A few moments from my life since July:
A few moments from my life since July:
I’m a new graduate student.
As such, I just spent the past week being properly oriented for the journey I’m about to undertake. It’ll be (in the words of various orientation presenters) amazing, hard, depressing, enlightening, enriching … basically, a grab bag of adjectives! In between the heartwarming-if-cliche welcome speeches, excited conversations with fellow newbies, and getting lost in the tunnels under MIT, I’d like to think I picked up some useful tidbits of information.
The biggest thing is to communicate. Surprise! Who would’ve thought that the key to successfully working with your colleagues, classmates, labmates, and advisor would be to communicate with them? The top three pieces of advice:
For example, if you run marathons and thus go for a long run every day at noon, tell your advisor and labmates this. That way, they don’t expect to find you in the lab when you’re out running. They might tell you that they have three kids and leave work every day at 6pm sharp — so don’t schedule meetings after 5pm. Or that they’re so not a morning person, so never expect to see them working before noon — but if you need something at 3am, they’re the person to contact.
It’s not just about when to expect to see people in the lab. Ask about communication styles. Does this person like emails? Phone calls? Meetings? Texts? Some people prefer a quick five-minute conversation in person to a lengthy email exchange. Ask what this person’s expectations are about you. Does your advisor expect to see you in the lab eight hours a day? Does your labmate expect you to help out on project XYZ? Ask questions whenever you’re unsure of something. After all, every relationship is different. So what works for this relationship?
The key is to share enough relevant information with each other to know what to expect. Be up front about who you are, what you do with your time, and what you want to get out of the situation or the relationship. This way, no one’s left wondering. If everyone knows what to expect, you won’t get into a situation where someone’s upset because they didn’t get what they were expecting.
Communicate both when things are going well and when they’re not. If you’re working on a project with someone, give regular updates on your progress — whether you’ve achieved awesome results, or are stuck in a rut. Sometimes, the person you’re working with can help you out of the rut. I worked with someone once who said, if you don’t update me, I’ll assume you’re not working. While that’s not true of everyone, make sure the relevant people know what you’re up to.
If you remember one thing, remember this: People assume too much. People will build up their own image of you whether or not you tell them anything. So be proactive. Be your own advocate. Make sure they build up an image that correctly reflects reality.
A feeling common among senior undergraduates (and senior high school students, and junior undergrads, etc) is the your-life’s-about-to-start-what-are-you-going-to-do pressure. The common questions one faces include but are not limited to: What are you doing post-college? Are you getting a job? Where are you going to live? What about grad school? Will you stay in academia? What about high-paying tech/business/etc jobs?
Surprise: That feeling of uncertainty doesn’t always go away after graduation, or even after a year. Probably not even after five, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. I may be more on track than some. I’ve set my sights on a career in science and research, the next step of which will, for me, be grad school. But I’m sure I’m more uncertain than others.
So, from a student who’s been there, here are some thoughts on…
You already know that there are a lot of questions to answer.
If you’re considering a STEM career, like me, then a lot of people will say you have two options — academia or industry. Even before you try to tackle which of these you might like, though, you may need to figure out what specific area you want to enter — if you’re a computer scientist, would you want to develop algorithms? Would you rather work on security applications, or distributed networks, or use your CS knowledge to program laser space robots, or any of thousands of other options?
Some programs of study prepare you for specific careers; others leave you with a remarkably open-ended future.
So… how might you even start figuring out your life?
You do not have to do the same thing forever.
That’s important, so I’ll say it again:
You do not have to do the same thing forever.
If you pick a career direction now, you aren’t stuck with it for the next forty years. People change jobs. People change careers. I had a particularly good role model in this regard: my father has owned a sailing school, consulted for small businesses, recorded punk bands, and then there was this thing in Africa… Point is, you can do whatever cool things you want. You don’t have to do the same thing forever.
Granted, knowing that you can do something else later doesn’t necessarily help at all with figuring out what to do now. On to the next section:
Your two best resources are
By this, I mean that you should (1) try new things as a way of figuring out what kinds of things you like doing, and you should (2) talk to other people about their experiences in doing different kinds of things. Gather information about what makes you happy, what kind of work you find worthwhile, what kind of jobs sound just plain cool, and so on.
There are several ways to proceed. Three of my favorites:
1. Classes. The reason I took my first computer science class was because one day, I looked at my laptop and thought to myself, I don’t know how you work at all. I signed up for CS101, vaguely hoping that I’d learn something about the Magical Innards of Computers. I didn’t — instead, I learned some Magical Incantations and Rituals for making little Java applications. I also learned that programming was fun, and that I’d probably enjoy further classes in that area. Now? The graduate program I’m entering has a heavy CS component, and most of the other programs I’d applied to were CS programs.
The point of this story: Take classes in novel areas. Either in person, at school, or via one of the increasing number of free online courses. It’s one of the best ways to explore new subjects. If, after the first couple class sessions, you really hate it? Drop the class. It’s worthwhile to remember that you may love a subject but dislike a professor, or love a professor enough to make any subject taught interesting. Regardless, it’s a nice, easy, safe way to explore new stuff. You never know what you might find.
2. Independent learning. My personal favorite here is reading books on all sorts of cool non-fiction topics. Pick up a book at the library on a topic you know nothing about, read it, see if it interests you. Other options include taking free online courses (see point 1), joining clubs to try out new activities, volunteering for new programs, … lots of potential here. Spend time thinking about what activities you find worthwhile and important — helping people or animals in need? Engineering solutions to problems in the world? Making a lot of money so you can live the life you want?
3. Internships etc. The best time for this, if you’re in school, is those warm summer months between semesters. Summer internships. Summer research programs. If you’re interested in cognitive science or computer science, I have a
This point sounds relatively straightfoward. Okay, have conversations with people. But there are several ways to get the most out of those conversations…
1. Listen to advice. You know all those other people who want to give you advice? Let them. These people may be your grandparents, your professors, other relatives, older students, current professionals … anyone, really. Let them talk. Listen to what they all have to say. You don’t have to take their advice — not a word of it — but now and then, they say useful things. And you won’t hear those useful things unless you’re listening.
2. Use your resources wisely. You probably know a lot of people. These people probably know a lot of people. Some of those people might be working jobs you’re interested in. Some of those people might know people who are looking for people to work for them. Get the gist?
A further couple points:
Tell people what you’re looking for. If they don’t know, they can’t help you or hook you up with opportunities they find.
If you’re in school, your school probably has a Career Development Office or the like. Talk to the people there. Tell them what you’re hoping to find — whether it’s a specific internship, information about a particular field, or just that you’re hopelessly confused and would like their help. They have resources for you. It’s their job to have resources for you.
See if you can set up informational interviews with people in fields you might be interested in, to get the scoop on what it’s like to work that kind of job.
Attend job fairs — a lot of schools host them; does yours? — and even if you’re not looking for any particular job yet, it’s a great opportunity to talk to recruiters about the kinds of jobs out there.
3. Ask a whole bunch of questions. The best thing to remember is that, in general, people really like talking about themselves. Use this to your advantage. Even simple questions like “So, what’s your job like?” and “Can you tell me more about what it’s like to do X?” can lead to worthwhile information.
The next step is pretty simple. (Do recall, simple does not necessarily mean easy.)
You’ve learned about your options. You’ve learned about what you like doing. You’ve learned about what you find worthwhile. It’s time to stop evaluating possible directions to go in and actually go in a direction.
Maybe now, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. Great — do that! Or maybe now you’ve concluded that no job will ever make you content. That one’s a bit tougher. Try to find something at least tolerable, or, like some people joke, marry rich? Or maybe you like everything, and the sheer number of options is still overwhelming. Your best option here: find a reasonable job in a reasonable location near people you like. Go in some direction, at least for a while. If you love it, great. If you don’t, move on.
Still have questions? Post a comment below! Maybe I, or someone else, will have helpful advice for you specifically.
And no matter what, remember: You don’t have to do the same thing forever.
When I can tell a ten-second answer is all that’s wanted, I say, “because I took an intro cognitive science class in my first semester of college and loved it.”
Some people realize I must’ve had some reason for signing up for an intro cog sci class in the first place. They tend to be satisfied with an answer like “because I read a book on consciousness before college, and wanted to know more.”
The real answer, the one that’s actually about why, is this:
No one knows yet how or why I’m a self-aware person. And I’d really, really like to find out.
A couple years before I ventured across the country to begin my Vassar education, I started reading books about mysteries. Not fiction mystery novels — actual mysteries, in which no one knows whodunnit yet, though a whole lot of people have theories. Things that are hard to think about, or crazy difficult to conceptualize. The nature of space-time. Infinity. Perception. (My favorite my favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco was always the optical illusions.)
First, it was books like Richard Wolfson’s Relativity Demystified, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio. All the grand mysteries of the universe, its structure, and the math and physics underlying it. I didn’t completely grasp the details of the theories, but it was sure fun to try!
Then I decided to read about people. I honestly don’t remember why I picked up Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness: An Introduction — was I just browsing the generic non-fiction science books section? I remember the library. I remember kneeling on the carpet, pulling the book off one of the lower shelves.
This book opened my eyes.
At first, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn’t Susan tell me how people worked? How I worked? I wanted answers! How am I a person? Why am I a person? Why can I think about myself thinking? Perhaps I’d assumed, up until that point, that scientists had all the hard problems figured out and now were just filling in the details.
My dismay was swiftly and thoroughly overridden by the realization that here was one of the Big Questions in the universe. Still so much left to discover. The twinkling thought: could I help discover it? And utter fascination. I distinctly remember standing on the local community college campus before a class, staring wonderingly at the landscaping, thinking, what is it like to be a tree?
I read what I could find in my local public library system. (I wonder what I would have read and learned had I instead had a proper university library at my fingertips.) I also bought a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, which intrigued and confused me. I was severely disapponted by Andrea Rock’s The Mind at Night, because I’d naively assumed that I could read one book and then understand why people sleep and how dreaming works.
I read William Calvin’s How Brains Think, which didn’t actually tell me how brains think but did introduce me to some relevant terminology. I learned how complicated memory is and how to pronounce aplesia from Eric Kandel’s memoir In Search Of Memory. Judith Rich Harris’s No Two Alike was part of my introduction to the nature-nurture debates, a lot of twin studies, and just how important the enviroment and an organism’s interactions with it are in determining what the organism is like.
I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Stanislas Dehaene’s The Number Sense, and some others, too. As before, I’m quite sure that I did not fully understand any of the theories presented, not having a background in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, or neuroscience at that point.
Basically, I discovered the mind sciences at an opportune moment, in time to sign up for an introductory cognitive science course my freshman year.
I still don’t know why or how I’m a self-aware person. No one does. I do, however, have a much better idea of the theories other folks have, the problems being tackled, and some of the methodologies being used in the quest. Maybe, now, I’ll be able to help solve the mystery myself.
I may have mentioned that I was applying for admission to various graduate programs this year.
Well, I was admitted. So I visited universities, I talked to professors and students, I read papers published by the labs. I had several fantastic options.
I would like to direct your attention to a page I’ve just added:
About two years ago, I decided it would be awesome to have a coat covered in buttons, colors, and pockets. At long last, I’ve deemed it done enough to wear. It’s not completely done, mind you; it only has twelve pockets so far! But it’s done enough to share the progress.
Head over to the project page to read more about the creation process, and see more photos!