I’m 21, about to graduate from a tech school with a physics degree, and I still get asked the same question as when I was five:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was five, I probably said an astronaut. And when I was six, I think I said a pop singer. As I was introduced to new things, I changed my answer. Playing with toy kitchens made me want to be a chef and reading about the French Revolution made me want to be a historian. As new role models emerged - both fictional and real - my mind changed again. J.K. Rowling ignited my dream of a career in wizardry. Atticus Finch made me want to be a lawyer. For a short time, F. Scott Fitzgerald changed my career path to historical fiction writing. And it was my high school teacher that inspired me to apply to university with a major in physics.
Throughout my adolescence, I changed my mind. However, this never seemed acceptable to family members, friends of family members, or high school counselors. I was always told that your chances are more favorable of getting into the school that you want if you don’t apply as undecided. I knew that I had to pick something and with my current passion being physics, I decided that this was going to be my path;I spent the remaining two years of high school wishing that I could only take physics classes. After all, I didn’t think that any of the other classes would be useful in the career path that I had declared for myself as a sixteen year old.
At age sixteen, I was already deciding what information would be important and what wouldn’t, despite the fact that I really enjoyed other subjects. For someone that was “destined” to live and breathe science, I was fascinated by my AP and IB humanities courses. However, I wanted to disregard those interests because I knew that they didn’t fit into this career path that I had defined; this career path that I knew I would have to work extra hard in to be taken seriously. Even before attending college, I had multiple people scoff at my goal and tell me that I would probably change my major before my sophomore year.
Therefore, I spent my first year of college figuring out the steps to becoming a leading academic, one that would eventually land a tenure at Harvard. I learned early on that the key to having a successful career in academia was going to a top graduate school and in order to do this, I would need research experience, recommendations from well-known professors, and killer grades.
In turn, I spent three years trying to make myself the perfect PhD candidate - of course, I was passionate about all of the work that I was doing- but I would be lying if I didn’t say that I had to turn down other interests to stay on the track that I had designed. It worked. I received multiple offers to top graduate programs with scholarships, and I couldn’t have been more overjoyed with my options.
But with options, begs the same question that I was asked when I was five:
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Or, I guess, the question morphed into “what do you want to be”? Some people asked because they wanted to make small talk; others asked because they were genuinely excited for my success. However, back in February when everyone seemed to want to know, I couldn’t provide a satisfying answer. When I thought about my original plan to be a professor, it just didn’t feel right. Within the last year, I had allowed myself to explore other areas outside of my physics bubble. I had fallen in love with non-profit work, researching political issues, and investigating machine learning algorithms within finance. In truth, I wanted to pick an option that would allow me to do all of these things alongside physics.
When I explained this, I would receive unsatisfactory responses. I can still hear the hesitation in my mom’s voice, “I get it, but what exactly do you want to do?” or the the much harsher “motivation” from my dad to make certain choices that he thought were best. The takeaways from this experience that I would like to share are these:
Don’t feel that you have to declare one life path at the beginning or the end of college. It’s okay not to know. It’s okay to change your major, to try new research, or take a summer job that is completely out of the scope of what you’re studying. Don’t feel compelled to stay in one area because each experience that you have - independent of the field - will allow you to grow and gain skills that will be applicable in your future. Most innovation happens at the boundary between two fields. College is a time to explore all of your interests, so don’t limit yourself to just one.
Don’t feel like you have to please everybody with what you want to do.
Not everyone is going to be happy with your choices and not everybody needs to be. You’re the one that’s going to be putting in the hours and you’re the one that is taking the risk. A good friend once told me, don’t let the people in the audience dictate your next move; they’re not the ones in the arena.
Knowing what you want to do starts with knowing what you can do. When I was in high school, I never knew what a physicist actually did, or an engineer, or even someone on Wall Street. This is why I believe that mentors are important and should be introduced at a young age. It’s important to show young adults what they can be and encourage them to explore all of their interests.
I’m 21, about to graduate from a tech school with a physics degree, and I still get asked the same question as when I was five.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
While I may be going on for a PhD in Physics, I will not answer this question by saying that I want to be a physicist. Instead, I say that I want to be a research scientist, a CEO of multiple for-profits and nonprofits, an FBI agent, a journalist for the Times, a consultant, a UN ambassador, and a politician. Rarely do I get taken seriously when I say all of this, but then again, I got the same reaction from people in high school when I told them that I would graduate with a degree in physics.
About the Author: Kaitlin Gili is a Quantum Computing Researcher as well as the CEO of Encouraging Women Across All Borders. She received her B.S. in Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology and plans to pursue her PhD in Physics at Oxford University after working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and gaining industry experience at Zapata Computing. In the past, she has worked on four different research projects across three continents, including developing quantum algorithms for practical applications. She is passionate about providing mentorship for young women, creating new outreach tools for getting more young people interested in STEM, and helping others in their personal and professional development.