Working Life

Afraid to fail? Reach out

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  21 Sep 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6408, pp. 1278
DOI: 10.1126/science.361.6408.1278

Many years ago, a trusted professor suggested I make a radical change in my academic path and pursue a doctorate in psychology. That sounded impossible! I was interested in the subject matter, but my training was in English and philosophy. I was petrified that seeking a science Ph.D. would bring rejection and failure. For months, I looked into programs, only to get cold feet and back away—until my curiosity spurred me down the road again. Now, years after successfully completing my doctorate, I realize that I was actually facing two distinct fears during that tortured time. And I realize that I could have eased my path by seeking outside perspectives.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

“People who have no skin in the game … can offer fresh perspectives.”

One fear was simply that, in trying to make a dramatic career change, I would fail. Given my training and connections in the humanities, who could write letters recommending me for a science program? Who would mentor me along the way? What could I point to as evidence that I was a credible candidate? Even if I were accepted, did I really believe that I could succeed? The risk seemed overwhelming. I thought I would suffer for years, if not my entire life, if I didn't get into a program or was unprepared and had to leave.

My other fear was that such a bold move would disappoint important people in my life. This fear is not unique to academia, but university culture can make it hit particularly hard. Many advisers see students as academic progeny, and when we make career choices that don't match our advisers' ideas of what we should do, we may feel we are betraying them. When I told one of my humanities professors that I was serious about applying to doctoral programs in psychology, he expressed grave concern that I was making the wrong choice (although, to his credit, he wrote a wonderful letter of recommendation).

Beyond academic colleagues, it was difficult to face the prospect of disappointing family and friends who had supported me—emotionally and in some cases financially—during the ups and downs of my studies. I worried that if I pursued what might appear to be a pipe dream, they would feel I was turning my back on all they had done. Or they might conclude that all my efforts up to that point had been a failure. When I talked with my parents about making the leap to psychology, they questioned whether it was the right choice and wondered when I would be settled.

Now, though, I realize that I probably exaggerated the strength of others' feelings. My colleagues, friends, and family may have felt a bit rejected or confused by my actions, but they had their own lives to think about. Ultimately, I needed to make the decision that was right for me, not for them. My parents came around to the idea that I was going to be a “professional student” for a while, and many friends and colleagues eventually offered support, though I lost touch with that professor.

I didn't have a good strategy for dealing with my fears at that time. But I have since learned a valuable approach that I wish I had known then: Reach out to people beyond your immediate circle for input and advice. People who have no skin in the game—your neighbors, your hair stylist, even strangers you strike up conversations with at the airport—can offer fresh perspectives that may help you see your options more clearly. Reach out to people in jobs you're interested in to find out how they got where they are. As someone who now receives these types of inquiries, I can tell you that it's not a burden at all. In fact, it's a compliment—plus I enjoy helping the next generation. If the first person you ask doesn't respond, try again. Chances are you will be pleasantly surprised.

There are more people than you may think who have made bold career moves. Talk to them. Your future is your own. Reach out and see what happens.

Navigate This Article