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Did I make a colossal mistake? MPP -> PhD


shadowzoid

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So here's my story. I went to an elite US school and got good grades. After spending a year not getting any jobs I enjoyed, I decided that I needed more expertise. For me, as a polisci student interested in research, the choice was between a PhD or a MPP. For a long time, I was sure I wanted to get a PhD. But as I thought about it, I wasn't sure I was ready to do such a rigorous program or if I needed to do PI work to feel fulfilled. I reasoned I would be satisfied doing RA work, consultancy, or a less involved form of research. I was also scared off by all the dismal statistics about a social science PhD. And so I just matriculated into a top MPP program with good funding (won't go into any debt). 

But as it gets closer to the start of the Fall term, I am feeling depressed. I feel like as the years go, my choices just narrow. And I now feel like I closed that PhD door, as everyone online is saying an MPP is a bad route if you eventually want to get into a good PhD program. It seemed to me at the time that an MPP would be a good way to hedge my bets and feel around for my interests. I was primarily theory-focused in college (I've never had a non research job), so I thought an MPP would be a good way to enter the non-academic work force in a research capacity; the best of both worlds for someone who was burned out from undergrad. But now I'm thinking maybe I should have just bit the bullet and do a PhD. At least then I'd have choices. At least then I wouldn't hit a glass ceiling at the WB or think tank or whatever research center when they won't promote me further because I lack a PhD. And then what, I go back as a 40 year old doctoral student in a class of 22 year olds?

I am just not sure on what kind of research I would like to do. I enjoyed completing my thesis, but there were hard moments. And I enjoyed the RA work I've done, but they were really mundane (maybe in professional research it's less mundane?). Adding on to this, many of the cool research jobs seem to be held by statisticians MAs or econ PhDs, so I also feel like my MPP won't prepare me enough (although mine is one of the "quant MPPs"). I suppose in retrospect I should have tried harder in getting a research job so I have a better understanding of my options, but that's gone. Maybe I should reneg my MPP  and just try the job market again until I'm more certain? 

I'm not sure what I'm looking for in posting this. Maybe consolation. Maybe some tough love. Maybe just a support group where others share their experiences. I don't know who to talk about this. My family aren't big into theoretical research or politics, so they don't even get why I enjoy research. My advisors, who like me, seem too busy to bother with such childish concerns. In any case, it feels good just to write this out even if no one replies. 

Thanks

Edited by shadowzoid
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First off, you didn't make a colossal mistake, and you are not doomed to an eternity of whatever it is that you are imagining. For what it's worth, you do not sound ready to do a PhD right now. I don't know enough about the job market in your field to help you decide if you should do your MPP or do something else entirely, but I think a good start is deciding to take this summer as an opportunity to learn about the jobs that are out there in your field, the preparation they require, and what you *think* that you might enjoy. You have at least 2-3 months and that is a lot of time, if you take this seriously. You should really have a much better understanding of that before you continue with any further education. 

Keep in mind that choosing something now does not forever close all other doors, you can change your mind or do something else later. People grow and change and learn they do or don't like their jobs all the time. They also start and stop studying if they discover that what they thought they wanted isn't actually like they imagined. You can also always go back and do a PhD if you find that you need one in order to advance your career a few years down the line. The MPP may not be the most direct (or best, whatever that means) path to a PhD, but I highly doubt it'll make it impossible to go that route. I also doubt that it'll automatically keep you out of top schools. You'll need to write a strong SOP explaining why you want to do a research degree after working in something else for a few years, but this is precisely how real life work experience can help you; it's not impossible. And yes, maybe you'll be older than some other students in your cohort, but first, not everyone will be 22, and second, I don't know why you think being 22 is such an advantage. In this kind of field, having experience -- in terms of both life and work experience -- is a big advantage. You'll need that if you want to finish a PhD. A PhD requires focus and determination. You need to know what you want, which you clearly don't right now. Going for a PhD after a few years of doing a related job, with a clear goal of career advancement in mind, and probably a much better idea of what you'd actually study in school, is a much better idea than going in blind because maybe that could help you get a job that maybe you would like. 

(and I am doing my very best to ignore that comment about being jealous of immigrants who are working a job they don't want to have so that their children can have a better life, and also that other comment about "academics or armchair academics", and believe me, it's hard.)

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Thanks. That helped a lot. And I guess I will remove that immigrant thing. It was just meant as a joke, but I guess the tone wasn't right and/or you had to have seen the interview with WB director Jim Kim to get it (it was his words). Also in no way did that part say anything remotely close to "immigrants working at jobs they don't want so their children have better lives." No where did I mention children...? @fuzzylogician

 

Edited by shadowzoid
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  • If you were competitive for good PhD programs already, will having a funded MPP really make you less competitive for admissions in the future?
    • I happen not to believe that any degree narrows your options (if there's no debt involved), as long as you're flexible with it. If you only apply to jobs that REQUIRE an MPP or PhD, sure, that might narrow your options, since almost nobody lists jobs like that, but there are a lot of jobs where it'll be a bonus.
  • Are these research jobs that cyclical? I don't understand your description of your job market—your chance of finding a research job is "gone" (forever? by September? what?), but maybe you should withdraw from the MPP to enter the job market (which job market?)
    • Corollary: start actually looking for jobs before you decide about the MPP; if there's truly nothing being advertised at this time of year, that's an argument in favor of the MPP, but if there are lots of tempting things, it will do the MPP no harm for you to withdraw in a month rather than today.
  • At my PhD program—which is admittedly in on the less straight-laced side of the social sciences, unlike polisci—all the professors were complaining that they were afraid too few incoming students would be over 30-35. They were upset by the idea of a class of 22-year-olds. You have plenty of time.
  • PS, that immigrants comment: gross. Don't fetishize people like that.
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About the job market thing, I think you misunderstand. I've been searching for jobs ever since I graduated. I didn't mean anything about job seasons. It's just that I kept getting rejected by outright research jobs. All I could land are "research jobs" that are 80% administrative. I took those jobs for a while, but they just don't make me feel fulfilled. @knp

 

Edited by shadowzoid
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1 hour ago, shadowzoid said:

Also in no way did that part say anything remotely close to "immigrants working at jobs they don't want so their children have better lives." No where did I mention children...? @fuzzylogician

 

That was an attempt at a generous interpretation of what seemed like a pretty insensitive comment. If you meant something else, a joke or whatever, then I apologize. But editing both the comments I mentioned out and then complaining about how you were misinterpreted isn't exactly a fair thing to do, is it?. 

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@fuzzylogician I don't know what you want me to do. I'm trying my best. I thought you would want me to remove it. I don't know. You want me to add it? I'm trying my best to be a good person. I don't know what the world wants of me. Please just tell me what to do. I've literally just been starring at my ceiling feeling like shit that someone thinks I'm a racist. What if I am a racist? I don't think I am. I want no one to suffer. And I just tried my best to rectify the situation. But it's not enough. 

 

I'm sorry. Could you please deactivate my account? I think a mod has to do it right?

Edited by shadowzoid
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You should only add that comment back if you want to. I personally wouldn't. I thought apologizing and explaining that you didn't mean anything by it was perfectly fine, as you initially did. But then you edited your apology and added that direct mention of me, so I responded. I don't know what you wanted me to say, given that the comment was no longer there by the time you asked me to respond. Maybe we can just put this behind us, because I think your original apology was sincere and editing the comment out was a good choice.

We'd do better to go back to discussing the substance of your original post. Maybe you can tell us more about the jobs you had and what you did and did not like about them. That would be a good start to thinking about whether the MPP is a good choice for you. I do agree with @knp that a funded program will at least not close any doors for you, but I don't know that that is a good enough reason to do the degree. It should also lead somewhere that you want to go. 

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I had a job as a database manager. I enjoyed  being part of this group of researchers and being exposed to new ideas. I also enjoyed learning how data management works and the challenges of keeping good data. But I didn't like how mundane data collection is, and how at the end of the day, I didn't get to reap the benefits of those efforts as I didn't do the actual analysis. 

I then had a job in an experimental econ lab. Once again, I enjoyed the environment and I enjoyed seeing how an experiment is designed to answer a question. But I hated actually running the experiment as I didn't get to reap the benefits (I was not part of the statistical side or paper writing). 

I was kind of hoping to have a job where I help someone answer a question. I want an integral part in the research. No necessarily on a PI level, but I would like my input on methods and theory to be considered. I figured if I want to do this, I should improve my techniical skills and knowledge in specific areas. That way, I'd be an asset to a research, and she will feel confident in delegating more substantial work to me. So an MPP seemed reasonable. I remember in college how I would start reading something with no ideas, then by the end, I would have all these theories or thoughts. I'm just trying to recapture that I guess, but so far all the jobs Ive had is just...work. Like grueling grunt work. I never get an "aha" moment anymore. 

Edited by shadowzoid
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Alright, that's a start. Next set of questions: how long did you do each job? How long were the people around you in their jobs? The ones who were getting to do what you wanted to -- what background did they have? What kind of education, how many years of experience? 

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7 hours ago, shadowzoid said:

But as it gets closer to the start of the Fall term, I am feeling depressed. I feel like as the years go, my choices just narrow. And I now feel like I closed that PhD door, as everyone online is saying an MPP is a bad route if you eventually want to get into a good PhD program. It seemed to me at the time that an MPP would be a good way to hedge my bets and feel around for my interests. I was primarily theory-focused in college (I've never had a non research job), so I thought an MPP would be a good way to enter the non-academic work force in a research capacity; the best of both worlds for someone who was burned out from undergrad. But now I'm thinking maybe I should have just bit the bullet and do a PhD. At least then I'd have choices. At least then I wouldn't hit a glass ceiling at the WB or think tank or whatever research center when they won't promote me further because I lack a PhD. And then what, I go back as a 40 year old doctoral student in a class of 22 year olds?

A few things come to mind.

1) Your choices only narrow if you want them to and if you let them. Remember that. Many PhD students think they've totally killed their chances at getting a job because the academic market sucks and the hyper-specialization of the PhD means they don't have the broad set of skills employers may seek. Right now, you've avoided that. Try to think of the positives and all the potential doors available to you, rather than just the negatives.

2) The PhD is never really closed. There were people well over 40 when they started the doctoral program at my institution. And, you know what? It was fine. They brought valuable experience to the classroom, succeeded, and found jobs after graduating. The idea that you can't start grad school after working for a while is completely insane. I'd say that until the last recession, it was actually more common to find people who had been out of school for several years then returned than it was to find someone who went straight from BA to PhD.

2a) In addition, realize that the tone of the last line I quoted above suggests a negative attitude toward older students who return to pursue a PhD. Drop that ASAP! If you want to get disavowed of the idea that being an older student is awful, check out the various threads for older students on this board.

3) An MPP will give you skills which can help you get a research job. If the program is funded and if you've been having trouble finding a job, why not do the MPP, gain additional skills, maybe do an internship on the side, and then hit the job market again with a stronger set of credentials? 

3a) I see no way in which this would hurt you for the future, whether you want a research gig or to go on to do a PhD.

4) Think about the huge difference in effort and time commitment between a MPP and a PhD. MPP = 2 years. PhD in political science = 4-7 years. 

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How did you get "good grades" an "elite" school and not get a bunch of offers from major think tanks? I went to a pretty decent school, I wouldn't personally call it elite, but undergrads with a 3.6 or above were routinely offered internships and RAships with EPI, Brookings, the various Feds, not to mention offal like Cato and AEI. People from HYPSM (so, elite schools) sometimes get research gigs at the World Bank right out of the gate. I also know plenty of people working administrative positions for 12 bucks an hour, but they were French majors (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but they don't have research experience). Not tryna be shady, but this seems shady to me.

Anyway, I think you should get a journal or a therapist, because none of this is a real problem that anybody can help you with. From an objective perspective, you're young and you have a free pass at grad school, so your life is pretty peachy. I don't know what kind of parents are putting this much pressure on you or whose instagrams you're following that you think starting a PhD at >22 years old is the end of the world. Why are you so stressed about missing out on PhDs or not working for the World Bank if, you know, you don't seem to like research all that much? An administrative position isn't the end either, and many of them pay pretty well. As long as you're good at your job, who cares what that job is? Honestly all this reminds me of me at 16, when I was convinced life would be over if I didn't get into Cambridge. Life is long. It's bigger than prestige, comparing yourself to Cindy the startup CEO, and giving your mom stories to tell her friends. As the immigrants say, calmate bro.

PS I'm not sure why I'm explaining this to a polisci major, but you most probably are racist. We all are. It's a cultural thing. 

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Thanks everyone. 

@fuzzylogician i had each of those jobs for 6-8 months. Everyone with jobs at those places I wanted had PhDs. Why wasnt it a no brainer to get a PhD you ask? Well when I researched people on linkedin and stuff, many masters had jobs that sound like stuff I want. 

Also thanks for not attacking me because of my emotional swings. I know we shouldnt take online strangers seriously but your approach really helps me as a real person

@ExponentialDecay i think you misunderstood my intentions. I dont really care about the prestige. If I did, then as you said, I would have just gotten an admin job. Imo administrators possess more social capital and wealth than researchers. I just dont think id enjoy it. Concerning the age thing, thats an attitude I gained from some posts on this forum. And concerning my career, I do not know why I couldnt get a good job with good grades from an elite school. I realize that many people similar to me get these jobs so you can imagine how low my self esteem is

Edited by shadowzoid
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No Im admittedly a bad networker. But not for lack of trying. I think most people underestime how difficult networking can be for some people. I was hoping to also use an mpp as a second chance to force myself to be extraverted

Edited by shadowzoid
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2 hours ago, shadowzoid said:

No Im admittedly a bad networker. But not for lack of trying. I think most people underestime how difficult networking can be for some people. I was hoping to also use an mpp as a second chance to force myself to be extraverted

I think you'll find a lot of people on these boards who post about how hard it is for them as introverts to speak up in class, teach, present, network with strangers, etc. It's not all that uncommon. It sounds based on others' posts and your post above that the MPP might be a logical next step. I don't think it's that surprising that you didn't get to do data analysis or experiment design if you were only at your job for a few months and with much less training and time on the job than it sounds like the other people had. This seems like a clear case where you need to get more training to get the jobs you want. I still don't think that you're ready for a PhD right now, but a 2-year funded degree that can help you gain at least some of those skills and hopefully also some perspective might not be a bad idea, especially given that you don't have a good job that you enjoy right now. That said, if you start and discover that it's not what you want, you can always reevaluate.

I think a decent goal for the summer could be to learn more about the jobs you want to have and the training they require, then read up on requirements and what your program (and school more generally) can offer, so that once you're there you can do your best to get as much of that relevant training as possible as part of your MPP, and then see how it goes from there with better jobs. Read up on summer internships, opportunities to meet professionals in the field you want to go into, certificates or courses in areas of interest where your program might not be able to directly train you, etc. Part of what you need to do is just grow up -- get a better perspective of what's out there and on being an adult with career aspirations; you'll get that by just putting yourself out there and talking to others in your program. I also think it's a good idea to think of networking as an explicit goal for yourself. I don't think you want to think of it as forcing yourself to be extroverted (but if you ever learn how to do that, let me know, I'd love to find out!); you can be who you are but set yourself a goal of going to at least one professor's office hours a week, or attending one networking event a month, or meeting at least one new student and one new professor at a conference you're attending, etc. Those are attainable goals, and they have the advantage of not forcing you to change who you are. 

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Have you considered visiting the counseling services available in your area? I don't think you've made a big, unrecoverable mistake in your educational choices. I do think that you sound depressed. I hope I am not getting too personal, but it just seems that your problems are about something other than your education.

Realistically speaking, people are not often utterly fulfilled in their jobs. Fulfillment generally comes from within. That isn't to say that your job should be a horrible chore that you hate. Just that your expectations could be out of line with what really happens.

Non-traditional students of any age are generally welcome. You don't have to "finish learning" by a certain age. So if you choose to be a graduate student again at 40, you will bring a different set of skills and experience to the table.

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@fuzzylogician Thanks, that advice helps. I think you are probably right. Right now I think I will use this MPP as a way to understand non-academic research and industry jobs, and see if I will like it. In undergrad I mostly focused on my studies (even in the summer, I just sat around reading books and papers), but I think I will plan to get an internship for every semester so I get a lot of exposure to different careers. I suppose I will also balance between academic and professional networking, so that I still keep a door open into recs for a PhD application. To this effect, I hope to take at least 2 PhD-level courses so that I understand what a PhD will be like. I will try to visit all of my professors' office hours and be more open to emailing alumnae for informational interviews (something I have never felt comfortable doing). I will also focus on taking courses in methodology, since to me it seems like I would be an asset doing research if I have technical skills to offer. (I'm writing this paragraph more for myself as a statement of my goals). 

@Nightly and @fuzzylogician I want to say something about this age thing. I don't want people to think I harbor an age-ist bias. You will just have to trust me that I am telling the truth, but I developed this view from informally reading forums and anecdotes of academics. For instance, Albert Einstein said, "a person who has not yet made his great contribution to science by age thirty never will." Paul Dirac wrote in a poem about physicists,"He's better dead than living still//when he is past his thirtieth year." In his blog with Richard Posner, the late Gary Becker argued that academia is a young person's game as young people produce more innovative scholarly work (in an article arguing that we should make it easier to force old academics to retire). And you may say to ignore these men, but I hope its understandable that it's hard to ignore the words of those at the top of a career you may want. 

My fear is not that I won't become a superstar. I couldn't care less about that. My fear is that I'm wasting my prime years. My fear isn't that I can't get a PhD - I know I can - but that I won't be as productive getting it later. And I value productivity from internal validation - it makes me happy to get 'aha' moments even if no one finds out I did. But I understand that many people outside academia have gone on to do great things, and so perhaps that's the mentality I should focus on. 

Edited by shadowzoid
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43 minutes ago, shadowzoid said:

My fear is not that I won't become a superstar. I couldn't care less about that. My fear is that I'm wasting my prime years. My fear isn't that I can't get a PhD - I know I can - but that I won't be as productive getting it later. And I value productivity from internal validation - it makes me happy to get 'aha' moments even if no one finds out I did. But I understand that many people outside academia have gone on to do great things, and so perhaps that's the mentality I should focus on. 

Don't focus on getting a PhD in order to be productive. Be productive now. Sure, you will change the ways you offer value to society based on all of your life experiences, but it really is bunk to say that you are wasting your prime years if you don't complete a PhD by then. 

 

45 minutes ago, shadowzoid said:

To this effect, I hope to take at least 2 PhD-level courses so that I understand what a PhD will be like.

PhD isn't really about the courses. It's the lonely and lengthy periods of writing that hold people back. Many of those who don't finish a PhD aren't having trouble with the coursework or the comps. It's the dissertation - and with that, it's mainly the process. To that end, you could consider making sure you do some serious writing for publication. 

 

On 6/9/2016 at 10:59 PM, shadowzoid said:

I feel like as the years go, my choices just narrow.

Yes, life is a process of narrowing of choices. Each choice we make tends to tighten the circle of possibility. Embrace it. It's life. Work with it, not against it. It's not something to fear or worry about.

5 hours ago, Nightly said:

Have you considered visiting the counseling services available in your area?

 I think this is a good suggestion. A woman who works in the counseling center in my institution says that their grad student clients outnumber the undergraduate clients 5 to 1. 

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53 minutes ago, shadowzoid said:

@fuzzylogician Thanks, that advice helps. I think you are probably right. Right now I think I will use this MPP as a way to understand non-academic research and industry jobs, and see if I will like it. In undergrad I mostly focused on my studies (even in the summer, I just sat around reading books and papers), but I think I will plan to get an internship for every semester so I get a lot of exposure to different careers. I suppose I will also balance between academic and professional networking, so that I still keep a door open into recs for a PhD application. To this effect, I hope to take at least 2 PhD-level courses so that I understand what a PhD will be like. I will try to visit all of my professors' office hours and be more open to emailing alumnae for informational interviews (something I have never felt comfortable doing). I will also focus on taking courses in methodology, since to me it seems like I would be an asset doing research if I have technical skills to offer. (I'm writing this paragraph more for myself as a statement of my goals). 

@Nightly and @fuzzylogician I want to say something about this age thing. I don't want people to think I harbor an age-ist bias. You will just have to trust me that I am telling the truth, but I developed this view from informally reading forums and anecdotes of academics. For instance, Albert Einstein said, "a person who has not yet made his great contribution to science by age thirty never will." Paul Dirac wrote in a poem about physicists,"He's better dead than living still//when he is past his thirtieth year." In his blog with Richard Posner, the late Gary Becker argued that academia is a young person's game as young people produce more innovative scholarly work (in an article arguing that we should make it easier to force old academics to retire). And you may say to ignore these men, but I hope its understandable that it's hard to ignore the words of those at the top of a career you may want. 

My fear is not that I won't become a superstar. I couldn't care less about that. My fear is that I'm wasting my prime years. My fear isn't that I can't get a PhD - I know I can - but that I won't be as productive getting it later. And I value productivity from internal validation - it makes me happy to get 'aha' moments even if no one finds out I did. But I understand that many people outside academia have gone on to do great things, and so perhaps that's the mentality I should focus on. 

Jesus, dude.. We live in an old folks' world these days. Everyone who is anyone is old as hell, from politics to academia. You should do something about that massive chip on your shoulder/all that insecurity of yours.

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2 hours ago, shadowzoid said:

 

@Nightly and @fuzzylogician I want to say something about this age thing. I don't want people to think I harbor an age-ist bias. You will just have to trust me that I am telling the truth, but I developed this view from informally reading forums and anecdotes of academics. For instance, Albert Einstein said, "a person who has not yet made his great contribution to science by age thirty never will." Paul Dirac wrote in a poem about physicists,"He's better dead than living still//when he is past his thirtieth year." In his blog with Richard Posner, the late Gary Becker argued that academia is a young person's game as young people produce more innovative scholarly work (in an article arguing that we should make it easier to force old academics to retire). And you may say to ignore these men, but I hope its understandable that it's hard to ignore the words of those at the top of a career you may want. 

I am not going to try and list accomplishments people had after the age of 30. I'll just say it's completely ludicrous to think that your life will be in some real sense over when you're 30. Hell, if that's the case, I can just quit now, I'm already done. There are things you can do better when you're young and other things that you get better at with age; maybe you know what you can do now (or more likely, you're reading about what others are describing and worrying about how it translates into what you are capable of), but you're completely lacking in any perspective about the skills you'll gain with age and experience. To think that you'll be done in less than a decade is a great way to psych yourself out but not a good way to live. I'm sure you have professors and other adults around you who you admire? who are respected, productive, active? I know I do. If they weren't able to make any significant advancements after the age of 30, why keep them around? This is a very shortsighted view of the world that you (unsurprisingly) tend to hear from young people, who tend to overestimate themselves and underestimate those around them. 

That all aside, it's probably also a good idea to get thoughts of making earth shattering discoveries (at any age) out of your head. Most researchers don't. But that doesn't mean they don't still make important contributions to their fields, or that they don't live full happy lives. 

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@fuzzylogician Ya I agree. I wasn't making an argument. I was just explaining where I started off from. I just didn't want people thinking my perception came from nowhere. It just feels like people are treating me as a context-less idiot who is fueled purely by the delusions stemming from insecurity. I'm not - or I don't think I am. I have a context for my perceptions and beliefs. But I am updating my priors now, so no worries

Edited by shadowzoid
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1 hour ago, shadowzoid said:

@fuzzylogician Ya I agree. I wasn't making an argument. I was just explaining where I started off from. I just didn't want people thinking my perception came from nowhere. It just feels like people are treating me as a context-less idiot who is fueled purely by the delusions stemming from insecurity. I'm not - or I don't think I am. I have a context for my perceptions and beliefs. But I am updating my priors now, so no worries

I know you also see those opinions on this board. I don't think anyone thinks you dreamed up your opinions based on no evidence whatsoever. What some of us are saying is that you have to consider the source of the advice you're taking (some posters a whole lot more confidence than experience), and also be open to changing your mind. Sounds like you are, so good for you. 

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