Week in the Life

Hey readers :).

Every time I write one of these I promise myself it’s going to be a short one, and I think I know where I’m going when I start typing… and then I veer off in a completely different direction after miles and miles of words and I marvel at the sheer wonder that is the human brain. We really shouldn’t have the capability of novel insight or coherent communication—I’m off-topic already; that was fast. Tonight is a big night, readers—I’m going to stick to an outline, and it’s going to be a short one :).

What will be written:

  • What’s going on right now
  • Results from letters
  • Being an American
  • Graduated to sister

What’s Going On Right Now

Hm :). At rowing practice yesterday I was talking to one of my new friends and her husband, Stephanie and Vasili, and Stephanie was telling me how she was going to the library after this. “Nice,” I instinctively replied—she had a plan, sounded positive about it, library seems like a nice place to work… “Not nice,” she corrected me. “What?”

It turns out that when you’ve had a life before your time in Cambridge—meaning, a real job, usually with weekends off, with time to read for-fun books on weekdays, with evenings with friends—coming back to the student life is quite an adjustment. I’ve been told numerous times that if you ever want to do a PhD, you want to do it as soon as possible after you finish undergrad, because there’s no other time in your life you’re crazy enough to want to. On the one hand, I definitely have a leg up on that, because whenever I’m not working weekends I consider it a vacation. On the other hand, it’s really nice having older people around who are pursuing Masters before heading back to their own jobs—because they have a focus and a perspective you don’t find around straight-out-of-undergrad students. I’m kind of benefitting all around, but I do feel for everyone getting whiplash.

I’m getting some of the kick-back myself, because I’ve been coasting since mid-May. Doing research 35 hours or so a week, doing life things, hanging out… and since I started graduate school apps early, I thought I was doing quite well for myself. Nothing like adding on a fellowship with a deadline that is very soon to get me going again :). It was funny, because it was another one of those situations where I’d convinced myself not to apply, and then someone told me to apply, and then I said “I don’t want to,” and then two other people said “Oh, just go do it,” and now I’m going and doing it. And though it’s not going to be a masterpiece, I can already tell it’s going to turn out fine, and this will be the fastest I’ve ever completed an application, and it will just be like that one night where I was like: I’m going to make it through the day on four hours of sleep, and I did, and I did it well, and thereafter I don’t panic when I don’t get enough sleep because I know I can do it (and the next day, that’s the real test) on four hours. This seems to be a reoccurring theme in my life, the whole not-applying-for-things. I’ve decided that I’m going to install a plastic sheep on my bedside drawer, and it will periodically bleep “You can do it!” and I will listen, and work hard, and finally stretch my boundaries. Well, I’ll get the plastic sheep and hold on tight to my parents, and my supervisors, and fellow PhD students and friends, because they’re the ones I’ve not realized I’ve relied on my whole life to give me these pushes. And I’ll make sure to thank them, and have that remind me to look my younger friends in the eye and say, “Of course you can do it. Go apply.”

Results from letters

Last week, I wrote some letters to professors I would love to work for in graduate school. Many of them replied, and all of them were positive. Two of my favorites were the ones from the computational people, along the lines of: “I feel from your writing that you are insecure about your computational background. It’s true, you don’t come from super computationally-oriented labs. And yet, you’ve shown that you have the motivation to learn it, and really that’s all you need. I look forward to seeing your application, and if you’re accepted I’d be happy to have you do a rotation in lab.”

I’m quite looking forward to writing these personal statements. When I was writing them for undergrad college, I had no idea what my strengths were. But the more experiences I have to draw back on, the more practice in framing myself I get, the more feedback people are kind enough to give me— the more I feel that I can write something useful and also true. Writing them will be annoying as heck—I always get caught up in the details, and they take forever. But I can truthfully say that there are very few occasions when I learn more about myself—through others’ reactions, and very much through my own— than applications :).

Being an American

Have I mentioned that I love spending time with people here? Because I really, really do. I went to my first “Formal Hall” on Tuesday, which entails eating and talking for three hours whilst wearing robes. It’s pretty much the best tradition ever. I’d previously met Tobias at the Graduate Psychology Induction, and he’d invited me to his College’s Formal Hall, and so off I went to Wolfson College where we had a lovely night being wined and dined. The etiquette of formal hall requires that you talk to all of your neighbors, and I had some spectacular conversations about European cultures, the mind-body problem, feminism. What was really remarkable was that I was in an environment where people felt they were… qualified?… to have opinions about philosophical debates, and they expected me to have opinions, with supporting sources, as well. And the weirdest thing was that I do have opinions, and supporting sources, and I can hold a conversation about non-scientific topics. My age is showing, but this was just such a novel experience for me, because in undergrad a) I was an undergrad, and b) I was a science major, so I never felt like I had the right to have an opinion on any sort of philosophical or international or difficult debate, since my opinion would be obviously uninformed. But really all it takes is a change in environment—I was expected to think and converse intelligently, and miraculously I was able to do so. It’s like those moments when you’re in a science talk, and you suddenly have an insightful question, or when you’re at the dinner table with a girl from France, and suddenly I can still speak French despite not having touched the language in five years—it’s miraculous, and astonishing, and I’m wrapped up in my love of the mind and brain and growing up and ideas once again.

Yesterday I went out to tea with the girl from France—Mélys—and Madeline, who’s from Hong Kong but did her undergrad in Amherst. We all really clicked one night at dinner, and so went out to have tea and scones together. And here too, it was brought home to me that what I’ve loved best about conversations here is that there’s always something to learn—and that something is so easily about each others’ cultures. Every country has an entirely different mindset, different customs and rules and systems, and it’s all fascinating to compare, and since everyone knows enough and cares deeply it makes for the best conversation. And I have to say, it’s been quite fun being an “expert” on America. At home, I try not to have opinions on politics, international relations, national policies, you name it—there are people who know a LOT more about each of these topics than I do. Here? My opinions are just plain valid, even with my high school education and gleanings from recent news articles, because I have more experience with it than anyone else. It’s bizarre, but a lot of fun. I think the most fun part is how surprised everyone is at everything that’s different, because we all come from an environment where everyone doesn’t really have an opinion, because our opinions are all sort of similar on top of the underlying cultural baselines… but then we have to explain these baselines to each other, have to verbalize and explicitly think about them, and you can see on everyone’s faces how bizarre and fun that is as well.

Graduated to being a sister

Last thing for the night, then I’m heading to bed :). This thought comes from a recent conversation I had with Tiffany, who I was Skyping with last night. Tiffany’s my best friend—we’re friends from Wellesley, and I expect we’ll be friends forever. Tiffany’s dating a guy in med school, Jason, who has a similar type of friend. Jason thinks of his best friend as a “brother”. Tiffany has hence proclaimed me as “my best friend, but also kind of like a sister.” And I have to say, this is one of the most ridiculously relieving things I’ve heard, and I’m already indebted to Tiffany’s boyfriend-who-I-haven’t-met because I’m so glad to have graduated to sister.

Because “best friends” are about the most unstable relationship I’ve ever been a part of. I have close friends, sure, and I rely on my friends for different things. I also spend more or less time with them, and that depends on a lot of factors, but a good part of it is simply how much we like interacting with each other over long periods of time. Sebiha and I are great long-term interactors because we’re good at working and talking in each other’s company; same for Emily and I. Tiffany and I are not very good long-term interactors—we don’t study in the same way, we aren’t terribly good at light conversation, and we don’t slip into deep conversation all that easily. Tiffany also relies on her friends for different things, and she has her own long-term interactors. You see why I worry about this? I live constantly in fear of being usurped in this best friends business. But sisters—I can do sisters.

Sisters are forever. Sisters are people you’ll always be comfortable talking with, people you can always fit in with, people who know you to your core and love anyway. Who will always joke around with you, who will always be there for you, who you can talk to after days or weeks or months and you know will always be the same. Who have no expectation of you and live their own lives separately from you and always enjoy your company. Who you can share silences with and bother and respect, who will be patient with you, love you.

I can do family, I can do sisters, and this is what we’ve had all along. So thank you Jason. And thank you Tiffany and Tiffany’s family and my parents and Leslie and Nicole—thank you for being my family, and I’ll always your sister :).

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