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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Deadlines and Habits by Anna H. '14

Staying sane

I am a first-semester senior. As a result, my brain has been swimming in fellowship deadlines and requirements, graduate school applications, and the possibility of a full-time job; occasionally, it comes up for air and remembers that I’m actually enrolled as a full-time student at MIT and need to do psets.

This is what I have to look forward to:

I realize that most of this readership has never applied to either grad school or fellowships, so let me bring you up to speed:

Astronomy Graduate School

  • What do you do there? Do full-time astronomy research, take some classes, TA some classes. Write and defend a Ph.D. thesis, which earns you a name like: “Dr. Anna Ho” or “Anna Ho, Ph.D.” Pretty sweet.
  • How long do you stay there? An average of six years. Five, if you go to Princeton.
  • What do you do afterwards? If you want to continue in academia, you try to find a post-doc (two-ish year full-time research positions) which will hopefully lead up to an assistant faculty position, then (hopefully!) a tenured faculty position. You could also work as a staff astronomer somewhere like the NRAO. Alternatively, you could switch out of professional astronomy, and get a job in industry, business, finance, teaching, and whatever else you can dream up.
  • Why would you do this? You love astronomy research, and want to be part of the astronomy research community.
  • What is the application process consist of? An application fee. A REALLY LONG, REALLY BORING form — name, former names (really), gender, addresses, coursework details, research experience details (there’s no “common app”, so you have to type this information again and again and again, in various lengths and formats). A Statement of Purpose (this is the experience I have, this is what I want to do, this is why I want to go to this school). Standardized test scores (the grad school version of the SAT and SAT subject tests). Transcript. And the names and contact information of three individuals who will write you letters of recommendation.

Research Fellowships

  • Research fellowship…of the ring? No. Cornell has a nice description: “A fellowship is an arrangement in which financial support is given to a graduate student to pursue his or her degree without any obligation on the part of the student to engage in teaching and/or research in furtherance of the university’s academic mission. Fellowships are generally merit-based awards intended to support a student in a full-time course of study.” In other words: you, the graduate student, earn a nice financial package completely unrelated to the institution you are working at. You can imagine that that makes you a lot more attractive to graduate institutions — and, once you’re there, it takes some of the financial burden off of your department. Here‘s an argument for applying.
  • What kinds of fellowships are out there? There are many different kinds of fellowships, targeted at many different audiences. For astronomy graduate students, this website has a pretty comprehensive list (scroll down to Multi-Year Fellowships).
  • What does the application process consist of? Similar to grad apps. A long, extremely tedious “Personal Information” and “Education and Work Experience” form. A proposal for what you’re going to do with the grant money (a very important part of science research!) Some kind of personal statement, tied to the goals of the fellowship program: for the National Science Foundation, for example, you want to discuss the broader impacts of your work on society and your educational outreach efforts. You also need somewhere between two and four letters of recommendation. And, if you’re applying to the Hertz and make it past the first round of applications, you go through one or (if you make it even further) two very intense technical interviews.

In conclusion: I have a lot to do over the next few months. I would not be surviving without an open stream of communication with friends who have gone through this before: French House alums and summer intern companions have been wonderfully supportive. This has been a particularly weird, disorienting semester; I spend so much time thinking about what’s coming up next year that it’s hard to keep my mind in school and on my psets. The routine of pset, pset, paper, pset, pset, exam, isn’t as prominent as usual. And that’s made forming new habits even more important.

Habits, routines: doing the same thing, every day or every few days or every week at the same time. I’ve never been particularly good at forming habits (New Year’s resolution: “I will run FIVE MILES, EVERY DAY, for the REST OF MY LIFE!” or “NO MORE COOKIES, EVER!”) but this semester I’ve developed a few that have kept me sane. They are:

  • Running: I started the semester with ~two miles every few days (IT WAS SO PAINFUL), then one afternoon accidentally ran four miles (I thought it was 2.5, until I Google mapped the route back at home) so now run 3-4 miles every few days. I can’t always do this on my own; I often run with my friend Sophie ’14, who is *much* faster than I am, and *very* patient.
  • Reading: In the half hour before I go to bed, I turn off my room light, click on my standing lamp, and read 1-2 chapters of whatever fiction book I happen to be reading. This semester, at the recommendation of my science fiction-obsessed, shelves-lined-with-Isaac-Asimov’s-life-work boyfriend, I’m taking my first foray into science fiction: the Mars trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I read most of Red Mars over the summer, then Green Mars, and am a few chapters into Blue Mars. I cannot recommend this series highly enough.
  • Reading: In the half hour ish after my alarm goes off, I click on my standing lamp, sit propped up among my pillows, put my laptop in my lap, and read whatever catches my eye on the New York Times homepage. It wakes me up, although it has occasionally also made me late for class.

I think that habits – particularly post-wakeup and pre-bed ones – are particularly stabilizing because they provide a framework for everything to fall into. Even if you have a really chaotic, stressful day, you know that a chapter of Blue Mars awaits, and that you get to spend half an hour watching the Martians write a constitution. And in the morning, you don’t need to feel stressed immediately, because you can chill out and read the news for a while. And you can never really feel guilty about going for a run, because you can think of it as a long-term investment.

Finally, I’m sorry for the recent blogging silence — ironically, I lost the habit. But the best way to regain a habit is to just start doing it again.