be a math major.” So, I did. Being an econ major was straightforward and I excelled. Being a math major was “character building”: it was challenging, harrowing and virtually impossible for me to get decent grades despite going to office hours every day of the week (thank goodness for Professor Bosch!). But, I had decided that my career path involved a PhD in economics and that required the math. This is not one of the rules that I decided didn’t apply to me, and I’m very grateful I followed my professor’s advice.
After college, I joined Mathematica Policy Research (not that Mathematica) as a research assistant/programmer in Princeton, NJ. After a few years, I felt ready to consider PhD programs. Instead of just assuming that my “dream job” required a PhD, I did about 6 months of soul-searching—I searched the job boards and the interwebs to learn about careers that were likely to be dream jobs in my future. My reasoning was that if I found a dream job that didn’t require a PhD, then I would apply for it straight away. Why wait when I could start a dream job now?
Pretty much everything I came across required a PhD. So I applied to PhD programs around the country, but fell in love with the program at Cornell University. Cornell seemed to be the hub of people doing the type of work I dreamed about doing. Every program I applied to rejected me. I knew they just had it wrong, especially Cornell. They clearly just didn’t get the memo that I was supposed to be a student there, I thought.
Call me bold. Call me gutsy. I quit my job. Yes, you read that right. And I moved to Ithaca, NY with enough money to pay for rent through the fall semester. I paid for the first year PhD core course in Microeconomic Theory and enrolled as a non-matriculated student. I learned from other students that every one of the matriculated students from my department had a Master’s degree (which of course I don’t have); one of many “rules” that clearly do not apply to me.
I knew that I had skills that were marketable. And so I started meeting professors, a few every week. And eventually I was hired as a research support specialist that was a temporary staff position (and got a few other hourly jobs). This meant that I could take the second semester for free as a staff member and pay rent. I applied again and got in!
A statement I said to myself throughout this very uncertain time was the following, “I give myself permission to believe that I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to [1st year PhD Econ class; now grant writing, teaching, publishing], the evidence will follow.” I had no evidence that I would excel in a PhD program, but I gave myself permission to believe wholeheartedly in myself. I don’t waste a single second on undermining my confidence. There is enough in this life that makes me question my purpose, my intelligence, my perseverance; I definitely don’t need to pile it on myself! You might try this sort of statement yourself when you’re dealing with imposter syndrome or any large looming something that you are hoping you can achieve. It certainly came in handy recently with my NIH Director’s Early Independence Award application!
I don’t mean to suggest that you should be subversive and ignore conventional wisdom in all/most cases. I think that gaining a mentor’s perspective is very helpful and most of the time can lead you in the right direction. But I do mean to suggest that you must decide what kind of scientist you want to be and make sure you are not constrained by what people say about the “right” path that you have to take to get where you want to go.
I went into my PhD program at Cornell expecting to want to leave to return to a consultant firm like Mathematica Policy Research. Instead, I fell in love with the academic version of research. I know we are cultivated in graduate school for this type of career path; it took me almost until the end to realize that it was the academic path that I wanted. Surprisingly, I found it natural to disseminate my research at conferences, work on papers as the lead (solo) author, guide my own research agenda in my dissertation and get small grants to fund my research.
During the job market of my last year of school, I faced another juncture that required me to again define my career path as a scientist. Joining the Medical School means facing a new challenge as a young scientist. You see, if I had joined an econ department or a think tank employing economists, I would be on a clear path of research in economics. Instead, I am also working with clinicians, health services researchers, and epidemiologists. My work will be published in journals outside of economics, as well. I love working across disciplines and fields, so this is a natural fit for me. As I was choosing my job out of graduate school (I was blessed to have more than a few offers), I knew that if I took the job in the Medical School I would be doing the research that I want to do, but that I might not look like an economist in six years. If I took another position, it was clear I would be an economist in six years, but definitely not doing the research I envisioned for myself.
I decided to be bold and take the job in the Medical School. It seemed less gutsy than quitting my job and moving to Ithaca, after all. Here, I must define myself as a scientist every day. I must educate other scientists about who I am and what kind of research I do. This means having a clear vision for my work, my life outside of work and my science. I am told all the time that being an economist in a medical school means that I will never be respected in an economics department. I hear some version of this all the time with young scientists. If you go into industry after your PhD, you will never get back to Academia. Or vice versa. I think this conventional wisdom about career paths is reinforced by the fact that most people don’t even try to change career paths and seem to believe this as one of “the rules” that must be followed. I know numerous scientists and economists who have seamlessly moved from government to industry to think tanks back to academia. I think it’s important to give yourself permission to follow your path and know that if you want to make a change—you can. It’s too early to tell how this will actually unfold for my own career, but I choose to believe that I can define my career according to my own vision.
I give myself permission to believe that I can follow my path as a scientist. I give myself permission to believe in myself and my vision for my career. I give myself permission to believe that if I want to follow an unconventional path, I will succeed. I know the evidence will follow, it always does. I give myself permission to believe that most of these rules just don’t apply to me or at least they don’t have to.