From my journal, October 2013, about one month after I began grad school:
This morning when my alarm went off I was deep in a dream – a rare experience for me. I was learning to ride a motorcycle, and my learning method was just to go for a ride on the highway. As I was picking up speed on the ramp, I yelled to my dad’s friend, on a motorcycle beside me, “How do I shift gears?!” His reply: “With your hands.” That much I knew. If you know how to ride a motorcycle, maybe “with your hands” is an adequate explanation of how you shift gears. Since I’ve never driven one, just knowing I had to use my hands did not seem like useful information.
I was puzzled by where this dream was coming from until I remembered that today was my day to lead a seminar discussion on 120+ pages of material that I barely grasped. A little like learning to ride a motorcycle by just speeding ahead and giving it a try. The advice to shift “with my hands” is also pretty analogous to the advice I’ve gotten since I’ve started grad school. The answer may as well have been: “figure it out.” Luckily, the negative consequence of not figuring it out is much harsher in my dream than in real life.
Maybe this dream was some unconscious way of coping with my stress, or maybe it was just a coincidence. But almost 3 and a half years later, I still really like the analogy. The whole point of academic research is to uncover knowledge that is currently unknown by anyone. With that task, it’s often hard to give concrete advise on how to do things. People can give vague advice like shift with your hands (or find a work-life balance or communicate your science clearly), but those pieces of advice are often followed by the question how? and that answer is more elusive. That can be stressful.
These next couple of days are Open House in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD. Prospective PhD students submitted applications in December, and a subset were invited to visit this weekend. A subset of those visitors will be invited to begin their PhDs in our department in the fall. The two days will include one-on-one interviews with faculty; department lunches, dinners and happy hour; lab, campus, and beach tours; and most likely, exhaustion.
Dear Future Grad Students,
I’ve been thinking about you all week. I vividly remember my own visit here 4 years ago, and each year as Open House approaches, I find it useful to reflect back.
I left snowy New York in February and was greeted by a typical San Diego sunny afternoon. It was my first time in California, which is basically a mystical land to lifelong New Englanders like me. Even before going to campus, I walked to La Jolla Cove. I was hangry because I didn’t have enough snacks for my cross-country flight, but as soon as I had a few bites of food, I realized I was in love with San Diego. And as soon as I realized I was in love, I started thinking, oh no. No, no, no. Don’t fall in love. You haven’t been accepted yet.
The next day on campus, we were told that the department was not just interviewing us, the candidates, but we were also interviewing them, deciding if this was the place we wanted to be. They’d be on their best behavior. Ah! Please don’t woo me, I haven’t been accepted yet!
It was a great weekend. I met interesting people, and one in particular ended up in a grad program elsewhere, but became a great friend. I heard about fascinating research that had never crossed my radar. I saw the beach, and I saw so much Cog Sci enthusiasm.
But I was also stressed. I wanted to come to UCSD. I wanted to be part of the community of researchers doing mind-blowing work on language and cognition. It didn’t feel like a want then, though. Definitely a need.
I’d like to think I handled those feelings maturely. I took a red-eye back to New York, and once back in my apartment, I called my mom bawling. What if I don’t get accepted? Can I possibly apply again next year? But could I face rejection twice? (This was the question on my mind before I had even been rejected once).
To state the obvious, I was accepted. Of course my reaction seems ludicrous now. And most of you are not going to feel or bawl like I did. But you’ll have your own stress, your own feelings, and your own reactions. And we, the current grad students (and likely the faculty), can relate. Four years ago, I wish I had been better able to acknowledge my stress and put it aside to savor the unique opportunity that just being at Open House provides. I fell a little short there, but you don’t have to.
I encourage you to take a moment to put your CV away, unclench your shoulders, and breathe. You’re here. No matter where you are in life, you have some direction of where you want to go. You have have solid, original ideas about Cognitive Science, and you successfully portrayed those in your application. Members of the UC San Diego Cognitive Science Department want to meet you. Whether you end up joining us here at UCSD or not, I hope you can enjoy these next couple of days. We are happy to have you.
P.S. There are tons of resources with advice for choosing PhD programs. I take them all with more than a grain of salt — probably more like a McDonald’s super sized meal’s worth of salt. There are a few that really resonate with me though: