As we near the end of another academic year, some college students will be assessing their major, some will be considering different career paths, and others will be making decisions about graduate school. The commonality is that each person is making and assessing plans. This process can be anxiety provoking, as individuals wonder whether they are making the correct decision and if that decision will turn out as expected. The true, and often unappreciated, wonder is that sometimes Plan A goes awry in the most beautiful of ways, with a closed door forcing a focus on previously unexamined open doors.
The stories to illustrate this idea are like flowers in a pot. There is a striking difference between what is visible on top and what lies beneath. The gorgeous, vibrant flowers and their patterned leaves rise above, while beneath the soil is a tangle of colorless roots, sometimes burrowed into holes of the basket and often bent into uncomfortable configurations. Looking backward, life journeys are like the colorful flower, easier to see than the dirt-covered, tangled roots that were necessary for the flowers to grow. In this article, we want to provide encouragement of Plan B by talking about the dirt of circumstances and about how messy roots of unexpected plans can create the most pleasing blooms.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (2017) found that 33% of undergraduate students at four-year universities change their major at least once, and 10% of those will change multiple times. Other sources claim a much higher number, arguing that 50% or more of college students change majors (Best Value Schools, n.d.; College Rank, 2018). In other words, rethinking your college focus is a common experience for students.
Darren was a first-generation student, leaving for college with only a vague idea of what was in store for him. Because he was told he was “good at math and science” in high school, he started as an engineering major. He soon began to question this decision after a semester of decent grades but unfulfilling coursework. With very little guidance, Darren signed up for a wide range of general education classes to see where his true interests might lie. One of his classes was Introductory Psychology taught by a man with a passion for the topic. This influential teacher convinced Darren to change his major to psychology and modify his career goal to becoming a professor. Now, after almost thirty years of teaching university students, Darren says, “Changing majors was a pivotal turning point in my life where I went from doing what others expected of me to doing what was the right fit for me. Making the change was scary; however, it was very fortunate that I was willing to consider Plan B.”
Chloe (an alias) started college following the advice of her parents, who wanted her to have a "practical major." As she majored in business, she wondered if it was the correct path for her, especially as she found herself preferring her psychology classes to her business classes. Chloe took psychology in high school and loved it, but was discouraged from pursuing that major because her family thought it was a “dead end.” By her junior year, Chloe had taken enough psychology classes to meet the prerequisites for graduate school admission. A psychology faculty member noticed her enthusiasm for the discipline, reached out, and asked if she might want to apply to their PhD program. At first Chloe was terrified at the prospect of spending four or five more years in school and not earning money during this time (except a modest stipend as a graduate assistant). Despite these apprehensions, her gut told her to follow the path that would help her establish a meaningful, energizing work life. Business was certainly not her passion and so she decided to take the plunge and apply to psychology graduate programs. Because she loved everything she was learning and doing in graduate school, the five years passed in a flash and upon graduation, Chloe was able to become a psychology professor at a highly respected university where she could teach and do research on topics of great interest to her. Changing majors literally changed her life.
Moving among jobs also appears to be a common experience, particularly for young adults. The U.S. Department of Labor (2017) recently reported that adults change jobs an average of 11.9 times between the ages of 18 and 50, with an average of 4.5 of those job changes occurring from 25 to 34 years of age. LinkedIn supports this data by reporting that millennials change jobs an average of four times in their first 10 years following college graduation (Berger, 2016). These numbers may be higher than estimated because many individuals change positions within organizations, a move that is not necessarily included in a quantification of “job changes.” You might find it helpful to remember that a career move does not signify a need to leave an unhappy situation. Changing jobs can lead to increased income, responsibility, skill development, or challenge, as well as improved work-life balance and better employee-employer fit.
Donna ended high school with no goals and no interest in going to college. She translated her minimal typing skills to a job writing obituaries and church news for the local paper. After two years, she decided to, in her words, “give college a try;” however, she entered with no major and still lacking clear goals. She learned that Eastern Airlines was conducting interviews for stewardesses (now known as flight attendants) and made it through the first round. The airline flew her to Miami, FL, for more interviewing, which ironically, was Donna’s first time on a plane. She made it through the selection process (which at that time included having her legs checked for scars and reporting her body measurements), and served airline passengers for two years. She knew that one day she would want a more stable job, and after getting married, Donna moved to a job at the local bank. She recalls a frustrating experience where she confronted her boss about a new male employee who was hired at a higher salary than her salary and was given the explanation that the new employee “needed money to buy a house,” as if a woman would never have this need. To add to the injury, her boss then told her that she could leave the company if she wanted because “the door swings both ways.” Donna said that it was at that point when she realized that “nobody would tell me again that I would not walk out the door” and returned to college, this time with a clear plan and a major of business administration. Seventeen years after her first college class, Donna graduated and spent the next 40 years working her way up through the banking hierarchy, ultimately ending her career as a Senior Vice- President. As she reflected back on the twisting path that led to her niche, Donna advises, “Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the moment and be present. You are in charge of your own destiny. There are times when you hit a rough spot, but in the long haul, things work out and life is good.”
Changing From a Graduate School Focus to the Job Market
Another issue that leads to change for many students is the pursuit of graduate studies. If you are in a psychology department in early spring, then you have most likely watched someone in the process of nervously waiting to hear about admission status from graduate programs. Graduate programs in psychology are competitive, with median admission rates for master’s programs ranging from 35–65% and for PhD programs ranging from 8–32% (Michalski, Cope, & Fowler, 2018). The reality is that not everyone who applies will enter graduate school immediately. Although this might be disappointing, the stories we gathered suggest that an initial rejection from graduate school can be a blessing in disguise.
The path that led Trista to law enforcement was full of twists and turns. She started college as a mathematics major planning to go to optometry school after getting her undergraduate degree. After taking a psychology class her first semester, she concluded that she enjoyed it much more than math and changed her major. She discovered criminology while researching different job opportunities within psychology, which led her to add sociology (with a concentration in criminology) as a double major. Trista volunteered with her local police department to complete internship hours for her two majors, which led her to work as a telecommunications operator (dispatcher) for the police department. Despite her growing interest in the field of criminology, Trista applied for graduate programs in clinical psychology. Trista says, “I actually thought that I wanted to work in the prison system as a psychologist. I wanted to help criminals see their mistakes (and reasons for their choices) and help them learn ways to avoid reoffending when they got out of prison.”
When Plan A, getting into PhD programs, did not pan out, Trista started working as a dispatcher and then police officer in the very department at which she had previously interned. During this time, she pursued her backup plan, taking online classes to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice. After a couple of years of work and education, she transferred to the Street Crimes Unit and then to the Professional Standards Unit doing background checks on police officer candidates before transferring to the Criminal Investigation Division. There, Trista says, “I quickly realized that my passion is investigating crimes against children. In college, I didn’t even know that this field of law enforcement existed. I thought that crimes against children were investigated just like any other crime, but they are not. In most cases, children are abused and/or neglected inside their home with no witnesses except for their abusers or other children. As part of my psychology major, I took a child development class and volunteered one summer at a SC Department of Mental Health youth camp. I had always enjoyed working with children but had never considered seeking justice for them.”
For the past six years, she has worked in the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and is currently a Special Agent in the Special Victims Unit–Department of Child Fatalities, where she assists local law enforcement agencies investigate child deaths. Trista’s graduate degree was not a requirement to become a police officer; however, it helped her clarify her life goals and along with her experience, it qualified her to teach sociology and criminal justice courses at local colleges. Trista wanted you to know, “If I had stuck to my original plan of being an optometrist, or even my second plan of counseling prisoners, I never would have had the opportunity to make such valuable impacts in others’ lives or seek justice for the many children killed senselessly by the people who were supposed to protect them the most. My ‘backup plan’ has become my career and my passion. I am very thankful God led me away from my original goals and put me exactly where I was meant to be.”
Claudia also faced a life plan that did not go as anticipated when she graduated. Claudia had a stellar undergraduate career that included work experience, leadership positions, grants, publications, and awards. She applied to three PhD programs in clinical psychology and five master's programs, earning acceptance into all of the master's but none of the PhD programs. At the same time, Claudia experienced some unexpected personal challenges that made her rethink her life direction. She says of this time, "Once I graduated, one of the hardest things for me was getting used to my 'life plan' not going as I originally expected." Instead of heading off to graduate school, Claudia accepted a position as the Lead Research Assistant working in an adolescent brain development laboratory at a large university. She was thankful for mentors who reminded her that "if things do not go as planned, it is because something even better is around the corner." With this attitude in mind, Claudia took advantage of every opportunity available and continued to conduct and publish research. She sought these educational and professional growth opportunities in anticipation of one day reapplying to graduate school, but this time, as a much more competitive candidate. Claudia says that two inspirational quotes that have helped her maneuver through unexpected life events are: "Going through things you never thought you'd go through will only take you places you never thought you'd get to" by Morgan Harper Nichols; and a popular, unattributed meme that states "During your transformation, you might feel like everything is falling apart, but in reality, everything is coming together for the highest good. You are being pushed to evolve and get out of your comfort zone so you can live and experience your true greatness. Welcome change."
Gary, like many psychology majors, decided to apply to PhD programs in clinical psychology. One of his professors humorously warned him about the difficulty of acceptance by telling Gary, “You know how they pick new students? They throw all the applications in the air, and the ones that stay in the air get admitted.” Gary persisted, but six programs denied him admission. Again, like many psychology majors, he had not considered a Plan B. His friend happened to tell him about a job opening, so after graduation he ended up working as a special education teacher for students with behavioral and emotional problems. In this position, Gary gained exposure to the field of school psychology for the first time. He liked the fact that school psychologists do a variety of tasks including assessments, counseling, and behavioral interventions. The more he investigated, the more interested he was. Gary eventually applied to graduate programs in school psychology, and with his newfound focus and experience, he earned his PhD six years later and in a different field than he had originally planned. He is now a long-time faculty member who is able to help other students work through the same decisions he had to make.
Changing Direction While Pursuing Graduate Degrees
You may imagine that changing majors is limited to the undergraduate years; however, change is always an option and even occurs at the graduate level. Given the wide array of possible graduate programs, it is sometimes difficult to choose the best path, especially with limited experience. Luckily, sometimes life circumstances provide the path.
With a lengthy list of undergraduate accomplishments and awards, Amy applied to four PhD programs in psychology (developmental and neuroscience) during her senior year of college. She says that it was “humbling” and “devastating” to be accepted by none of them. She decided to continue at her undergraduate university and earned a master’s degree in biology with intentions of reapplying to PhD programs later. To fund her graduate study, she took advantage of different opportunities such as a graduate assistantship through the Department of Residence Life where she ran a small residence hall, as well as working in the Academic Success Center with academically at-risk undergraduate students. Amy also helped to develop and teach a course to first-year biology students on metacognitive study strategies. Intended as ways to make money, these opportunities instead inspired a love of teaching. So, Amy also earned a master of arts in teaching in secondary science education, another degree that was not part of her original plan. Upon graduation, Amy took on the position of Residential Learning Coordinator and now runs a residence hall of primarily first-year women, supervises and develops student leaders, creates and implements an intentional residential curriculum, and assesses and assists students of academic and behavioral concern, while still keeping up her teaching chops by adjunct instructing for the biology department. When we contacted her recently, she made the comment, “At the end of my senior year of college, I thought the world was ending, but now I do fulfilling work that combines my love of working with students, teaching, and research, and I’ve developed skills that I never would have otherwise. I always tell my students to follow opportunities and keep an open mind.”
Leah also ended up pursuing a different graduate path than she originally expected. After a stellar undergraduate career, Leah applied to nine PhD programs in clinical psychology. She received one interview, but got wait-listed. Luckily, she had also applied to three master’s programs and received offers from two of them. Leah says of this time, “I remember being extremely bummed out about this, and it was a huge blow to my confidence since this wasn’t part of my ‘plan.’ However, it turned out that going to a master’s program instead of straight into a PhD was very helpful for me.” While earning her master’s degree, Leah realized that her research interests had not been clearly focused during her first round of applications. In fact, she says, “I think that admissions committees could probably sense that lack of focus.” Leah took the time in graduate school to identify her true interests and find her niche in psychology. The second time around, she applied to 11 PhD programs, got six interviews and two offers. She is currently finishing her doctoral degree in clinical psychology at a school she did not even apply to in her first application process. She says, “Looking back at that first round of applications, and also being where I am now, I'm very happy with the way everything turned out. It may sound cheesy, but being somewhere now where I feel like I fit perfectly, it makes sense why everything happened the way it did. Also, I feel like the cliché ‘everything happens for a reason’ applies here, and that everything worked out the way it was supposed to. I'm sure that knowing that I would eventually end up where I was supposed to be may have brought me comfort when I did not get accepted to a PhD program the first time around.”
Changing Direction in Graduate School
Even students who gain immediate admission to graduate school are not immune from a change in direction, although this might be a less common transition than some of the others we have discussed. Graduate school is a difficult time to transition, as you run the risk of losing money, time, professional relationships, and educational credits (Rowh, n.d.). However, Dr. Katherine Brooks, a career counselor, says it is not uncommon for people to find themselves feeling dissatisfied in the middle of graduate school, “I see people get stuck all the time. They’re mad at themselves, they have regret, and they are comparing themselves to others in their field.” (Frederickson, 2018). However, she also says that changing plans in graduate school is not a tragedy, because “education is always good … it never hurts to learn.” (Frederickson, 2018). A secondary benefit of graduate school transitions is that sometimes such a move is necessary for people to identify and pursue their true passion. Being in the wrong environment can block the view of a better environment.
Savannah spent her undergraduate years interning and volunteering in positions that convinced her that clinical psychology was the perfect path for her. She focused her graduate search on a PsyD degree, and chose to attend one of the two programs that accepted her. Reflecting on that time in her life, Savannah says, “I think students get so wrapped up in the here-and-now that they lose focus on the endgame. I feel like that was me. I wanted to be a psychologist so bad that I had my blinders on, which deterred me from what I really wanted. I was focused on what was expected of me and not my dream.” Savannah started her graduate program and quickly realized that she was working long hours and sleeping very little. Three months into her graduate program, she had a heart attack, which led to ongoing medical issues for the next six months. She continued her graduate training, often doing her school work lying in a hospital bed. She was determined to reach her Plan A goal by finishing the program; however, it slowly dawned on her that maybe Plan A was not her best option. She says, “After a while, I realized that I was ‘living to die.’ To me, this meant that I was waking up every morning to live the same monotonous life that was surely going to lead me to my death. For some, it may seem a little dramatic, but after you stare death in the face, it seemed more realistic.” Savannah had to take a hard look at her priorities and decide what the hours of her life were worth. She found a clinical graduate program that was more flexible, even allowing her to complete her internship hours through paid, international positions. Savannah found a path to helping others when she stopped running down the path she was on and took a slower look around.
Merry had a similar experience in graduate school. She entered graduate school certain of the type of research she wanted to do and found a charismatic advisor to support her. Merry started her thesis research but says, “I could not seem to make progress. I wrote and rewrote sections of my thesis, I met with my advisor, and I sought encouragement from other students. Everything seemed perfect, but nothing felt right. One day, I was driving to campus and had the thought, ‘If I got in a car accident today, I wouldn’t have to go on campus.’ Wow. You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that this thought was a bad sign.” Merry finally admitted to herself that she was not happy in graduate school, which left her questioning every decision she had made for the past three years.
Merry stopped the thesis project that was underway, but continued in the graduate program. During this time, she says, “I recall a feeling of utter panic and even embarrassment, wondering how I was going to explain to people that I had failed in graduate school and no longer had a life plan.” Merry ended up working in an animal laboratory in the psychology department to make some money in the midst of this identity crisis. Despite having as she puts it “many preconceived, and mostly incorrect, ideas about animal research,” Merry was surprised to find that she enjoyed working with the animals and was fascinated by the research being conducted. She began to see light at the end of the dark tunnel and asked the faculty member in charge of the laboratory to be her advisor. According to Merry, “thus began a professional relationship that has been one of the most meaningful in my life. I started a new project, and having discovered a topic that I loved, I finished the entire thesis in less time than I had spent working on the introduction section of my previous one. A situation that seemed devastating turned out to be one of the most important and positive stepping stones in my career.”
We hope you have found some encouragement in learning about messy roots that, over time, nourished pretty flowers. The constant theme from all of the people to whom we spoke is that happiness is not hiding down a single life path, and in fact sometimes the overlooked path is the one leading to success. The fact that happiness can be reached in multiple ways does not suggest that walking the path is all that is required. In reflecting on her own life, Donna emphasized, “It takes hard work and determination.” According to Mike Rowe, the host of television’s Dirty Jobs, “Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.” (Be, n.d.) He further states, “Job satisfaction is important, but from what I’ve seen, it has less to do with what you do, and more to do with who you are.” (Rowe, 2019). We hope that you will seek happiness where you are, whether that be in the midst of Plan A, B, or C.
Be, L. (n.d). A fan asks Mike Rowe for life advice… His response is truly brilliant. LifeBuzz. Retrieved from http://www.lifebuzz.com/mike-rowe/
Berger, G. (2016, April 12). Will this year’s college grades job-hop more than previous grads? Linkedin Official Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/04/12/ will-this-year_s-college-grads-job-hop-more-than-previous-grads
Best Value Schools. (n.d.). When is it too late to change a college major? Retrieved from https://www.bestvalueschools.com/faq/ when-is-it-too-late-to-change-a-college-major/
College Rank. (2018). Is it too late to change my major? Retrieved from https://www.collegerank.net/change-my-college-major/
Frederickson, S. (2018, March 5). I got my grad degree in the wrong field! Now what? Idealist Careers. Retrieved from https://idealistcareers.org/grad-degree-wrong-field/
Michalski, D. S., Cope, C., & Fowler, G. A. (2017). Graduate studies in psychology 2018: Summary report: Admissions, applications, and acceptances. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/education/grad/ survey-data/2018-admissions-applications.pdf
Rowe, M. (2019). Mike Rowe debunks the myth of a modern manufacturing job. [Editorial]. Media Planet: Education and Career News. Retrieved from http://www. educationandcareernews.com/career-development/ mike-rowe-debunks-the-myth-of-a-modern-manufacturing-job
Rowh, M. (n.d.). Changing graduate programs: How doable is it? Retrieved from https://www.collegexpress.com/articles-andadvice/grad-school/articles/choosing-graduate-program/changing-focus-grad-school-how-doable-it/
U.S. Department of Education: National Center for Education Statistics. (2017). Beginning college students who change their majors within 3 years of enrollment. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2018434
U.S. Department of Labor: Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2017). Number of jobs, labor market experience, and earnings growth among Americans at 50: Results from a longitudinal survey. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/nlsoy.htm
|Merry J. Sleigh, PhD, is a professor at Winthrop University (SC) who has been actively engaged with Psi Chi for almost three decades. She earned her undergraduate degree from James Madison University (VA) and her doctorate from Virginia Tech. Dr. Sleigh has won numerous awards for her mentoring, teaching, and advising. She is particularly passionate about helping students develop skills for future success through participation in undergraduate research.
Darren R. Ritzer, PhD, is currently an associate professor of Winthrop University (SC). He earned his undergraduate degree in psychology from Lafayette College (PA), and he earned his PhD in industrial/ organizational psychology from Virginia Tech. Before arriving at Winthrop University, he was a major in the U.S. Army. Dr. Ritzer teaches a range of undergraduate courses, including an introductory course that helps incoming students develop skills and strategies to succeed in college.
RELATED ARTICLES | VIEW DIGITAL PUB | VIEW PDF ISSUE | TABLE OF CONTENTS
Copyright 2019 (Vol. 23, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the
International Honor Society in Psychology
Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members
and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs,
awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers,
graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various
fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.
Eye on Psi Chi is published quarterly: