The Imposter in the Room

I was acutely and nervously aware of the irony of my situation at that moment. I was about to crash an exclusive seminar by passing myself off as “staff” using a defunct email address (which in all fairness, did at one time exist) to register for an event to which I was not at all invited. The seminar was actually a workshop about conquering Imposter Syndrome. Yes indeed, I was the literal imposter in the room, sneaking myself in to learn all I could about how to overcome feeling like an imposter.

How did I get here? Let’s back up. Some time ago I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which she describes feeling like an “imposter” in school and at work- a phenomenon where rather than taking pride in one’s achievements, she brushed them off as luck, and felt fearful that others would discover a “true” lack of talent or accomplishment. I was interested in this, mostly because her experience of putting the name “Imposter Syndrome” to her feelings, as outlined in her book, was mirrored uncannily in my own experience. The scenario she described was a scene from my own life, (if it was at UC Davis instead of Harvard and another honor society altogether) in which her mind is absolutely blown by a speaker at her Honor society’s initiation ceremony. I had to know more. From the book’s references I went and read the original research paper that described this phenomenon for the first time. More digging revealed a test (omg! a test!!) that would rank the severity of your imposter feelings on a 1-100 scale.

I was all about this: any number I could attach to my feelings made them measurable and therefore understandable, definable! I couldn’t ask for better validation. Like a dutiful researcher, I contacted the lead author of the paper asking for permission to reprint/cite her paper and test as source material for a discussion with other lady scientists I was slated to have the next week, thinking it would provide some good talking points.

Some weeks went by, and our discussion of imposter syndrome went well: consistent with the paper we read, all of us high-achieving women (save one) had experienced imposter feelings, and scored highly on the test. Reactions run the gamut from very surprised to a non-nonchalant shrug. My reaction was somewhere in between…I wasn’t surprised but I was still feeling quite shocked and at a loss at what to do.

Then, out of the blue, I receive a missed call at work. This is very unusual, everyone who wants to reach me never bothers and simply calls my cell phone. It was Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, author and discoverer of the Imposter Phenomenon, calling from Georgia. She knew I had requested to use her materials for a discussion with other women in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and was following up with me, using the phone I list in my work email signature. Would you, she inquired, be willing to write about your experiences for my website and be a resource for other women in STEM? I was pretty shocked she wanted to put something I write on her website.

I couldn’t have been more intimidated, nervous, and starstruck all at the same time. Like the excited spazz that I am, I blurted out a yes- conveniently forgetting that I’m also planning a wedding and doing my PhD. And so, when I heard about an “invitation only” seminar about Imposter Syndrome at a nearby prestigious university, I had a fit of inspiration and decided to do everything I could to attend.

So here I was, feeling very off balance and doing everything I could to act like I belonged. In my mind’s eye, I could just slip in the back of the seminar and no one would notice me. However, as soon as I ascended the stairs I was greeted with a huge well-dressed crowd, mingling and enjoying a large display of catered treats: five kinds of mini-quiches, coffee, tea, juice, fruit plates, and every kind of cookie, cake and brownie imaginable. Ushers in matching suits (the school colors of course) with name tags waved guests to registration tables…where computers waited to take your name and institutional email.  I panicked, it didn’t say anything about registration on the event flier I had found! Also, somehow the title of the “seminar” had morphed into “workshop,” which to me implied a much more interactive session, meaning the chances I would be found out had drastically increased. But then, amidst the panic I felt a wave of calm descending, in which I calmly marched up to the computer and entered my information. If it rejected me, so be it! Miraculously, however…”Registration Accepted” appeared on the screen and I sort of stood there a little confused for a minute. The Usher kindly gestured me toward the food line and like a zombie I just trudged over and started grabbing whatever was in sight. I got in!

The “workshop” turned out to mean questions posed by the speaker and lots of raising of hands and audience participation. At one time there was even the formation of small groups for intimate activities, and I thought for sure my group-mates would discover the gaps in my personal experiences and realize I didn’t belong there. I played it all off, and everyone nodded in support of me, and asked to borrow my pens, and didn’t even seem the least bit suspicious. Once, an usher in the corner gave me a squinty-eyed serious look, and I thought for sure he would walk over and escort me out. As time went on, I was more comfortable, and I left still feeling nervous but also exhilarated and enlightened.

It was so worth it. I’m still waiting for the email “finding me out” and stating the consequences but so far nothing has arrived. And although it’s taken me several months to even begin composing something worthwhile about Imposter Syndrome, having an idea that I am not alone and not the only one at a loss at what to do sometimes, can make all the difference when deciding where to start. So although I literally had to turn into an imposter to learn how to cope with feeling like one, it somehow became an inspirational experience that ended with a sense of belonging.

I’m still composing something for Dr. Clance’s website, which will *hopefully* follow this post sometime soon.

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International Women’s Day: taking a closer look at women in science

Just ahead of International Women’s Day, the journal Nature decided to take a look at the state of women in science and gender bias in research, dedicating many articles and op-ed’s to all sorts of topics. And while they tried to sound enlightened and modern in their approach to the issue, as a woman in science myself I was slightly confused and a little insulted after reading their pages.

They spat out the statistics and talked more than once about how the deck is stacked against women in any and all scientific fields, drilling home that all of us are unconsciously biased toward the maintenance of gender roles, trying to appear sympathetic without assigning blame. Instead they implied quite a bit about how those few women in science make it, and why: largely ignoring what I believe to be the main issue: mentoring of women.

They ran a story titled “From the frontline: 30 something Science” where they chronicled the paths to success of several women scientists in various fields. All of these success stories featured women who seemed to have it all, the prestigious position, the lovely family, the respect of their peers, if only they were willing to work hard enough and make sacrifices:

Being five months pregnant comes with a series of concessions: no booze, no sushi, no double-shot espressos…[breakdancing] is one of the few limitations that Tye, 31, has been willing to accept. Striving to make her mark in optogenetics, one of the hottest fields in neuroscience, Tye thought nothing of working past midnight, getting by on four or five hours sleep a night and maintaining a constant, transcontinental travel schedule…With her mother as a role model, Tye says that she was in her teens before it occurred to her that her gender could hold back her career.

Great, so if only all of us women only worked harder, yes we might have to make sacrifices, but as long we do not accept sacrificing anything for our career and do whatever it takes, we’ll make it. The article goes on to describe how Tye “tearfully” “begged” another successful woman for a place in her lab, threatening to drop out of graduate school if she wasn’t taken in. Another strange bit of writing…is this really the path to success?

But herein lies the real problem. This article glosses over the small detail that Tye had several female mentors not only in life, but during very important times in her career. She became very successful once she was able to convince another woman to help her, and that is not a coincidence. That isn’t to say that she wouldn’t have been successful in a man’s lab, she probably would have, as long as she received good mentoring from that person. All of us, men included, don’t become successful without the help of others, no matter how absurdly talented we may be. Statistically, men receive more mentorship than women, especially in the sciences. That includes men helping women, but more striking is how many less women are inclined to mentor other women. Nature itself even sounded mildly surprised when mentioning that there is no correlation between the number of women who sit on grant review committees and the number of women researchers who receive grants from those same committees. And while I would argue that this is a good thing, it hints at a larger theme that it is expected for women in science to help other women in science and quite honestly, they don’t always.

Unfortunately, women helping women gets much less attention then women spurning other women, which hurts cultural attitudes and expectations about women’s relationships to their peers. Stepping out of science for a second into popular culture, the media broadcasts the latest female feuds with glee: whether manufactured or real. The latest example between Taylor Swift and Tina Fey/Amy Poehler, isn’t just fueling the female feud stereotype, but actually damaging the case for “women helping women.” Taylor Swift angrily insinuated that by embarrassing her at the Golden Globes, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would go to “a special hell for women who don’t help other women.”  This quote in Vanity Fair magazine was simple retaliation, using the very methods she claims to abhor. Her hypocrisy is sadly typical, and actually hurts the “women should help other women” debate.

Many women in positions of power are in a delicate position: often watched very closely for signs of favoritism. They may even have a bit of a chip on their shoulder;  unwilling to help other women because of the sub-par/non-existent mentoring they received themselves. The reverse is often true of younger women. Many today feel entitled to special treatment by older women without earning anything or working particularly hard. None of these scenarios should be the case. I have had and continue to have been fortunately to have several mentors both women and scientists, sometimes both. But it’s not easy to find them.

I won’t even talk much about the incredibly high and unrealistic expectations the US expects of their workforce: long hours, low pay, a much reduced quality of life in exchange for a wonderful career. When some people, rightly so, judge that to be a bad opportunity cost, other people are shocked: s/he just didn’t work hard enough! Maybe working hard is exactly what we need to do; maybe overworking is not.

Some of the most outrageous examples of bias in science, courtesy of Nature:

One study showed that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are offered US$11,000 less salary than women with no children3. By contrast, the same study shows that parenthood confers an advantage to men in the workplace.

A particular professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. On the first day of class, “he looked around and said ‘I see women in the classroom. I don’t believe women have any business in engineering, and I’m going to personally see to it that you all fail’.”

In biology, for example, women comprised 36% of assistant professors and only 27% of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the US National Research Council3.

Professors said they would offer the student named Jennifer US$3,730 less per year than the one named John, even though the CVs were identical. The scientists also reported a greater willingness to mentor John than Jennifer.

  • Nature 495, 22–24 (07 March 2013)
  • Nature 495, 28–31 (07 March 2013)

Awkward Encounters with Job In-security

As the unprecedented front of Hurricane Sandy draws near I find it harder and harder not to believe in climate change, and I’m constantly flabbergasted by those who still maintain that humans have nothing to do with our shifting global temperatures. Do you really need a PhD to understand that we have to make changes to our current treatment of the environment? Unfortunately, PhD’s are simultaneously distrusted, misunderstood, and held aloof by many people today. That outlook is bleak for me.

Firstly, everyone in Sandy’s path, stay safe and best of luck.

Now, on to my current gripe. There are certain times when I become very bothered by the long held notion that scientists, (particularly those with the three letters P-H-D attached to their names) are so intellectually removed and above the general populace. It’s with a certain reluctance that I tell people what I’m in graduate school for, and it’s generally because they recoil from me like I must be an elitist prick, often with a wide eyed facial expression followed by a physical  inclination of the head backward. Don’t get me wrong, some people really enjoy this shock-inducing attention. I’m just not one of them.

This reaction is instantly uncomfortable because it labels me as different, as part of some alternate group that suddenly doesn’t include that person I’m talking to. Everyone likes to fit in and feel included, and that is definitely not what that reaction evokes. Instantly I feel forced into a corner where I can either try to explain my research in a simultaneously non-technical yet non-patronizing way (silently arguing that no, it’s really not that out there), or look down at my shoes and mumble something inaudible. I usually choose the latter. It’s no wonder that scientists have such a reputation for being anti-social wallflower types with less than optimal party conversation skills.

This reactionary treatment from strangers has happened to me on two occasions in the last two weeks. The first, I was actually attempting not to be a wallflower at a graduate student reception and asked a girl I didn’t know (but  was introduced to by a friend) what was her graduate major. Okay, admittedly this might not have been the best opening line. She replied she was a Theater major and inquired after me. I said awesome, I was doing Genetics. Then came the feared wide eyes, step back, the exclamation of wow, she could never do that. Perhaps what she failed to realize was that while my profession may make her feel insecure, her reaction makes me feel just as insecure and self conscious. I decided to explain to her how I really felt about her reaction. I replied that theater, well I could never do that. For me who suffered from nearly debilitating stage fright in high school, her job was hard and impressive, takes work, and in my book, enriches people’s lives. That’s important! It’s just different, plain and simple. Unfortunately she seemed skeptical and soon removed herself, leaving me standing awkwardly unoccupied. I regretted volunteering my views comparing our two fields.

I had the opportunity to try a different tactic a week later, when I decided to set up in my favorite Peet’s Coffee shop with a pumpkin latte and work on some Biochemistry practice exams. Instantly the older gentleman at the table next to me took a sidelong look and asked if I was doing homework. “Well yes, attempting,” I replied, and turned back to my coffee and structures. I’m already annoyed and very obviously flashing my sparkly engagement ring as a leave-me-alone-I’m-not-single-message. Learning from my earlier experience with the theater graduate student, I try very hard not to engage him in conversation without being overtly rude. A long pause. I may just get away with drinking my coffee in peace. “It looks hard, what you’re doing,” he ventures, pretty much apropos of nothing. Then he derides himself by adding, “I could never do what you’re doing, I just don’t have the brain for it I guess.”  I’m baffled: why the incessant need to judge what other people do against what you personally do with your life? I glance over at his table, getting a peak at a well worn philosophical novel and scribbled pages of handwritten sheet music. I suppose he’s attempting to complement me or fishing for one himself, but I’m not in the mood. He was clearly writing his own very complicated musical piece, something I myself could never do. I told him, “I don’t think it’s different brains, it’s just about what you enjoy doing.” I wanted to get across that it’s what you like to do in life that should drive your profession, and just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean I’m an instant wiz.  Everyone likes different areas and different fields, none of which are better one than the other. He looked sheepishly down at his musical composition, muttered he guessed so, picked up his coffee and left, telling me to “enjoy” my homework. Apparently that wasn’t the right thing to say either.

So it’s really hard for me to talk in detail about what I do to those who ask, and I haven’t quite figured out how. I’d rather emphasize my interests, talking about my concerns for human health and disease, how I had family members and mentors die of  cancer, influencing my career path. I think those are things people can relate to because it’s your experience not your intellect that becomes the driving force. People are very insecure about their intellects (myself included), but as the NY Times reports, smart is the norm, not the exception.

But this knee-jerk “I’m so impressed” reaction is one of those things people think they should do, as if a PhD somehow demands respect or acknowledgment. Unfortunately, not all PhD’s are created equally smart nor does “smarts” have to be a prerequisite for that PhD. I think the social isolation presents a real barrier to emerging and amateur scientists, and worse, creates an artificial barrier to the public’s understanding and acceptance of science broadly. If people constantly and immediately view science as obscure and incomprehensible, how will we make connections to the issues that we face every day that are directly related: healthcare, clean water, climate change?

Grad School: the first month of the next five years

I’ve been waiting… years to go to Graduate School. For me, it wasn’t a decision I took lightly or rushed in to, but unfortunately that didn’t mean I knew what I was getting myself into or cared about the consequences. I was going to try dammit. Jobs for science PhD’s may be an endangered species in the next few years, since the NY Times estimates today says that

“federal spending on research and development would be trimmed by more than $12 billion in 2013. The National Science Foundation…would have its budget cut by more than $450 million…why should government support for scientific research and technology development be spared from the belt-tightening?”

That sounds dismal. If a career in the sciences isn’t really booming with prospects right now, that meant I had to be really passionate about the subject, about working at the bench, and about weathering disappointment. What do I think now that I’m there? Not quite what I expected…at all.

First I have to say I am a creature of habit. I move slowly, I contemplate. The first week was a whirlwind of information about what to do, where to go, who you should be talking to, as soon as possible. That feeling of disorientation was exacerbated by the physical sensations too, with the campus was itself a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels which I was shown how to navigate, but still hopelessly lost in. I had the sensation that I was going the most roundabout way to do the most inefficient thing, every day. I always want to be working toward something, fulfilling my goals, and right now it couldn’t feel farther away from that. I’m in a graduate school limbo where I’m trying out different labs, working on short term projects that won’t be my thesis research, and doing classwork in subjects I haven’t touched in five years. I was itching to get to grad school and now I’m here and I still feel like I’m itching to start some real work.  It’s incredibly anti-climactic.

But probably the most unnerving aspect of grad school for which I was woefully unprepared are this set of false rules they put in place to (falsely) guide you. I know a lot of people don’t like rules, but I like them because they provide a framework that makes expectations very clear. I know what I have to do, and I can do it, simple. Here everything is full of “but’s” and “well’s” that say sure, this is what we want you to do, but you don’t REALLY have to do it that way. You have to find the way that works for you. Since I’m not the type to constantly test the limits of my constraints, I found it frustrating that just when I thought I had tried all the doors in the hallway to decide which one to step into, metaphorically speaking, another door would appear behind me. Because graduate school is really what you make it, everyone tries to flexible to your needs, meaning they don’t define what you need either. You, and only you, have to figure that out, and tailor the graduate program to help you accomplish that. I’m not used to that sort of self-serving approach, I think I’ve been comfortable helping other people accomplish what they want and need in my professional life since it began.

But self-sufficiency isn’t entirely the problem for me, however. If I have to get things done myself I have no problem buckling down and dealing with it. The difficult part is knowing when to ask for help or how to utilize the resources others are willing to give. I thought it might be a pride thing, but I think more likely it’s just an ignorance thing. I don’t know who or what to ask. How do you learn something like that? If anyone has ideas, I would gladly entertain. Maybe all it takes is a little trial and error, a little putting yourself out there. I’m quiet, I’m shy, but I’m still trying to succeed as much as the next outgoing and charismatic person, it’s just going to be a little more of a struggle.

A New Name, or No?

Barely a month ago I got engaged. I’ve spent the last few weeks bathing in congratulations, well-wishes, and excited brainstorming, with hardly a care about all the new challenges a legitimate couple will face. Even though I have been dating my live-in boyfriend for nearly nine years, suddenly having a fiance felt like a change. I couldn’t figure out why our situation felt so different, it was just the next logical step, right?

It wasn’t until after mentally sorting through all the questions that I found the one really sticking with me. The question of names. I feel so instinctively that to give up my last name for his last name is to lose a piece of my identity. It feels both right and wrong. On the one hand I want to connect myself with this person by legitimizing our union on paper under one name.  It’s still common for women in marriage to take the name of their husband, but for a woman in science like myself, I think I feel it more keenly. My career is and will be closely associated with my name (in the form of publications, lectures, patents, etc), which for maximum distinction should be distinct and unique from anyone else.
I feel like the professional path I have created for myself up to this point would come to an end and then shift with a name change– not the sort of continuation one hopes for in their career.

I struggle with this idea also because it seems very common in science for women to maintain their maiden names. Married couples who both work in science academia often have dissimilar names, so to avoid attaching their careers to their personal lives. It avoids judgement of nepotism among other things, so a stranger would never know a couple’s personal association even if that couple worked together in the same professional arena. But I am not in the same field as my future spouse, so a name change wouldn’t attach me professionally to him, therefore I am left with the conflicting feelings of wanting to connect myself “legitimately” to his family, while still retaining a connection to mine.

Unfortunately, the alternative most suggested (hyphenating the two names) is not an option in my case. His name is already a hyphenated conversion of his two parent’s names, so adding a third is simple overkill. Another popular option, creating a new hybrid name, is attractive to me for the novelty aspect but the simple sad truth is no interesting jumble of shared letters or shortened bits seems to make any sense when I try putting our two names together. In fact, and anagram computer program comes up with “Bleached Curly Semen” and “Became Cursedly Hen.” Dear god.

I know couples go through this all the time, and I’m already overwhelmed by the prospect of last names for our children! When chatting with a friend about this issue recently, he suggested that carrying on the name itself should be the most important thing. Give your children the name that needs more strength in numbers, regardless of whether you change your name when married. This idea appeals to me. As I am one of two girls with very few extended family, our last name would fade if both of us take a husband’s name. His family is so big and mine so small, even if I do take his name I can still pass mine to my children. What better way to appeal to both families, big and small?

I do wish I could have the option of both last names, using one or the other at my leisure. For this purpose, registering an alias might be useful so I could publish scientifically under my maiden name and use my married name for anything else. However, I have tried to research this idea and found it extremely convoluted and confusing, which is discouraging in the very least. Luckily, I have plenty of time to think this over before my eventual marriage date, which is yet TBD.

With all the engagement and prospective marriage hullabaloo that has ensued, this issue is the of the only parts of marriage that still feels intimate and personal. For that reason if feels special, one thing that is ours alone to decide in this new life we will share together as a couple. I’m excited and nervous and if anyone has ideas about names or name changing, let me know!

Ch-Ch-Ch-CHANGES!

It’s a work week in Boston, and for the first time in the nearly three years since I arrived I’ve woken up with no job to go in to, no commuter mass to join. It is a very strange feeling, and it made me reflect on the person I was when I first came from California all those years ago. Something feels different now, and I hadn’t stopped to consider what that might be until now, when I actually have some time…the whole summer in fact…to think it over. I took the train in to downtown Boston all the same on Monday, this time as a tourist. I missed the familiar bustle of commute hour of course, but since I didn’t wake up early enough for that, I played at reading the commuter newspaper and it helped me maintain a sense of normalcy as I faced a work-less week ahead. ImageI thought I would head to the waterfront near the Aquarium but I ended up near Haymarket and Faneuil Hall. I stumbled on a little park fountain with a labyrinth of stones meandering out from the center where a word was carved at each end.  I was so afraid of the week ahead because the last time I was alone and jobless in Boston I gave myself a hard look and hated who I had become. Now, three years later I was standing accidentally right on “SCIENCE” and I had to laugh a little. My Boston journey had both started and ended with this word, and just like the grass between the stones it has been a meandering trip full of growth.

Boston is the perfect city to grow up in, especially if you’re already an adult. There was a disconnect between what I wanted to do and what I actually did all the time-I would constantly make lists of ideas and places I wanted to go without actually doing them, like unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions year round. I was shy, insular, and afraid of just going out and doing something without someone else to do it with me, except I didn’t know anyone in Boston. Three years ago I would have let that keep me inside and gone stir crazy. But Boston has a way of coaxing you out, with it’s big city thrills and small city feel. The ubiquitous and affordable public transportation enabled small but exciting explorations, which whet my appetite for more ambitious outings. It only took me three whole years of mixing failure, success, and self-interpretation to finally feel like a self sufficient, independent, and useful human being.

The economy was bad and I was deathly afraid of being unemployed and 3,000 miles from home, so I accepted the first job I was offered despite knowing how little it improved my future career goals and just hoped everything would work itself out. First mistake. I came with big dreams, naive ambition, but I had a passive approach to life. I had this idea of breaking in to the world of science by chance, like I would meet someone influential who would see the potential in me, and they would convince a graduate selection committee that I was worth the risk. That was my second mistake. No one but me could convince a selection committee, and no one but me could fight for my future. The fight was conspicuously absent from my application, and it was obvious I was looking for an escape from my situation, not for a five-year research commitment. I was so dismissive that I hadn’t prepared myself mentally for a rejection (or five), and like everything that goes wrong when you’re young it felt like the end of the world. I was now forced to look straight at the dead end job I hoped to amicably ignore and instead deal with the consequences. I had to be proactive and work for something better. It was a struggle to stay positive everyday, after all it seemed my grand attempt at venturing out of my hometown and “making it” was failing miserably. No! Don’t think like that!

So I decided to start by taking a hard look at what I really wanted, not at what I would compromise for because I had lost faith in myself. I wanted to work at MIT the most, and then I wanted to go to a good graduate school. I had applied for one MIT job while still in my undergraduate and flopped in the interview. I would try hard not to flop this time. I still didn’t believe in myself, especially since being rejected from graduate school and told I wasn’t doing anything right in my last job, but I was going to fake the confidence temporarily at least. I was prone to qualifiers: saying yes I did that, BUT. I was so self-conscious about my failures I let that bleed into everything else, even my triumphs and accomplishments. The result was everything I did felt downplayed and unenthusiastic. Not great when you are looking for a job. So I armored myself with solid preparation and a fact-filled interpretation of my own abilities. Sticking to the facts, no qualifiers.

Once I landed the job it was time to do that grad school thing again. It’s never easy to look at something you sucked at in the face and do it again. Here were the facts: I hadn’t honest to god tried because I was afraid if I REALLY tried and then failed, that would mean my best isn’t good enough. If I sort of tried I could save my pride by thinking I just didn’t live up to my potential. That was something wasn’t it? No, putting it all on the line is hard, but that’s what makes it worth it.

So I went all out…overboard. I took a night class to get more experience in the field I would apply to, I re-took my GRE plus an extra subject GRE, I applied to eleven graduate schools within a stone’s throw from Boston,  and I wrote a grant for a graduate fellowship even though I’d never written a grant before, all while working my full time job. I just put faith in myself to succeed in a last ditch effort and threw it all out there.

Eight interviews, seven offers, and two graduate fellowships later, I’m exhausted and taking the summer off. I’m scared all over again for this new experience of graduate school since I don’t have good luck with first go-arounds, but this time I think I feel good enough about myself to know my limits and how to get there. It seems I am nothing but relentless and persistent, and the old adage “If at first you don’t succeed…” definitely applies to me. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, but you can always try to get what you want, and it may turn out better than you expect.

The Life of an Almost Grad Student

My frantic six months of graduate school applications, interviews, and decisions has been at an end for a month now and I’m only now starting to get over the shock and awe phase. Now during this weird intermission in my life before I move from working girl to student (unfortunately not the reverse) I’m starting to contemplate what it means to be in graduate school and what I should be doing there…I’ve turned to the blog #WHATSHOULDWECALLGRADSCHOOL too many times with shoulder slumping results.

People ask me what I’m going to do next and when I tell them I’m going for my PhD, that follows with a second question that it seems PhD students themselves don’t even know: “so, WHAT are you going to be doing excatly?” The path to a PhD differs for everyone and it seems like a really hard journey to a really elitist club, and I’m sure some people treat it that way. In fact, I think the PhD process is just really hard to define rather than just hard, a kind of nebulous space where expectations are vague, accomplishments hit or miss, and a “wow” is given to those who make it because “making it” has so much luck involved. Sure you have to work hard, but two people working equally hard can have frustratingly unequal results. One inevitably wonders, what lab deity did that guy bow down to for that result?? And while many things in science seem so analytical and logical and straightforward, the PhD process is remarkably anything but, with more meanderings, dead ends, and dropouts than anyone tells you at the beginning. It seems to deny explanation…except to explain why it takes ten years. Literally.

Someone has attempted to pin down EXACTLY what I will and should be learning in my PhD, in true scientific fashion with lots of tables and analysis, published recently in a very good journal. It’s as if to say, if you’re not doing all of this in graduate school you’re just not doing it right. It’s titled “Skill Development in Graduate Education” (Parker et al. Mol. Cell, Vol46:4, 25 May 2012, 377–381) and I took a peak just to scare myself a little more. Effort successful. The first figure attempts to summarize the key components of my impending graduate education with more arrows that I can ever follow one to the other. Will it really be like this?

AHHH!!!

A figure later in the text actually says one must “Prepare your mind before reading”. If the goal of this article is to try and elucidate more clearly what graduate students are supposed to do, I’m not sure that’s doing it. What someone can teach me how to “prepare my mind” unless they’re Yoda? Does this mean watching Star Wars again is research related? I guess I could do that… Research seems full of counter intuitive notions, notice I must be “Broad” (twice) but also “Deep.” I should be analytical and yet still creative, can you even learn to be creative?

My personal take away from this is to freak out a little, then “prepare my mind” with a nice vacation and some complete and total laziness before getting started on following all those intense and frenetic arrows pointing every which way. Hopefully one of them will be labeled “Making it” and I’ll follow that one. If any of you see it, let me know.