This late March, I was one of the 396 undergraduate students in the nation to win the 2020 Goldwater Scholarship for excellence in natural science, mathematics, or engineering. What an absolutely surreal experience.
I’d had a vague idea of the existence of the Goldwater Scholarship since high school - I’m not sure how I was introduced to it, but I recognized its value in the world of academic science, a world that at the time I was fairly confident I wanted to enter.
As I continued to do research at Rutgers, (and that “fairly confident” turned into a “can’t imagine myself doing anything else”), I had the opportunity to listen to the Distinguished Fellowships Office at Rutgers talk about fellowships and scholarships, including the Goldwater.
As I did more and more research, not just scientifically, but also on the Goldwater itself, I realized what an amazing opportunity it could be and how excited I was to apply. I knew I had some meaningful and transformative research experiences, with amazing mentors that would advocate for me, and I wanted to see the boundary of what I could accomplish.
The course of my research wasn’t necessarily affected by my desire to apply for the Goldwater (not that you can control how your research turns out anyway). I still went to the same conferences I would have otherwise, I submitted abstracts for the meetings I was already planning to, and a paper with my name on it still took absolutely forever to go through review and publication.
But I did spend weeks and weeks poring over my essays, my short answers, my research descriptions. My primary research essay had at least 10 drafts, with edits going back and forth between me, my grad student, and my PI. Even answers as short as 100 characters were written, re-written, and re-written yet again. It is undoubtedly the most time I have spent just crafting my writing. (For a moment over winter break I had locked myself in the basement for 36 hours to furiously write and my parents were justifiably alarmed.)
I submitted it in early January for internal nomination consideration and to be honest, I really thought I had a chance. I knew I had represented myself as best I could, I knew I was a good applicant on paper, and I knew I really, really wanted it. Of course, I was also incredibly uncertain because Rutgers is a research powerhouse where undergrads are getting the chance to do some amazing, groundbreaking research. And the aforementioned Fellowships Office had already warned me that nominating sophomores is rare, not to mention nominating a potential MD/PhD (as opposed to straight PhD). But at that point, just the process of going through and taking that much time to complete the application had taught me so much about myself, and had given me time to think critically about my research, so I figured it wouldn’t be a total loss. (There was always junior year.)
I shrieked in the middle of Physics recitation when I found out I had been nominated. The email told me to tell no one (because they hadn’t finalized all nominees), so of course, I proceeded to tell everyone. (I’m kidding, just my grad student, PI, and a handful of my friends that didn’t really get the hype, to be honest.)
I was ecstatic, and honestly at that point truly believed (maybe more than I should have) that I could go on to win the scholarship. I felt comfortable and confident with my application, partly because I had received a lot of positive reinforcement and validation from the Fellowships Office and from my mentors.
It was a few weeks into quarantine when the winners were announced, at noon sharp. Classically, I overslept and opened the email late, alone, lying on my bed. And… I don’t know. I was underwhelmed. I think I had imagined winning it so much in my head that once I actually did, it didn’t really register as reality. I texted all the relevant groupchats, emailed my letter writers, used a lot of exclamation points that I wasn’t really feeling. I was just floating in some surreal space. I didn’t even tell my parents I won it until that evening.
Gradually, it started to hit, as I read the announcement email again and again, as I scrolled through the list of the other winners, and as the congratulations poured in from friends and professors and lab members (and those weirdly distant relatives after my mom tagged me in a Facebook post).
But the moment where it truly hit, I can pinpoint clearly, was when I joined the Goldwater Scholars Community Slack. I scrolled through the hundreds of introductions being made in one of the channels and I felt so incredibly overwhelmed. Undergraduates from literally all around the nation (from everywhere!) were introducing themselves and their research and saying how glad they were to be welcomed into a community like this one. They talked about the groundbreaking research they’d done, the research they want to do, their career goals. This was the overwhelming moment that had initially been missing. I spent hours scrolling through each introduction, replying to ones I found interesting, engaging with this new community I was thrust into. And not just new scholars! I was part of a community of scholars who had gone on to win fellowships like the NSF-GRFP, the Marshall, the Churchill, the Rhodes! Who had gone onto incredibly prestigious graduate schools and who were doing some amazing, impactful research. It was spectacular. I couldn’t believe I had achieved something that put me in the company of these scientists.
(That’s also when the major imposter syndrome kicked in. I sometimes think that I just wrote my way into the award, and didn’t actually do enough to deserve it - because how could I possibly stand out amongst these amazing peers doing more amazing research than me and working just as hard? Now I realize that writing the application is half the struggle and it is the reason I got the award, by writing on the back of my science. Imposter syndrome is weird, but I’m learning to overcome it.)
But I was very excited for the next few weeks - as I became more and more engaged with the Goldwater Scholars Community, the more and more I realized the impact of this award and the impact it could have on my scientific career moving forward. (Of course, getting recognized by your university and them sharing your achievement also helps you get more excited about it.)
And so even though I’ve written nearly 1100 words on winning the Goldwater, that’s not really what this is about. (Sorry, I know, this is a lot of reflective writing that really doesn’t interest anyone but the person writing it.)
This is about what comes next. (And micro-analyzing my thought process in hopes to initiate some self-discovery.)
The reason I was initially underwhelmed with winning the Goldwater, (as I later realized, when a friend pointed it out after I confessed I wasn’t really as happy as I thought I would be) had been because I thought winning the Goldwater would be this one grand validating moment. I would be validated as a scientist and that it meant everyone would see me as such. To an extent, I know that’s mildly true, but at the time I was coming off of a steamroller of rejections from summer research programs that I honestly thought I had a good chance at getting into, my confidence stemming from my Goldwater nomination. I thought that if I had a chance to be awarded the prestigious Goldwater, how come so many of these prestigious research programs didn’t hold me in the same regard? My ego had been - rightfully - knocked down a few pegs and I was upset.
And so it wasn’t until I interacted with the Goldwater Community (and the summer program I did get into was canceled due to COVID anyway) that I realized that I needed to stop using arbitrary outside measures of success to inform my own happiness and intrinsic validation. I realized that receiving the Goldwater was that incredibly validating moment. And not necessarily validation in the sense that my ego was satiated and I’m set for life (although that was a mindset I initially struggled with). But validation that all of the hard work I had been putting into my research and potential career was seeing the beginnings of a return on investment.
Once I embraced the Goldwater and the amazing community it had presented me with, I became more and more excited about the future. My imagination and ambition ran away with itself and I started to see doors open that I hadn’t even known existed or that I thought were locked beyond belief. Those amazing graduate schools that I had never considered I would be competitive for were now more of a possibility. Fellowships like Gates-Cambridge and Churchill and Rhodes were now on my radar. I was swept up in the possibilities and I was afraid I was becoming too ambitious, believing I was going after awards and opportunities I have no business going after, that I would stand no chance at winning them.
But at the same time, two years ago I didn’t think I would be a good candidate for the Goldwater, and who knows where I’ll be in two years if I apply to these big-name fellowships? The Goldwater was just a dream two years ago, just like these UK fellowships might be nothing more than a dream now. But maybe these dreams will also come to fruition.
But I was getting ahead of myself again - I was overtaken by these possibilities because I didn’t know they were even possibilities, that they even existed. I hadn’t taken the time to think about my career and whether these fellowships would be what’s best for me.
I remember the Fellowships Office first telling me about these UK scholarships. I used to think, “yes these are prestigious, but why would I do these - it would mean putting off grad school for another year.” Even the Fulbright - which had sort of been on my radar of possibility before the Goldwater - was not appealing because of the year “delay” it would cause. Especially if I was not even a competitive candidate for them.
But after I got the Goldwater everything changed. The taste of success from the Goldwater has made me unwilling to stay on the path I initially imagined. Applying to these scholarships was now on the table. And more than that, Goldwater Scholars had gone on to win them! Within the Goldwater Community itself, there was an emphasis on these scholarships that only fueled my interest in them. I started to understand the value of the experiences the fellowships would give me - what I had been thinking of as a delay was just another opportunity for enrichment.
I brought up the prospect to my parents, and they were swept up by the possibility as well. They brought up a story of a teacher I had in elementary school in Canada - Mr. Szabo was in charge of “gifted students” and “enriching their education.” (I have many opinions now on the idea of “gifted kids,” not all of them great.) When I was nine, Mr. Szabo had told my parents that I had the potential to win scholarships like the Rhodes in the future and that I should be put in a prep school to “nurture my mind” or something. My parents were hopeful American immigrants who wanted me to succeed, so of course, they latched on that possibility.
But who in their right mind says this about a nine-year-old?!
(This brings into question the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy and labeling theory and how much of my success was due to my parents putting in the effort to realize that “Rhodes dream” and how much would have happened if they weren’t told of my “potential,” even if it subliminally affected their actions.)
I’ve always grown up with passion driving my ambition. With goals that I consistently push myself to achieve. And if I achieve them, the goals only get higher and the ambition only gets stronger. This manifests itself as insane amounts of pressure I put on myself to succeed and to fulfill my ambition. And sometimes this pressure can be mentally exhausting and absolutely destroy my mental health and self-confidence.
That’s what has started to happen once I start considering the possibilities. I’ve started obsessing over the potential for winning more fellowships, what that would mean for my chances of getting into better graduate schools, what that would mean for my scientific career moving forward. I have the same dream every scientist does - “next step, Nobel” is what I texted my friends after I won the Goldwater. Should I try my hardest to pursue that dream even if it means chasing after emblems of success and changing the path I thought I would take?
I’m torn between what seems like two disparate paths. One, a drive to accomplish the unaccomplishable, to become the next great name in academic medicine, to push myself to the point where I can embed myself in the annals of science. Or two, to just throw this ambition to the wind and give my little part to science and be ultimately content with falling into the fringes among the majority, for the sake of tempering this pressure I’m putting on myself.
I was initially planning on applying to MD/PhD programs as soon as I could, so I would start right after undergrad. I would try my hardest to get into the best program I could, but it would be what it would be. But now, what if by taking a gap year, getting these fellowships, doing more research, pushing for more, would get me into a better program? Open up even more doors? Get me closer to this impossible dream?
At first, I thought the decision was about being happy - I thought I would be more content to go with the flow and not try to push myself towards something I can’t achieve. But I realize it’s not about being happy, I would be happy regardless, either way, I'm literally doing what I love more than anything else in the world, research!
But how much am I willing to sacrifice for that dream and how hard am I willing to push myself? How much do I even need to? The easy way seems to be to just ride this, keep working as I have but always aim within the realm of the possible and hope that I hit big. But whoever knows me knows I have an incredible aversion to taking the easy way out. But then I think, is the second way really the easy way out? Or is it just the right way? The happy way, the less stressful way? The way that is "normal"?
And so I'm at a point now where I’m thinking, is it even worth it? Is it worth it to keep putting this pressure on myself to succeed when I’ll just be sad if I don’t? Do I even know what it means to be successful anymore? I can't really tell if this self-inflicted pressure is wearing me down yet, but it must be, right? Is it worth chasing that impossible dream?
I don't know what to do. Is it worth it to shoot for the stars and be content to land on the moon (the scientifically correct version of that popular inspirational saying)? Is the disappointment of trying my hardest to get to Beetlejuice and being incredibly sad that I only had enough fuel to make it to the moon worse than just aiming for the moon and being happy about getting there?
This reminds me of what I felt when I committed to Rutgers. I was upset because if I was going to end up at Rutgers anyway, what was the point of four long, hard years in high school of work and grit and just...trying so much. And I struggled with that feeling for a long time. But now I’m understanding that all that hard work really did matter. It set me up for all the success I'm having now. It showed me failure (that part sucked) and it showed me growth. Do I want to go through that again? Mentally, no, not really, it really sucked. But maybe that's just what I have to do.
And there are more questions to ask myself: Am I just seeking the validation that another prestigious scholarship would give me? If I am, how can I overcome that mindset of the need for outside validation? If it’s not the validation, am I seriously considering delaying my career to pursue another enriching opportunity? Am I more interested in the true experience or the return on investment it’ll yield me in the future? Am I doing all of this thinking just to satisfy my own ego and desire to “be the best”? Is my ambition clouding my judgment?
Those are a lot of rhetorical questions that I don’t yet have answers to. These are all questions I have to address before I can make a decision about my future and the path I will take to get there. I have to make sure I’m making these decisions for the right reasons and not for ones that are selfish or unimportant or grandiose.
I’ve always had issues with my need for validation stemming from my crazy ambition - I have tons of intrinsic motivation, but I’m working on making sure my perception of my success doesn’t rely on outside indicators. I’ve been struggling with this and probably will continue to (I am a 3 on the Enneagram), but understanding the role it plays in my decisions and my future is the first step to overcoming its influence.
So in conclusion... I have no idea anymore. I'm still as confused as ever, but writing it all helped, maybe. We'll see what happens. Maybe it’s worth it to try, to do as much as I can to make myself a better applicant, a better scientist. I guess it's better to give it my all than to sell myself short. Now I just have to figure out this path is actually what I want or if I'm just being blinded by recent successes.
Well, that was a considerable roundabout way of talking to myself about everything, but the Goldwater has changed so much for me. So much within me. I am genuinely excited to see what comes next. And how and where I decide to take myself.