Last July, right around the week of the 4th, I had a revelation at work.
"I can't do this for another 20 years."
Rather than just wallow in the unhappiness, I started looking for alternatives. Like, right there in the meeting that was making me want to punch someone. I've worked for my boss for nearly 13 years, across a number of companies, so I knew I couldn't just find a new job - it wouldn't make me any happier (I'm still happy with my boss, I just don't like what I do) and it would be like a really bad breakup. Well, those who have known me a long time know I've wanted my PhD since I was about 5. However, when I graduated college, I wasn't going to get a PhD in chemistry and I figured I would wait until I knew what I wanted to do. A whole lot of life happened after that and it was never a good time to go back to school...till now.
When I broke the news to Jeff that I was really considering going back to school - that I needed SOMETHING to make me happy with my working life again - he was very supportive. I charged right into learning what I would need to do to apply, while still exploring various programs and schools. Given my enthusiasm for sport that has developed in my adult years, exercise physiology and similar fields were what really held my interest. I mean, you know you're looking at the right field when you sit around at home in front of the TV reading journal papers for fun.
I quickly organized a plan - it was easy to find/request my old transcripts, but after 15 years I'd need to take the GRE again. And maybe at my age, I should take some classes to prove I still have school-brain? And what else would help my application? Since so many exercise physiology/kinesiology departments handle PE classes, would some coaching certifications help? I tried to analyze what my weaknesses would be - so much time out of school in the workforce, coming from a different field, etc - and figure out how to address them.
First up, the GRE...
I signed up for a GRE test date at the end of September. That gave me nearly 3 months to prepare. Oh how little I knew what a good idea that was at the time!
I've always aced standardized tests and I had great scores on the GRE last time, back in 1997, so I didn't think it would be a big deal. I bought a test prep book and took a practice exam and...well, things have changed a bit since I last took this test. Not only are the sections different and the scoring scale very different (no more 200 to 800 like the SAT), but the testing methodology itself is entirely different. I had taken the GRE when they'd first gone to computer based testing but now the test actually adapts to your answers, challenging you with harder and harder questions. And it's looking for more analysis than it had previously. And there would be two essays involved. After years of scientific writing, it was a challenge to try to stretch an argument out into a page or two when I was programmed to make it concise and to the point.
In any event, I walked into the test center on September 29th, having studied and prepared as much as was possible. I'd practiced writing essays (though not that much, I admit - it bored me and I was counting on a little race day magic to help me out), I'd taken a gazillion tests on paper and online. I was NOT prepared for how much the testing environment has changed since the 90s. I suppose it was inevitable with the introduction of technology to cheating...
First I signed in at the front desk. I was given a locker key and instructed to put EVERYTHING I brought with me in the locker, except my ID. Even my watch. Then I had to fill out a long form and write out a pledge not to cheat IN CURSIVE (when was the last time you wrote a long paragraph in cursive? Ow!). When I was called to the testing room, I had to sign a form, and then sign it again because my signature did not exactly match my ID. Then I was wanded down with a metal detector and had to turn my pockets out to prove they were empty. I was warned that I could not take my sweatshirt off in the testing room if I wore it in there.
With that fun all said and done, and my knees knocking, go start your test! Yikes. I took a moment to breathe and try to tune out the keyboards tapping around me and the video cameras overhead and then set to work. First up, the essay questions - of course! At least I got them while my brain was fresh. From there the test flew by as I rejoiced when math questions were things I'd studied and wracked my brain when I got a curveball. When I finally submitted the test and provided the schools I wanted my scores sent to, the screen flashed my raw score numbers for math and verbal (you get the important part - your percentile ranking on each section - with the score for the essays later). But I saw enough to know, race day magic had indeed happened.
About 4 weeks later, this arrived in my mailbox. Verbal and Math are scored on a scale of 130 to 170 and Analytical Writing on a scale of 0 to 6.
One task down, on to the next...
Back to School
I mentioned last fall I was taking a couple classes at the local community college for fun. Well, they were also to help support my application and give a sense that I could handle the field. My sisters might have made fun of me for being an overachiever and doing all the extra credit but it was a big confidence boost to learn I still had an aptitude for learning. My only regret is they don't seem to report A+ grades, as I had them in both classes.
Thinking this would give me added perspective from another side of the field, I took a USAT coaching certification course in October to get a better feel for where the data can be helpful and just in case it would help my application chances by being able to TA certain PE classes. It was fun, though clearly Level 1 is barebones compared to the depth of knowledge the ELF and so many other great coaches have. If I had to do this process again, I'd skip this particular item.
Personal Statement/Letter of Intent
I let my thoughts on this percolate for a few months and then one day in the swimming pool it just came to me. Thankfully it only took a few drafts and revisions from there to get what I wanted. A clear connection between my work in interventional cardiac medicine and my desire to approach the problem from the other side, with disease prevention, my lifelong passion for science, and a desire to get back to basic research.
And then I had to come up with recommendation letters. Since I've been out of school forever and professors would no longer remember me (not that any of them knew me back then anyway), I had to really ponder this. I ended up choosing two current co-workers - my boss and another PhD in the department - and one former co-worker. As all of these women are quite busy, I had to give them a ton of lead time and advance notice in order to get my letters in before the deadlines. Like 3+ months! Thank goodness it went well when I broke the news to my boss - she too was uber supportive!
Finally I was ready to submit my applications, my transcripts, my resume, my letters of intent. A few clicks of the mouse and a few stamps in the mail and it was done. So then it's...late October and you have nothing to do but wait. And hope your recommendation letters are submitted on time. And stress a little. And put it out of your mind! You still haven't told anyone outside of family and very close friends, so you just wait.
In the end, I applied to one local school (my original thought had been to go to school in San Jose and stay at my job part-time), one Arizona school (because I would have free housing there) and three Colorado schools (because the more we talked about it, the more we both acknowledged that we wanted to get on with the move to Colorado that we've been talking about for YEARS). If I could get into a school in CO we knew that's where we would go.
My top choice was a school with a slightly different, much more hard-science and research focus. Integrative physiology at CU covered not only exercise physiology but so many other areas related to how the body responds to stimuli. I drooled every time I looked at their webpage. Based on an email or two I'd had before applying, I didn't get my hopes up but I threw my hat in the ring anyway.
In December, I found out I was accepted to my backup-backup school in CO. Which meant at least we knew I was moving out there for sure. I admit, I'd really hoped that since my applications went in early, I'd hear from everyone by the time we came home from Central America in late January. I'd already set up a late February trip with my sisters to CO in order to show them a bunch of schools and hopefully help me make up my mind.
About 10 days into our cycling trip, I got an email while sitting in our room on Bocas del Toro in Panama. A lab at my top choice was wondering if I was interested in their research. We set up a Skype interview for the week after I got back to work. I'll skip over the story of the Skype interview and just say I was sure I'd blown it, that I'd flubbed the questions and sounded like a moron. I was in the depths of despair. Until 2 days later, when I heard that they wanted to fly me out for in-person interviews.
As someone who hasn't interviewed for a job in 13 years, two straight days of interviewing - meeting with a different person every half hour - was...daunting to say the least. I obsessed over what to wear that was both professional and would work in the Colorado winter. I read up on everyone's research and analyzed some papers and came up with lots of questions.
I flew out there and ran the interview gamut and ended up enjoying every minute of it. They were all interesting active people doing great research. I. Loved. It. One of the interviewers let slip that she was pretty sure I was their top choice.
I walked around Boulder with a huge stupid grin on my face the entire time because it was everything I'd dreamed and more. I called Jeff from the curb at the airport to declare it was "the warmest sunniest 27 degrees I've ever experienced" (not hard after 4+ winters in Chicago). I went for a run early in the morning, all around campus and The Hill and Boulder Creek Trail, and I loved it in my oxygen-deprived state.
And then I flew home, exhausted but elated, to wait again.
Thankfully, some people don't take forever to make decisions. I only had to wait a week before I got the email offer and another week for something tangible in my mailbox. I still have to officially confirm things with the university and figure out what project I'll be working on and a start date and plan a move and so many other things!
It might have been noticable that I planned a race schedule for 2013 with no local (CA) races after July. There was indeed a method to the madness! For now I will just keep on training and racing and working and saving $$ for my life as a poor graduate student. But I'm excited beyond belief for the new beginnings ahead. I'm grateful that I've reached a point in my life where it's possible to go back and chase down the dreams that were put aside. Better late than never!
And what have YOU been up to that you haven't posted about publicly on your blog? :)