Hello readers :).
There’s a saying in my household (there are many sayings in my household) that “Monica, you seem older than you are, until you open your mouth.” This statement has been true for many, many years, but I’m here to proudly announce that this is no longer the case. I seem to be, after extended conversation, “in your mid-twenties, but definitely not older than 25,” which places me at 24, which is a grand two years older than my actual age. I am tremendously proud.
I mention this to say that I am so thankful to all of the people who have “worked on me” over the years, especially my mother and mentors at Wellesley, because I am finding, to a preposterous level, that I am ready for Cambridge. There are just so many different skills one needs to be an academic, and I feel immensely fond when I think of the people around me who have badgered and mentored and pushed me to finally achieve “above expectations” in all of the above. Because when I think of everything you need to have a conversation here, the expectations are astounding. You have to have been successful at some point in the past, to be at Cambridge. As part of that, you have to have the capacity to work hard, sit for many hours in a room by yourself and accomplish things. You have to have been friendly and enjoy being with people, because half of being successful is having mentors who want to help you. You have to have been very lucky, in many, many respects. You have to be able to talk about your work, at a deep level for those familiar, at a “why do we care” level for other academics, and at a very high level for “the layman”, which is a ridiculous concept in theory but becomes weirdly apt when you find yourself talking to your neighbor on the plane. (On the other hand, someone says “real estate agent”, and I can feel a completely blank look wipe across my face. I wonder if we’re their laymen too.) And you’re supposed to be charming, with interesting stories, with an ability to remember names and faces, an appreciation for others’ culture, patient, respectful, all of the things that make a general well-rounded adult. It blows the mind, really. We can’t all be good at all of that from the start.
And yet. I love it here. One of the first-years I met at Wellesley recently asked me by email how Cambridge was, and if I had had any adventures, and I was writing her a quick reply before bed that ended with “It’s pretty dang optimum.” (I would have gone stronger with that adjective, because the realization startled me, but I mustn’t scare the 18-year-olds. Not that I swear much outside my head anyway, but still.) Because it absolutely is. I’m not working all the time—I think I’m only going to settle into about 40 hours per week, at least before crunch times—and my lab is wonderful. They are all extremely friendly, and from all over the world—mostly Greek, but from Brazil, Australia, China, the UK, and me from the US as well. I sometimes have a hard time with all of the accents, and one of my lab members stuck out his hand and greeted me for the first time with “How’re you going?” and I said, “What?” and he said, “Good”, and I echoed “Good”, and then Poly said “Yeah, Joseph says strange things sometimes,” and Joseph snorted, and Poly said “and we love them.” Another introduction, to Lukas: [him: standing in the doorway, trying to catch my attention over my supervisor’s shoulder] [me: sort of peering around my supervisor and Poly, who were talking] [him: awkwardly whispering around them, “Hi! I’m Lukas! Nice to meet you!”] [me: “Monica, nice to meet you too!”] [him: blinding grin, then backed out of the lab to head back to his desk] [supervisor and Poly: still talking about setting up administrative things for me]. I eat lunch with our newest post-doc, Lizzie, every day, and had an hour-long chat with almost everyone in the lab about their science. And that about sums up the lab culture.
Outside the lab… Lucy Cavendish, my college, is lovely. For everyone not familiar with Cambridge lingo (oh man, I’m probably going to do this every week; apologies in advance) the University of Cambridge has a kind of federal system, so nothing’s done at the University level and everything’s done at “Colleges” they divvy us up into. Lucy Cavendish is one of Cambridge’s super-new colleges (50 years old, ha) and is only for mature women, which means women over 21. Mostly the students are around my age—usually having done a Masters out of European undergrads—but this means we also get to interact with students who have significant life experience and decided to get a PhD or Masters before returning back to work. My flatmate, Amy, is actually thirty and worked as a teacher in Brunei, and one of the people I’ve spent the most time with at Lucy, Stephanie, has worked more than ten years on climate change in the UN. (She’s a transplant from Brazil who lives with her husband in Germany.) And I can’t express how wonderful it is to spend time with older people. College students are great, but we’re so young, still so self-interested and with so much to prove, and much more often with limited perspectives on the world. The people in Cambridge are just so incredible—so international, generally older, very sharp and friendly and all of the “I’m-an-academic” skills, co-ed (I’m laughing but I’m happy to welcome back the other half of the population into my life), and just open-minded and curious and interested. And almost everyone I meet is like that. It’s like how I felt stepping into Wellesley for the first time—the people as a revelation, people I loved immediately for their passion and dedication and community—and this is a new revelation, also for the people, people with different traits to prize but no less stunning important at this point in my life.
Yesterday, I went to an International Students Dinner. Funny story how I got invited—I was arriving in the train station last Friday (…last Friday. Wow. I feel like I’ve been here for months. I seem to have slid back into my usual mode of life, which is “every day lasts forever”; I find it an excellent way to live (one is very productive) even if I can never identify with sentiments like “College went by so fast.”) So I was arriving in the train station on Friday, lugging my two suitcases and backpack, and a guy around my age slides over to me and says, “Would you like to come to an International Students dinner?” And I say, sure, and he hands me a packet, and I say: so how did you know I’m international? (People know immediately as soon as I start speaking, because I’m scared to use a fake British accent. There are dozens of accents in the UK and they are all apparently identifiable to a native speaker, and I have no idea where “kind of picked it up from the Harry Potter movies” falls on that scale.) He replies, nicely: “You’re the ones with lots of suitcases.” And yes, yes that was the case. And thus I was invited to the International Students Dinner with everyone else whose parents didn’t come along with them (a surprising number of students), and who haplessly arrived by public train station with way too much luggage. I sat next to an older woman from Malaysia, a younger man from Taiwan, and an American who had traveled the world as a saxophone player on an international cruise. There was free food and it lasted three hours. It was a fabulous time, especially when the conversations about academics finished up and we fell into discussion of the relative merits of desserts in the UK and how to write important characters in Chinese.
Sigh… I just have so many stories to tell you, but I don’t have time for them all! I had dinner and drinks with Poly and Stephanie after our rowing induction meeting; I had dinner with three new students in the Psychology program another day; I was worried about going out to bars but then realized I straight-up don’t have to. I’m not feeling the UK culture because everyone’s a foreigner, except the copious tea consumption, but that’s marvelous anyway because I’m experiencing so many other cultures instead. I find it crazy how I’m expected at work to just write up a proposal, and I find it crazier that you can actually sit me down and I can do that. I’m so grateful to my academic background, and to the people who are still keeping touch with me through email and Skype.
One of the things that has really surprised me is how competent I feel—when I talked to my lab members about their research, I could hold my own, despite me being straight out of undergrad. I could ask relevant questions, I know most of the material from the various classes I’ve had, and I was introduced to a total of one new concept that I’d never heard of before. (Details, no, but I know this field, unlike most who come from engineering backgrounds. I hadn’t realized.) I sat in on a Machine Learning class in Cambridge’s Engineering Department, and the boys besides me were a bit bored, but I asked them a question anyway and felt completely capable of doing the brief groupwork. (“Have you heard of Bayes’ Theorem? I think that’s how we solve it explicitly.” “Oh, yeah, it’s like the probability of having cancer given you tested positive times…”) I was so intimidated last year by the massive numbers of males in my Introduction to Machine Learning class at MIT, but I know this material now, I’ve been introduced to the concepts, so—and this is the crazy part—it’s not a problem anymore. Being uncomfortable about gender ratios is something that has been bugging me at literally every single male-dominated conference or class I go to. And yet. If I’m confident, if I know when to ask questions, if I’m at least familiar with the concepts and believe in my ability to learn it—it’s no longer a problem.
I have been struggling for the entire last year with the decision to apply to computational labs in grad school. This is not something I’ve discussed on the blog, because it’s an ongoing struggle that is inspired by a very large amount of insecurity. The thing is, computational cognitive labs—one of the areas I’d like to work in for PhD programs—are filled with engineering and math majors, and relevantly or not, are male-dominated. I come from a unique family background where mathematics and engineering are the top careers one could pursue, hard science falling shortly under that and the other sciences following suit. I personally couldn’t find it in myself to become an engineer, and thus have an unusual amount of respect for those who can be. All of these factors coalesced into the mad effort which was my junior and senior year attempt to catch up on all of the mathematical background that I lack. “Introduction to Probability and Statistics”, “Computational Cognitive Science”, “Introduction to Neural Computation”, “Linear Algebra”, “Introduction to Machine Learning”… all of these were courses at MIT for which I was about a year or two behind the rest of the MIT students. It turned out that I just kept enjoying them, which made me work even harder to take them, but it finally culminated this month, when I have been writing these applications, and I’m faced with the right-now decision about whether to apply to these labs or not.
Prof. Conway, my research advisor of three years, has told me again and again that I can do whatever I want. That I’m quick, that I’m a good learner, that I’m adaptable, that I can learn and that I’d be fine. But it was just so hard to know. And after this week, I get it, but… I was at MIT. It’s… MIT. MIT was my source of comparison, and all of my friends there were a year younger than me and were still more quantitatively qualified. So I might be told that I’d be fine, but it didn’t look like it, and so before this week I actually had decided not to write these letters.
You know the ending of this story—it’s appearing on the blog, which means I’ve overcome some struggle. After my second day in my lab at Cambridge, when Joseph was explaining independent component analysis to me and I realized I had enough background to understand it, I went home and reworked the schools I was applying to. Wrote the letters, worked on applying to three out of the four computational cognitive labs I was looking at (one of them is still a bit too math-y and male-dominated for me, still a little too intimidating or not interesting. That’s the question, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell.) It’s entirely possible that the professors will email back and tell me I don’t have an quantitative enough background—that’s happened to me once before, but the professor was super nice about it. And this isn’t something that I’ve completely resolved—I’m not applying to labs that seem forceful about wanting someone with the “appropriate background”, and this still seems to be something that I’m having trouble applying my usual “just go for it, worst they can say is no” approach to.
It’s just funny, isn’t it? The gender ratio thing, the confidence thing, the comparison thing. There are a lot of factors interacting, and yet this has probably taught me the most about empathy and insecurity than any other experience I’ve had. Because I’m a confident person—I’m known for being too confident in some instances—and I don’t struggle with things like the Imposter Syndrome (friends at both Wellesley and MIT have told me they feel this), or feeling embarrassed to ask questions, or with doing anything but aggressively forging forward toward what I feel is necessary to my learning. But I do feel this this, and I continue to feel this, and I am actively limiting my own growth and I’m still doing it :). It’s funny, and incredible, and has allowed me to empathize with so many other experiences that I intellectually know people struggle with but have never felt a connection to.
And so, disorganized but present, that was my first week at Cambridge :). Socializing galore, happy to be busy and enjoying work, surrounded by a community of international scholars, and carrying my background and self with me :). Thank you so much for reading, and best wishes to you all!