Why I decided to go to grad school

I am recently getting a questions in my inbox from people considering Ph.D studies and/or professional lives devoted to research. Many of these questions can be boiled down to, How did you get to where you are? Here’s one version of my answer.

I had a strong suspicion beginning my second year of college that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but I still had many lingering doubts. I applied to a fellowship program that would groom me for the GRE, independent research, and a life time in academia. I made it through to the final round, excited during the interviews and a nervous wreck about “signing away my life” during the breaks. I ultimately did not receive the fellowship, which felt devastating for 24 hours and then, a relief. I wasn’t sure at 20. I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I knew I loved numbers and surveys and reading endlessly and asking questions and investigating things. But I had trouble finding the right field for myself and I wanted to see what working life was like in the “real world.” Surely, I told myself, they still need researchers out there. So I put my Ph.D. dreams aside and decided to work for what I determined was a “respectable amount of time.”

In my head, this was meant to be a 2 year research job. But the job market is interesting and opaque and full of strange and unexpected results. I learned that job descriptions are rarely accurate, that I did not need to work anywhere near as hard as I did in college to still have excellent results and a social life(?!) and “research” in industry is sometimes a scary and terrifying Frankenstein version of what I wanted to do. It’s amazing what becomes “fact” when someone in a hierarchical organization determines it must be so. I worked in research in a financial company, a media company, and a tech start up. Each version of my job was interesting and had a lot of space for me to design what I was working on, but I was keenly aware of the holes in my skill set and the distance between what made me light up when I talked about it… and the research I did during my working hours.

I had a moment while fact checking where I was increasingly frustrated by the original research I was doing to patch up holes in an argument… knowing I would never get credit for the work… when I realized I wanted to do independent research. The questions and notes I had been scrawling away in notebooks and Evernote were haunting my dreams and making it very difficult to ignore any longer. I knew I needed more training to answer some of these questions and I knew I needed to work on them in a formal setting for people to take me seriously. So I approached my college advisors.

Absolutely no one in my life was even a little surprised when I told them. The scariest conversation (in my anticipation) was with my boss who did not bat an eyelash. She instead beamed at me and said she was thrilled and when did she need to turn in my recommendation letter?

See, I have always been a nerd. I obsess over things I am reading or decide to investigate for a long period of time not because it had a specific “end goal” but because it fascinated me and captured my imagination. My questions really do haunt me. Some kept me up all night. I would read for hours trying to answer my questions, even when I knew I had work the next day. I carried around a “field journal” for observations on communities I found interesting. I liked experiment design and talked about it long past the point of everyone else beginning to play with their phones. I break into a giant smile when I talk about theories I am playing with and successful days in the field.

Making money was nice, but it wasn’t enough. I realized the price of working on questions that didn’t interest me felt much more costly to me than I had understood. I was willing to take that pay cut — and sign up to be in grad school until I am at least 31 — because this time to read and study and design experiments and live my questions was what I needed to do to feel alive. It was worth leaving behind the experience I had built up over time, my comfortable salary and life style, and the networks of friends and colleagues I had built up because my questions called so loudly.

As one advisor told me when I told him about my plans, “I would not recommend this life style to anyone who could happily live a different life.” He told me, “you will spend the next few years becoming an expert on what feels like the handle of a single type of hammer in a tool shed. It drives most people insane. You need to be slightly insane to do this.” And I am. I tried and I cannot leave my questions behind. I returned to grad school because I know what I need to explore and answer with my life and I know what it will cost me to do so.

Sometimes people ask me if they should do this because they don’t know what else they would do. Don’t do that. Don’t come back until you have something you can hold on to when you are consumed with the self doubt and overwhelmed by the isolation that is part of independent research. I had to work for 4 years and try working in 3 totally different fields until I was ready. It’s ok to take your time and try giving yourself to another job, another field. Nothing you do, work-wise or research-wise will ever be absolutely perfect. It just won’t. But start by experimenting with the different variables that you can choose in this life. Maybe it’s money, location, or the type of work that you do. Find what matters to you. Pursue that.

For me, the type of work I do (research) and the specific questions I want to answer became a priority that I could no longer ignore. And it was an expensive decision to make, but I know in my heart this is where I am supposed to be.

On writing: Friendship’s love letters

I’ll confess: I have a box under my bed that has all of the love letters I’ve received from boyfriends since I was a teenager. The oldest one is from my first real boyfriend made me a set of stacked silver rings at art camp (I’ve lost two of the 4, but the other 2 remain safely tucked in the letter that he wrote for me when he gave them to me on the last night of camp). There are handmade cards and printed cards with notes in barely legible handwriting, drawings of birds on construction paper and nicknames scrawled under them. But mixed in with these notes from ex-boyfriends, are the love letters I have received in my friendships and I consider those just as important, if not more important.

I am a firm believer in the Birthday card. I have a ritual around this for my closest friends. I spend a lot of time exploring paper stores, searching for a card as weird and funny and quirky as my friendships are. I wait until I have time to think about what I want to write to them, sit at my desk or in a coffee shop, and prepare to pour my heart and all the memories of the last year into my loopy handwriting on the page. I usually cry when I write them, it’s the only way I know how to write with my full heart. Then I seal the card, tuck it into the gift (often a book) that I am going to give them, and get really shy when they read it in front of me.

I open the box and pull out the letters from my friendships when I feel really lost or down or find myself struggling in a friendship. These letters are a timeline. They are my anchors to specific times in our friendships and how much I loved them and they loved me in those times in our lives. When a friendship evolves, or we move apart and speak less frequently, their letters help me remember that love, like faith, exists because we feel it and not always because there is concrete proof.

My letters have evolved over time. I send birthday cards, holidays cards, and now random texted when I am feeling especially lovely thoughts towards a friend. I sent one this morning to a friend whose personal growth in the last year has inspired me:

I was talking to a friend who is having issues with their marriage, and they told me to remember that marriage is an agreement to love and celebrate the evolution of another person along their entire journey in life. 
 
I was thinking about that as it applies to friendships too this morning, and I am filled with love and pride in watching you grow in all the ways you’ve decided to explore. I love how much more often we talk now and what we explore together or what I learn from you all the time. I love you very much, my friend. In the long term friendship love journey, very psyched to be part of your life. 
 
I sent it knowing everything I said here and now was exactly how I felt about our friendship and her journey. It now exists, frozen and time in love, for us to return to at another time where we may have trouble communicating or remembering how we got to the place in our friendship were we find ourselves later. It’s nice to have something to hold on to and remember that this time existed, that this love and friendship was firmly alive in each of us. A memory I will look back on for a rainy day, perhaps when I feel alone, and it’s good memory will return a little more light to my smiles.

Header image: Ken Douglas / flickr

My graduate school (Ph.D.) application timeline

I promised a friend I would share my graduate school application timeline with him, since I just finished my successful application cycle a few months ago. This is how I scheduled my year (2016) to turn all of my applications for my Ph.D. program in by December’s deadlines.

January 2016:
— looked into programs that appealed to me, so I was inspired and had started building my lists of schools that I wanted to apply to, along with specific professors I wanted to work with at each one.
— Reached out to professors from my alma mater to meet with them in February to talk about applications/ask for letters of recommendation.

February:
— signed up for the GRE (for a June date), bought a practice book
— built my GRE practice schedule: worked for a few hours on Sundays and 1-2 evenings a week on practice tests, reviewed material I didn’t quite remember so I could do the tests without open notes
— Met with some of my professors from undergrad, gave them a timeline for when I needed their letters and when I would send them my research statement + personal statement, also offered to email them a reminder of what we had worked on together

March:
— GRE practice continued
— reached out to professors in the schools I was interested in applying to, went to do some visits and tell them about my research goals (this is not an option for all programs. For example: Sociologists want to meet you, economists do not. The best way to get a sense of what works/doesn’t is to talk to graduate students in the programs you want to apply to or someone in the field. The second best option for me was reading through the forums for graduate students on Quora).

April:
— GRE practice continued
— kept building and refining my list of schools/programs to apply to and specific things I could say about each professor I wanted to work with. Reached out to professors I hadn’t reached out to yet.

May:
— GRE practice
— started a draft of my 2 page personal statement: how did I become a researcher, why grad school, why did my questions matter now

June:
— took the GRE, decided to take it again in August to get a few more points
— completed a few more drafts of my personal statement by writing every morning, sent to close friends/colleagues for comments
— began a draft of my research statement

July:
— Focused on research statement drafts, gathered some early feedback on clarity with friends who had read my work before
— focused my GRE studying on the section I wanted to improve + continued memorizing vocab so I didn’t forget it
— ignored my personal statement for a month, to return with fresh eyes later

August:
— GRE round 2
— finished a full draft of my research statement, send it to my prof/mentor for comments and advice
— returned to my personal statement, sent to a different mentor who hadn’t read it yet for comments and a few friends whose writing I admired for style comments

September:
— had my final list of schools for applications: built a status doc with their due dates and requirements listed in each column

— wrote to my professors to remind them it was time to send recommendation letters to my escrow service (I had everything done through Interfolio. Not all schools accept it, Stanford and MIT did not, but the other ones I applied to did)
— created my Interfolio account and emailed them links for the letters with a due date for the first application to it
— prepared my personal statement for copy edits
— finished a new draft of my research statement

October:
— finished my research statement, prepared for copy edit
— gathered final comments on all of my essays, then started cutting them down to meet each program’s word count requirements
— sent my scores from the GRE to all of my schools

November:
— gathered all of my recommendation letters
— added all final edits to essays
— started sending in applications as they were done because I was BURNT OUT and couldn’t take anymore feedback

December:
— took a good long nap.

My additional notes, for my own sanity:
– there were days of the week I was not allowed to think about or talk about my graduate school applications (Saturdays, Mondays)
– I made sure I went to yoga 2-3x a week, because it was scheduled and that made me take a break and turn off my brain for a few hours a week
– I made sure to prioritize sleep so I could do a good job on the practice tests
– I refused to tell people, apart from a small handful of people, where I was applying and said, “let me tell you once I’ve applied!” to take the pressure of judgment and “advice” away
– I got used to explaining my research interests in 2 mins, 5 mins, and 10 mins depending on the level of interest the other person had for what I was talking about. This was really terrible at first but made it way easier to write my research statement later, so it ended up being really helpful.

Four tips for your next informational interview request…

First, let me set the scene: Perhaps you are someone looking for your first job or you are someone looking to switch jobs and want to learn more about what is out there. In this process, you are doing unpaid research to see what exists, where you could go, and how to market yourself in the labor market. Let’s say you encounter someone online whose job you think is especially interesting and you could imagine yourself doing, so you decide to approach them for an informational interview.

I study labor and serve as an organizer because I believe it’s the best way I can contribute. I am especially interested in the role of social networks and employment and finding ways to reduce “friction” that people encounter when looking for the right jobs for them. Like many of my peers, I get a LOT of informational interview requests and I try to take as many as I can but it adds up over time. Let’s say 20 people ask me in a week (which does happen sometimes). Each of those 30 minute phone calls adds up, so even if I try to make time for 4 of them in a week, that’s 2 hours of additional unpaid labor a week to my workload. I do it because I believe in reducing the employment “friction” issue, but these are some things I wish people who reached out to me would keep in mind.

1. Do your research and ask me interesting questions. If our conversation is interesting, I will remember you. If you ask me generic questions, I will be frustrated and not impressed. Do not ask me how I got to this job when you can look at my LinkedIn profile and see my history. Do not ask me what I did before or what I studied, again, listed on my LinkedIn profile and my blog. If you did a little research and looked me up you could answer that for yourself. Make this time an interview about things you could not see online and show me you came to the conversation prepared.

2. 30 minutes is not a lot of time for me to get to know you and I will not be able to tell you what you should do. It’s easier if you come to the conversation having a sense of yourself. What do you need in an environment to thrive? What kind of work can you imagine doing day after day without losing your mind?

3. A lot of people show up and tell me about how great my job would be for them, which isn’t a good “sales” strategy. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but you’re much more convincing and appealing if you can tell me how you would play with or build something I do. I’m a researcher, if you want to do research tell me about an experiment you’d run or questions that keep you up at night. I scream internally every time someone generically tells me, “I’m good at research.” Like public speaking, it’s a skill people often take for granted. Show me some concrete evidence, the way a researcher would.

4. After the call, say thank you. Extra points for writing back to me after the call to say thank you for taking time to talk to me. And if you ask for a favor and/or someone follows up with feedback on something, say thank you again. They don’t have to do this… be polite and say thank you.

There are times you need to have a very open and exploratory conversation. I encourage you to have those with peers and mentors, sometimes even your family. I explored jobs by reading websites like the Muse and then following researchers whose work I found especially interesting, see how they got to where they were. I explored skills I had and tried to see how I could market them. I also spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing day to day, acknowledging things I “thought I should want to do” that I didn’t and leaving those behind. I think it’s a slow discovery process for everyone and it’s ok to ask for help. I share these ideas to help you make the most of your time reaching out to people and to respect the time of those who offer to help you. Good luck!

Photo credit: Nicolas Nova / Flickr

A doctor’s role in a community: reflections from a yale med student

I found Michael sitting in a café on Yale’s campus early on a Saturday morning. I arrived to write up my questions before my last interview on my revisit for the Ph.D. program at the Yale School of Management and was surprised to see someone else here. The café had only been open for 20 minutes and the campus was mostly empty while most of the students were on spring break. There was room at the table beside him, so I sat down and asked him, “what are you reading?”

“A book about eye examinations and diagnosis. It’s for an Ophthalmology class I’m taking at the medical school.” He was holding a highlighter in his right hand, and had been flipping back and forth between pages with a very serious expression on his face when I interrupted him.

“Do you like the class?”
“Yes. The faculty who teach it are trying to convince us to join their specialization.” And after a pause where he looked off into the room behind me absently, he added, “It has instilled a joy of medicine in me that my other courses haven’t.” There was weariness to his tone. Maybe medical school wasn’t what he expected it to be.

“What kind of patients do you want to work with?”
Like he was apologizing to me, he said, “I want to support a patient population that doesn’t trust physicians and who has been under-served by the medical system, like undocumented workers, low-income people, people of color…”

“Does your medical school do a good job reaching out to them?”
He thought for a minute, looking down at his lap as he responded. “Yes, it’s part of our curriculum. We talk about how to take care of them.” Though, it seemed, maybe not as well as he hoped.

“What are the biggest barriers for them?”
He looked up again. “Lack of access — I mean physical and financial access. Distrust of the medical system.”

Overcome with my own curiosity, I asked, “How do people rebuild that trust?”
“Well, you have to be there and follow-up, and be there for a long time. It’s about building long-term relationships. It’s about outreach: going to people’s homes and providing care there, not forcing them to go to a clinic full of people who don’t look like them, not force them into filling out overly complicated forms and navigating payment systems. The offices are gross, they’re covered in Pharma ads, with Pharma pens and Pharma shit everywhere.” I felt a similar frustration towards Pharma, especially with the ACA on the chop block earlier that week.

Michael, trying to convince himself he was a happy med student.

“What kinds of doctors do a good job serving them?”
“Right now, Primary care and family medicine do this well. But we also want other kinds of doctors to do better. Ophthalmology could do better … you need your vision to help your family, lots of space for impact here. People go into poverty because they have vision issues. There are so many easy, low-cost interventions that could fix their vision issues.” Maybe he really was interested in reading about eyes!

“What made you decide to become a med student?”
He crossed his legs, then his arms and leaned back in his chair. He looked down again when he said, faintly, “I want to help people. I want to be a doctor who serves these communities.”

“Do you still believe that you can do that as a doctor?”
He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow at me. “I do. I don’t know what it looks like in practice, what with all the logistical issues of being a physician. I like the idea of providing free care to people who need it. But this is a logistical nightmare… but who has time for it? And all the ethical things that go along with that… so much paperwork…” He was avoiding my eyes now. He had put his book and highlighter down on the table and was now very focused on gathering the crumbs on the table in front of him into a pile.

“Who creates all this extra paperwork?” I couldn’t help but keep poking.
“Insurance. Medicare and Medicaid do. HHS do.” He seemed to be less interested in answering my questions now, so I changed the subject.

“I don’t quite know how to ask this,” I said, “but what do you think about the physician’s God Complex? Do you notice one?”
He looked at me very seriously. “Some do go into medicine for this reason: OBGYN and Surgeons do see themselves as super humans. It exists. But I find this very off-putting. I went into medicine to build relationships with patients, to help them in the long-term. I think having a God Complex means building an inherent distance from the patient. This is off-putting to me. I believe medicine is about empowering patients, not just doing things to them that makes their lives better. It’s a collaboration, I’m not just a service provider.” He looked at me expectantly.,

I found myself without a good response, so I asked quietly, “Is it sometimes hard to remember why you are there?”
“Yes. Especially when you’re memorizing the umpteenth fact about cranial nerve 10 or whatever, it’s hard to remember why I’m doing what I do every day and what it will ultimately lead towards.”
“So then, how do you re-center yourself?”
“I try to go have experiences in hospitals as much as I can, I shadow as much as I can because that reminds me why I am here.”

He looked at his watch, purposefully. I got the message.
“Ok I have one last question and then I’ll leave you alone. What is something you wished people would ask you?”
“I wish people would ask me why my beard is red but my hair is not red. The answer is that it’s a mutation of one gene. I discovered this in med school, when my med school friend told me.” I let out a laugh from deep in my stomach in surprise.

Header image credit: mararie / flickr