Before starting university, I made predictions about the things I would accomplish during the next four years. Looking back on those predictions, I didn’t get a single one correct. Not only that, but so much changed within my first year that even by then the majority of the predictions resolved to incorrect. Why did I expect to be able to predict what I would be like 4 years in the future? Relative to how long I’ve been a live, 4 years is a long time; am I leading myself astray when I delay gratification for something that I think well benefit me in 3-4 years?
Preparing for a Ph.D.
For the entirety of my second year at Duke, I felt set on pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics after graduation. Since I wanted to be a competitive applicant at top schools (as well as learn more math), I chose to prioritize my academics and spent most of my waking hours studying math. I didn’t go to any parties. I didn’t meet any new people outside of my classes. And I got pretty good at math. Of course, it seemed like a good trade at the time because graduate study was the goal, but 2-3 years later, the time when this sacrifice is supposed to pay off, I don’t know if a Ph.D. is what I want to do anymore. To be clear, this is not some grand revelation and I do believe that this kind of thing happens to almost everyone during college. I also don’t exactly regret the decision I made, and perhaps this is just me trying to make peace with it, but I am glad to have learned as much math as I did, even if I don’t end up going to graduate school. But, I have been beginning to question the decision making process that led me down this path.
I first want to note that I’m not trying to say setting goals is bad. I think it’s good to have goals and it’s normal to change those goals over time, but how much time one allocates to working towards some goal should be appropriately scaled based on time horizon and other factors that influence the likelihood of success. For example, for my math Ph.D. goal of ~3 years out, I probably shouldn’t have spent every waking hour on math, and I thought about this during those years as well, but I still somehow came to the conclusion that I needed to spend those hours on math because I wouldn’t learn enough otherwise. In hindsight, I do think those hours were all necessary, so what should I have done?
I think it would be un-ideal to give up on the goal before even starting because are more healthy balance of math and non-math wouldn’t allow me to become a “competitive applicant” in 3 years. I also think it’s un-ideal to only set reasonable goals because it’s the unreasonable goals that make a difference. What I do think should be changed, though, is the arbitrary 3-year time horizon. For whatever reason, I did feel the need to graduate “on time” and to move on with life. However, with the current job market and internship-driven pipelines, assuming one can afford it, I think there is no need to graduate after 4 years - why not take a semester off to explore something you find interesting, or take a year off to do something without the pressure of homework and exams?
During the recent semester, I started to tone down how much time I spent on math. I’m still working on two research projects, but I’m only really taking 1 serious math class and the rest are more relaxed (i.e., no homework). During these extra hours, I just do whatever I feel like doing, and I think I feel a lot happier following this lifestyle. The heading of this section isn’t the best analogy, but I think something that I should spend more time thinking about is the balance between exploitation and exploration in my daily life. I’ve long struggled with anxiety and found it difficult to try new things, but I think the introduction of small risks such as trying new foods has brought more happiness to my life. Sure, maybe half of the time I’m disappointed since the food isn’t good, but the other half of the time I make great memories. In a similar vein to the previous post, I think introducing some variance into life has made me happier. Time is like money in the way that, you can continue saving up (working towards future goals), but at some point, what’s the point of having it if you’re not going to spend it?