Graduate Applications

Hey all,

It’s coming upon a late night, so this is going to be a short one. But a happy one, because I’m sitting in the master bedroom of my aunt’s house in San Jose, three lamps throwing shadows and parabolas across the walls, my two younger cousins asleep across the hall and rough drafts of three professor-letters finished. For, you see, I’m nannying in California for a week before heading off to England, and I’m simultaneously working on graduate school applications. It’s about the best combination you can get in life: family and fulfilling work.

Graduate applications have been… such an experience already, and I’ve barely gotten started. But overall, my overwhelming feelings have been of satisfaction and gratefulness. My mother recently sent me an article on how the relative merit of debt-due-to-college hugely depends on which college you attend, and I feel immeasurably lucky to have attended a college that prepared me so well for where I want to go next. I’m so grateful to Wellesley, and to my research advisor Prof. Conway, and to my other mentors, because this transition stage feels like an interesting challenge, something almost fun, a puzzle to play with and get right.

It’s just… everything, all my explicit and implicit research experience in undergrad, has built up. I’m going to lead into an example with this: my sister Leslie never remembers the names of authors when she reads books—she reads for plot. But she’s never played the game where you read scientific articles, trace the author’s names, and then look them up online to see who they belong to. Because everyone in science belongs to someone. There’s this hidden structure in scientific relations, hierarchies of scientists and networks of collaborators. Everyone’s intellectually related to each other, everyone knows each other, but it’s all inscribed in this tiny font at the heading of every paper: [first initial of first name]. [optional first initial of middle name]. [last name]. B.R. Conway. N. Kanwisher. D. Marr.

These names mean so much. Scientists in the same field who pick up a scientific article and read the authors know immediately which university the paper came from, the general topic the paper will be about, the quality of the paper, whether there were outside-university collaborators, who did most of the work in writing the paper, what the research was leading up to this paper, what the relationships are between the authors of other articles publishing on the same topic, everything. There is just such an immense amount of background knowledge that comes from being in science, and it feels like such a gift for me to look at those names, and realize that all of that knowledge resides within those letters. I don’t have that knowledge yet—acquiring and recalling all of this information is a full-time job—but I can take steps toward it. I can Google people’s names. I can pop around on their websites. I know how scientific websites are organized, and can pull out the relevant information. I know names are important and relationships are important and none of this is obvious if you just look at the tiny letters printed on the page.

I think that this is hardly an experience unique to science. I know that there are people who can make an incredible number of inferences based on the noise a car makes, or what a bird looks like. There are troves of hidden information anywhere, if you have the experience in knowing to how look for them. And I know that I know nothing, that I’m just a lowly undergrad, but there’s something about being a graduated college senior, about that feeling of being on top of the world, like: hey, I know stuff. I know hidden things. I know how to read a paper, write a proposal, seek out authors, the process of figuring out what I want. I don’t know how to do any of it well, mind you, but I know it exists. And that, knowing it’s there and how to keep working towards it: that feels like the most incredible gift.

Applications right now are about pushing through—about checking department websites carefully, engaging in ridiculously involved mental pro-and-con battles, blinking at abstracts of papers, and always, always thinking about and refining what I’m going to write about in my statements of purpose. It’s simultaneously boring, hard work, and exciting, and I have got a LOT of it yet to go. But I have so many people who I can ask for help, so many people who have gotten me here (parents, family, mentors, friends, me, so incredibly many) and I can’t help sitting here, in this beautiful bed with lighted parabolas and be consumingly, overwhelmingly grateful. Because all of these people, you, have made the next step in my life something fun, a puzzle. Because I cannot in any way see my life as more perfect than it is right now, loved, on the precipice of the next something new.

It’s been a while since the last gratefulness post, hasn’t it? Too long.

Thank you.

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