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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

From the other side of grad school by Anna H. '14

Trust me, I'm a doctor

“He touched the brim of his hard hat and glanced back at the dome, white and round like an ancient temple, while a thought crossed his mind, by no means for the first time, that he was only paying his respects to a temple of science.”

Ending of First Light by Richard Preston

My thesis defense was at 9:30am over Zoom, with a committee of six professors. I had been given permission to call in from my office on campus. Two hours and many questions later, I had reached my last slide and was asked to “leave the room” so the committee members could deliberate. At 11:45am my advisor texted me saying I should come back in. The chair tried to deliver the good news that I passed, but then his connection went out and all I got was a very static-y version of my name and something that sounded like the first syllable or two of “congratulations,” so he had to turn off his video etc — ahh, PhD defenses in the Zoom era!

When I signed off the call I burst into tears for about 20 seconds, not out of unhappiness, but out of a kind of pride, mixed with astonishment that the road ended so abruptly — a two-hour Zoom call at the end of a five-year grad school experience! Then I walked out of the empty building, past the bottle of hand sanitizer and signs indicating which doors to exit from and how to take appropriate precautions.

For my next step I’ll be a postdoc at UC Berkeley, supported by a Miller Research Fellowship. PhD in hand, I thought I would drop in (hello!) and share some thoughts coming out the other side, starting with,

 

1. When I left college and went to grad school I thought I had figured a lot of things out, in terms of how I learn best and what I want from life. In grad school I realized that I had not, in fact, figured it all out; in some ways I felt like I was starting from scratch, and that was disappointing. Fortunately I had professors who were transparent about the fact that learning to learn and feeling like you’re starting from scratch is something you do again and again and again, for the rest of your life, as you enter new chapters and take on new responsibilities. A distinguished professor in my department tells me all the time that physics is hard for him, so he routinely puts on his beginning-student hat and works through undergrad physics textbooks to brush up on things. One of my friends is mentoring students for the first time, and in academia no one teaches you how to do that; she’s learning from examples and, with bumps, from experience. 

 

2. Tackling a focused question can lead to a remarkably expansive adventure. During grad school, I spent most of my working hours investigating why some stars end their lives in such extreme ways, with antics like dramatically shedding material in their final days or collapsing into a black hole and launching an ultrarelativistic jet of matter, while others seemingly explode without pomp and circumstance. You might be thinking “yikes, you spent five years thinking about THAT?!” (That’s fair.) But I’ve been amazed and surprised by the fractal nature of life — there’s the world in all its complexity, there’s college with its dizzying selection of programs, then you make choices and zoom in, and there’s this whole world again. 

To sketch some of my own adventures — I spent nights in Hawaii at such high elevation that the room had to be oxygenated; I asked X-ray telescopes in low-Earth orbit to please swivel and collect photons from that galaxy over there; I worked out the physics of shockwaves and high-energy collisions on a chalkboard; I combined data from across the electromagnetic spectrum to watch explosions unfold first in optical light, then X-rays, then radio waves as big as meters across; I wrote software to identify exceptional stellar deaths (the needles) from a haystack of celestial phenomena; I convened theorists and observers to make progress on questions that I believed were important and had not been answered; I responded to urgent alerts about new stellar explosions, staying up night after night to collect data before the optical light became too faint for even the biggest telescopes on Earth; I wrote and read an untold number of proposals and papers; and I had the great privilege to meet, work with, and learn from thoughtful, energetic, creative collaborators from all across the world. 

For my work, I got to spend nights at the historic Palomar Observatory, the setting of one of my favorite popular books about astronomy, First Light. When I checked in I received a key that I initially assumed was for my room in the visiting-astronomer quarters (which are called “The Monastery,” named back in the day when the residents were entirely men.) Then I learned that the key was, in fact, to the dome of the 200-inch Hale telescope, which is (as I learned from First Light) almost exactly the size of the Pantheon in Rome. To get there from The Monastery you walk along a quiet mountaintop past fir trees and a few houses — a white mound appears, gleaming. You approach a tiny door in the side, feeling very small, slip your personal key in (feeling very special!), then shove it open with your shoulder (if you’re me, anyway) and kind of tumble into a tall dark room full of chains and machinery and tools hanging from the walls.

Through my astronomy work (long story) I met a postdoc in the humanities department and now the two of us have a fun and productive reading club on poetry influenced by astronomy. Because of my astronomy expertise, I get to give talks for amateur astronomy societies, which brings me to neighborhoods of Los Angeles that I might not otherwise know about or visit. By teaching astronomy for 7-12 year olds, I met someone who works at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, and through her I got to meet and work with a group of K-12 public-school teachers. So, astronomy has been an avenue for getting to know my community better — at Caltech, in Pasadena, and in LA. 

Oh, and speaking of LA, one time I was taking an Uber to the airport when the driver asked what I do. 

Me: “I use a network of robotic telescopes to investigate the violent deaths of stars!”
Driver [glancing at me in the mirror]: “Ummm…”
Me: “…”
Driver: “…Which…ones…?”
Me: “Which what?”
Driver: “How do you know which one is going to die…?”
Me: “I…what? We usually don’t.”
Driver: “Which celebrities I mean?
Me [!!!]: “NO, STARS IN THE SKY!!!”

Anyway. The point is: the further I go the more I think that exactly what you choose to focus on doesn’t matter that much. The choices you make for what to study, what to focus on, what career to pursue, will always result from chance to some extent — you’ll be influenced by circumstance and will make the most of what is available to you.

 

3. Grad school was tough in large part because it was unstructured, but that helped me become independent. When you leave college you abruptly lose a huge number of external pressures, like deadlines and the reliable (relentless) cycle of exams and psets and semesters. Suddenly it’s your job to define the problems and the tasks, and up to you on what timescale you will do these tasks, and how, and — if you’re in a field like mine — you can do your work from anywhere, so often you don’t even need to be anywhere at any given time. My observation is that this transition is difficult for most people, but I think it’s worth struggling through, bearing in mind that it’s normal for it to be hard and that you’re in good company. The reward is that you learn what works for you, not just what works for your advisor. You learn how to motivate yourself, how to construct your own schedule and timeline, how to set realistic goals and achieve them, and how to recognize when you’re stuck and when it’s time to ask for help. My advisor was hands-off in the sense that he set me onto an area of research, made it clear he had high expectations, and connected me with the resources I would ultimately need to meet and exceed those expectations, but otherwise didn’t lay out a clear path. That made for a tough first couple of years. Coming out of it, though, the fact that he reserved his tell-Anna-what-to-do for emergency situations was a gift, because now I have my own system and my own style (which are very different from his!)

 

4. With all endeavors — no matter what — there will be aspects you’re naturally good at and aspects you naturally struggle with. I don’t believe that in life you find one magical thing you’re 100% amazing at, and it’s smooth sailing and zero doubts and infinite happiness and success from there. If I’m stuck and frustrated, I sometimes wonder if I’m cut out for it at all, which can be so scary it’s nauseating. But in my saner, calmer moments I think of the dot product between my strengths and what’s required to be successful in research. That dot product is pretty high compared to other things I could do, but it’s definitely not one, and I don’t think there’s any rewarding, challenging endeavor in which it would be one. 

 

5. That said: there is a difference between challenging and painful. In my third year of grad school I asked my advisor how to tell the difference between something that was hard in the right way and something that was hard in the wrong way — i.e., when to leave something behind. He thought for a minute then said, “it shouldn’t be painful.” 

Challenging can mean sadness and tears and despair, but it brings growth and rewards, too — and it’s not all the time. Painful is different. In grad school, painful means a wrong research fit or advisor fit, and I saw friends go through that. For example, one of my friends spent two years in one lab where he was miserable. The problem is, when you’re miserable you’re also unproductive, and your self-confidence takes a hit. Thankfully, my friend had the self-confidence to say — maybe it’s not me, maybe it’s the lab. He bailed. He is now WAY happier in a completely different research area, and indisputably successful. In my second year of grad school, I realized that aspects of my research were not just challenging, but painful. I talked to my advisor, he was understanding and receptive, and we figured out some infrastructure changes that greatly improved my experience. So, painful doesn’t always mean walk away entirely — there can be fixes. At the end of the day, I really believe that research can and should be fun and rewarding.

 

6. To learn the difference between challenging and painful, I think there’s no alternative to trying different things. You have time! and access to internships, different departments, and an incredible diversity of people you can talk to about their own experiences. So, I would encourage you to embark on the search (and to find a mentor who is supportive of the search!) Unfortunately in learning what you like you also have to learn what you don’t like, so the going will inevitably get tough, and that’s OK!

 

7. Cultivate a redundant professional support system. Even the best advisor cannot and should not be your only source of professional support. By interacting with your thesis committee, by seeking advice from multiple professors, you learn that there are different ways of conducting research and thinking about problems. Keep in touch with mentors from previous chapters of your life, because a long baseline helps a person know you well, and they can remind you of things that you may have forgotten. Keep in touch even when things are going well. Another way of saying this is,

 

8. Actively work to prevent yourself from becoming isolated — it’s easy to become socially and professionally isolated, in grad school, and to feel like you’re all alone in your corner. On the professional side, conferences and collaborations with people at other institutions are great for feeling motivated, keeping the big picture in mind, and remembering that there are a lot of different environments out there, and a lot of equally valid and productive ways of doing things. Attend department seminars and engage, so that people know who you are. There are a lot of people who would be happy to help you along, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. And,

 

9. Maintain a healthy personal life that is distinct from your professional sphere. I think it can be easy to continue in college mode, when your classmates are your best friends. But in grad school, your classmates are also your colleagues, and may be your colleagues for a very long time. Of course, as grad students you are still students, and it’s great for your fellow grad students to be your friends. But I think it’s healthy to separate out the professional sphere from the personal sphere, at least to some extent, so that struggles in one do not flood the other. Make time for your friends, family, and broader community, to remind yourself that although your research work will expand to fill as much space in your mind as you give it, it is not the whole world.