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Dear Future Grad Students

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).

Version 2

After my teary phone call to my mom, I went to a formal at West Point with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steven. Happy on the outside, frantic inside.

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.

Stay Curious,
Rose

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True. (This image and feature image: cogsci.ucsd.edu)

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:

A homunculus for time

Last week, Chris Fry, Twitter’s Senior VP for Engineering and a UCSD Cog Sci alum, came to talk at our department’s open house. The theme of his talk was why a PhD (specifically one from our department) was a good investment and helps him to be successful even in a career that’s seemingly far from academia.

There’s a metaphor he used that I can’t get out of my head this week. He talked about the homunculus, which, in the brain sciences, refers to the disproportionate mapping of different body parts in the motor and somatosensory cortices. In other words, the portion of the motor cortex devoted to hand movement is much larger than the proportion of the hand to the actual physical body, which explains why we can do much more dexterous movements with our hands than with our toes, for example.

homunculus

Fry commented that he imagines a homunculus for time in his memory. Each unit of time (usually we measure time in years) is not necessarily represented in his memory as the true portion that the period comprises in a person’s life. Grad school, he noted, was a disproportionately large chunk of his time homunculus. He seemed to suggest that it was a time of freedom and intensity, and a time in which he learned extensively and made many memories.

This metaphor takes an aspect of time that we’re all aware of – equivalent units of time often do not feel equal – and makes it concrete. His articulation was certainly effective in inspiring me to make this chunk of my temporal homunculus as disproportionally large as possible.

A little self-promotion

I’ve written two posts for different blogs this week that I’d like to share, in part because the other blogs themselves are really great and worth checking out.

The first post was for my department’s blog: UCSD Cognitive Science. In two weeks, a handful of applicants who have already impressed the faculty members will arrive for our open-house weekend. There will be lots of catered food and talk about the mind, and it will be so different for me being a current student versus an applicant. I wrote a post with open house weekend in mind, with the goals of introducing a handful of the labs in the department, parodying the process of getting a Ph.D., and offering a little bit of “what-to-expect” for applicants, all through the lens of my favorite topic, metaphor.

The second post was for GradHacker, a blog that provides tidbits of wisdom (hacks) from grad students for grad students. I wrote about time-management, which is a skill that’s always come naturally to me until I started my Ph.D. program. I wasn’t  failing at managing my time, but I also wasn’t content. I did quite a bit of my own research and soul-searching (it sounds dramatic, but actually it was that important to me) to figure out what might help me meet my new demands. One technique I discovered was the Pomodoro method, which structures time by breaking it into 20-minute chunks of intense focus.

Hoping to get more writing opportunities like these in the near future!