I realize I’ve taken what appears to be a surprising left turn with this whole becoming a scientist thing in my mid-40’s. Most of my friends never knew I had a love of Astronomy. I didn’t even acknowledge that love because I never considered that a road I could go down. Some friends have even expressed mild concern about me pursuing something like this at my age. I’ve also heard a lot of “at least you have the opportunity to do it.”
That statement seeps under my skin leaving it crawling every time. The words may not be intended in the way I perceive them, but it feels like a jab as a married-with-children female. Yes, my husband has a good job, which is tenuous at this point, considering his company just declared bankruptcy. This opportunity is not because I have a husband. It is because I came from absolutely nothing, busted my ass building a career and a life for myself and for my family with no leg up. Every penny that’s allowing me to go to school today I earned the hard way – with grit and labor. Make no mistake, I created this opportunity, while having the support of my family, and I’ll be lucky if it lasts. A lot could go wrong in the four to six years it will take to finish this.
The reason I “have the opportunity,” finally, at 44 years old, is because I never had the opportunity before, and now, I have no choice.
I knew my career was dead three years ago when I turned down a 6-figure salary at a television network because the reality of the job was that I would be on the road, only seeing my family 1 day a week for years. I would be working in a dysfunctional stew of misogynists, airports, and dingy arena hallways on no sleep and failing health due to no ability to have a moment of normal life. Two members of that crew had heart attacks on the job. And for what? A weekly live-televised gladiator Mixed Martial Arts blood sport? I loved working live TV, but I loved being a mom and wife more.
Whether it was that job, or another one in my industry, the options were the same. That is the nature of what I did for a living. It was good while it lasted. It took me farther than I ever imagined. It served its purpose and kept me driven with the ability to support myself, but it wasn’t fitting into my world anymore. That kind of travel, that kind of blood, sweat and tears sacrifice for the industry-perceived life and death urgency that is pointless television production no longer fit.
As with other people in mid-life like me, this decision didn’t happen overnight. I first turned to corporate America. Surely my skills would be great for marketing, advertising, or communications positions. The job descriptions encompassed my experience entirely. The only thing I lacked was a degree. I revised hundreds of resumes and well-worded cover letters over the years, tailored specifically for the company and position I was applying for. Nothing. Not an email. Not a phone call. I suspected that the degree was the stumbling block, maybe the saturated market, maybe I’m unemployable in the real world. Maybe we should move to Nebraska.
The few responses I did get was that I was overqualified. One response when I applied for a Director of Entertainment position at SeaWorld was a phone call pre-interview. I was thrilled! Finally! The first question I was thrown was did I have a degree? As soon as I said no, followed quickly by my upbeat 20-years-of-experience speech, the call was over – and so were my chances at landing any kind of staff employment at my level of expertise in San Diego.
I didn’t initially want to go back to school. The idea of sitting through Communications, Marketing, or English Fine Arts classes related to my field was more unappealing than a rotten egg. That ship had sailed. Being in those classes would have felt like a giant step backwards just to go from being self employed to some 9-5 corporate job I was already qualified for, pushing marketing strategies and social media posts for some product you don’t need or want.
I figured if I was going to go through the time, effort and financial commitment of getting a degree, why not actually learn something important that matters to humanity that I’m super psyched about? Maybe even combine my communications skills under the science umbrella!
The truth is, I don’t know if I can do it. My subconscious has been regularly jolting me awake from deep sleeps in terrified heart-pounding panic, having to catch my breath just lying there. I don’t know if life will get in the way. I don’t know if the high-level math will be too hard, the physics beyond my comprehension level. I don’t know if I can afford it and endure over the long haul. I don’t know what my prospects will be at 48 and 50 years old, finally holding official papers with no science-related work experience competing against hordes of young people. I don’t know if it’s the right decision to go for an Astronomy degree instead of getting something more related to my former career. That would certainly be the more practical approach.
Here’s what I do know. The cards are stacked against me. They always have been. And as my academic counselor said when I shrunk six sizes as we talked graduation dates, “You’ll be 50 either way.”
I know it’s crazy. I know it’s late. I know it’s a risk. I know that I have no idea where it will lead or if it will pay off in the end. I know I could fail. I also know that if I don’t try, I’ll end up, if I’m lucky, in some communications job in some office pushing some agenda that I don’t really care about wondering if I could have been a scientist.