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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Summer Decisions by Anna H. '14

As promised, I finished my post about deciding what to do this summer. Disclaimer that I haven’t slept in 22 hours.

Last summer, a life plan took shape: get a master’s in Science Writing from MIT and a Ph.D. in astronomy from Somewhere, then barrel full steam ahead down the relatively unexplored intersection of science research and public outreach.

Before the summer started, I had planned to become a neurologist. I knew a lot about medical school: about the application process, about what makes a competitive applicant, about what medical schools are looking for, the requirements, etc.

I knew nothing about graduate school. As I began to realize that this was what I wanted to do, I discussed the process with my mentor, my fellow interns, and the other astronomers in the building. At the conference in January, I talked with a few MIT alums, as well as Random Astronomers I Stopped In The Hallway.

Everyone said: your grades matter, but aren’t the most important part of your application. Letters of recommendation and research experience carry the most weight.

Everyone said: study for the GRE. STUDY FOR THE GRE! It’s a dumb test but your score really does matter.

Ew.

Everyone said: a publication is a golden ticket.

Everyone said: you need to demonstrate that you are really serious about doing research.

Gradually, the blurry outlines of A Competitive Applicant emerged in my head: I began to realize that an application to graduate school is a job application, and in that sense is fundamentally different from a college application.

When I wrote essays for undergraduate programs, I described my vast array of interests: French, robotics, Shakespeare, history, neuroscience, physics. I argued that such a breadth of interests would make me a valuable addition to an undergraduate community – and I guess MIT agreed. Some of my classmates, though, stood out for depth: they spent four years doing one or two activities, and took their respective organizations to levels I had only dreamed of while in High School. They’d been on TV, in the news, might as well have been the world’s leading expert on whatever it was they were doing.

A little insecurity wedged itself at the back of my head: that I had never actually Done Anything since I had dabbled in so MANY things. I spent freshman and sophomore year dabbling more, and the wedge drove itself a little deeper. Sophomore spring, a friend told me that his philosophy on life is that one should know a lot about one thing, and a little about everything else – that comment made a strong impression on me.

The wedge drove a crack: I was worried that I COULDN’T achieve depth, that I purposefully busied myself with a million different activities. That being busy was an excuse for not finishing projects.

Post-sophomore year, I spent the summer doing research at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Suddenly, here it was: One Thing I could throw myself into, that I actually WANTED to become an expert in. This caught me totally by surprise, since I’ve always had a terrible phobia of specialization. But here I was: obsessing over a group of 35 pulsars in one globular cluster, 8.7 kiloparsecs away.

At the end of the summer, my project wasn’t really “finished” — I presented a poster at a winter conference, but the results weren’t at a stage that they could be published.

In the spring, I applied to another array of astronomy research programs, and found myself facing a decision:
a) Return to the NRAO, to work with the same mentor and finish my project from last summer
b) Do a different research project, with a different mentor, at any of the research institutions I’d been accepted to

I asked a lot of people for advice: professors, other NRAO astronomers, MIT alums at the conference, friends.

Some people said: you should absolutely do something different. This is your time to explore, find out what within astronomy you’re interested in. It’s important to see how a different mentor thinks, and feel out the atmosphere of a different, non-NRAO institution.

Some people said: you should absolutely go back to the NRAO and finish your project. ANYONE can show up at an internship for one summer, and have fun. Very few undergraduates demonstrate that they have the capacity for depth, and prolonged engagement with one project. Very few undergraduates see a project through to completion. You should finish the project, and get the paper out of it.

Some people said: do both! That’s absolutely what high school, MIT freshman, or MIT sophomore Anna would have said, too. MIT junior Anna knew better, though: trying to somehow do both would mean either doing neither, or just doing a new program. If I tried to do both, my 2012 project would go unfinished. I knew I was too busy.

I spent days agonizing about this decision. It felt like an identity crisis: the dabbler, the Anna who “does everything,” versus this potential future graduate student Anna who knows how to focus on a project and see it through. Some days, I was absolutely sure that I would pick (b), and some days I was absolutely sure that I would pick (a). I had a long phone conversation with my NRAO mentor, late one evening. I Skyped a few graduate student friends.

I thought about finishing projects. This is something I always struggled with, as a dabbler. I have had so many ideas, and so few products. I realized that I was genuinely afraid of returning to the NRAO: if I went back, AND didn’t finish my project, what would that mean about my ability to succeed in graduate school? I almost didn’t want to know.

Almost.

The next day, I talked with Dumbledore. I presented the argument for each side, and he said “yes, that’s true” to both of them. He continued by saying that it really didn’t matter very much – either would be a good decision, for its own reasons.

I told him about my insecurity: about my historical lack of depth, about my persistent dabbling, about the resulting fear that it’s not that I don’t have the time to finish projects – that I actually CAN’T finish projects. As I was talking, it became perfectly clear in my head that I both wanted and needed to go back to the NRAO. I had something to prove, both to myself and to graduate programs: that I am capable of depth, of sticking with a project through to the end, of spending weeks at the “almost done!” stage, debugging code and grinding out a product. Of enjoying being an astronomer, even when the honeymoon stage of My First Research Experience is over.

When I finished saying all that, it was pretty clear that I had already made my decision, and was just presenting it to Dumbledore for approval.

“Write that,” he said, “in your graduate school applications. They will read it and say wow! she’s so mature! we have to take her!”

That was all the approval I needed – I responded to the other programs declining their offers, then wrote an e-mail to my NRAO mentor telling him I was coming back.

So, here I am. Back at the NRAO in Charlottesville! I’ve been totally astonished at how many people recognize me, astronomers and IT staff alike – it feels like I never left. Last summer, I had no clue what was going on – I was the newcomer, the astronomy baby. Now, I’M the one who knows what’s going on. It’s been a nice gauge of my progress.

I launched into my project on Day 1. Turns out, as I think it often does in science research, that there are a million things to fix between my product from last summer, and publication. So, I’ve been tinkering, fixing, deleting, arguing, improving methods. I’ve realized that THIS stage is the real test of whether I want to go to graduate school and become an astronomer. This is the hard part.

A lot could change over the next eight weeks. So far, though, the daily frustrations and anxieties have come with an enduring backdrop of contentment and basic thrill that this is MY project, which I have seen through from its beginning stages.

I’m starting to like this depth thing.