It’s been a while since I’ve had a night off with no impending deadlines. Technically I could be grading, freeing up the upcoming weekend or preparing for the presentation that I’m to give in about 20 days but then it’s 20 days away or I could be reading any of the 13 books I brought with me all the way from India spending precious baggage weight rather than a couple extra T-shirts or sweatpants, which I constantly find myself short of. But still, no “panic-inducing-watching Netflix while insanely guilty” type deadlines looming over my head. Just a cold, quiet, empty November night and honestly, it feels weird. Have you ever been to a public swimming pool at noon during summer and there’s children shrieking everywhere and water splashing and you hold your breath and go underwater and everything quiets away in an instant? But then you’re underwater. I mean, there isn’t much to do underwater rather than perhaps appreciate the weightlessness and try not to think about the fact that it’ll end very soon as you’re mandated to return to the chaos to stay alive. It’s that kind of weird.
I spent an entire year doing nothing. Well, not nothing but what would appear to be so from the outside. Personally, I’d like to think it was my most productive year so far. I got my teeth fixed, my skin fixed, I finally learnt how to drive a car and got my license, I worked out with near mechanical regularity and most importantly, I picked a direction. I’m never the picker. I’ve always been more of a “slightly intending but accepting of anything that came my way” type of person with most things in life. But then the message was clear, that ideology brought me so far but no further. Because this time, what “came my way” were programming jobs in the IT sector and well that was it. The idea that all my life to that point was leading me to those jobs didn’t sit well with me. It can’t be all that there is to life. It was textbook, entitled millennial behavior, thinking that you could just keep going with the motions and wonderful things would keep dropping in your lap. But then that’s what our parents told us, right? Get good grades in school, you’ll get a great college. Get good grades in college, you’ll get a great job. Work hard at your job, you’ll get good money and life would be comfortable in all the ways it wasn’t for them. That’s just a fairy tale, innit?
2018 was the year that I
figured out realized that life doesn’t give you what you want no matter how badly you want it. It gives what you deserve. To deserve something is remarkably hard to accomplish and I had done nothing remarkable to deserve anything out of the ordinary. So I gulped down my defeat, turned a blind eye to all my friends and peers who were moving on with their lives and decided to stay static till I figured out what it is that I could get myself into that might someday push me to do something remarkable.
I must definitely take a moment here to mark my privilege. The fact that I had an option to do this is definitely a luxury that not many people get. Nobody else in my extended family that I know of could even dream of sitting on their ass for a year to “figure out their purpose”. That is a one way ticket to familial disownment. (Grammarly says that’s an error but I’d like to think I coined the word.) My parents were, for most of the time, more supportive of this decision than I could’ve ever fathomed. They always expected the world of me and I was sure they would expect me to have the next fifteen years of my life mapped out at that point. Perhaps they did but when I told them “I didn’t know”, they sure did a mighty good job obscuring their disappointment. I wasn’t given any ultimatums, no passive aggressive manipulations or not even a nagging question of “So, you there yet?” I said something along the lines of – “I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything new in college that would make me remotely useful in the real world and I don’t know where to go ahead with this”, and all I got in return was a “Cool, let us know when you do. What do you want for dinner?” That couldn’t have been easy, I know that. I’ve seen the smile disjoint from their eyes for a brief moment every time a relative, neighbor or colleague asked them what their son was doing. I definitely made a mental marker to carry forward this moment of parenting should I become a parent someday.
With enough time and peace of mind, I did what any 20-year old who had no worries in the world would do – binge watch Netflix and play video games. Of course, the thought of not knowing what’s next kept running in the back of my head constantly. Every day I would have a new “what if” pop up in my head, only to be shut down immediately after a short google search. Me settling on physics was one such “what if” too, only the google search ended up giving me some hope when I found that quite a few people had done their undergrad in various engineering fields and then migrated to physics. Going farther down the rabbit hole revealed that many, many NASA astronauts had one degree in mechanical/electrical/aerospace engineering and one degree in physics. That sort of made certain childhood yearnings resurface that I had previously regarded as unrealistic pipe dreams. Then I discovered an entire blog that specifically addressed the different ways for an Indian student with an engineering degree to pursue physics. Evidence was mounting up that this was actually something doable and something that definitely interested me and I’m a sucker for signs from the universe.
Some might say I was just scared of stepping out into the world and rushing back to the more familiar college environment, where I at least know that I’ll get marks and “succeed”. Some did say that. Mostly I said that to myself. Then there was the whole issue of expense. Sure education is an “investment” but goddamn this is risky. My dad isn’t getting any younger. That poor man needs his rest. Then there is the whole – “younger brother starting college” – scenario. I couldn’t help feeling that they were being too conservative with this college selections because they’ll need to spend a huge amount for me too.’Cause I don’t really remember my dad looking at the fee-structures of the universities I wanted to apply to back for my undergrad. But suddenly now, that was a huge factor. So was I taking money from my brother’s savings? Is any of this fair? I try not to dwell on this too much but it still keeps me up some nights. Most nights.
I did try pretty hard to get a MSc in India itself for this very reason but it didn’t quite work out. So after months and months of diligent googling, mountains of advice from Reddit and just a lot of googling, I had my scores and applications sent out to 8 universities in the US, 7 of which rejected me. Mostly ’cause being a greedy dumbass, I had applied to PhD programs as my first preference. PhD programs are fully funded and doing a PhD straight after bachelor’s isn’t exactly unusual in America. Most universities even specifically stated in their application forms that they would give more priority to a candidate interested in pursuing a PhD over someone looking for just a terminal masters. So I thought it was the obvious decision without realizing the kind of experienced applicants I’d be going against.
What a fucking moron.
So yeah, somewhere around the 5th rejection I was fully convinced this was a mistake. I was back in my university then helping one of my professors with his doctoral thesis. That whole experience was pretty surreal. I definitely felt better about deciding to go back to academia and get into research but it was looking more and more like Physics wasn’t going to happen and on my prof’s suggestion, I applied to engineering masters in the UK this time. Why UK? Because zero application fee. I had no intention of spending more money on this. Deep down I didn’t want UK to happen. So I applied for the top 5 aerospace masters program in the UK. Yeah, I went all out. It was Imperial College and Leeds, Glasgow, Bath and for some reason Queen Mary. I applied to both astrophysics and engineering at each college. It is super confusing now that I type it all out. I was definitely panicking and scrambling for something to hold on to. UK should’ve never happened. I should’ve stuck to the original plan – Pursue my dream in Physics in the US, or chuck masters and pursue my other dream at a tech job in Zoho. (10 years down the line, this line is going to be insanely sweet or just insane. We’ll see.)
So all scrambling done away with, I started getting admits from UK. Like, all of them except Imperial. Imperial was the best of the best and still pending. Thank you ego boost. Then began the process of reading up on Brexit, career opportunities in UK and if a one-year masters degree is worth the trouble. My professor was happy. By then I got rejected by all 8 colleges except RIT had sent me an email saying while I’m not getting into the PhD Astrophysics program, they are still going to see if I’m eligible for their brand new MS in Physics program. I didn’t even flinch. I knew it was hopeless. While Glasgow in Scotland appealed to the romantic in me, I decided to finalize University of Bath. Bath is beautiful too ; it’s literally a city full of ancient baths. Plus the program I had applied there for was the MSc in Design engineering, not aerospace. It felt like fun and with a slightly more expanded scope of job opportunities. I was going to wait for Imperial and if that’s a reject, off to Bath it was.
Then what happened? Frickin’ plot twist is what happened.
RIT emails me saying I’m accepted into their MS in Physics program with a Teaching Assitantship and a 50% tuition fee waiver for the first year. Happy news, right? Wrong. So wrong. Because Imperial college offered an admission a few weeks later. And now I had to pick. I hate picking. I was never the picker, remember? How could I possibly make this decision. It was physics at RIT. They had a well established Astrophysics PhD program, their work in gravitational waves is definitely top 2 in the country. Other than that they are great for computer science and software and that’s it. This was their inaugural year of MS in Physics. What if a science degree from a technical school couldn’t open much doors into research for me later on? On the other hand we have the Imperial College of London. Many of my seniors couldn’t get into it. Just the brand value alone was blinding. But it was engineering. I gave engineering a shot. We didn’t click. I didn’t feel anything. Plus Imperial would cost me more for the 1 year duration than what RIT would cost me for 2 years. But still, it was freakin’ Imperial.
So I told none of my professors, for they would collectively lose their minds if they knew I was thinking of rejecting Imperial and neither did I tell my parents ’cause they’ll only be even more confused than me. They still don’t know. I think I told a total of 3 or 4 friends. I tried telling Reddit but couldn’t post in any of the big subs due to a lack of karma back then. This might as well be the most important, future-defining decision I’ve had to make and I did it entirely alone and scared on some random night when I was just completely tired of running in circles in my head and I reached over to the laptop, hit reject on Imperial and went to bed. The most expensive move I’ve made is now officially the most risky decision I’ve made as well. No pressure. No pressure at all.
Everything calmed down then, though. The only other decision I was yet to make was which airline to choose. Easy – the cheapest. A bunch of runs to the bank to get my loan finalized, a bunch of meet ups with friends and relatives to say goodbye and it was all over.
All my confusions went away as soon as I landed here and classes began. It was 2 days of physics and I felt more fulfilled than after 4 years of engineering. I really enjoyed how classes were held here. I broke my head for every assignment but felt extremely satisfied and enriched at the end of each. It was definitely not easy. There was a whole identity crisis that I’m not getting into right now. But it was satisfying. I don’t think Imperial or Bath could’ve given me anything remotely close. Although Zoho still remains an open question.
So what is the titular lesson? This is going to get preachy but it is what it is. I think we all decided what we want to be a very long time ago and we all do know it deep down. It’s is a matter of introspection and being really honest with yourself about what you want. Regardless of “practical thinking” or the expectations put on you by your people or your own fear of failure, we all should know what it is that would make us feel worthwhile when we eventually die. And the realization can come upon anytime. It could come during absurd boredom in a gap year, it could come after 6 years of soul sucking corporate work at a MNC, it could come well after you’ve convinced yourself that you’ve figured what you want to do and taken considerable steps in that direction. But when it does, it might be worth it to go in pursuit of it, no matter how risky or expensive or scary it might seem like.