When she was growing up, Rena Ingram was fascinated by TV detective dramas, especially “CSI.” Yet she didn’t want to be a cop. For Ingram, it was the science behind the sleuthing – the gathering of evidence, the lab work that helped nail the bad guys – that got her attention.
“I had a keen interest in those types of shows,” she says, “especially when I took chemistry in high school.”
Ingram and chemistry proved to be a successful mixture, one that she thought would include a résumé-boosting Ph.D. at Georgia Tech. Once at Tech, however, she faced a mystery of her own: Why was she so unhappy? Is this level of stress normal? If she gave up, what would her family and friends think?
Counselors in the Office of Graduate Studies say what Ingram experienced is common among graduate students. “They may feel they are failing even though they are simply taking a different path,” says career development advisor Robbie Ouzts.
With the help of Tech services and programs, including counseling from mentors, Ingram refocused her goals. Instead of staying for a Ph.D., she opted to graduate from Tech last May with a Master of Science in Chemistry and embark on a different career path.
Ingram is now at Marietta High School, taking part in a collaborative teaching program made possible by a $30,000 Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. She’s still in graduate school – at Kennesaw State University, where she’s pursuing a Master of Arts in Teaching, Secondary Chemistry. She’s getting a chance to try her own methods of engaging students, such as using sports-themed games to teach them about the periodic table.
Those students have helped her smile again. “It’s been great. Those kids are my babies,” she says with a laugh.
A Change of Scenery – and Heart
Ingram believes the seed for wanting to be a teacher was planted by her chemistry instructors at her Augusta, Georgia, high school and at Fort Valley State University, where she received her B.S. in Chemistry in 2014.
“My teachers made it fun and interesting, and that’s what made me want to pursue chemistry,” she says. After college, however, she set aside any plans of teaching. Instead, she moved to Atlanta and applied to Georgia Tech’s doctoral program, mostly because of Tech’s reputation. Naysayers also provided motivation.
“People were saying, ‘Georgia Tech’s too hard. You’re not going to get in,’” she recalls. “But when people hear that someone went to Georgia Tech, they say, ‘Wow, you graduated from Tech?’ The name alone holds so much weight.”
When she started at Tech, she believed that five years of work toward a Ph.D. would allow her to apply for a good crime-solving job with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Soon her doubts started. She knew that teaching was an option after getting a Ph.D., but was it something she should pursue immediately?
Her advisor, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor and Chair M.G. Finn, knew something was wrong.
“He sat me in his office one day and said, ‘You’re not happy here,’” Ingram recalls. “I thought, are you another person telling me I can’t do this? I was not receiving the message he was trying to send. I basically told him that I’d get it done; don’t worry about it.”
Tears, acceptance, and a different destination
“Second thoughts are the product of an active mind,” Finn says. “It’s often difficult to balance the desire to change with the need to persevere, but that’s where mentors can help. Ultimately, of course, it’s the student’s decision.”
Ingram made that difficult decision after her first qualifying examination. The panel members could tell that she didn’t want to be there, Ingram recalls. “They said I presented really well, but the work I put into my project could have been better. Their focus was in telling me that I wasn’t happy.
“Of course that put a damper on my parade,” she says. “So we talked, they left the room, I cried for a minute, and then I walked into M.G.’s office and said I want to be a teacher.”
Finn was delighted. A career in chemistry, he says, “doesn’t have to be research. We need great high-school teachers too.”
Finn believes it’s his job to give students the benefit of his experience and perspective when they decide what they want to do. “I try never to talk about finding what students are naturally good at,” Finn says, “because this implies that everyone has something they’re preordained to do, if only we can discover it. Instead, I try to help students find what they want to work hard at.”
A Ph.D. is not for everyone, just as an academic career is not the only option for someone with a Ph.D. “Students can decide they do not like research, or find that the Ph.D. path is not what they thought it would be,” Ouzts says. “Students may find that the industry job market is much better than the academic job market.”
Ouzts says graduate students can experience a range of emotions when second thoughts happen. “I assure the student they are just choosing a different path – not a wrong path, just a different one,” she says.
She encourages students to write down their reasons for deciding to leave a program. She also recommends creating an “elevator pitch,” a 30-second summary, for their new direction.
Comfortable in the classroom
Ingram may still try for a Ph.D., but in education, not chemistry. In the meantime, she wants to have the same impact on her students that her chemistry teachers had on her. She’ll have plenty of chances to do that; as part of her $30,000 Wilson Foundation Fellowship, Ingram has committed to teaching science classes in underserved Georgia schools for three years.
Any worries about what friends and family might think about her change in Ph.D. plans dissolved with her mother’s encouraging words, Ingram recalls. “She said, ‘You just have to do what you makes you happy. I’m proud of you regardless.’”
The same attitude informs Ingram’s advice to graduate students who find themselves reconsidering their career goals: “Follow your heart. Listen to the voice in the back of your head. If something is telling you to go for it, then go for it, even if it’s not the same plan that you had.”
Robbie Ouzts, a licensed counselor and career coach, encourages students having second thoughts about graduate studies to speak with their advisor or principal investigator. They can also seek counseling and other information through these Georgia Tech units: