Hey readers :).
I have been having way too much fun this week. I’m in the final throes of the initial application process (i.e., submitting applications), but last weekend several professors were kind enough to read over my essays and give me the a-okay, so I can finally relax.
While I frequently write research proposals without feedback (the other type of essay I’m asked to write on a fairly-consistent basis), I don’t think I’ve ever submitted a personal statement without asking several people to read it over. I’m the same way about important emails, ever since I wrote a bad one two falls ago—when I learn from my mistakes, I really learn from them. So I write essays and send them around, and until I start getting responses like: “sounds good. You know what you’re doing,” I assume I have no idea what I’m doing, and panic appropriately. I have reached the point where I’m now allowed to write essays all-by-myself (by copying sentences from previous essays and moving them around) so I no longer have to worry about quality!
Huge thank you to the professors who coached me through this one :). Every application cycle, I lean really hard on one professor, usually Prof. Ellen Hildreth, who takes me through every step of the process. Prof. Conway is always my email person, Liz Mandeville (Director of Fellowship Programs at Wellesley College) pushed me through the Churchill Scholarship, and Prof. Kovacikova at Dartmouth held my hand for this :). So much thanks to Prof. Kovacikova—I met her through my friend Ika, who was a swimmer on Wellesley’s Swim and Dive team. Ika brought the team to do a sleepover at her family’s house every year, and Prof. Kovacikova—Ika’s mom—has been so incredibly kind to me over the years. So many other people read my essays as well—I think I pulled in almost every professor contact I had, and a good chunk of friends: they were all so lovely to take the time. Thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone.
Speaking of support networks. I was eating brunch with Madeline and Mélys, as is our wont on Saturdays (we’ve even settled on the best scone place in Cambridge—I love settling into these habits). We were talking about how we found Cambridge, and they were saying that they found it very isolating. They felt that they didn’t have enough social interaction during the day—they just go to classes and then hide out in the library or their rooms studying. Both of them were agreeing, and I was kind of blinking rapidly, taken aback. Because I’ve felt settled here for at least three weeks, probably longer—I have people to talk with at work; I have people to have lunch with; I have planned social events; I can easily access at-home friends, family, here-friends, housemates, porters, and work-friends. Essentially, I’m probably the least lonely I’ve been since high school, when I was living at home. I definitely know what they’re talking about. The first year of college can be lonely before you establish your friend groups, and my time at MIT was consistently lonely, especially senior fall. There have to be people around who have the time to socialize, you have to have time to socialize, and everyone have to be in convenient locations—which is a hard mixture to achieve.
I never realize how lucky I am until I find some comparison, but I just wanted to put another “world, you are ridiculous, I am so grateful” out there. I continue to love my lab, am doing not-quite-exactly what I want to work on but am pretty darn close, have a place to work out independently, am an athlete again on a team, have this enormous support network, am not working terribly hard, have all sorts of enrichment activities, and now have a solid group of people at Cambridge who I’m welcome to hang out with anytime. It’s kind of how I want the rest of my life to go. (Minus the working hard bit. I’m aware this is just a temporary respite from the joys of PhD workloads :).)
I am insanely blessed in this life :). …In other news regarding the PhD to come, I singlehandedly, and within an hour, convinced one of my friends not to go to graduate school. I am very sad about this. Rachel is one of the coolest people I know—I met her at the Computational Systems Neuroscience (CoSyNe) Conference in Salt Lake City last March. NSF and Brain Corp. were sponsoring a certain number of undergraduates to attend this conference for the first time last year, and she, Milena (a Wellesley friend) and I turned out to be roommates. We were awesome roommates—I think we were the only college seniors, and definitely the only women college seniors, so we just had a blast of a time hanging out at the talks and in the hotel room afterward. This is the conference where the male: female ratio is something like 8:1 (not unusual for computational neuroscience), and there really just aren’t that many women around me who are interested in these things. One of my friends a year below me, Isabelle, also wants to go into academia in computational neuroscience or computational cognitive science etc., but there aren’t many people fitting this profile. And Rachel was one of them, and super upbeat to add to it, happy and a hard worker and obviously incredibly smart and energetic. We were talking about grad school apps—we’ve been doing a few things differently, mainly that I’ve been cold-emailing while she’s been using connections, and also how we’ve been focusing our essays. (Let it be known that I haven’t talked to anyone else about the specifics of graduate applications. Applications are always so private! It’s quite strange.) And it came up that she didn’t know that you’re paid to go to science graduate school. So I was explaining to her that you do get paid—enough to have an apartment and eat, pretty much. It’s usually between $25k and $33k a year, as far as I can tell. And she was like: uh, I earned almost half that in a summer in the tech industry. We calculated it: she said she’d be earning approximately $15 an hour in grad school, and I said that was probably about right, but that’s just how grad school is, and at least we’re not paying for it. But for people who have the mathematical and computational skill to work in industry, which she does—dang, it’s a better lifestyle. Everyone says it, everyone knows it—the 9 to 5 job is the dream, with weekends off, and you actually have money, too. I feel like everyone in academic has just resigned themselves to it, because what they’re interested in / have a background in doesn’t work in industry (if you do biology, engineering, or computational work, you’re golden. Everyone else…). But especially around the time that people want to have families, the industry dream comes to the forefront, and I’m definitely seeing a lot of daydreaming in my lab.
So Rachel’s going to go into industry, and I’m going to lose one of my academia peers :(. It’s always extremely strange to me when I meet people and am like: you’re going to be in my professional life forever, but this academic world I’m in is very small. I told her we shall live vicariously through each other, and must continue Skyping. It’s funny—I’m very happy with where I am, but everything’s in the eye of the beholder :).
Hmm :). All right, I’m going to move us to the topic of my diversity essay—which has brought up questions I haven’t fully resolved yet, but I’ll try. All right. When one applies to med school, one runs a heck of a lot of personal statements. Medical school personal statements are not like graduate school “statement of purpose”s. Graduate school “statement of purpose”s need to include: what research questions you’re interested in, what research you did in the past, how that research relates to what research you want to do in the future, and how all of this relates to the research at your target school. Above all, you’re trying to highlight your ability to do research, and so you should be emphasizing independence, perseverance, and past success. That about sums up what should be in a statement of purpose. (Note: I sent my sister in high school my statement of purpose and she found it pretty incomprehensible. It’s supposed to be—I was writing it for cognitive neuroscientists and computational cognitive scientists.) Medical school personal statements, however, are much more similar to college applications than anything else. (College applications in the US, that is. I’m learning more and more how weird the US upper schooling system is. It’s obscenely expensive compared to Europe, but on the other hand it’s a lot better in terms of one-on-one interaction.) These are much more open-ended, and as far as I understand, are mostly: tell me about yourself. Challenges you’ve overcome, meaningful moments in your life, etc. They’re about evaluating you as a holistic person, and not along a single dimension. (…this explains a lot about the attitude in academic research, actually. Huh.) Not many graduate schools have this type of essay, but one of my schools needed a “diversity statement,” in which I was supposed to write about obstacles I overcame.
If you’re me, “diversity statement: overcoming obstacles” = “women in science, especially computational fields” no questions asked. That’s mostly because I haven’t encountered very many obstacles in my life. But the computational women thing is one that I keep on coming back to again and again, and for this essay I was able to express what I was feeling pretty well. It helped that I did a lot of planning, and that I’ve hashed through all of the thoughts piecemeal on the blog over the past years :). I sent this essay to a Wellesley professor, and someone I respect very much here who works in the real world (ha). And the responses were just so startlingly different. Both were mentoring me through Word Track Changes (which I found very funny and also touching. When my parents read my blog, they read what I’m feeling and write to me about it. When people read my usual essays, they correct awkward phrasing and grammar. This is the first essay I’ve written in forever when people can actually comment on what I’m thinking because I’m expressing opinions.) I read the Wellesley professor’s comments first, and was directed to read a BuzzFeed article on why I should consider using the word “women” rather than “females”, and should perhaps remove words like “helpless” because while I might have felt helpless, it’s unfair to project that feeling onto entire populations. (…Wellesley. I do miss it. You learn how to be sensitive there! And care about issues that are outside your own.) Then I read comments from one of my friends here, and was completely thrown by two comments, also delivered in the nicest possible way. They were completely legitimate comments, just very foreign to what I’ve been trained in—foreign the Wellesley environment, I suppose.
First comment: I’d been talking about how shocked I was when I went to MIT and was intimidated by the number of knowledgeable guys in my class. (Wellesley professor’s comment: “Keep in mind that generally men front better than women. Men will frequently focus on what they do know rather than on what they don’t, and women will do the opposite. Just to keep in mind.”) Comment (abridged): “I’m going to be tough on you here. … A male reader could read your essay and say: ‘well, of course she was shocked. She shouldn’t have gone to an all-female college in the first place!’”
I read that, and my eyes just kind of bugged out. I can’t even express why I find it so weird. The easiest thing to address, I think, is that it should always be shocking when we find any kind of disparity, including gender, that shouldn’t exist. But what I really reject, on an almost visceral level, and in a way that I’m completely failing to logically articulate, is the idea that I would have to defend my decision to attend an all-womens’ college because I was shocked by gender disparities. That—that it would be on me to explain myself. It just seems so incredibly strange to me. And yet, I can see how it would happen that one would be in an environment where this is the norm. A month or so ago I was writing a blog post on those rare moments when someone makes a comment that makes you realize that their experience, their way of seeing the world, is fundamentally different than how you see it. This is one of those—and the way it’s framed, even, the “a male reader could say—” it’s obviously an internalized opinion, and I’m kind of frightened of the daily environment that gives rise to this.
Second comment: I was talking about how I took the MIT course “Introduction to Machine Learning” this spring and the difficulties associated with it: that I had to skip the pre-requisite course, that the logistics of commuting in every day was making it hard to make friends for the necessary group work, etc. The last sentence of the paragraph was then: “I got my worst grade in college on the midterm.” The beginning of the next paragraph was: “I loved the topics.” Comment: “Consider moving this sentence [“I loved the topics”] up to the previous paragraph, and making the previously paragraph more positive. As it is, a reader could say ‘well, you should have known better!’ Say something more like: You loved the topic, and really wanted to take the course. Time was too short to take the pre-requisite course, but you were confident that with extra dedication you’d be able to make it happen.”]
Okay. Two thoughts on this. First, I did ignore this comment straight off the bat because I liked the writing style and movement I had in those paragraphs, so personal writing aesthetics dominated my decision on this more than anything else. But second—and I don’t know if this stuck out at you like it did me—I had a visceral reaction to the sentence “you should have known better”. …Because I literally cannot imagine anyone saying that to me in that context. With my history—incredibly supportive environment, always, always being pushed to achieve—I cannot imagine someone telling me that I should known that I would fail. Implying that I shouldn’t have tried at all. That if you encounter challenges, you should just give up right there, because you should have known that you’d fail. My rejection of this is just so strong—it’s my personality too, I think, but it’s my personality bolstered by a history of successful attempts because of constant encouragement and assistance. I don’t like to morally reject things, because then I think of everyone else who is morally rejecting things that I really wish they weren’t, and I feel that in wanting everyone to be more accepting that definitely includes myself. But dang I cannot imagine anyone saying that to me. And my commenter obviously can. Which means it exists in the world and people believe it, and that’s kind of terrifying.
Hmm, and that’s my rant on gender politics for the evening :). I’ve had the opportunity to discuss politics much more than when I was in the States, and I find I’m kind of enjoying it, because it forces me to elaborate on my opinions. And I know a fair bit about US culture acquired through osmosis that I never realized. In other things about Cambridge that I’m quite enjoying, cycling at night is the best thing ever. I love walking around cities at night, but in Boston I always felt a bit insecure about it because I’m a woman walking around alone, etc. Here, I’m on a bike. No one can stop me now!
Last thing for the night, before I head off to bed :). Rowing has been crazy! We had our first race this weekend, and I freaked myself out way more than necessary afterwards. I happen to be in the stroke position in the novice women’s number one boat. This arguably is the most important position in the fastest novice boat, and we haven’t been in a position where we can compare ourselves to the senior rowers. This means I am currently ranked as the best rower, which is a complete novelty and which I am not a fan of. My favorite rank in any sport is second, because there’s always someone to work towards—and, which I’m just realizing, second is great because you don’t have to be always worried about falling off your pedestal. I’ve been ludicrously worried that “they’re going to take it away from me,” which is absolutely not the type of behavior I want to encourage in anyone including myself. That kind of attitude is what causes jealousy and nastiness in sports teams, and the thing is that I DON’T EVEN CARE IF I’M NOT THE FASTEST. I don’t want to be the fastest—I want to sit in the back of the boat where I get more rowing time. I just don’t want to disappoint anyone by not being excellent immediately—which is silly, this just means I have more room to improve— and I’m running into this “down downgrade me” thing that is taking up far too much of my attention. This is so humorous, because this is exactly the situation I found myself in when I first started worrying about the “computational women” issue: I suddenly found myself being illogical, didn’t like the change in behavior, and started immediately writing about it on the blog and complaining about it. Here goes again :). But then again, we’ll be thrown in with the senior rowers soon, so us novices will soon have a much larger pool to compare ourselves to– much like whenever I step into the larger world!
Much love to you all, readers :). You can tell I had way too much fun with this post, but hopefully if you’ve made it to the end you enjoyed parts of it. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the US! I’m going to dinner with a Wellesley alum and her friends, and hope you all have happy holidays if you celebrate it.