I went to a great college, did well enough to get into a good master's program and probably land in a good phd program at some point. But I don't know if I'm meant for this.

I'm 27 and coming out of a few personally confusing years of life. Here's what I've found after a few months of postbac studies (I'd been working for a few years):

I don't love reading as much as I used to, and I definitely don't read as well as I did a few years ago. My professors say I write really well, and I'm doing well on exams and assignments. I am not the best in my classes, but may be close to it.

I can't decide what I want to study. I thought I was set on a topic in history, even based some master's applications on it, started a paper on it. Then the election happened and now I feel like my talents and energy should be spent on something more immediately useful, like working at an organization focusing on voter turnout, racism, minorities, rights, etc. This is the hundredth time I've changed my mind about what to study. It's included psychology, psychiatry, political science, policy, history, social work. Lately, I just don't see the point anymore.

I lose steam and motivation quickly. I was super motivated at the start of the semester, only to really lose it after the election. Now, everything seems a little pointless. I'm behind on reading and some homework, and have only managed to stay on track because I'm bullying myself into it. Even then, I'm sure I'll be behind for a while. I've tried really hard to get back on track but it's a bumpy road. Yesterday was great in terms of productivity, but today is terrible.

I don't think well on the spot and under pressure. I usually think of appropriate responses and counter arguments long after the conversation is over. I come from a family that wasn't at all academic, and I think this went a long way in shaping my academic personality; I don't have opinions on everything, and even when I do, I'm not quick to share them unless I'm 100% sure they're factually sound.

Most significantly, I just don't know if I'm as good enough as my peers. I know I'm better than a significant number of my classmates, but I'm not as well-read, well-spoken, confident, or quick as some of the best. I write slowly, I don't read Spinoza for fun, heck I don't read unless I have to or remind myself that I'm not reading enough.

I care a lot about the world, I care about making a difference, I am motivated by people and results and challenges that I believe I can tackle. I know I am smart and creative, even though I am not the best student in most of my classes (this takes a lot of courage to admit).

Can anyone offer me some honest advice? Be as critical as you can. Resources would also be appreciated. Thank you!

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    "This is the hundredth time I've changed my mind about what to study." In a PhD program, you study one topic for multiple years. Don't get a PhD if you are not certain what you want to study. This is much more important than how smart or educated you are. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 16 '16 at 23:54
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    I disagree with closing this question. There's a lot here, but it's all stuff we've helped people with on this SE before, and it seems like a useful post for others to find also. – Jeff Nov 17 '16 at 2:47
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    This question make a lot of sense to young researchers e.g. me. Don't put on hold or close. – Coder Nov 17 '16 at 12:51
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    27 years old + "I can't decide what I want to study" + "I just don't see the point anymore" = don't start a PhD – GDumphart Nov 17 '16 at 14:40
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    P.S. there is some discussion about the closure of this question going on in Academia Chat - in case you're interested :) – ff524 Nov 17 '16 at 19:21

One of the stand-out conversations that I'm still grateful for with my PhD advisers 15 years later went roughly like this:

  • Him: So, what do you want to do after you graduate in 6 months?

  • Me: I don't know. [... beating around the bush for a long time, wanting him to tell me that I'm talented, know my stuff, and that I should definitely stay in academia and become a prof...]

  • Him: [Not budging] So I hear a lot of reasons for basically every option. What do YOU think you want to do?

  • Me: [Beating around the bush some more.] But I think I really do want to go for a postdoc and try that professor thing.

  • Him: [Without hesitation] Well, see, there you go! If you really want it, I'm sure you can make it, but only then. YOU need to want it, not me.

The thing is that in academia, you compete with the best in your field, the most motivated ones, the hardest working ones. It's a tough environment to be in, and one you have to love. If you have doubts, if you have to force yourself to do something you don't love doing, then that's not your career.

And there is nothing wrong with that either: There are many other, equally fulfilling professions where you can make a difference for your country and society. Choose something you love -- because that's where you're going to make a difference!

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    I'm not sure I agree with that. Every PhD student I've ever met has doubts, and sometimes has to force themselves to do things they don't love in pursuit of their goal. – Jeff Nov 17 '16 at 2:20
  • Yes, and of course I had my doubts as well. But the people who make it have doubts and love the field, work incredibly hard, and because they enjoy what they are doing not because they feel the need to. Of course everyone has their downs, but ultimately people do it because they enjoy it most of the time. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 17 '16 at 2:49

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