Halloween is a time to celebrate everything scary. We laugh at witches and ghosts and dress up as the Addams family. But what do we do when real fear holds us back from achieving our greatest potential?
I have mentored hundreds of graduate and medical students, most of whom are underrepresented minorities. We get into in-depth conversations about their career choices and the opportunities and the obstacles that stand in their way. Some common patterns emerge, including fears. Fear can be healthy. It can keep us from harm. But fear can also be paralyzing. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Below are some of the fears that I have found most commonly in my students and some of my advice to them:
Fear of making the wrong decision: I would say that this is their fear numero uno! Many of my students are already deep into a career path. They are already out of college; most of them have already graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the sciences. Now they are deciding what to do next. They ask things like “Should I go to med school?” “Master’s program?” “Ph.D.?” and worst of all, they ask; “Did I make a mistake choosing my major in college?” They have so many choices in front of them that, as if it weren’t hard enough, they second-guess choices they no longer have because those choices were made in the past.Too many choices can paralyze a person with indecision because the fear of making the “wrong” decision is too strong. In his book The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices create anxiety. He recommends a systematic approach toward making a choice that involves six steps. Some helpful choice-making steps from this book that students can apply to make their career decisions are:
FOMO: Yes. Fear of missing out is a big one for my students. This one is about fearing that the career path they didn’t choose is more: fun, lucrative, fulfilling, etc. than the one they chose. This fear is intensified when they view posts on social media or messages from people who did choose that other career path.
As we all know, the day-to-day of any career is much less glamorous in reality than it seems on social media. But my students still fear that other friends or classmates have it better than them because they seem to have made a better choice.
To alleviate this fear, I have told students to look at their own social media postings. Did they post any pictures of the all-nighter they pulled to create a poster for a presentation or did they only post a picture of themselves in front of the poster after it was done? Did they post pictures of themselves working for 12 hours in front of the computer, or a picture of themselves receiving the diploma after their dissertation was accepted?
Just in the same way, what their friends post on social media is not always an accurate representation of the hard work and determination it takes to actually achieve a successful career. Who knows, there’s probably someone out there having a major case of FOMO over the life they think you have. ;)
Fear of disappointment: Many students I see have a fear of disappointing others. Even students who are far into their career experiences want to please their parents, teachers, and mentors and make them proud. For some, this means that they have to pursue a career as a medical doctor because this is something their parents want or expect. Choosing another career path can seem like a terrible disappointment that no good son or daughter would want to impose on their parents.
I try to help students understand two things. First, that it is their own life they are living, not their parents’ lives. Second, I try to reassure my students that their parents will understand (eventually) if they take the “disappointing” career path, as long as they do well in what they choose. However, I must admit that sometimes this is not exactly the case. Some parents are really vested in their children’s career choices and others not so much. I’ve had parents call me and tell me how important it is for their child to go to medical school, and have even received a threatening letter when a student was not accepted into my program. I try to explain to these parents that the alternative is worse. Who hasn’t met someone who is miserable in their profession? I bet many of them are miserable because they pursued the profession that their parents chose for them.
A healthier approach to this fear could be having a heart-to-heart conversation with your parents. I know that it can be super scary. But it beats a lifetime of trying to live someone else’s life. Most parents wish a life of fulfillment and happiness for their children. We parents need to understand that sometimes, the career we set out for our children is not the path they can or want to take.
Test Anxiety: Apparently, this is a real thing. Many of my students can know a subject very well, be able to do everything correctly in class, explain all concepts perfectly, and be as sharp and smart as can be. But, when it comes to testing, (especially standardized tests), they fail to show that same brilliance. I have seen students study a whole year to take the GRE then not show up on the day of the exam. I’ve also had several students who, while trying to get into medical school, take the MCAT over and over again, only to get worse scores every time they take it. Putting the issues with standardized testing aside, test anxiety can be a real paralyzing fear for some students.
Of course, feeling some worry and even some fear about taking an important test is normal, and may even be beneficial. That little void at the pit of your stomach can be a good motivator. But when that feeling becomes real cold-sweated fear and doesn’t let you show what you know on a test, that is test anxiety.
According to the Mayo Clinic, these are some of the things you can do to alleviate test anxiety:
Lack of Fear of Student Debt: Interestingly, not so many of my students have expressed financial fears, even though most of them have student loans that are, to me, horrifying. Most don’t mention their student loans unless I ask, which is scary in itself because I think that many students don’t want to face their financial situation. This denial of fear allows them to borrow more money, but at what cost?! I would argue that denial of fear also has its consequences. Having some degree of fear of student debt is be a healthier approach to career decision-making.
Helping our students face their fears, address the ones that block their path to success, and face the real obstacles that can truly derail them is part of our job as mentors. Students, you are not alone in your fears. Being open about your fears and having a plan for dealing with them will set you free.
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Dr. Luz Claudio is an environmental health scientist, mother and consultant, originally from Puerto Rico. She is a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health. Luz recently published her first book: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper: The Step-by-Step Guide. Dr. Claudio has internship programs and resources for young scientists. Opinions expressed in this blog are solely her own and may not reflect her employer's views.