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?
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.
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?