STEM to Psychology Ying-Yang

Brenda Castro

I've been asked regularly enough about why I switched from STEM to psychology, so I figured I'd go ahead and share more thoroughly here.

Growing Up

I had grown up just doing what seemed required: graduating high school, going to college, and getting a PhD. I enjoyed STEM, and I did want a career that would let me be financially stable or better. So I just kept on that track and never gave much thought to other careers. I did want to do something "worthwhile." I felt I would be... failing if I became only a teacher or something like that. I had always loved math and wanted to get into computer science. So I focused on STEM schools, visited Harvey Mudd College, and absolutely fell in love.


However, when I started freshman year, I really had to pay attention to my mental health. I was feeling super anxious and incompetent because I felt like I could barely follow what was going on in class, let alone do any of the homework. I tried to work with others, and I did, but even that was a stressful experience for me. I didn't have a steady group that I could work with due to our differing schedules, despite all the freshman having to take most of the same classes. And I felt guilty in collaborating because I didn't think I contributed much. I felt so lost! So I felt like I was just asking for help the entire time, being annoying.

Along with feeling incompetent, I felt increasingly lonely. Not having a steady group to work with made me feel alone. Not being able to enter the dating scene when I wanted to made me feel alone. At night, I'd wish I didn't have to sleep alone and would hug my Toothless plush. Anyway, I don't mean to start sharing TMI (too much information). This experience just feels significant to my journey.

With these intense emotional struggles, I started wondering about depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses. I felt similarly lonely in high school, but I was such a high-functioning student that I didn't think anything was significantly... wrong. I didn't think I'd actually have depression or anything. I wondered, and people sometimes asked me if I had ADHD because of my energy. To this day, people ask me about autism! Anyway, I didn't see any therapist until college. My parents wouldn't have reacted well to my wanting to see one.

So throughout Harvey Mudd, I did see several therapists on and off. While majoring in Joint Computer Science-Mathematics, I read a ton of psychology (or self-help) books as well. I tried everything I could think of: exercising more, eating healthier, journalling, gratitude practice, meditation, talking with friends, sleeping regularly, yoga, therapy, medication, changing my environment by studying abroad, volunteering at an animal shelter, lowering my responsibilies, and maybe more. No matter what I tried, I feared every semester that I would fail a class, and my anxiety and depression stayed. I'd cry so often.

When graduation came, I was relieved, but I was also depressed. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, but I had been applying to PhD programs because my current plan was to become a professor. I liked teaching and wanted to help others by finding useful information with research. When the responses came, I was essentially choosing between the University of Florida and Cornell. When I would tell others about that, they'd tend to say that it seemed like an obvious choice. While Cornell seemed more prestigious, UF was comfortable. One of the professors was really excited to work with me, and that rapport could be very good. Then, the professor at Cornell was lovely too, and I loved that I'd get to be in New York—and potentially New York City.

At this point, I felt no motivation. I didn't want to do anything. I wanted to just work at Trader Joe's or something—do something easy. I didn't care. I wanted to get by. When I asked my best friend for his thoughts on my situation, he suggested I go to Cornell. I could always stop, but if I stopped and later want to go "back up," that would be much harder than "coming down." I agreed with his logic, was hopeful that I could improve myself over summer, and decided on Cornell.

PhD Program

I arrived at Cornell Tech in New York City in a pretty low state. That summer, I had lost about 17 pounds due to what I believe was anxiety-induced indigestion problems. I felt so nauseous during that summer. I could barely leave my bed. I could barely handle watching anything. I spent my time doing so-many-piece jigsaw puzzles and coloring. I force fed myself and took it as easily as I could. I would ensure to always eat a little bit at a time because there seemed to be a very small range that I could tolerate between eating too little and too much, too rarely and too often. I don't know how I was better enough to travel from California to New York City, but I did. As soon as I got there, I found a psychiatrist. He prescribed me some much needed anti-anxiety medication in addition to the antidepressants I was already taking, and I gradually got my appetite back.

With those mental health issues, I was now starting my first year of my Information Science PhD. I view Information Science as interdisciplinary computer-science. That year was okay, but I was still depressed and anxious. I thought I could get better during that year. First, almost any PhD student who had went to Mudd claimed that it was so easy (because Mudd was so hard). Second, I did try to keep my responsibilities minimal, so I could focus on myself. But over time, I only felt I was getting worse—not motivated, crying, and the like. Besides my mental health, I also felt I was barely getting by in my first year. I think I was a decent PhD student. According to my meetings with my advisor, I may have been slacking, but, according to my peers, she may simply have forgotten what it was like to advise a first-year student, considering that she currently had two capable fifth-year students. Be it her fault, my fault, or a mix, I felt incompetent again. I decided to take a gap year for myself.

Gap Year

I was determined to make the most of the gap year and was also so relieved. I failed to get an emotional support animal, and I had to move out of the housing because I wasn't considered a student anymore, despite only being on a gap year. It was annoying, but I, thankfully, found a nice apartment with two roommates and a cat! His name is Curry, and I still love that cat.

I kept working in therapy, adjusting my medication, and reading books. Over the months, I felt significantly better. I was starting to feel more relaxed, rather than constantly on alert. I started to feel like I could handle my feelingns, rather than feeling powerless. I spent months just doing what I needed to support myself and focusing on myself. Having been depressed and unable to feel pleasure from anything for so long, I worked on getting myself to enjoy anything again: video games, movies, pets, romance, desserts. And eventually, I did gain that back.

Becoming a Better Student

When I felt ready, I started thinking more about what I needed to do to ensure that when I returned to Cornell, I would be able to thrive. I was a dedicated and passionate student. My mental health got in the way, and I wanted to do better like I knew I could. I had this issue in the back of my mind, but I was feeling pretty stuck. Eventually, I started thinking that I might be having so much trouble because I wasn't... motivated by the work—because I didn't actually want to do my PhD. I did enroll in Cornell just because it seemed like the best option, and I felt I had to. And as I contemplated what being a professor would be like, I dreaded the incessant stress there would be of needing to constantly write papers and hope I could get funding and acceptances at conferences. I started considering what else I might want to do.

Career Shifts

I started considering everything I could think of: doctor, lawyer, retail worker, tutor, K-12 teacher, non-research professor, professor at a "less prestigious" school (to have a more reasonable workload), physician's assistant, therapist, software engineer. I asked my friends about their thoughts on their jobs and whether it seemed reasonable for me to change to their track. As I was contemplating career changes and staying in my PhD, a friend commented that I would make a great therapist, considering my pretty varied experiences. I had dealt with depression, anxiety, roaming tics, suicidal ideation, and gender dysphoria. I was agender and polyamorous. And when he made that comment, it made me think about how much I enjoyed learning about psychology.


I loved reading about it, and I listened to podcasts by psychology Dr. Robert Duff while commuting, just for fun. I absolutely loved helping others and had been praised before for my soft skills. I had decided during my gap year that, regardless of my field, I wanted to interact with people directly on my job. I also wanted to be able to have a direct positive effect. Unfortunately, research often means that one advances knowledge and finds something useful, but that information isn't accessible to the public. Some entrepreneur has to decide to act upon it. I wanted to help make the world a better place as soon as possible. If I became a therapist, I would get to work with people, and I would get to help them directly.

I gave this career change serious consideration. I started looking into applications and volunteer opportunities to get some practice in. It would be good for my application and also just help me see if I was right about wanting to become a therapist. I eventually settled on 7 Cups, an emotional peer-support website. I spent time listening and even joined the 7 Cups internship. It only made me more excited about therapy!

I eventually became pretty convinced, but, to be sure, I wanted to get more feedback. I asked everyone I could think of while in NYC, and I was grateful that I had been accepted to the CRA URMD conference (Computer Research Association conference for Underrepresented Minorities and Persons with Disabilities). So I went there and shared my thoughts with anyone would was willing to listen. Essentially, everyone agreed that I should become a therapist and do what I love. I was surprised by the unanimity. Considering that the conference was geared to help people like me (a Hispanic female) do well and stay in STEM, no one pushed back. I think they saw all the effort and consideration I had put in, and they agreed that I would make a great therapist. Feeling empowered, I came back from the conference and sent in my resignation email. While the director of the program confirmed my leave, my advisor never did respond. I am amused that she may have ghosted me. I just felt badass for quitting my PhD!

Now, I went all into applying to graduate programs. I considered the different paths: psychology, psychiatrist, mental health counselor, and such. I figured I'd feel best getting into therapy as soon as possible to become more stable in a career. I could always go back to get a PhD or even a medical degree if I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I ended up applying to a Masters in Mental Health Counseling and am still just waiting for a response. I'm optimistic and excited.

And I think that's the story.