Sorry it’s been so long :). I don’t even have an excuse this time… maybe I should stop expecting myself to post on a weekly basis, but write extra-long posts to make up for it? We’ll see. In any case, hopefully I’ll make up for it by the eventfulness of the news…
Primary news being: I’m going to be a PhD student at Berkeley Neuroscience for the next 5-7 years!!
I am so thrilled with this decision. Y’all are going to hear about the minutiae of being in a PhD program far more than you deserve. I am extremely happy to talk to anyone about the application process offline—just leave me a message here, and I’ll reply back to you by email—because it’s not always what you’d expect, though I’ll talk some more about it now that I’ve decided. But I’m so happy that I’ll be ending up in this program.
It’s so crazy to me that it’s over, you know? My senior year of high school I did an independent project where I interviewed people in the profession I was thinking of pursuing, which led to the wonderful opportunity of me interviewing nine female science professors at the University of Minnesota. When I arrived at Wellesley, I started doing research in physical chemistry with Prof. Arumainayagam my second semester, did research in environmental science with Prof. Higgins over the summer, and then with Prof. Conway from then on, with the addition of Prof. Hildreth my senior year. All throughout Wellesley, I was evaluating and re-evaluating whether this was the career I wanted to pursue, peppering the years with specific milestones. I remember seriously wanting to abandon it, deciding what “passion” was to me and what it meant, realizing that the journey was more important than the endpoint, understanding how science is run by networks of people rather than automatons, gaining an understanding of the work I would be doing, evaluating the other choices I had available, spending a lot of time with myself figuring out what I wanted with regards to research (and again, and again, and again—more refined, feeling more right every time). Even for someone who had a fairly good idea of what she wanted to be doing—and I’ve been lucky to have had a clear picture compared to many of my peers—there was a lot of questioning that had to happen as my understanding of the profession (American professors in research or liberal arts institutions) changed. I think that’s probably the most important thing they’re looking for in grad school applications, actually, and why I didn’t have much trouble in the interviews. Everyone I interviewed with (…well, we’d been pretty strictly screened to get to this point) had a very good idea of the type of work they’d be doing as a PhD student, a good sense of the type of work they’d be doing if they continued in academia, and a well-articulated description of where they wanted to go, what expertise they had and what expertise they’d need.
And now, after all of the struggle and angst (so much angst), I’m in. It’s done. No more struggles with insecurity, no more questioning, no constantly-updated CV and struggling to elucidate to myself what I wanted and how to get there (…hahaha, that one I actually think is for life). I’ve been planning for this moment for how many years now, and I’m here, and I’m really happy with my choice, and I’m actually excited to go to graduate school, which I seriously questioned over the years. I loved the people at Berkeley, I loved the research at Berkeley, I enjoyed the feel of the town as soon as I stepped out of the train station… it felt like home the same way that Wellesley had four-plus years ago. It just felt so right as soon as I arrived, and every interaction confirmed that. In fact, after I came home to Cambridge after that visit I was a bit homesick—having trouble calling Cambridge “home”—which I’m not having a problem with now, a few weeks later. I’ve done these things historically (haha, based on choosing Wellesley, but these are important decisions) based on fit, and Berkeley was an excellent, excellent fit.
It makes me wonder: how many people get exactly what they want out of life? How many people say: I-want-this-I-want-here-I-love-it-here-keep-me and get exactly that? How many people schedule extra interviews with professors on their visits, and have those professors not only agree but get a copy of and read their application materials beforehand, how many people follow up with emails saying how much they think it’ll be a good fit, how many people want it and work for it and get it? Do it right, learn what I’m supposed to do and have that information be accurate and complete it to a degree that people on the other side now want me? I have an email from Prof. Tom Griffiths in my inbox. I wrote a raving post about him some spring in the past when he gave a lecture at MIT and was like: I don’t think I’d be qualified to work with him but his research is awesome. I have an email from him in my inbox, addressed to me by name, and I had an whole half an hour of one-on-one time with him when I went to interview. Everyone wants something different out of life, but I find it miraculous that I was able to understand the rules well enough on this one to make it actually happen. I’ve grown to think about failure as: not understanding what the other person wants enough to fit into that mold, and especially tragic failure as a) being capable of fitting into the mold but being defeated by a technicality, or b) not being capable of / not finding the confidence to fit into the mold despite really, really wanting to. And in my case, with the accompaniment of lots of time, most importantly lots of caring people who pushed me into opportunities to figure it out, and a lot of you-can-do-it-no-really-DO-it self-psyching, there was this beautiful, positive outcome.
Most of my friends have pretty well-defined goals themselves, but I heard through the grapevine that a few of my old friends were saying that I was “accomplishing things in life, unlike [them]”, who were less sure about where they wanted to go in the future. And that’s an interesting perspective, because in my head I’m following “what will make Monica happy” rather than “let’s make the world a better place”. (Actually, I suppose “accomplishing things” translates more accurately into “let’s make an impact on the world” but I assume most of us think we’re making it better.) It so happens that I’m not happy unless I’m accomplishing things, but that’s more a by-product than the actual goal itself. And it seems to me increasingly—especially after talking to many of my old friends and the new older ones I’m making here (and it’s so fun to have everyone growing up into this new stage of life!)—that you definitely don’t need to have some master plan for your life in order to be happy with it. You just need to have some vague idea of what you don’t want to do and what might be fun, and then just sort of follow opportunities around until you build—accidentally, piece-by-piece, year-by-year, and not focused on the end but on each segment—your life story.
And if you’re not happy where you are but are contractually obligated to stay there for a few years—what people do is find some new goals. Redefine the reasons you are where you are and get something else out of it. Maybe put less effort into your work and more into a hobby. If you’re a high-achiever kind of person but your work isn’t satisfying, become really good at something else so you can still achieve that validation. I’m growing to understand that this is actually a pretty common state of being. Either slightly or entirely dissatisfied in one area, but having branched out to another area to make sure that things on the whole are going well. It’s maybe that quality that makes the phrase: “My work is what I love to do” or “My work is basically my hobby” worth bragging about—because being very or completely satisfied with one’s job—thinking it’s worthy work, going to be recognized, and what you want to do—is rare.
But I don’t think it’s necessary, either. Loving what you do is a bonus, but as long as it’s good enough—as long as the people around you are good, really—I feel like you can build quite a fulfilling life around the things you create around work. This is probably something other people realized far before me, on reflection—work has always been the end-all-be-all for me, the primary focus of my life, but I know the centrality of that priority for me is not the norm. But since it is my focus, and people have invested so many resources in me, there’s no reason not to try. There might even be an expectation that I try my best to achieve something with all of the energy and thought that have been directed my way :).
So, Berkeley. I’m accepted and I’m going. It’s not what I imagined when I was making my 15-year plan (I do love my decades-long plans) and it is so perfectly what I want that I could not be more thrilled. Facebook too has been amazing. It is so incredible for me to go down the list of people who “liked” it, to hit each name and think about how I know them and how they’re doing and each connection, and to smile that that they took the time to hear my news and wish me well for it. I love trying to map out the connections, and realize that several distinct nodes can be linked through my existence. And to think that everyone else builds up a network of people, each relationship unique, and there are millions of these clusters of connections sculpted throughout our lifetimes.
I’m going to finish off this post now to keep it coherently on-theme, and start another one shortly :). Best wishes, all :).