Kevin Sun

Craving a non-student identity

I'm almost 27, and I've been a student for as long as I can remember. But I'm also not super excited for what comes next: having a real job. Am I having a quarter-life crisis?

October 23, 2021

I turn 27 in a few months, and for as long as I can remember, I've seen myself as a student. There has been no gap in my formal education ever since it started in preschool (other than summer breaks and such) — my life has been a continuous journey through a long tunnel of formal education. Of course, as a fifth-year PhD student, I know a few people who were students for an even longer stretch of time, so I'm not claiming to hold some record or something. But still, in the grand scheme of things, it's quite unusual to enter your late 20's without any memory of a non-student identity.

Even though I'm a really old "student," I don't feel like one anymore. I've stopped taking classes, and I'm not in any clubs. I don't even go to campus, although that's also due to the pandemic. Instead, I sit at home all day, tinkering with just a few semi-concrete ideas, until it's time to perform bodily maintenance by eating and/or exercising. Then I try to read, write, or do something else that feels "productive," but that usually feels too much like work. So instead, I tire my eyes by bumming around on my computer (i.e., watch videos and play games) until I fall asleep.

To be honest, even though I'm in my fifth year, I'm still not even sure if I'll even get this degree. I could get kicked out or drop out. (If I don't finish, I believe I'd be the 10th person to do so, out of my initial cohort of 20 PhD students.) But surprisingly, after years of constantly worrying, I'm starting to realize that getting a degree shouldn't even be my primary concern. Because regardless of how that turns out, the big questions will remain: What kind of job should I try to get? Which tradeoffs am I willing to make? What kind of life do I want to live?

To figure this stuff out (as if I could, in one blog post), I should first determine if I can even get a job that I desire a sufficient amount. After all, beggars can't be choosers: if I don't get any offers, then I won't have any choices to make.

On the one hand, at this point in my life, it feels like there should be a ton of opportunities. In college, I majored in mathematics, because apparently a smart dude named Gauss called it the "Queen of Sciences," so that sounds like something worth studying. I foolishly ignored the fact that Gauss himself was a mathematician, which probably made him a bit biased.

If I wanted to do something else, like economics, I figured I could easily switch into it later. By studying the real deal (i.e., mathematics), I would keep a lot of doors open. Plus, I had heard that Wall Street loves math majors or something, so that's good too.

After college, I went to graduate school for largely the same reasoning: I didn't want to corner myself into anything. After all, getting more education can't possibly close any doors, right? So surely, with Gauss, Wall Street, and whatever degrees I manage to collect, I should have more opportunities than ever.

But as I look around, what exactly are these opportunities? The only jobs that I can see on my horizon are software and teaching. I understand that both of these areas are pretty broad, so there's a lot to explore. But is that really it? Is this the culmination of spending over two decades in school, with nearly a decade in higher education?

As I mentioned above, when faced with these matters, whether or not I have a PhD hardly seems relevant. The only road it seems to close is becoming a professor. (Actually, it's still possible to teach college without a PhD, so this isn't even totally true.) I guess this is comforting. Some people say that having a PhD helps in non-college careers too, but I guess I need to see it to believe it. Still, even if a PhD is useful, that doesn't help me decide what to do in the first place.

I guess these days, I'm really craving a new identity. I've been a student for so long, but I don't feel like one, and I'm getting tired of it. I'm ready to call myself something else, but I don't know what I want, so I don't know how to proceed.

Well, maybe it's not that big of a deal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people born from 1957 to 1964 had an average of 12.4 jobs from ages 18 to 54, and an average of 5.6 jobs while ages 18 to 24. That's a lot of identity changes! Maybe some of these were just doing a similar job at different companies, but it's still a lot.

There's also the notion of self-complexity, which is basically the number of identities, or "self aspects," a person has. (This definitely isn't the same as dissociative identity disorder.) My understanding is that having more identities is good, because it's like distributing your eggs in multiple baskets. If someone's a wife, doctor, and gardener, then a divorce doesn't hurt as much as it would if she were only a wife. In general, high self-complexity can protect a person from depression and other stress-related disorders, while low self-complexity might exacerbate the effect of an adverse event.

At the same time, according to the Wikipedia article, high self-complexity can cause a "fragmentation of one's self-concept," which is also pretty stressful. To address this, the article recommends having identities that are "distinct, yet integrated with one another." Yes, I'm at the stage where I'm receiving psychological help from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

So perhaps the problem is that my self-complexity is too low. I'm losing my identity as a student, and I've never really had any other identity, so finishing graduate school (with or without another degree) sounds daunting.

I'm still in the thick of it, so I don't know how to end this post with a satisfying conclusion. I'm sure that someday, I'll have a non-student identity, but maybe then I'll crave another one. Maybe I should read more books or something. Then at least I can identify as a reader.