Help a new college grad not squander an opportunity
April 23, 2016 7:54 AM   Subscribe

I was accepted into an excellent, competitive graduate program, but I don't know if this is what I want anymore. Am I just getting cold feet?

I recently graduated from college (U.S.) with the intention of pursuing a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. As some may know, this is an increasingly competitive field and I was fortunate enough to be accepted by several programs. I even got into the top-10 schools to which I applied, and I formally accepted my offer to one of them (my top choice) last week. After working hard for four years to attain this seemingly difficult goal, I find myself questioning it… I questioned it all through college, though I quieted those thoughts by figuring that I’m just an indecisive person, attracted by the idea of opportunities, stressed out by school and seeking an escape, etc. and that I should wait and see if I even get in.

Maybe it’s cliche, but I’ve always liked psychology. I saw myself pursuing a Ph.D and becoming a clinician and researcher since I was in middle school. No kidding - I was introduced to the works of Freud, Frankl, and Maslow in 7th grade, thanks to my grandfather, who’s a counselor. Then, I guess when I was 18 and entering college, I bought into the “no future for psych degrees,” that student loans were real and I’d never make enough to pay them back by going into psych, and convinced myself that spending another 5-7 years in school would be awful.

So I found speech-language pathology (SLP) and thought, “Cool, I can empower people by helping them with our most defining human ability: speech.” I liked most of my classes and did well. Professors liked and encouraged me. I know I’d enjoy the profession, do well in it, have excellent job prospects, and make fairly good money… so what’s the problem? I just can’t shake the feeling that this isn’t my “calling.” Even I hate to write that, but it’s the only way I can describe it. I think to myself how I don’t spend my free time reading research articles and learning about disorders (as I feel like my peers do), and because of this, I will never be great at what I do. I worked in a research lab in undergrad and I should have loved it - amazing PI, great coworkers, the chance to learn so much, and I even got paid nicely… but I hated the work. I had no curiosity or interest in teaching myself things outside of what I had to know. I didn’t only do grunt work like a lot of undergrads do in labs - I had the freedom to work on really interesting (to others) projects. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing the whole time, which was two years! Most of the time I was worried that my wonderful, genius PI would find out that I knew nothing and was making it up as I went along.

Then I see psychology - specifically positive and counseling psychology - as an alternative. It feels like what I’m “meant” to do, and something that I would eventually become great at doing because I love it. I read about it in my spare time, and I could see myself framing a research question about it - something with which I struggled so much with SLP to the point that I never did a research project in undergrad, although I had the opportunity. I just felt like I didn’t know enough to think of a feasible project.

I find myself afraid of doing this master’s SLP program - afraid of making the wrong choice (choosing this path over psych), and especially of going back to being the ball of stress that I was in undergrad. These programs are rigorous. I’m afraid that I don’t love what I’m doing enough to make it through and fully utilize this excellent opportunity to do it 100% (e.g. by writing a master’s thesis, connecting with professors.) Additionally, there is a financial risk to this choice - I’ll have 65k of student loans (that’s including my undergrad loans), so it’s not like this is some free pass for me to explore for two years. (FYI, these programs are not typically funded, so this cost seems to be pretty average across the board.)

Then again, am I just getting cold feet? I will be attending my top choice program - excellent and warm faculty, great placements, many research opportunities, and in an amazing location. I feel like if I don’t go to school now for speech, I won’t ever do it… it’s only getting more competitive and being in undergrad while applying made my life so much easier in terms of applications, letters of recommendation, etc. I can’t see myself doing it all again next year. I also think that schools would question my choice - like, hey we just accepted this person last year and she rejected us, why should we accept her again? Unfortunately, deferment is not an option. I guess I wonder if I’m trying to cop out because now I know that my “natural abilities” (i.e. fooling people into thinking I know what I’m doing) won’t set me apart anymore - I’m going to be learning with some of the best students in the country, some of whom have an edge (I feel) because they have this super passionate interest in what they’re doing. I’m also scared that I’ll always be behind those peers simply because I don’t love it enough to constantly read and learn about it, like I do with psych.

Ultimately, I want to make people feel good about themselves and their lives as some kind of clinician. I want to enjoy my field so much that I research it in my free time. The idea of actually doing research appeals to me. (I’ve ruled out becoming a master’s-level psychotherapist because I’d like to just do a Ph.D in the event that I decide to pursue a more research-focused career.)

Apologies for so much text. Thank you very, very much for taking the time to read any of this. I would truly be grateful for any advice or anecdotes.
posted by metacognition to Education (7 answers total)
It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought over a long period of time, and you've always felt that psychology is your "calling" and SLP is not. And it also sounds like you value doing something you love over having good career prospects and a more defined career path. (Anyway, it's not like pursuing psychology is a bad career path; there are lots of ways to make that work.) If I were you, I wouldn't go to grad school, especially if you're paying for it.

My personal experience: I also went to grad school in a field that wasn't my "calling" -- I enjoyed it and was interested in it, up to a point, but I never did it for fun and would find myself dozing off when coworkers and friends excitedly delved into a discussion about the field. Several years later, I decided to switch gears and do something that was a much better fit for me, and I've never regretted it. I'm much happier now.

In my case, my grad degree ended up giving me some credibility and making me somewhat unique in my field, since what I do now is related (but not closely related) to my graduate degree. But the cost is definitely a factor -- I took out loans for my graduate work, and ultimately I don't think that degree justified its cost. Before any sort of grad school, "calling" or not, I always recommend that people calculate the return on investment -- how much are you spending, how much are you likely to make, and factoring in the years you spend in grad school and your net income is negative, how long will it take you to break even? (Also factor in whether you can stand being in this field for that many years!)

You've probably already considered this, but is there any way you could combine SLP and psychology? I wonder if, like me, you could end up in a niche where both knowledge/skill sets are useful and not many people have both.
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:08 AM on April 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

Is it possible to defer your admittance for a year? Some programs allow this.

If you can, then perhaps you could take the time in between to explore what research in psychology actually is; many people become disillusioned with research during their PhDs, and at least some of that is due to not having much actual experience with it beforehand.
posted by nat at 8:24 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also thought of combining, or at least re-seeing SLP from the direction of psychology. Also, it sounds as if your main goal is to help people, which is wonderful. Maybe take some time to play around with looking at SLP from either or both of those perspectives, and see if you see SLP in a new way (or take it in a new direction based on these perspectives).
posted by Vaike at 8:59 AM on April 23, 2016

Listen to yourself, and take your feelings seriously. Do what you love.
posted by amtho at 9:06 AM on April 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yeah I have social science PhD programs throwing money at me but my heart isn't in it anymore. When I was offered a position in a grad program I was MADLY passionate about research in that field to where I didn't care about anything else. In order to invest time in anything really, especially grad school (which will render you poor and your social life nonexistent) you have to really be all in in order to counteract the sort of depression and anxiety and self doubt that comes with it. I'd say the same for college but yeah, it's the difference between "I want money" and "I want to be happy."

I also wish I had taught abroad during a gap year like I intended.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:35 AM on April 23, 2016

I'm an audiologist but I know a ton of SLPs and work with them a lot. I don't know what you should do but one thing to consider:

A lot of being an SLP is counseling. It's not quite the same for sure, but you spend a lot of time just talking to people about their issues. Speech problems cause a lot of people a lot of pain and suffering - social issues, depression, anxiety, etc. You may end up talking to kids with a stutter about how anxious it makes them. You'll talk to parents who are confused and upset about why their kid has dyslexia. You may work with family members who are frustrated and angry that their loved one had a stroke. You might work with terrified parents who are trying to get their NICU child, who is barely hanging on to life, to swallow. Yes, it's counseling that's speech-directed, so you're working toward a different outcome than general psychology, but there is a lot of counseling, and you have to have good counseling skills to be a good speech path.

If you love psychology, then do that. But you aren't wrong about the career aspects for an SLP compared to a psychologist. Programs are competitive for a reason. It's a really solid and rewarding job. It's two years and you'll make probably close to what you would as a starting psychologist after five years. Granted, the ceiling is higher for a psychologist. But an SLP will never want for a job, and you can live anywhere you want.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:57 PM on April 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm hearing that you have a calling, and you also have imposter syndrome about being an SLP. Together, they're making you doubt SLP as your path. You're being buffeted by fear of failure in both fields -- “no future for psych degrees" on the one hand, and "I’ll always be behind" on the other. You'll be better able to make this decision from a place of reasonable confidence of success in either field, instead.

First, the calling. Not all of us have them, you know. It's not something to squander lightly, when your calling isn't all that impractical. You may not get to do exactly what you want within psychology, but if you pursue it, odds are decent that you'll be able to work in the field in one way or another.

Second, "I felt like I had no idea what I was doing the whole time, which was two years! Most of the time I was worried that my wonderful, genius PI would find out that I knew nothing and was making it up as I went along... fooling people into thinking I know what I’m doing ..."

Do you know this is classic imposter syndrome? Based on your post, I believe you can be great at being an SLP student in the competitive, rigorous program, and then great at being an SLP for real, even though you don't love reading about it in your spare time, and even though you didn't love working in a lab.

So, if you put aside the imposter syndrome, and imagine yourself successful as an SLP during and after school, what choice would you then make? What if you also put aside the fear of never finding a psychology role? Does the calling still override SLPs practical advantages, even without the imposter syndrome pitching in? Or can you be satisfied being a great SLP and reading about psychology in your spare time?

Either way, I have more trust than your post conveys that you'll find success. The key is deciding from a place of confidence instead of from a place of anxiety. Good luck!
posted by daisyace at 5:09 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

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