‘RM2,000 a month and a free PhD? That sounds like an offer you should take,’ my mother told me, ‘especially in an economy like this one.’
In some ways, my mother was right. In an economy like the one I had graduated into, RM2,000 stipend and a free PhD seemed like a good deal.
I was 23 years old, a fresh graduate in chemical engineering.
With first class honors, I was eligible to apply for the free PhD programs my university had offered.
The year was 2011 and most of my classmates had not secured their jobs even as we neared graduation.
While our seniors had jobs thrown into their laps, we knocked on doors of uninterested employers.
When we happily found a vacancy, we were immediately saddened by the phrase, ‘Minimum three (3) years of experience’.
From wanting jobs at big MNCs which paid more than RM3,500, most of my classmates reduced their expectations to the RM1,500 and RM2,200 pay that most local companies were offering.
‘Secure a job first,’ our parents had advised, ‘gaining experience is important.’
Against a RM1,500 – RM2,200 pay with a local company, a RM2,000 stipend plus tuition fees was indeed a good option to consider.
It was June 2011. I was five months away from graduation and I had to make a decision quick.
How Does it Feel Like to Be a PhD?
In my final year, I took up a project about creating biodiesel from algae. I was excited about it on the outset because I had been fantasizing about working in a research lab since I was in my first year.
It seemed like a wonderful challenge.
On paper, of course, finding an alternative to fossil fuels using biomass did seem wonderfully challenging. So wonderful that for a moment I really did feel like I was making a difference in the world.
Soon after I started the project, however, reality hit me like a rude whip on my face. Ouch. Double ouch.
Instead of feeling challenged, I felt bored by the lab work that repeated itself every. Single. Day.
Check on the biomass at 9am. Clean aquarium. Check the lights. Use a meter to measure the biomass. Record. Make remarks.
I even had keys to the entire lab building because of the odd hours I was expected to check on the algae.
One day I asked my lecturer if PhD students had it any better.
She laughed and said, ‘No, when you start a PhD in the topic you are doing, you’re gonna have to get used to calling the lab your second home.’
I stared at her for a moment to see if her face might indicate that she was joking.
She stared at me back.
She was serious. I was horrified.
I could not imagine myself cleaning algae-grown glass aquariums for another five years in a dingy lab. What kind of life would that be?
I asked her a few more questions, then left.
What Kinds of Jobs Do PhDs Get?
‘You look like the type of person who would make a good teacher,’ one of my classmates had told me.
Being a professor was one of my ambitions when I was 21 years old. But hearing people say I looked like one made me feel disgusted.
I must look really unfashionable and strict, I thought to myself.
But this idea that I looked like someone who would do well with a PhD was not only my classmates’, it was also my family’s.
‘Just take it Lu Wee,’ my mother had told me a few times. ‘You can become a lecturer right after that – that’s job security.’
But what about other jobs? I wondered. Other than universities, who actually hired PhDs?
At that point, I was getting a little sick of academia. I was really good at it, but I didn’t see myself marking papers and teaching classes for a living.
At least, not in my 20s.
When I did more research on the types of jobs available for PhDs, I couldn’t find many of them outside academia.
If I can’t find a job other than lecturing, I thought, then my job security lasts as long as four years. After that, I am disadvantaged compared to other graduates.
Getting my PhD and then becoming a lecturer would have been the path of least resistance.
I was amongst the few students who graduated with a first class honors. I would have little competition in my application.
I had experience teaching. I could have easily gotten a job as a lecturer.
But I knew it would be the wrong path to take.
So I took a turn away from where I was headed. I ditched the idea of getting a PhD and started my job hunt.
So when do you quit something you are really good at?
One of the biggest fears we have is starting something new. It is always comforting to keep doing what we have always done, especially when we are good at it.If we allow it, this fear will keep us in our past successes, never ready for future ones.
If we allow it, this fear will keep us in our past successes, never ready for future ones.
To progress, it would seem like a good idea to let go of our past successes.
But it feels almost wrong to do so, to let go of the idea that we were good at something before. After all, our successes are what makes us confident that we will be ready for the next thing.
But it could also be a trap.
Not so long ago, Kodak was one of the most successful film producers in the world. In that same world, the Blackberry was the most famous phone for executives all over the world.
But we all know where they both ended up.
Our past success can give us confidence, but it can also make us complacent. Success followed by success makes us believe, ‘I am unstoppable.’
Kodak’s biggest competitor at that time was Fujifilm. Noticing a shift into digital photos, Fujifilm’s parent company, Fuji decided to branch into an emerging market: cosmetics.
Today, only 10% of Fuji’s revenues come from film.
While Fuji decided to reinvent itself, Kodak decided to stay on the path where it gained success in the first place.
Today Kodak is gone and Fuji is still here and growing.
Kodak was one of the best makers of film. But in a world where film is increasingly irrelevant, it does not matter.
Dare to quit something you are really good at when you find out that it is a skill that is becoming irrelevant.