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Tl;dr:

I have serious issues with self-confidence and indecision that have already negatively affected my academic career and that persist despite significant improvement. What strategies can I use to prevent these issues from impairing my decision-making when applying to grad school?

Background

I graduated last year from a top-tier college with a major in physics. Speaking only about performance in my classes, I was probably somewhere near the top of my class, and I had a lot of advanced math/physics coursework with a 3.9 (cumulative and in-major). Unfortunately, "great at coursework" might be the only thing I have going for me. I took 5 years to graduate, due in roughly equal parts to a Junior year change of major and burnout.

More seriously, the sum total of work I did in my five years and four summers was a single summer job in my school's administrative department. I think this would look very strange to outside observers, since my school is known undergraduate participation in research. It's difficult to understand how I could think this way saying out loud, but: I had a really paranoid expectation that, not only would no one be interested in taking me on as a student, but that they would chew me out for even bringing up the subject, and confirm my suspicions that I wasn't smart/diligent/disciplined enough to succeed at research. I am also a pretty disorganized person (and I could be pretty lazy as an undergraduate), so the mere thought of this possibility was frightening enough for me not to even try to formulate summer plans.

After I graduated, as you might expect, I did nothing for a while, but eventually applied to a DOE internship program and got in. I approached this with more or less the same attitude that I had toward summer research - "If I don't try to figure out what/who I want to work with ahead of time, I can't fail to live up to my expectations" - with the result that I ended up being chosen to do something I didn't have any interest in. I did well enough that I got offered the chance to stay, which I did, having no other way to make money. It looks like I can get my name on a couple of publications (possibly one as sole first-author), but it's not stuff that I think will be relevant to my future interests, and frankly I'm not proud of it. It's not shoddy work or anything, I just haven't felt challenged. I have been working here for 10 months.

Now

Although it's not my calling, this DOE job has given me confidence that I would enjoy research (and given me some universally-applicable skills). I have done well at finding ways to make my work more interesting, and slogging through it when there's just no other way. Most of the careers I am interested in either require a PhD or seem easier to break into with some graduate education. Also, I'm just genuinely excited about the opportunity to do some cool research for a few/several years. So I think grad school might be for me.

But there are some problems:

  • I only came to this realization very recently (previously I thought I just wasn't prepared enough), and I am way behind on applications, having not seriously started. I'm taking the subject GRE in a couple of weeks, but that's the extent of my preparation. I doubt that I'll be able to build a solid application in the next couple of months. But if I don't apply this cycle, there will be more than three years between my graduation date and the earliest possible start date.
  • I am really unsure about what I want to study. There are at least 5 or 6 fields I'm seriously interested in, not all of which are part of a typical physics department, and I don't know how to narrow it down to just a couple, let alone to a manageable number of schools or research groups.
  • My self-confidence and social problems have improved a lot, but they're still pretty bad. I have a hard time imagining that I'd be accepted by a program in which I'd be happy to work. I definitely don't feel like I deserve it.
  • Probably the worst: I have no one in my life to talk to about this. I have no friends who live within 1000 miles of me, and few who live further away. I feel uncomfortable bringing it up with my mentors/more senior coworkers, mostly due to pure social anxiety.

I recognize that it's a little crazy and very stupid, but this has all amounted to a gigantic mental block that makes it really hard for me to think clearly about some tough decisions. Does it make sense to wait another year to apply, or is it now or never? How do I narrow my application focus? Who can I talk to for general advice? I have no idea to answer these questions, and it's challenging for me to even ask them. What can I do to make them more approachable?

  • US, and Department of Energy, yes? – Buffy Oct 12 '18 at 19:29
  • @Buffy: Yes and yes. – aeismail Oct 12 '18 at 19:33
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As a current doctoral student, I agree with Buffy's comments - particularly about connecting with your DOE colleagues, tapping their academic knowledge/networks, and getting perspective on graduate school, timing, etc. Many of these colleagues would likely be flattered that you're asking their advice on graduate school. If I were in your shoes (and actually, I was in pretty much the same boat 3 years ago) I'd be less concerned about waiting a year to apply to programs than about wasting a lot of time/money/effort/psychic energy on producing a lot of poor applications right now that might only net an offer at a low-quality program or a program that isn't really going to give you the opportunities to do what you want later.

My own grad school application process was a learning experience in itself... I was able to take 6 months to really learn about the culture, resources, structure and focus of various programs even as I was trying to figure out exactly what it was I was looking for. I cold-called/emailed many current students at various programs who listened to me talk about my somewhat-unfocused interests and were able to interpret them into areas/fields that meshed with specific scholars/programs/institutions so I started to see patterns both in my own interests and in the institutions that would be a good fit for me.

Long term, it is much better to be a year older and in a good program that supports students well and places students into good jobs. Racking up another year of relevant research experience while being surrounded by people who can help you compile a really strong application package sounds like a win-win to me. Rushing to submit a half-baked package because of some self-imposed, imagined life-timeline is definitely a path to less optimal outcomes.

On a separate, but equally important note, it might be extremely helpful for you to consider talking with a therapist (in person, online, whatever works for you) to better understand the source of your challenges with social anxiety and self-confidence. As someone who struggles with both these issues, I can say with certainty that graduate school will only compound your pre-existing challenges, which could lead to burnout, low performance or failure. Even the most successful graduate students question their abilities and performance at some point; emotional/social challenges make the experience even more difficult [gut-wrenching, soul-crushing] by an order of magnitude. Impostor syndrome is real and it's deadly for grad students.

You mentioned several instances in which your coping skills caused you to act (or avoid action) in ways that hurt you academically and professionally. Take this year to understand the roots of your behavior and learn new ways of perceiving/responding to situations so that when you do get into that awesome program, you'll have the emotional strength and coping skills to help you be successful.

If you don't have experience with therapy, I'd suggest a good place to start is by looking for practitioners who offer DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). DBT is similar to CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) in that it is solution-focused (you'll spend some time understanding the roots of your current cognitive thought patterns, but more emphasis on developing & practicing new skills/techniques to help you going forward). However, DBT differs in that it also helps you address the emotions attached to your current thought patterns that often keep you from actually adopting those new behaviors.

Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, so take the time (and action) to prepare well. I wish you the best of luck in your journey.

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This doesn't sound like typical burnout or Imposter Syndrome. Maybe a bit of anti-climax and a let down. But, I think you have more resources than you think you do.

I'm guessing that the people you work with at DOE have a lot of ideas, suggestions, and, more important, contacts in the academic world. Talk to them. See what they think of as options for a young scholar. See if you can leverage their contacts.

But, as to the indecision about which field to study within, say, Physics, many US universities won't require you to choose a specialization instantly to join a program. If you choose a university with a large program/faculty where there is a lot of things going on, you could start out and spend some time looking around for an advisor and a specialization. Most US universities will require some coursework for a person entering with a BS degree so you can use those to evaluate both faculty and interests. You might have to initially rule out a few of the possibilities when you apply, but you will probably also have lots of options when you arrive. Look for a university with a large and diverse faculty who support a lot of different sub-fields.

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