I wrote a blog at the end of last summer subtitled “so many different ways to feel lost:”
I feel lost on a much deeper level than ever before, and it’s not entirely negative it’s just… I feel so directionless, like I’m in the middle of a field and there used to be a road I was following and now there isn’t….
I remember this feeling very clearly, it’s something that followed me throughout my freshman year, all the way through sophomore fall. I wasn’t really certain in what I wanted to do after college, and looking at the future I saw only hazy outlines of possible paths. At some point, though, everything changed. Or, really, not that much changed, but my outlook shifted just a little bit, and everything clicked into place. I don’t feel nearly as lost anymore. This realization happened over winter break and boiled down to a couple of basic, but essential, facts:
1) I really love doing scientific research,
2) life is long, and getting a PhD wouldn’t commit me to though another part of it is perhaps the fact that I wouldn't mind staying in academia forever
putting 1) and 2) together, I easily arrived at
3) I almost definitely want to go to grad school.
None of these facts are particularly new or unexpected, and anyone who knows me will be the first to roll their eyes and say that they saw this coming since forever. Still, solidifying these things in my mind took a huge weight off of my shoulders, giving me a sense of stability and direction. There are still a lot of unknowns, possibilities, and decisions for me to explore, and I’m glad that there are, but I’m glad at least to have a road to follow for the next handful of years. So, in this post, I wanted to lay out the full context of my decision to mentally commit to grad school, as well as talk about my relationship to science in general.
The post ended up being a little long, so here’s a handy table of contents, feel free to skip around (though it makes the most sense in order):
i. myself and science, before MIT
ii. coming to MIT, first two years
iii. research while at MIT
iv. why I want to go to grad school
v. the ethics of career choice
i. before MIT
The truth is, my scientific “career” started a while ago. I come from a family full of academics, so I grew up around scientists and researchers. I was taught to appreciate science from a young age, and was given ample opportunity to learn about it, for which I am eternally grateful. I often think about the question of nature vs. nurture, and the ways in which the two intersect and amplify each other. Do I love science because I come from a family of scientists? Yes, but it’s not as though anyone forced me to love it. At the same time, with the way I was raised, it’s hard to imagine me turning out any other way. In either case, it’s a moot point. I am who I am today, and the reasons don’t matter so much.
At its core, I find science incredibly interesting and exciting. I love learning about it, and I love the feeling of understanding more and more about how the world around me functions. I would always seek out extra classes or material to learn about science. I remember watching Star Wars for the first time in middle school and developing a years-long obsession with astronomy; at some point, I think I read an astrophysics textbook from cover to cover, though I didn’t understand about half of the math. I joined the science bowl team in sixth grade, and kept playing through senior year. Entering the school I went to went from 7th to 12th grade, so middle blended seamlessly into high I had already established myself as “the science kid” – I was involved with every science club imaginable, I tried hard for every science fair, you name it.
I could go on for a while about all the science-related things in retrospect, I definitely did too many things, because I was deeply, fundamentally burnt out throughout much of junior and senior year, and leading into college but I’ll spare you the details. The most impactful thing, though, was my participation in science research competitions. I was lucky to go to a school with a well-developed program for science research, for which I am grateful. The program taught me a lot of the basics of what research is and how it works. I learned how to read scientific papers, ask good questions, reach out to researchers, develop projects, write abstracts, make scientific posters, present my research, and much more. I don’t think I appreciated the program too much at the time, finding the lessons and they ate up precious lunch break time! that I could have spent practicing for science bowl... but in retrospect these are all skills that I use to this day, and learning them early has proven to be a blessing.
Of course, the high school research competition environment is a little… contrived, for lack of a better word. There’s a big pressure to frame your research and results as something groundbreaking and incredibly novel, when in reality any research you do as a high schooler is unlikely to change the course of and people who <em>do</em> have amazing results are often products of extremely privileged environments, with research programs like my own and, often, family connections to big labs. the whole research comp circuit isn't particularly equitable, but I'm not gonna get too much into that here Real science isn’t fast or immediately groundbreaking, nor is it best reflected as individual projects. Instead, it’s often slow, meandering, and deeply collaborative. That being said, I learned a lot from my high school research: the basics of machine learning, how to present in front of audiences, how to write personal essays about my science. My project allowed me to go to real scientific conferences, such as the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, respectively and to travel to new places for competitions; it helped me win a number of scholarships to pay for college. Furthermore, I really liked the topic of my research in high school – I had worked on a project to use machine learning for tornado forecasting, which is quite similar to work I do today. My experiences with this project helped me gain a pretty good understanding of what the field of atmospheric science looks like today. So, by the time I had finished high school, I was well on track to study science and keep going with it as a career, and had found a field I could maybe see myself staying in. It’s with this background that I came in to MIT.
ii. coming to MIT
I remember, back when I was choosing which college to attend, I had boiled it down to MIT and one other university, also a STEM school, but much more known for its science and academia than for its engineering, entrepreneurship, or business programs. MIT, on the other hand, seemed to me a much more academically diverse place, with many outcomes for graduates other than grad school. At the time, in my senior year of high school, I knew that I would probably enjoy pursuing science as a career. It was the only career I had ever seriously considered, and I knew that if I went to that other school, I would end up in academia forever. If I came to MIT, I would at least seriously consider other paths.
So, I came to MIT. On some level, I wanted to be convinced to change paths, to become a software engineer, or an architect, or to work in finance. In my first two years at MIT, I considered a lot of different majors, from civil engineering to aerospace engineering I became pretty good at CS and learned to code like someone who develops useful programs, not someone who plays around with scientific data all day. I took classes that exposed me to new fields and looked through tons of different industry internships (I even applied to a couple).
I also talked a lot to people who were on different paths than I was. It’s interesting, really. At MIT, I’m not friends with very many “scientists.” Most of my friends are majoring in either computer science or some sort of engineering, and want to go into industry after undergrad, or maybe after getting a master’s degree. In this sense, MIT has given me exactly what I wanted: exposure to the other side, to the types of jobs and lifestyles available outside of the bubble of academia. I am actually surprised at the degree to which I am surrounded by “the real world,” in as much as the privileged environment of MIT can be real. There are future scientists at MIT, of course, there are plenty, it’s just my own social circles that seem to veer in the opposite direction. I’m grateful for this.
Throughout my exploration, it’s true that I didn’t go very far down any particular alternate path. In my mind, though, I wasn’t fully committed to sticking with science or even going to grad school. The most hands-on experience outside of research that I got was an IAP micro-internship at the intersection of architecture and civil engineering. Although I enjoyed the topic area, I found the genre of work involved in engineering to be an imperfect fit. I was more interested in how the models being used were created than their particular applications to specific buildings or projects. I remember coming out of that internship with a distinct desire to go back to doing research, for the sake of working on projects closer to the pursuit of knowledge than its applications. If anything, my small experience in industry only reinforced what I already knew: that I like research as a type of work, not just for the topics it covers and the problems it addresses.
iii. research at MIT
Starting freshman spring, I’ve been working continuously on UROPs and other research. For a year, I worked as part of a team using novel machine learning techniques to improve weather forecasting. Since the team was mostly composed of computer scientists, a large part of my work was to conduct literature reviews and sometimes talk directly to meteorologists at different government agencies. I enjoyed this a lot, since it gave me a lot of exposure to the way weather forecasting is done and the major players involved in the field. I also worked on analyzing the quality of forecasts made by different models, which was interesting from an almost mathematical point of view. I hadn’t really thought before about the depth involved in the question “what is a good forecast?” There is a lot there to think about, though, and I find that research area fascinating. I was able to explore that question further during my freshman summer, when I worked (virtually) at the NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office which houses the GEOS climate model and forecast system. My project involved working with the model’s forecasts of El Niño/La Niña (ENSO) events, specifically with the aim to make the forecasts reflect the nature of for anyone curious: it's a difference between deterministic and ensemble forecasts
Being part of both of those teams was a really cool experience in the sense that I was working on forecast models and methods that were being used operationally, or would be in the foreseeable future. I could feel directly that my work had an impact, and was contributing something to both the state of knowledge (about which forecast methods work, generally) and just… society (the users of those models). This is why I have stuck with weather and climate research for so long: not only are these topics fascinating and intellectually stimulating on a personal level, they are also impactful in a tangible way.
Since this past semester, I have been working on a different UROP: a more mathematical and theoretical treatment of the question of how to make useful forecasts, this time when talking about the climate as a general system. It’s a really cool project that has pushed me a lot in terms of skills and ways of thinking, which has been difficult but rewarding. Still, it’s hard to balance everything I do at MIT with research. I spent the past semester whining about how I wish I had more time to do research, and how I would rather be doing research than whatever thing was going on that thing was often my 8.04 pset, but that's a story for another time To me, though, this is a reinforcement of what I’ve been feeling more and more: that research is the type of work that makes me the most happy and leaves me feeling the most fulfilled.
iv. so, grad school?
It then becomes ridiculously simple: I want to go to grad school because I want to keep doing research. I think this is the core of what I realized this past winter: it finally clicked that the decision to go to grad school doesn’t have to be so complicated. The fact that I enjoy doing research now and can see myself doing it for another five years after undergrad is all the reason I need. I don’t need to have a grand plan for my life, and I don’t need to commit to staying in academia indefinitely and becoming a tenured professor. There are many other jobs that a PhD would also set me up for. I could work at a government agency, like NASA or NOAA, or I could work at some company doing work related to climate modeling, or a number of other things. All of these paths would only benefit from more education.
I want to go to grad school so that I can keep on learning. With every UROP and research internship that I do, I realize just how much more there is for me to learn in order to truly be able to engage with my field. The atmosphere is a ridiculously complex system, and weather and climate models both are ridiculously complex to match. There’s so much I don’t know yet about how the atmosphere functions, the laws of physics that govern it, the computational approaches that we can take to model and understand. Sometimes, I even lack the tools to understand these things: there’s so much more math I want to learn, or get better at. A constant problem throughout my undergrad career has been the feeling that I don’t have enough time. Four years just isn’t enough for me to fit in all the classes I want to take, at least not in a way where I retain their content. Plus, undergrad isn’t just about taking classes – I have other priorities, too, such as spending time with friends, pursuing creative projects, and, of course, doing research. Plus, I love being a part of a university: the ease of access to knowledge, the general academic environment, the ability to take classes in where would I be without my emotional support french queer literature class?? the fact of being surrounded by people who are passionate about so many different areas. I know I won’t be ready to leave this behind after undergrad. I just need more time.
I think I used to see going to grad school as “delaying my life,” so to speak. I thought that it would just be adding another five years to my schooling, and why would I want to do that when there’s a whole world out there for me to explore? I was wrong, though. Life is long, and it’s already started! This is something I wasn’t really able to appreciate in high school: that the experience of getting a college education isn’t something totally removed from the rest of the world – or, at least, it doesn’t have to be. Instead, it’s just one of the many things you do with your time, almost like a job, but not really. I find this fact easy to forget amid the busyness of MIT, but that doesn’t make it any less true – and it only becomes more true as you get older. I think about this a lot, particularly in the context of grad school: how crazy is it that I can just keep studying, keep working on projects that I’m curious about, and get paid for it? Even if it’s not a lot of money, it’s still a way of subsisting while doing something that, at the end, is this isn't to say that I don't think grad students shouldn't be paid more, I'm just being realistic not for the benefit of some company.
v. the ethics of career choice
Vincent wrote a really interesting and well-articulated blog post about the ethics and morality of the kinds of well-paying big tech and finance jobs that are so common among MIT graduates. It’s a great blog, and I largely agree with his complaints about the culture surrounding employment at MIT. The post reminded me of a conversation I recently had with my friend from high school who studies computer science at another university. We were talking about our careers, and she asked me, “Most people hate their jobs, right?” I laughed and said I definitely don’t hate the work that I do. “You’re a special case,” she said. But am I really? I think I am lucky, in a lot of ways. I’m lucky to have found something I’m passionate about, and I’m lucky, also, that it doesn’t come with too much ethical baggage.
I want to say that I can’t fathom working a job that I hate, or that I find boring and unstimulating. That wouldn’t be true. I can imagine it just fine, I can see it as a possible path, I know which steps I would have to take to end up sitting behind a computer, ten years from now, at some corporate office in New York or San Francisco, pushing around data that has no worth to me or the world at large. It might be nice, actually: the financial stability, the opportunities to pursue passion projects outside of work, the general ease of life associated with a stable, well-paying job. It’s just that, there’s no good reason for me to do it, at least not right now. I don’t need the money, or at least, I don’t need it enough. I’m lucky enough to be graduating from college big shoutout to the MIT financial aid office and without significant financial obligations to my family. Plus, I didn’t grow up with a my family is by no means poor, but we're definitely not wealthy, either so I don’t have an expectation of wealth, so to speak. I’m used to keeping side jobs on top of school, to applying for grants and scholarships. I don’t think it will be too hard for me to live on a PhD stipend for a while, for which I am weirdly grateful.
In her comment on Vincent’s post, Audrey wrote, “i dont think simply getting paid less makes a job more noble.” I do agree with this. I think that if the thing that I was passionate about paid a lot of money right out of undergrad and was to some degree ethically dubious, I would still pursue it. I am not the type to put morality above all else; like most people, I like to prioritize my happiness. But it’s true, also, that I’m not passionate about pure software engineering or finance, and I can’t really imagine myself finding those fields engaging. This, too, is part of who I am. I find that I enjoy the style of work that science provides and the problems it allows me to work on. Plus, to some degree, my happiness is related to the fact that I feel like I’m not doing harm to the world. If I keep working on climate research or weather forecasting (and I probably will), I might even be doing net good. In this, too, I am lucky, and I’m not ready to throw that luck away.
Of course, everything I’ve written is subject to change. I’m not ruling out the possibility of me going into maybe even an ethically dubious one! immediately after my PhD, or after some years in academia or government. For all I know, my financial situation might change, or I might just change my mind completely in the next two years, and jump on one recruiting pipeline or another. I’m fairly certain that the latter won’t happen, though, just because it would take a lot of mental effort at this point to switch gears so drastically. Still, all of these things are possible. Despite that uncertainty, I am certain that going to grad school to keep studying science and working on research is the future that I want in this moment.
None of this is particularly new. I talk about it as if it were a big realization, but whenever I mention it to my friends, they laugh at me – it’s not a surprise to anyone. Of course I’m going to grad school. Of course I want to keep going with research. It seems as if I was the last one to know. Though, I’ve known all along, of course. This realization is really about closing the chapter of my life where I was considering pretty much all possible career paths. I’ve cut off a ton of those possible paths, and I’ve chosen one that I will follow, for now. This is not useless realization. It allows me to focus on my research and on my science classes. It allows me to spend my time thinking not about what I want to do after I graduate, but about my relationship with science, and about the specific areas within my field that I might want to get involved with. I have found a road to follow, and I will follow it until something changes.
- though another part of it is perhaps the fact that I wouldn't mind staying in academia forever back to text ↑
- the school I went to went from 7th to 12th grade, so middle blended seamlessly into high back to text ↑
- in retrospect, I definitely did too many things, because I was deeply, fundamentally burnt out throughout much of junior and senior year, and leading into college back to text ↑
- and they ate up precious lunch break time! that I could have spent practicing for science bowl... back to text ↑
- and people who do have amazing results are often products of extremely privileged environments, with research programs like my own and, often, family connections to big labs. the whole research comp circuit isn't particularly equitable, but I'm not gonna get too much into that here back to text ↑
- the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society, respectively back to text ↑
- civil engineering back to text ↑
- aerospace engineering back to text ↑
- Global Modeling and Assimilation Office back to text ↑
- for anyone curious: it's a difference between deterministic and ensemble forecasts back to text ↑
- that thing was often my 8.04 pset, but that's a story for another time back to text ↑
- where would I be without my emotional support french queer literature class?? back to text ↑
- this isn't to say that I don't think grad students shouldn't be paid more, I'm just being realistic back to text ↑
- big shoutout to the MIT financial aid office back to text ↑
- my family is by no means poor, but we're definitely not wealthy, either back to text ↑
- maybe even an ethically dubious one! back to text ↑