Note from Liz: This is a guest post by Katie Benedetto. Katie Benedetto Jones is a former Ph.D. student who left the world of mathematics to become a web developer. She now develops Critter.Co, a fun personal growth tool and game.
Once upon a time, I was a Ph.D. student in mathematics at a top tier university. With a publication, several internships, teaching experience, and a shining resume, I had a bright future ahead of me. And then I quit. It was the best career decision I ever made.
After college I had no freaking clue what I wanted to do with my life. But coming from a “public ivy” liberal arts college where I’d been a successful, ambitious, highly involved math student, it was really easy to pretend to be passionate about mathematics research.
After all, I had had a ton of fun in the math department. I was the girl who flounced around handing out mathy cookies to all my professors, cracking up about how funny it was to see ‘-e^-i*pi’ in pink frosting. I managed the department’s website. I started a mathematics honors society.
So I did the convenient thing, the step you’re supposed to take next,and scored an acceptance to another public ivy’s PhD program. And I accepted it.
An Itch And a Hitch
There was an itch in the back of my mind causing a hitch in my plan. While I had fun in math, I’d already used the biggest gift it had to offer me: opening my mind, and showing me how hard I could really work and stretch.
The kind of math I loved only barely connected to the real world. For me, with my area of research and non-genius ability level, it was highly unlikely that any of my research would ever help a real person with a real problem, so I wasn’t really building anything useful.
At the same time math was frustrating me, I was discovering my passion for building, through programming. I dreamed of technology and entrepreneurship. I just finished an internship where I got paid to program all summer. I was building websites in my spare time and it was an addiction.
I was building, making, and I felt alive!
A Double Life
It would have been convenient to ignore my love for programming, but I couldn’t.
At first, I tried to do both. On top of a full PhD courseload I secretly signed up for computer science classes, and joined a computer science professor’s bioinformatics research.
I didn’t tell anyone in the math department about this extra work. I’d already heard a fourth year berate one of my colleagues for stealing from the department by spending focus on an outside, non-academic course, when the department was paying us as TAs.
This sounds 100% ridiculous to me now, but I was utterly terrified that my colleagues and math professors would find out that I had a secret passion. I felt like a thief and a liar,but I also felt like I had no choice; I had to follow my passion.
So I kept my head down, aloof from the other grad students, and ate oatmeal alone for lunch every day – every single day – while they went off for lunch together and became good friends and formed their tribe. I had isolated myself out of fear, and so much work with little social support was terribly lonely.
That first year of grad school was the most difficult, lonely, soul-sucking year of my life.
It was only when I returned to the programming internship that I remembered how happy I had been building and creating. There, I had community and purpose, my passion, and no double life. There, I could be entirely in integrity with who I was and what I wanted, and it was bliss.
I decided then and there to leave my PhD program.
Being Real: Aligning My Path With Truth
I still felt so much pressure to be who everyone wanted me to be. Making the decision and sticking by it was tough enough since I was leaving a cushy path for a really unknown one with no experience and no guarantees. I had basically two possibilities in front of me: get a math job with my internship or find a way to get or make a programming job.
I was juggling my insecurity, trying to make everyone happy, and trying to get a new job to support myself on this new path.
I told my math department and math colleagues that I was leaving for a math career that doesn’t require a Ph.D., which was an acceptable explanation. It was a half-truth. I wasn’t sure I’d follow that career, but it was the option I felt would make them happy.
I could live with that path, but I truly resented the idea of taking any more math classes. When confiding in my now-husband, Andy, who had bravely just left his own Ph.D., about my situation, he encouraged me to just be honest about what I wanted.
He helped me see that I wasn’t responsible for making everyone happy.
Motivated by resentment and armed with my husband’s support I went to my graduate adviser. Sitting outside his door waiting for the meeting, I pumped myself up with Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” on my iPod, summon up the courage. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo!
I told my math adviser my story, and boldly asked if I could take computer science classes for math credit. To my surprise, I left that meeting with a full year’s worth of computer science classes on my schedule, zero math classes, and even computer science research to satisfy my math master’s research. No more math again ever, except for earning my keep by teaching it.
Lessons learned: a little support, just from one person who can verify that you’re actually not crazy, goes a long way. Lean through the fear to ask for what you want. You just might get it!
I told my computer science professors that I wanted to leave math, that I really wanted to study computer science. So they invited me to on their Ph.D. program. It was an invitation that would have been a complete dream the previous year. But it was based on a people-pleasing half-truth, because at this point, while I loved programming and creating, I really didn’t enjoy academia in either department.
It was tough to turn that offer down, but I had to be honest about what I knew.
Lessons learned: people give you opportunities based on what you say you want. And to get what you want, you have to turn down amazing opportunities.
The whole time, almost everyone in my life thought I was settling. I had to have a lot of grit and determination on my own to be confident that I was on the right path. My mother, along with the computer science department, was convinced that Andy had talked me out of the Ph.D., and that it was his “fault” I was leaving such a prestigious path and wonderful opportunity.
My thesis adviser in the computer science department actually told me not to tell others that I was leaving, or why, afraid that I would convince other Ph.D. students to drop out – as if I’d caught some disease from Andy that would spread from me to my colleagues. And, when I finally settled on a part-time web job, while I worked to build my own web development career, my friends at the internship thought I was settling.
Nevertheless, I’ve never once looked back with the teeniest-tiniest sliver of regret. Leaving the Ph.D. was unequivocally the best thing I’ve ever done for my career and life.
I’ve been running a successful web development company since 2009. I’m currently working on my next career turn, this time around being more open about it. This new path combines web development with personal growth.
As I realize how much of my path has been difficult for emotional reasons, like feeling the need to please people and be externally validated, I want to use technology to help others through these struggles. My new company, Critter.Co, develops just that – personal growth tools and processes for living a happier life, combined with game elements to make it fun. Check it out here to be your You-est You!
What makes you happy? Trust your gut, take action, and be your You-est You! What small step can you take today towards being who you want to be?