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When I hit obstacles on my academic journey, I learned to keep trying and embrace the unexpected

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ROBERT NEUBECKER
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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 377, Issue 6606.Download PDF

Earlier this summer, my alma mater finally held my Ph.D. commencement, for degrees earned during the 2019–20 academic year. I was thrilled to return to campus to celebrate this milestone, which had been postponed because of the pandemic. While there, I noticed a poster board titled “Unlock your potential,” and one of the sticky notes on the board caught my attention: “Keep trying until you get it right.” As a student, I would have easily overlooked this note. But now, it resonated with me so strongly that I stopped to reflect on how I got to this point.

Growing up in rural China to a family of farmers, I dreamed of becoming a scientist. Books and newspapers became my good friends on this path, and I made it to college in Beijing. I struggled but managed to graduate, though without a sense of academic fulfillment in my field of engineering. Still, my goal to become a scientist remained alive, and I decided to pursue a master’s degree in a new field, meteorology. I was inspired to explore climate change and how agriculture could adapt, which is vital to farmers like my family. It was invigorating that my work made an impact. When I finished, I wanted to try something even more ambitious: a doctoral degree.

My aspiration met hard reality when I failed my target school’s Ph.D. entrance exam. Nearly all my friends and professors advised me to put my Ph.D. ambitions aside and accept a coveted position I had been offered at a meteorological bureau, observing and reporting weather conditions. But I doubted whether this job was right for me. I enjoyed research and I worried the job, with its emphasis on routine work and little room for creativity, would dampen my passion to explore. So, I decided to pursue a riskier path: applying abroad for doctoral programs.

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I learned to enjoy the process of trying and the unexpected opportunities it brought.
  • Huanping Huang
  • Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge

While studying to pass the English language tests required for those programs, I worked as a research assistant to earn a living and support my applications. My living conditions—all I could afford was a windowless basement room that fit just a twin bed and one chair—occasionally tempted me to regret my decisions. As I took the English tests multiple times but never scored high enough, my self-doubt grew. Had I chosen the wrong path? Despite the setbacks, the fear of a bigger failure—being jobless the following year—motivated me to keep trying. Eventually, I passed the tests and was thrilled to be accepted into a doctoral program in the United States.

Once there, I encountered even more challenges—language and social barriers, cultural differences, demanding academic requirements, and more. Yet I held the same attitude that lifted me up from the basement: Keep trying. In particular, communicating proved to be very difficult. In Beijing, I was always eager to talk to people. But in the United States, I often wouldn’t understand why something was funny even as people around me laughed. The frustration made me hesitant to attend social events, but my heart called on me to not stop trying. Fortunately, my classmates continued to invite me and would break the ice by introducing my roots as a farmer, which unexpectedly became an effective conversation starter. Over time, I spoke fluent English and made new friends. I moved on to a postdoc position and then a faculty job search. Similar to the earlier steps in my journey, the process was by no means smooth, as I only got one interview in the first 2 years, but the lessons I learned paved the way to success in the third year.

On the eve of the Ph.D. commencement, I realized that by trying again and again, I have unlocked my potential. Trying does not always lead to ideal results, which can be frustrating. However, by following my heart, I developed a clearer view of how I needed to adapt. By focusing more on what I achieved and less on what I missed, I learned to enjoy the process of trying and the unexpected opportunities it brought, regardless of how different they were from my initial expectations. Without the attempts and adjustments, I would not have found my right place in the world and grown into the person I wanted to be.

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