Reflections on first semester

Hey all :).

Happy Wednesday! Everyone’s a little down here because it’s been raining and will continue raining all week, but apart from that, I’m in high spirits. I was waiting at a stoplight, subsequently getting soaked, and swiping through various thoughts in my mind. Uh huh, you’re worried about that, yup, sort of uneasy about that, yeah, we already figured that out, yup, yup, okay… hm. Are any of these new thoughts that need to be rationally dealt with? Nope, just recurring stuff. How are you actually feeling, besides wet? Ah, kind of default-empty with the potential to be really pleased. Excellent. I don’t know if we can get to the really-pleased stage, but let’s just keep it default-empty and try not to worry about anything.

I find it interesting to consider what my default mind-state is. I’m a worrier, so I’m usually concerned about something, but it changes based on context. My early college years had a lot of focus on making new friends and keeping them. Later years were often concerned with the people in my research community. Near the end, people weren’t involved at all: just a nagging desire to get all my work done. My year in Cambridge followed a similar cycle: friends, proving myself to advisors, work, until future-planning became a main focus. And now I’m here.

This first semester of graduate school has been very interesting, in that I haven’t been worried about work at all. I’ve been doing work, but my mind-space has been completely consumed by people and an increasing amount of self-evaluation. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time thinking about who I am and how I work before coming here.

There are a lot of reasons why figuring out myself has been a focus. I think part of it is that research isn’t overwhelming anymore. I know how to code, I know how to figure out what I don’t know, I’m mostly aware of the fields I don’t know and the areas I’m interested in. I know how to work professionally, I’m aware of how to interact with collaborators and research advisors, I can pick up on research-environment cues and know what to look for. I know how to write, present, apply for fellowships, and take classes. I have lot to learn across the board, but my frameworks are mostly in place, and the magnitude of the things I’m learning is less than in previous years. Coupled with the fact that the neuroscience program is set up to let us explore during our first year… work has left me room to worry about other things :).

A lot of self-evaluation was pushed upon me by the environment, the whole “figuring out comparatively where you fall” idea. I’ve had different experiences in different places—moving to M.I.T. was a hard mental transition for me, and I think harder than this one because it lasted a whole year and a half. Note that I’m not talking about emotional transitions (for me that award goes to the transition from high school to college) but about insecurity derived from where I think I rank performance-wise. And Berkeley was difficult because there are a lot of capable, driven, smart, knowledgeable people here who have got their priorities super focused.

But I think the main reason why I started self-evaluating so much is because I started hanging out around people who expected me to be able to justify why I do what I do. I think a comfortable default in my friends and acquaintances has been: “Oh, you have a preference? I will respect that you feel that way, here’s something I think.” And then all of a sudden, in a lot of people, I was encountering: “Oh, you have a preference? Why do you have that preference? You can’t say it’s because of x because that contradicts what you said about y.” And so, in an effort to keep up with expectations, I started to do even more categorizing than I already do with my life. Moreover, people started giving me words and established concepts to aid in this self-organizing, and it was off to the races.

I think the most important concept that was introduced to me was “self-regulation”, and the fact that I do a lot of it. I’ve since forced a lot of my mental behavior into this title, and explicitly increased my efforts to do it well. It’s been an incredibly useful tool to deal with the challenges of coming into a new place, with different environmental expectations, quite different people, and some very novel experiences.

I’m really pleased to say that I think I’m in a place where I can wind it down now :). This might be premature, since a new semester is starting next week and all sorts of new exciting experiences will develop, but I feel like I’ve got a foothold in where I am. I’m comfortable with where I am rankings-wise, have my network of people and know where I want to expand it, and am happy with my work, people, and my grasp of myself at this moment.

There are still tons of things to work through, of course. I recently had an experience that did an excellent job of pointing out where my insecurities are and what I care deeply about, and I’d like to sort through that sort of thing in the future. I’m also planning some more completely novel things, just for the experience, and I expect there to be plenty of emotional disturbances in my future interactions with people. This is more a reminder to myself that I can scale figuring-out-who-I-am back though. I’ve been trying a trick recently where I tell myself: you know, you don’t have to care so much. You don’t have to analyze it—you can just let the experience pass. People are fallible and there’s a lot of uncertainty and there’s a balance between emotional investment and how much you learn from a situation. And it’s been kind of fun, letting things go when they’re not essential.

I don’t think this goal of relaxing about self-regulation is going to work stupendously. If situations aren’t emotionally stable for me, I’m going to slip right back into it. If people start digging into rigorously modeling others’ motivations, I’m going to be analyzing my reactions all the time. If there’s some situation that I feel bad about, I’ll irrationally be on high alert for everything else. But right now, I’m feeling that everything’s in a good place, and more stable than in the beginning of the semester. I feel like I’ve learned and restructured quite a bit, and that this will probably hold me until the next big learning episode. It’s cyclical: I’m hoping to head on down for a little while :).

Something else I was thinking about recently was whether people have been enjoying grad school. In a recent discussion with some of my cohort, I eventually asked how many people were “like, ecstatic to be here”. Turns out that peoples’ happiness levels aren’t well translated to a single dimension, situations change quickly here, and that it’s often context specific. “So, basically, you’re the only one,” was the conclusion.

I love grad school. On a personal level, the learning curve has been tremendous this semester. (See new experiences, emotional regulation, self-knowledge, etc.) I’m really happy with my cohort, happy with all of the other people in my program, happy with the people I’m meeting through Human-Compatible AI, happy with people connected to this community, happy with my lab people. I’m really really really excited about my work. This is not to say I think about my work all the time like a proper scientist (…sigh. One would hope that this point is eventually reached.) but it’s just a tremendous relief to have someone else looking out for my research interests. I’ve always been interested in social inference, right? But there isn’t a unilateral path to get there, “there” isn’t exactly defined in my mind, and at each point along my path, I’m working with people who have worked to make this the end point on their path. I have this huge sense of relief that I’m now working with an advisor who is on the same path, who is going to make sure I figure out a good place for this path to lead.

There are also tons of new opportunities here, I feel like I fit in very well, and there are people around who are more similar to me than ever before. The weather’s fantastic, and there is a truly massive amount of academic information to learn and time in which to learn it. I enjoy where I live and my commute and my exercise. I adore my advisor and the post-doc who is taking me under his wing, and I have a great view of San Francisco out my window.

So yeah, I’m delighted to be here, with all of its ups and downs. But why wouldn’t people be ecstatic to be here?

One thing I’ve heard is that people fit in better in their previous places, usually college. There are certainly much wider social circles in college. You also have the opportunity to do a larger range of activities outside of coursework. And your coursework is more varied—it’s not science 24/7. You get a greater range of people. Everything isn’t relentlessly intellectual. There are fun traditions, you have this great sense of community, you’re not in lab all of the time. You spend less time alone. There’s always something going on. You likely have really great friends from college that you spent four years with. You don’t feel like you’re at the bottom of the food chain, more is taken care of, and again, probably most importantly: people.

In this lens, grad school is seen as another place, one to get used to and accept for whatever environment it has. It’s not that we judge it independently, then, rather in comparison to previous experiences and in the context of our current set of expectations and goals. This perspective of grad school as “just another place” is pretty foreign to me, since grad school was the end goal for quite some time (it still feels like it to me. I run around internally in my head yelling “I made it!” on occasion) but if circumstances were different, if labs were different, I could see how that would be the case for me too. It’s funny, because I was told “college is the best time of your life” and I was always kind of like: yeah, this is good, but I REALLY hope I don’t have to be working this crazy-hard forever because it’s very stressful. But the truism about college is true for some people, depending on their experiences. And it might be true that grad school is it for me. Or even that first year of grad school is it for me. I hope not, and I have no idea, but seeing “that was the best time” happen to other people is a glaring reminder that YOU’D BETTER APPRECIATE THIS NOW, BECAUSE WHO KNOWS WHAT’LL COME NEXT!

(Note to self: I overuse certain words. These include “experience”, “framework”, “interaction”, “thing”, “stuff”, “a bit”, “kind of”, “environment”, “completely”, “interesting”, “exciting”, “wonderful / fascinating / tremendous / other adverbs”, and I should just do a word bubble online and also work on this.)

Last thing, which is to say that I’m making progress in research :). I’m actually going to submit a paper to a conference—it’s my first time, and I’m super excited! I’m having a great time running participants via Amazon Turk and communicating with them via email. I’m also having a fantastic time spending hours coding by myself. And then I’ll be able to present the work, and I’ll write it up in a bit, and figure-generation, and thinking of ideas, and lots of communication with my post-doc and also some with my research advisor, and all the things—I adore that research has so many parts to it, and that I enjoy so many of them. School will start up soon, so I’ll go into learning-mode and won’t have nearly so much time for doing-things-mode, but they’re both excellent places to be.

All right, that’s all for tonight :). I hope you all had great breaks, please message me with any comments, and thank you as always, so much, for reading.

Monica

Ps. I strive to make my Facebook account pretty bland—only nice pictures, no comments, very approved. I learned that this can give the impression of me either being boring or a Cool Person ™. My reaction: “Uh. So what was it like when you met me?” I don’t consider myself boring (do people consider themselves boring? Is that a thing? Do I consider other people boring?) and I don’t think I have ever been a Cool Person, except at Space Camp in tenth grade. Which I don’t think constitutes “Cool” in whatever meaning was meant here. I’m really excited to be going to what I’m calling Rationality Camp in March though. I might fit in with the cool kids there!

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