I flunked out of Caltech grad school

So now I feel like a real dummy!

Published October 21, 2004 7:09PM (EDT)

Dear reader,

Several people have written to this column recently about how the political situation in America and the upcoming election are affecting them emotionally. Now Salon would like to hear from the rest of you. People are freaking out. They are thinking about leaving the country. They are thinking about committing election fraud. Some have never felt this way about politics before. Others sense history repeating itself.

I have not answered any of those letters yet, but will do so the week of Oct. 25. Meanwhile, pick the issue that's driving you crazy and write to us soon. We'll publish a rich selection of your letters.

Thanks -- and hang in there!

-- C.T.

Dear Cary,

I'm 31 years old and married to a wonderful man and I have two lovely children. My family life is fine; it's my professional life that needs attention. I feel that there is some ambition inside of me that needs to come out. Currently, I'm home taking care of my kids, one who is 2.5 and one who is 0.5 years old, and I have to say that I'm lucky that my husband makes enough money so that I am able to stay at home. Nothing is missing in my life, I'm good.

My life is surrounded by my husband's co-worker's wives, who I don't socialize with a lot, but whom I compare myself to. Most of them are clever women who gave up going to work to stay at home with their kids and seem very, very happy doing so. I mean, I understand. I have taken my children around this world to various things, parks, zoos, ice-cream stores, and the delight that is apparent in their eyes is unmistakable. A lot of these women end up having two or three or four kids and it engulfs them. Other women I meet have regular, high-end professional jobs (lawyer, publisher, researcher) and have small kids and they seem to manage all right -- a little frazzled, but all right.

It's just that I want to be neither of these. My dream is so specific and, in my mind, unachievable, it's embarrassing. When I was in high school, my teachers assured me that my career in science was clear and I was bright and would do great things. I applied and got into MIT. There are very smart people at MIT and I'm not a MacArthur fellow by any stretch, so I worked really hard and again, although less enthusiastically, I got recommendations to go into science graduate school. I went on to Caltech grad school. And there I floundered. I had finally whittled down my competition to the 0.05 percent of the smartest people on the planet. I tried really, really hard, but I started getting 17 percent on exams, D's in classes and I failed my qualifying exams. Such a good student, and I failed out of school. Sheez, I barely knew what the questions were asking and my classmates were all so brilliant and determined. I know people get over this, but I got straight A's in high school, A-minus average in college and then I failed out of grad school. So as a result, I feel stupid often. I'm embarrassed to say where I went to school because once people hear the names, they I think I'm smarter than I really am. My husband's family is filled with academics, so Socrates gets brought up at the dinner table and the words flow so freely from everyone except me. Academics come all the time to dinner and I feel like I have nothing to add. But what the hell, I have my husband, my healthy kids and, when I want it, a high-paying job in the engineering industry is just there, waiting for me.

But once in a while, I think I should go back to grad school. I'd love to be a science prof at a small college. It has been 10 years since I've graduated and every time I open a science book or journal article, my mind clouds and I start doubting myself. I pretty much know nothing. My easy life is so much easier not going down this path. My classmates now are professors at MIT. Am I too old for this? Can I overcome my own self-esteem problems without going to grad school again and fight the monster again (this time it would be vanquished)? Should I just stay at home with the kids and scrapbook and get a part-time job? Should I be an engineer? What should I do? I had pretty much decided the mom/part-time route until I called an old co-worker of mine who told me my old boss is now going to Harvard Law School -- she's a mom too -- and it got my juices going that I want to do something ambitious someday too.

Old Woman Nerd

Dear Old Woman Nerd,

Geez, you're killing me. You'd be a great teacher. Not only have you got the brains but also the humility, the self-knowledge and, I suspect, the sense of humor. Once your kids can wipe themselves and get themselves off to school, I think you should definitely give it a shot.

If you can go back to grad school and slay that old dragon, great. But you don't have to go back to grad school to teach. If you want to teach, you could teach high school science. This country needs talented high school teachers. You could help your community and find a place for yourself where your unique talents are valued. You could be the smart one again. Your words and opinions would be heard and registered with feverish intensity, if not by the academics at your dinner table then at least by students who desperately need to hear them. You could make a professional life not of personal ambition but of public service.

But before you do, it might help you if you undertook to fully understand just what happened when you flunked out, so that once you begin, you are not constantly beset by doubts. This might best be done with the help of a therapist, but if you are sufficiently reflective perhaps you can find answers on your own, or with the help of a close friend or two, with whom you can talk freely and at length. Take some quiet time to yourself to recall the events in detail. Write down what happened. Explore all you felt at the time. Prod your memory to find not just how hard you tried but what else was tugging at you at the time. You may want to ask yourself: Was it really nothing but lack of brains? Or were there other needs you had to meet? Was it simple failure? Or did some part of you want out -- some part of you that you can't bring to consciousness, some dark, animal drive, some dumb rebellion of the unconscious against the bright, arid tyranny of scientific thinking?

Since you are of a scientific bent you might not be inclined to consider irrational forces as your ally, but it's possible that in certain ways your failure was a gift. In what ways might it have freed you to do what you truly wanted -- to marry and raise children, to live in domestic harmony among other mothers and their children? In what ways might failure have been the only way out? What battles would you have had to fight if you announced to your family and your professors that you no longer wanted to pursue an academic career in science? It might have posed too much conflict; you yourself might not have been able to justify it rationally. How could you justify throwing away all your "promise"? (I know what a trap having "great promise" can be.) How else to reject it but to fail? Failure may have been your only option.

Of course, I'm always looking for meaning in misfortune. Sometimes it's just misfortune. And there may be other, less fanciful factors: You may have succumbed to exhaustion. Lack of sleep, poor diet and no exercise may have left your brain starved. Your failure may have been at least in part a physiological one.

The point is to first understand what happened in larger terms, so that you can view it not just with a shudder of regret but with a knowing smile, not simply as an unmitigated disaster but as a multifaceted event that led, for better or worse, to your present life.

Make your peace with what happened in the past. And then: Go be a teacher.

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