Travel, Interviews, and Robots

PART THE FIRST: Intro and Traveling

Hey all :).

I don’t even know how long it’s been since I’ve written—it’s so funny to me that I’ve taken a hiatus from writing just when life is the most eventful! Much has happened in the intervening weeks, and I’m so pleased to say I’m done with PhD interviews. I applied to five schools and was invited to interview at five of them (which is an excellent ratio by my and many others’ accounts), and have just finished the last one this weekend. I will describe some of this process later on, because it is surprisingly difficult to find information on it online. However, I’m not going to talk about everything until I have results back—luckily, by the end of the month for me!—so as not to count any chickens before they hatch.

Hm, I think I’m going to structure this post by first doing a whirlwind synopsis of what I’ve been up to, and then doing my usual stream-of-consciousness meanderings around specific experiences. I think my last post was right after my first set of interviews. In the meantime, I’ve been flying back and forth to the States, once on the West coast and once on the East coast. In between the battles with jetlag, I’ve been back in Cambridge, UK, running participants, doing data analyses, and rowing. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned—oh, I haven’t! I was selected to row on Lucy Cavendish’s W1 team :). Lucy Cavendish is my College at Cambridge (Cambridge is divided up into 30-some colleges since it’s a federal system). W stands for women, and 1 stands for the first boat. Lucy has three rowing boats—the first boat trains and competes the most, then the second, then the third. The UK is far less intense about sports than the US… except when it comes to rowing :). So whenever I’m back in Cambridge I’ve been rowing a few mornings at week and working out on the ergs (rowing machines) in the evenings, getting ready for our big races two weeks from now. They’re called “Bumps”, cannons and long chains are involved, and I am bemusedly anticipatory to participate in this Cambridge tradition :P.

At some point in these proceedings, I attended a formal hall at Lucy called “Burns night” which involved the consumption of a Scottish food called haggis. I’m not sure what haggis is, since I couldn’t actually understand the person reciting poetry through the bagpipe and the Scottish brogue, but I think it might be the Scottish equivalent of Spam? I do miss Spam—maybe that’s an American thing, but Spam, egg and rice is excellent. I digress. Regardless, haggis is very salty, and I had a great night talking to the linguistics professor sitting next to me. She’s originally from Argentina, and spent a long time in Germany before moving over to the UK. It’s funny, because I’ve always assumed that people want to be speaking their native language, but sometimes cannot due to circumstances. That’s always been my impression when I’m speaking French or Spanish—the idea that I wish could be speaking English, but no one happens to be speaking English where I am. However, this professor told me she dislikes speaking Spanish, and would much rather speak German or English. She doesn’t like the culture of Argentina, and she says that after speaking English for so many years, it’s not hard anymore. She wouldn’t know how to go to a bank with her Spanish, and her academic vocabulary is in English. It’s strange for me to think that you might like another culture, and its language, more than the one you were born in.

Then again, when I voiced that, she asked me if I wanted to live in the same place that I grew up. And the answer to that is no. I grew up in Minnesota, USA, which was a great place for me to grow up. However, my family has always pushed the idea that my sisters and I were to leave the Midwest to go to the East or West coast for college, and I’ve liked the East and West coast enough to know that I’m going to live on one of them someday. I also discovered that I like larger cities a lot, and am pretty ambivalent on dramatic weather. So I know personally that I’m not going back to the Midwest if I have some choices about my future career location, just like this professor’s opinion on Argentina.

But the country thing… well, first, one could point out that the sheer area of the US covers the equivalent of a LOT of countries in Europe. And there’s a good chunk of cultural diversity in the US, in that the Midwest, South, East Coast, and West Coast all have very different cultures. But there’s a lot more homogeneity in an equivalent area of the US compared to an equivalent area in Europe, especially regarding language. Moving to Boston felt like home—I knew, after a while of living there, that this was one of the places I’d be happy to live my life. Moving to the UK wasn’t like that. It was: wow, this is great, it’s going to be a lovely year… and then at some point I’m definitely moving back to the US :).

I don’t even know why I like the US so much, is the thing. I never thought of myself as particularly patriotic until I’ve gone away—and this is only month five, I think—and wanted to come back. It’s not the family ties, because we have Skype and phone calls and emails and it’s not like I was seeing my family a lot when I was living in Boston and they were living in Minnesota. And I complain about the US plenty, as does everyone both in the US and outside, because we’ve got these weird habits like not using the metric system and having crazy expensive universities and healthcare and many more relevant and irrelevant things. Plus, the UK is about as close to the US as you can get in terms of culture—the language is the same, a lot of the music is passed between the two countries with increased globalization, and really, there aren’t that many differences to adjust to.

I’ve come to believe it’s the small things, really. Just… there are these underlying cultural references that you’re not even aware of until you say something and people here don’t “get” it. Like… I don’t know, talking about the flyover states, or the American culture of extroversion, or knowing about the weather, and where states are. The more you have a shared history with people, the more the knowledge is going similar. On the one hand, it takes more work when you don’t have this shared history. But on the other, I don’t want to stay in my hometown, where I’d have the most “in common” with people—we all know specific stores and people and places.

I think the difference with staying in my hometown though is that the things that I want to have in common with people—the shared understanding—is not for specific places, but for concepts and ideals. It’s easy to hang out with scientists because we share a certain mindset about the world (we’re also often liberal, pragmatic, atheist, introverted—not everyone, of course, but more than you’d expect compared to the average population). It’s similarly easy to hang out with people my own age because we have a lot of shared references. In an odd turn, it’s also easy to hang out with international people, because there’s a common understanding of the challenges. So if I’m in pursuit of spending time with people with whom conversation is easy, meaning people with whom I share common concepts and ideals, Cambridge should work just as well as anywhere else.

And it does—I enjoy Cambridge and the people here a lot, because we’re in this nice bubble of academics and internationals and it’s incredibly stimulating. But I’m drifting back to somewhere even easier, the US, because everyone there has more in common with me. There’s something in me that rebels against that. Just because of how I was raised and who I am, I view being away from home as “harder” and “better” than staying in the same place for a while. Regardless, many people must feel this pull back to where they grew up. I’m frequently asked why I’m in Cambridge at all, when “there are so many good universities in the US”. Two thirds of people who grow up in the Midwest stay in the Midwest. It’s common to hear the students leave the country because “they wanted to go back to their home country”. I want to fight against this pull, because… well, all of the arguments for traveling in the first place, to broaden horizons and so on. But at some point it might be kind of pointless to fight this tide.

What’s the point of traveling, anyway? It’s “good for you”. Certainly, some lessons could only have been learned by traveling abroad, but I feel that you can learn quite a lot at home. Traveling to Amsterdam for three days didn’t teach me much more, for example, that I couldn’t have learned by spending some time Googling the city. A friend recently told me that, “yeah, it sounds really bad, but once you’ve seen one town… they’re all kind of the same, aren’t they?” Then again, sometimes you have those amazing experiences that really couldn’t have happened if you weren’t abroad. This same friend was telling me he signed up for a couch-surfing one night in Belgium and spent the whole day with a Syrian refugee who told him incredible stories. My two-week long trip to Nicaragua was mildly life-changing in the sense of perspective it gave me. This venture to Cambridge has been incredible in that I’ve had the opportunity to meet many amazing people from all over the world.

I guess that travel in the vacation sense isn’t so valuable. Travel’s valuable in that you’re doing something that you normally wouldn’t be doing—couch-surfing, hanging out with populations not in your socio-economic class, hanging out with international populations. Which you could do at home (and in fact, the best thing I’d recommend people do at home is learn another language, because once you try to do that you have so much more patience for how ridiculously difficult it is to be out of your comfort zone in this way) but it works so much better in travel because you don’t have a choice about returning to your habits. Travel, then—good for you because you’re out of your comfort zone, and forced to stay that way :).

Goodness, I rambled myself to a conclusion there! I think I’ll conclude this section by being thankful that I have the level of motivation that I do to travel and throw myself out there, and accept that this drive isn’t as much as it could be. The US seems to be home, my coastal cities await, and I’m going to be one of those Americans speaking English for a long, long time :).

PART II: Interviews

Part II begins :). I love that blogs are as flexible as they are, in that in my best blogs I know what I’m going to say, and I say them and end up in unexpected places anyway, but it’s perfectly fine to ramble on as well and find the structure later. My mother recommends that I should probably plan all of my posts, really focus on boiling down and improving the writing, but half the fun of writing this is that there’s some tolerance for meandering, for not having the succinct essays that would appear in a newspaper article.

I digress. At this point I’m going to turn to the big story of the hour: time to discuss some elements of my PhD interviews!

PhD interviews in the US are very different from interviews in the UK and Europe. In the UK and Europe, you get the sense that there are hundreds of people lined up for the spot you want, you’re just one possible cog in the mechanism, and the instructors are going to drill you down until you have no idea what you’re talking about and then maybe they’ll generously bestow this beautiful spot upon you. In the US, there’s this limited pool of students all getting passed around the top universities, and the driving force of the interview process is to try to convince these students to stay. The situation is actually probably the same in both cases, but the approach is veerrrry different.

US interviews go like this:

  1. Tell me about your previous research.
  2. Tell me about your research interests.*
  3. Let me tell you about my research.
  4. (If you want to work in their lab) Let’s talk about where our research interests intersect.
  5. Do you have any questions?

(*This is what you want to study for your PhD, and is not necessarily the same as your previous research experiences. It’s nice when you can weave a story with what you’ve studied and where you want to go, however.)

Again, I’ll get into the details of this at some point in the future, but basically you can settle into a nice script once you’ve done this a few times. Schools generally have you interview with between three and eight professors—fewer professors if you’re at a school without rotations, and more if you’re at a school with rotations. Rotations are when you spend the first year of your PhD working in 3-4 different labs throughout the year, and in the end you pick the lab you’re going to work in for your dissertation. Non-rotations are when you enroll in the school knowing which lab you’re going to work in from the beginning. (…Man, this upcoming post about interviews is going to be intense. You never realize how much you’ve picked up until you try to start explaining it.)

When you apply to graduate science school in the US (only graduate SCIENCE school, and not medical school or MD/PhD or anything else but science PhD programs), schools pay for your education, and they pay to fly you out to visit their school for interview weekends. This means that if you get invited to an interview, the school most likely wants you to come. In my experience, you can actually get a sense of how much a school wants you based on how much time professors spend on the above points when they interview you. (Most professors will hit all the points that I’ve mentioned, but they’ll spend more or less time on each point.)

If a school really wants you to come, they’re likely to spend more time on 2. (research interests), 3. (professor research), and 4. (research intersection). Specifically, if you’re talking to a professor who you want to work with, you’ll do a lot of 2. and 4. If you’re talking to a professor who you don’t necessarily want to work with but are talking to in order to gain a greater understanding of the breadth of the program, you’ll do a lot of 3., and usually quite a bit of 5. (questions). If the school isn’t yet as committed to wanting you to come, you’ll do a lot of 1. (previous research). This is accompanied with a lot of hard follow-up questions, just like the UK interviews.

The above is a nice generalization, but of course you’re going to get a lot of variability with individual professors. Some professors like to push a lot harder than others. And I have to say, the most fun interviews are when you know the professor likes you, you’re calm (this is what either defines it as fun or terrifically stressful) and the professor is still pushing you all over the place :).

My favorite interview so far was with a very emotive professor who I’d been warned likes to push prospectives. You can tell he’s well-meaning, he makes you laugh throughout, but he likes tearing work down and seeing if you can build it back up again. I was unusually calm for this particular interview, because I’d be warned about it beforehand, and this wasn’t my first interview weekend. What I’d been told was to talk out loud—say what you know, attempt to make some conclusions, and see where it goes. Most professors want to work with you when you’re describing your research—it’s always interesting when you have someone describing all of their doubts instead.

At the end of it—it was really spectacular, I loved his 3. (professor research) at the end of the talk— he consoled me with the fact that most people fell apart, and that I’d done as well as anyone else :). He then told me he liked how I thought, which was fortunate since he had to write a report about how I thought. Most interviews aren’t like this at all, by the way—not nearly so frank, and it’s extremely rare to get feedback. But this professor had a strong personality, was well-established at the university, and had obviously been doing interviews this way for years.

It was so invigorating because that’s pretty much the highest compliment you can give, that you like how someone thinks. There I was, given a half an hour with one of the most famous professors in their field, with a high flush and trying to think on my feet, failing pretty spectacularly but knowing that this was pretty much what was expected out of me. It truly is amazing to me that we’re given such a large chunk of time with some of the busiest and best people in this whole academia conglomeration. The first time my schedule was handed to me I was staring at the first name, just sitting there, thinking: WOW. I’ve seen this guy’s talks, I’ve read his papers, and here I am getting to meet him in person and he’s going to listen closely to what I’m saying for thirty whole minutes.

(Then again, this is the girl who looks up grad student pictures on websites and then get very excited to see them in the hallways. I enjoy my science celebrities.)

And as I went on to interview with many other people, and became calmer about the whole process through knowing what to expect, it just became so much more a fun experience. Each of the questions professors ask you aren’t meant as a test—they’re just trying to get information out of you to figure out your best fit. The question “what are you research interests” is a really hard one to prepare, and I’d practiced it over and over like a test question. And I think that is a good way to prepare it, because you have to have it ready to deliver at a moment’s notice, but it’s not nearly so much a test as a practiced delivery of what your life goals are so that people can help you achieve them. It’s the single most important question you’ll be asked, and you’ll be asked over and over, because it’s your driving force behind your research, the reason you’re doing this is the first place and the goal you’ll be circling for years trying to get closer to. It’s the Big Question your life will be spent trying to answer.

It’s nice too to get comments on your Big Question. Apparently, mine’s not so much a Big Question as an Eclectic Broad Domain of Questions, but I’ll get there eventually. I’ll also describe my domain of questions in a future post once everything’s been decided. (Clue: it involves a lot of key words and some papers I cite that never have to explain because I get three words in and people start nodding. In one interview I started describing a paper and the professor turned me around and showed me she’d drawn a depiction of this exact study on the whiteboard the day before.) But it was nice in several respects to get responses, because I learned a few terms for the ideas that I was describing, and also learned that I do have a pretty consistent idea that didn’t change much throughout the interview process. It’s still incredible to me that I could find a unifying idea at all in all of my past experiences, and find an idea that drives a lot of my scientific curiosity, and that there are people who study related things. It just astounds me that there are fields that can be and have been combined to study what I want to discover.

A lot of the professors gave advice, too. One of the questions you will be asked is what other schools you’ve applied to. And most of the professors will think about that and be able to tell you which schools they think you’re a good fit at. And there’s other advice, as well. One professor told me that publishing papers is all about producing work you’re satisfied with, more than an external validation (though hopefully that will follow). One professor told me all about the grant writing process, and how she allows ideas to percolate and be presented so that she actually enjoys the process of grant-writing. One of the things that I’ve learned is actually somewhat unique about my situation is that I have an amazing group of mentors who have helped me get to where I am now. I think part of that is that I value these mentors so highly, and spending time with these professors felt a lot like that.

And the students. I didn’t click with all of the students, but enjoyed all of my visits with and adored some of my visits with the graduate students. I won’t say much about this until later, but it was fascinating seeing the differences in the graduate students I met, and also in my fellow prospectives. There are some pretty awesome prospective students applying along with me right now.

And that’s all I have to say about the interviews right now, actually! I’m so glad they’re done, but looking back, it was a great circuit. I’m leaving out all of the stress, especially at the beginning and just before the first interview of each school. But after I’d gotten that first one out of the way at each school, it really just did become (albeit tiring) fun.


In the past week I’ve had some excellent late-night conversations with friends, and I wanted to describe my most recent discussion with Stephanie and her friend Jade, which took place in Cambridge just before I left for interviews. Have you ever seen Ex Machina? You should all go watch Ex Machina. It’s one of those “we made a robot with AI and what is humanity” movies. It’s great, with only one glaring plot hole (… what is that helicopter doing there in the end?) Stephanie and Jade and I had a movie night two nights before I left for this interview (with amazing homemade popcorn) and then we sat and discussed it for an hour afterwards. This has never happened before, and I love Cambridge.

(Also, I know I mention this often, but it continually startles me when people take intellectual thoughts I express seriously. Like, when people turn to you in a conversation and listen closely, and respond. I think it’s still an old habit from middle school, when I said a lot of nonsense because I wasn’t sure what to say so I was pretty used to being ignored. Not in a mean way, just that I didn’t have a lot of content so people didn’t pay a lot of attention. It’s still so strange to me that we think we can have opinions on philosophical debates and have others listen.)

Anyway, this particular conversation was about whether we should stop AI from advancing, because it threatens the existence of the human race. Apparently there are several groups around the world discussing existential crises to the human race, and AI is a strong one. We were talking about why we would try to have robots interact socially like humans do, and with humans, and I got stuck at one point. Because my driving interest, all throughout my life, was and is to figure out the rules of how people interact with each other. Rules enough that you could put them in a machine. And you can think of applications for this—having humanoid robots helping around the house, having our technology interact with us better—but that movie is about the downsides of having socially advanced robots, maybe about robots replacing humans in the future. And oddly enough, I’ve never thought about that. I want to study this—our cognitive processes, how we interact, how we make decisions—and put them into machines, but in the end I had to stop Stephanie and Jade and say: “you know what, I think a lot of people just want to do it because it’s cool.” Because we’re scientists, and science is about trying to understand things, and this is about trying to understand us (the most fascinating of all questions, for many), and I’ve never really thought about the implications.

But if we did think about it (and Stephanie and Jade did) do we actually care about being replaced by robots anyway? What’s the point of preserving the human race? Why do we care about climate change—it’s not to help us, it’s to help future generations. But is it that, or do we just want the moral vindication of having thought about something greater than ourselves? (These are mostly not my thoughts, they’re Stephanie and Jade’s, but this one is: what do people without something greater than themselves do, anyway? If you don’t have family or religion or a job with a higher purpose? What the heck keeps those people motivated? Do they exist? Do I have one?)

I personally don’t care too much about the human race—we’ve wiped out all of our competitors, so we might as well get wiped out ourselves. I pretty much only care about my whole lifetime. This is probably because I don’t have children and don’t thus have an investment in people outside of my lifetime. I think that using my baseline, intuitive thoughts functions as a good heuristic for the rest of the population’s intuitive thoughts, so now I’m very confused how we work together on things like climate change at all. Maybe because we’re motivated to have children and a lot of people have children? Must be it. (These logic circles are always so entertaining, because you have to rely on your own experiences and also extrapolate how other people think that is different from you. Seriously, I’ve love to see some of people’s thought chains laid out with all the dumb and selfish stuff included.)

In the end, we concluded that we’re headed in the direction of non-biological life forms, but that it is so funny that we’re throwing so much funding into AI when it could have these negative implications. Then again, movies are crafted to present a single message, and the situation in this particular movie was pretty unique. Well done, though. All of the motivations were logical, consistent. There was really only one way for that ending to work out, given the motivations and abilities assigned to the characters.

Conversations, man. The deep ones are so rare, but I love them so much. All subsidiary to my work, lining along the rest of my life, but so meaningful, every one.

(And I’ve finally reached the point where I’m back to my talkativeness in middle school, but with the appropriate content. I was called gregarious and talkative by two of my fellow prospectives, but in a good way. I always hoped it’d happen with time, and thank goodness—and thanks to many people—that it has.)

Best, all. Thanks so much for reading—this was an epic one. Questions and comments much appreciated as always, and best wishes to you all :).



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