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perception by Paolo A. '21 G

but who *are* you?

Over the summer, I’ve centered on a fear that I have in graduate school — the idea that people will judge me solely based on my research, and nothing else.

It seems almost inevitable that this is going to happen. I’ll write some paper, it (hopefully) gets published in some journal, and someone I’ve never interacted with will read it, and will think: “Wow, that was a terrible paper. The writing was bad, the methods made no sense. That researcher sucks.” Or “That’s such an uninteresting thing to study. Why don’t they instead look at …”

Whenever people ask me big questions about economics-adjacent things, I always respond with something along the lines of “Oh, economists don’t really study that, we study…” or “Well there’s evidence on both sides, like X and Y versus Z and W”. But at some point in my grad school life, I’ll have to come up with ideas and be confident enough in them to defend them to the world. I can’t go on forever saying non-answers, because I am expected to know the answers, or at least have opinions, in the area I decide to research.

In A Guide for the Young Economist (intended for PhD students), William Thomson writes:

There is another reason why you should consult with your advisor before circulating your paper. It is that your paper will affect the perception that others have of the quality of the work done under his or her direction. Even though we all understand that receiving a paper does not mean that the work has been formally and fully endorsed, your advisor prefers that the best possible image of his or her research group be projected to the outside world. Advisors do not only have the interest of their current advisees in mind. They also care about the interest of their future students, their own reputation, the reputation of their department, and how their field is perceived in the profession.

In the same way, these same issues plague me, whenever I write a paper and put it out to the world. I will be judged, inevitably, if I put out a shoddy paper, even if it is just a work in progress.

I read the above paragraph on August 2nd. I set a calendar event for August 5th01 yes, i use my calendar as a todolist sometimes, yes, i know it’s bad, no, i will not stop to remove my papers from undergrad from my website. It hasn’t happened yet because I don’t know if I should. Maybe I’ll talk to some of my professors about it. I’m sure they’ll have thoughts.

About a year ago, a few months into quarantine, I finally published my personal website. I’d started writing some text for it during IAP 2020, but it only really came together when I set aside a few weeks to type up things about my life. My website is an attempt to talk about the thought and intent behind many things that people might know about me from my resume, like “here’s what I got out of this research project” or “here’s something fun I enjoyed” or “here’s what I wish I did differently”. A quote from my first blog post:

I hope that this blog doesn’t end up as just a “professional” blog — one where the only updates are about internships and jobs and careers and projects I’m doing. (Not that there won’t be those kinds of updates from time to time.)

I’m hoping that this blog and website can serve as a more faithful reflection of who I am as a person. The musings, the thoughts, the existential crises. Life is a lot more than just the end accomplishments, it’s about the messy paths and missteps taken to get there.

Math camp, for incoming economics PhD students, is a crash course/review session on all of undergraduate math, topics from calculus to analysis to topology to statistics to linear algebra to differential equations. We cover 8 semester-long classes in just 11 3-hour lectures; an incredibly fast pace.

Every lecture was about either 1) a topic I know inside and out, and so it’s a casual reminder of the subject, e.g., eigenvalues, optimization, topological definitions of continuity, or 2) a topic I’ve never seen before / I have only seen once, and so it takes all of my brainpower and then some to follow along in lecture, e.g., upper hemicontinuity, the spectral theorem, separating hyperplanes, and so much more.

To be clear, nothing was graded, and there were no tests. In the end, math camp ended up as a combination refresher course for some topics and really detailed notes for whatever topics I was previously unfamiliar with.

Over the course of math camp, which happened the last few weeks of August, I realized that math camp, first and foremost, was a social experience; all of the new students got together to solve problems, hang out after class, and just get to know each other. In the last 1.5 years, I met approximately three new people — until math camp started, when 20-something new 20-somethings all plopped into my life.

I’d forgotten what it was like to come into a new environment02 well, kinda new. i wasn't a participant in the graduate community at mit econ before this year, but had seen lots of faces before and to have to meet new people. There’s always the awkward small talk of “What’s your name again?” and “What do you think you’re interested in?” and “What field classes are you taking this fall?”. And it’s a weird back-and-forth of trying to figure out who everyone really is— and of trying to show everyone who you are.

I’d like to think that I’m a decently perceptive person, observant enough about what people say, the way they say it, and what they don’t say. But I do feel out-of-practice after a year in quarantine, struggling to find the right questions to get to know someone better. It just used to come so naturally. It’s only been a few weeks, of course, but I wish I knew the right way to skip past the “casual acquaintance from class” level of knowing someone.

I also think a lot about the way that other people perceive me. What kind of person do they think that I am? Do they feel like they know who I am? Do they want to? Or are they thinking the same things that I am, too?

I had a tough time adjusting to college my first semester. Things were tough — classes, choosing clubs, managing my time, and so much more. But more importantly, I found it hard to really connect well with a group in the same way that I did with my high school friends. It wasn’t until November when one of those friends from HS pointed out to me that I seemed like I was always “on” — putting on a front of uber-competence, trying to do all of the things, without actually really taking time for “me”.

I’m worried that I’ll fall into the same pitfall this year, with grad school starting. I haven’t had many conversations yet about mental health, or what people are worried about, or the like. I hope they come in time.

This comic. Yes, that’s basically the entirety of this section. Thanks, @CJ.03 cj actually linked me a different existential comic which i will not link here. sorry @cj

Maybe I should read more philosophy. I’ve never been one to actually read Sartre or whoever, but I feel like I might enjoy doing it.

Each person that knows me has a different version of myself in their head. There are millions of Paolos out there, and they can never all be reconciled.

Around different people, I tend to act very, very differently. It’s something that I’ve known for many different years, even back in middle school, when my older sister noted my code-switched.

I’ve never been one to have a strong, core friend group, instead preferring to “float” between different social spheres. There’s the people who see the ESP side of me, trying to be a semi-knowledgeable old person; or the people I meet in economics contexts, where I do research on X and Y and like teaching about Z; or the people I know from high school, who remember me as the science bowl kid (among other things). To others, I’m the (former) roommate, I’m the club member who disappeared after a while, I’m the person who started a tape mural, I’m the person who liked asking questions, I’m just the blogger you read on this website.

With each of these groups, I talk about different things, I talk in a different way, I act in a different way, I am a different way. I used to think about this in terms of “masks” — which one is coming out right now, for this purpose, for this setting.

But that seems like a very negative way of phrasing it, and so I’ve tried to transition to calling it “facets” of my personality. Different ways I act, yes, but somehow they all are still a part of Paolo.

But no one can perceive and understand all of those facets, no one can see me in all of these contexts — except myself, of course. Which means that it always feels like no one can really get the full picture, unless they interact with me in all of these different ways. And while there are people who I do feel understand me through and through, it is scary to think that some people will only ever see me, judge me, in some specific context.

In some ways, this is all contradictory. Even when I try to blog like this, showing the messy parts and the things I’m not sure of, there will always be things that are missing. There’s the parts that I don’t know how to phrase or that I forget to talk about or that I don’t realize are actually important. There’s also the fact that I’m still trying to portray some image of myself subconsciously. There will always be some amount of posturing, some amount of curating an image. To talk about myself with you is to alter your perception of me. Blogging is, in many ways, parasocial — a medium where you try to perceive me only through the image of myself that I display to the world.

But of course, the difficulty of understanding someone isn’t caused by the fact that I’m blogging. It’s something that’s always hard. It’s hard to share yourself with people, hard to really know who others are. And there’s never any getting around that.

  1. yes, i use my calendar as a todolist sometimes, yes, i know it’s bad, no, i will not stop back to text
  2. well, kinda new. i wasn't a participant in the graduate community at mit econ before this year, but had seen lots of faces before back to text
  3. cj actually linked me a different existential comic which i will not link here. sorry @cj back to text