Comparisons and Connections (People, Always)

Hey all :).

Gah, I feel like I simultaneously want to rush this, go to bed, write this and take my time with it, and DO WORK *swear word*. I feel like such an irresponsible graduate student, what with all of the fun I’ve been having these days.

I was just on a panel at USF discussing how to get into grad school, and one of the girls came up to me later and said, “You make it sound so threatening, but I’m pretty sure this is what I want to do, so I’ll definitely email you later!”

Me, sheepishly: “Well, there are just a lot of parts to it. But each of the parts is…”

(Mentally scanning through parts: letters of rec, research, grades, standardized tests, organization, paper writing skills, scientific reading skills, etc…)

Me, even more sheepishly, “…uh, yeah, I’m happy to answer emails!”

Sigh. Each of those parts are themselves a ton of work. But I forgot to say that graduate school can be awesome! I seem to think it’s especially awesome (and I fully expect to pay for the good times later—January will be rough, I can already tell) but circumstances can be miraculous. I did remember to tell them that everything is going to be fine. Which I didn’t especially believe back then, but I do now.

The graduate panel was also really interesting because I was the only PhD student there. The panel was aimed at psychology students, and the organizers were striving for career diversity among the panelists. Alongside me there was a Masters of Public Health (MPH) student, and two PsyD students (which is like a PhD program, but clinically-focused, and they don’t get paid for their clinical work).

The moderator had asked what students needed to do to prepare for graduate school, and I was ready with my usual list. Classes and grades matter, standardized test scores matter, letters of recommendation matter, and research experience matters most of all. Check, check, check, check, need to hit all of these skills, which need to advance in parallel and incrementally.

Then one of PsyD student spoke up and I was surprised, yet again. Every time they spoke I had this internal shock through my system, because graduate school is not the same for everyone. Specifically, what I keep on forgetting is that graduate research is similar. Even across fields, if you’re doing full-time research, I can give an overview of what your academic life looks like. But if you’re not doing research full-time in a PhD or Masters program, “graduate school” can mean different things, and the answers you give to new students are not the same.

For example, apparently in the PsyD application cycle they’re looking for a holistic picture of you, and outside activities matter, as well as exposure to several types of clinical populations. I had to interrupt partway through with: uh, my experience was actually kind of different, for PhD programs they’re singularly looking for research potential. You have to be able to baseline get along with other people, but they’re looking at your research.

Also, people have to work part-time in the PsyD programs, because they don’t get paid? I’d forgotten that getting paid is pretty much restricted to science PhD programs, and had been ready to go off on a detailed monologue comparing stipends across schools and departments. Which is still really relevant information, and usually in the scope of what people want to hear from me when they contact me. I’m just so used to narrowing my scope to a specific audience—the audience which surrounds me pretty much 24/7—I forget that there’s an audience in between “general public” and “wants to get a science PhD”.

If you’re interested in social work, what populations you work with and volunteer with matter. I could have told you that “clinical experience matters”, because I’m actually quite familiar with the qualifications necessary to go to medical school. But this is a different type of volunteering, and is just slightly off-center to what I know. Being on this panel was such a strange experience because what everyone was saying was mostly familiar, but kept on having these weird offshoots that revealed that there were fundamental differences here that were hinted at but not fully explained.

Something else that was also funny to me was the emphasis on age. There was a panelist who was 28, and she was mentioning that I was so young, for having gone pretty immediately to graduate school. One of the other panelists was concerned because he felt too young, because he went straight through to the PsyD after undergrad. Currently, I have two distinct social groups: one of them is the Berkeley graduate community, specifically the AI, neuro, and psych populations. The mean age there is something like 26-27. The other is an outside Berkeley / SF community, where the mean age is probably something like 28-29, with a lot more variance. In both of these groups, there’s a lot of programmers who easily move between internships and jobs, and there is pretty much no emphasis on age. There’s a form of panic about age that I used to have, and kind of showed up at this panel, that I don’t feel anymore. I’m used to being slightly younger than the people around me, but being treated as if we’re all the same age / at the same stage anyway. (Academic hierarchy is respected, of course. If you’re a 5th-year grad student you’re about ready to apply for faculty positions, as compared to a 2nd-year grad student. But people treat that as isolated to research capacity.) There was also a little panic about having moved around jobs, or taking circuitous or non-circuitous paths, that doesn’t bother me at all anymore. I think this is especially a side effect of living in the Bay and the populations I hang out with, but I watch people around me switch jobs all the time, and it no longer becomes a big deal.

It was a great graduate panel, and I’m so glad I got a little more exposure to the different paths that psychology undergrads can take. I forget that I’m on this far edge of psychology, that’s way over near computer science, and that in undergrad I never was on the psychology track. I legitimately only took two psych classes in undergrad—Intro to Psych and Cognitive Psychology—and I’ve learned a lot about psych since then, but it’s not the same.

(For example, I had an embarrassing moment on the panel around the GRE, the standardized test for getting into graduate school. I blithely stated: “The math is easier than on the SAT” and got shouted down by my fellow co-panelists.

“But I heard it was supposed to be like 10th-grade math!” I defended myself.

“I took the SAT years ago!” was the reply. “I was a theater minor! I haven’t taken anything but Psych Stats since!”

…Whoops. I ended up having to take math every year in undergrad, despite telling myself every year that I was done. But the people currently around me know more math than me! Of course everyone’s done this level of math! No, Monica, not all psychology students end up doing this level of math. The relevant comparison group is not the super-stud computer science undergraduates and artificial intelligence PhD students.)

It’s all about the comparison groups. The MPH student was telling me how stressful her first semester had been, because of Berkeley’s Free Speech week and DACA and how everything social-justice had piled up just before mid-terms, in a class where a lot of people were directly affected or were people of color or… “and this program is about how health is affected by society, so it’s obviously been incredibly hectic,” she continued. She was describing this, and I was like: whoa, okay, I do not feel like this was academically hitting most of my friends over here in biological sciences. (Besides the travel ban, of course. The travel ban directly academically affected people I knew. My officemate almost couldn’t come back after visiting her family in Iran over break.) (I’ll keep the commentary to academically affected here, but obviously the real effects are often much deeper than that. I think for a lot of my friends, we were less affected in that way as well, as science grad students often don’t tend to be marginalized or in the social justice crowd, I think to our detriment (I feel for sure for the former, and don’t make a strong claim on the latter.)) (I also strongly reserve the right to revise these opinions later; I feel like I’m uninformed and stumbling around here, and expect to build on the existing values but improve my beliefs with additional information.)

Hm :). Bubbles are excellent things, and it’d be fun to get to know the other panelists better, get to know their bubbles. When talking about what careers they wanted to pursue after their graduate studies, it’s always fun to hear about “helping people in x way”, compared to “wouldn’t it be cool if…?”

God, I love the subway.

A young guy, blond hair and immaculately business-chic, walks in and grabs the handle in front of me. I check him out—yep, loafers, red socks, soft-looking grey suit, tight-ish and styled young, stylish messenger bag, white button-up, Apple earbuds, consistent all the way up. It’s not often you’ll get someone that consistent. I eye his phone he’s holding. Oh—he’s playing one of the repetitive games, and easily looks away when he waits for the next level to load, like he knows how long to expect. I shrug internally, losing interest.

Across the way, there’s a guy with a helmet on on top of a baseball hat; same color. There’s a black plastic thing attached to it—oh, a bike mirror. He’s wearing a shirt that has a few confusing patterns on it. Wait, does it go down his arm? No, that’s a black tattoo that goes from a few inches above and below his right elbow. It looks like it’s covering previous tattoos.

(I get lost in contemplating tattoos for a while before getting back on track.)

Bike-guy shoves his massive backpack up onto his shoulders, and the woman next to him—who I’d been admiring for a while—gives this hilariously affronted look to him briefly, then to her Kindle. She’s tall, older, skin sagging around her chin but standing firmly and straight. Creative clothes, black-themed, long hair and glasses that she whips on. I kind of want to be her when I grow up.

Guy next to them has large black headphones on, large sunglasses shoved up onto his forehead, and is bobbing along to his music. More than bobbing—dancing a little, totally into it, head bopping and legs and body shifting—he looks like he’d been a good dancer. It’s contained, he’s not trying to draw attention, but he keeps on glancing up and mouthing the words and is great to watch. Those three are overlaid: bike-guy, affronted-lady, dancing-dude. It’s great.

There’s a super muscular guy behind them, got an air to him such that you wouldn’t expect him to be except for how you can see it when he’s got his arms folded over each other. Long hair, tied up really high on his head behind a bandana, mottled rainbow tanktop, loose pants.

When I look away one of them disappears, and then a second—soon enough even the guy in the corner, crazy-cheekbones with beanie is gone (he looked like he was doing social things on his phone)—has disappeared after a stop. The new person that takes his place is older and has his hair parted down the middle. I stare down at someone else who has his hair spiked, and trying to figure out how you do it with hair that short, and if you need to.

I spend a bit trying to determine the ethnicity of another woman and comparing another’s facial features to how baby faces are oriented (she’s “cute” in a very characteristic way—is it in the way of big eyes and small jaws that make babies cute? Why else is the way she looks so distinctive? I implicitly know this category, dammit!) There’s a tattooed woman and her partner talking quietly to each other right next to me, and I like that they seem to get along well, very cooperative. (…yes, “very cooperative”, what is this language ;P). I do some basic gender ratio checks, get briefly annoyed that the guy with the skateboard keeps meeting my gaze, think about whether I want other people to notice me noticing them (answer: yes, but in a way that they are similarly amused). Think about the people staring out the windows not looking at their phones. Think about how many stops to go.

There’s something fun about this sort of exercise. Also, something fun about planning ahead. Something fun about being “in the moment”, too. Before this I was riding an Uber down the hill through SF’s city lights, and it was like, right there, right then, that was all there was, no planning, no future anticipation or memories, just me, living it. These types of moments are new for me, and sometimes I’m in them and I go back to thinking and then I go back in them and everything has a new perspective, briefly, before I switch back. Fun being alive, fun being able to play with these things, you know? I don’t always know. But right now I do.

I was riding my bike down to campus one day and narrowly got missed being hit by a car door—god, so close, a second later and I would have been down—and the adrenaline was familiar and immediate and astonishing, and I breathed out, audible sigh, as soon as I was outside car-door-opening-range again, and someone said “that was close,” as I rushed past, and I didn’t know they were talking to me, but I realized they were, and said: “yeah”. And that was an interaction we shared that they observed and I never even saw their face, just said “yeah,” had the acknowledgement that they’d been watching the situation, they’d been watching my reaction, they’d heard my yelp they’d heard my sigh they’d lived my experience there, with me, said something, told me, and I never saw their face, just said “yeah” as we went past.

My therapist and I figured it out, sort of, figured it out much more than before. It was our third week together and I just wanted something out of her, wanted her to do something, wanted it to be good. I kept on talking and analyzing and trying to get her to ask me questions, to input something, to stop looking at me so seriously, none of what I’m saying is the end of the world, come on, engage with me. But she’d look back at me so seriously and say, “and I hear that you felt like this,” or “and in asking that question, you seem like you really care about that question being answered. Why?” And I was like: no no no no no, I’m fine with you turning the question back on me, like, that’s fine, but I need you to answer a few of them occasionally, and generate them occasionally, I want you to prompt me, or something, come on.

But then: “What does it feel like for you in your body right now?” she asked, and that was the start of the good.

“…Tense,” I say, thinking about it. “Like, there’s a lot going on here. I’m—I’m on top of this huge mass of messy social things, because there’s a lot happening right now. I’m trying to manage this situation, because I want something from you, but I’m trying to maintain the social relationship, and we’re like therapist and patient, and that means something, and I also want you to ask me questions, and I’ve told you what it’s like when I do therapy with friends, but I also feel like I’m not giving you space to do your thing, and that I’m moving too fast and that this isn’t easy, at all, like I’m banging against something trying to figure this out, and I want to be doing whatever it is that lets you do whatever you’re really good at.”

“And do you always think about this sort of thing?”

I pause for a while. It’s a good question—I have to pose it as, “when do you not do this sort of thing?” I’m searching for exceptions when she talks again, trying to clarify. I tell her to wait up a second, mentioning the query I’m asking and the fact that I’m checking for exceptions.

I finish searching. “Almost all of the time, I’m thinking things like this. Sometimes I won’t, when I’ll just kind of move automatically.” I give a few examples.

“And those moments where you’re moving automatically, those feel free?”

Long pause. “I… wouldn’t describe that feeling as free. It’s… when I do things automatically, it’s like I’m watching myself do it. I’ll make a motion, and I won’t control it, and I’ll look at myself doing it and be like: huh, this is happening. It’s pretty interesting to watch myself like that, when I’m not thinking. Because I usually feel like I have a bunch of control over my actions and emotions.”

I pause, mentally going on a tangent. Tangents are allowed in therapy, though.  “Actually, the way I’m looking at you now, the way I was a few minutes ago, it reminds me of…”

She prompts me when I reference a situation and then stop.

“Like, you’re holding me. Long eye contact is super interesting, because usually I’m trying to model the other person and thinking about the pause and trying to figure out who’s supposed to say what when and what the topic could be and it’s super spinny and focused and all over the place. But if I can trust the other person—like, here, I’m looking at you and I know it’s your turn next, you’re leading this thing, I don’t have to lead it—then that’s really engaging. Exciting, interesting, because I’ve done my thing and said my words and now it’s your turn. And there’s just as much thought going on, there’s just as much behind it—it’s, how long is this pause, and why are they holding it, and what am I feeling with regards to this length of time, and what am I feeling right now, push-pull-push-pull, but it feels like the other person’s more of a black box, there’s still this tension, but it’s good tension, it’s I wonder what they’ll say next, and I’ll react, but it’s not a “pressure” kind of react, it’s just on hold, waiting, seeing what will happen next. Thrilling, sort of.”

She asks me how I feel about this, then goes back to a previous point. And she’s leading, and is helping me generate new things, and is not bouncing questions back at me, and seems engaged, and is going along with all the meta, just fine, which I forget I need people to do with me, but I really need people to do with me.

How do I get people to engage with me how I want them to engage? I thought she would be able to do it from the beginning, because of the good questions she asked at the end of our first session. But I seemed to be unable to pull out exactly what I wanted implicitly, and in the end I needed to explain what my expectations were out of therapy based on my previous experiences and what I was looking for and not looking for. Which seems like the obvious thing to do, when I write it out. But really, I’d previously mentioned what I wanted out of therapy from her. What I hadn’t mentioned was how I wanted therapy to go, and I think that most people would fall into a dynamic naturally by a bunch of implicit cues, rather than laying it out. Meanwhile, I had to say: I want you to ask leading questions. I want you to have some idea in mind of where you think it’d be useful to go, because I’m really used to my own mind and what I come up with doesn’t surprise me or doesn’t seem odd. If you see a clear path where I’m thinking in a convoluted way, I want you to point that out. Hearing myself talk is okay-useful but not amazing, because I’m already pretty capable of navigating my mind. I want to interact with you in a way that you find engaging and pleasing and plays to your strengths, and I want that way to be established between us. Go.

And at the end of the session, I stood up, and words came out of me in the automatic-not controlled way they do sometimes. And those words were: “That was super fun!”

And as I was walking out to my bike, this thought kept on repeating: “yes, play with me!”

And that’s the key bit, I think. Play with me. When done right, when I can trust the other person to catch and hold and engage and spin and come up with new ideas and jump between representational structures and push and pull back and play—that is playing, for me. That’s what exploring mind is. It’s tense and fully engaged and interesting and thrilling, and there are rules but there’s also this sort of boundless tangent that doesn’t feel pressuring, just interesting and new. And there’s this sense of constant progress along with the newness, because the topics I’m going over and the feelings I’m describing are hardly ever the pleasant ones, and working on the not-pleasant ones does produce long-lasting and measurable impact in my day-to-day mentality.

I was describing once to a friend how I do therapy with a bunch of other friends, and how I’m even leading some of it myself. And she asked what these friends get out of “playing therapist” with me, since she said there are hardly any people who she cares about deeply enough to really get into the dregs of their emotions with. I know my answer surprised her initially. It’s that it’s really intellectually interesting. If you don’t think of emotional problems as fixed or part of your identity, and you have the tools and inclination to work them, there’s a large class of problems that you can just try to unravel and poke at. People often have similar problems, and their minds are wired up in roughly similar ways, so that there are ways that you can talk yourself around issues and resolve them. But minds are also really different, and there will be tons of hang-ups all over the place which you don’t expect, and trying to help people by figuring out ways around these really complex mental structures is both incredibly rewarding and really interesting.

It’s also the type of problem where if people’s minds are easy, then your solution has wide applicability and can provide large impact, and if people’s minds are more challenging, it doesn’t get demoralizing because then you’re the type of person who likes puzzles anyway. You can also measurably “level up” in it, because it’s obvious when you’re good at helping people navigate their problems or when you can’t help them come up with anything different than what they’re already doing. This is all really subjective, of course, but it’s also a shared social activity, because everyone’s trying to fix themselves and each other. Which for me, coupled with the sense of personal progress, culminates in “fun”.

It’s kind of great to me that these weird forms of therapy are kind of a fascinating hobby and tap into what’s most fun about life for me in addition to being classically helpful. (I was reading an article about someone the other day, and had this immense sense of sadness and lost-ness that he didn’t have the tools he needed to pull out of an emotionally really hard place. Not having tools… everyone should have tools. We aren’t born with naturally great ones, and it’s so much a process of chance, genetics, and environment what kind of emotional management tools we end up with as adults. I think everyone could benefit from good therapy, if they went for a little while. Good therapy, of course, differs by person and is hard to find, but tools are so good.))

Hmmm :).

And look at that—I totally meant to keep this short, and instead I’m not going to be sleeping as much as I’d like tonight :). But it’s been such a good week—Dungeons and Dragons continues to be really awesome (I have thoughts), I got to have a sleepover with a friend, one of my projects is actually SO CLOSE to being able to run, and things are finally in full gear research-projects wise. Ah well, that’s what sleeping in on Friday is for :). Hope you all have excellent weeks, and best wishes!


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