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.

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

An ode to cover letters

Cover letters can be beautiful, wild creatures.

Abused by formality and “advice,” a quick google search suggests that cover letters should be stale, formal language expressing one’s resume with some transitions between the content listed in bullet points. Please, no.

I hear from friends in banking that cover letters written with the right sequence of key words will get picked up by the screening algorithms and recommendations selected to weed out the “bad fits.” This turns the cover letter into a two part project: write the secret message of code words AND tell me about yourself. Good luck.

We read numerous cover letters from potential interns on our team at TED, and I am regularly surprised by how uncomfortable many of them are. I understand why. If our instructions just say, “send a cover letter” and “tell me about yourself,” it’s unclear how formal or “out there” you’re allowed to be.

I invite you to be unapologetically yourself.

The best cover letters, the ones that make me smile as I am trying to get through hundreds of applications in a handful of breaks during the week, tell me something that summarized work and academic experience on a resume cannot.

The language tells me about the voice of the person writing to me. Do you love the experience of words? Do you like the technical strength of your specific words? I love the sequence of sentences, what the writer decided they HAD to tell me first and how they wanted to conclude, tells me about the writer’s dreams and mission. I especially appreciate the questions that the writer needed me to remember to understand their personal quests.

The cover letter allows you to share a vignette with me. Who are you now, in a scene? Who are you becoming, who, within yourself, have you forgotten?

Or maybe you’re like me, and my cover letter guides you through the questions that lead me to tying knots in the cord of my headphones with one hand as my other ink-stained wrist dashes across my notebook scribbling down every fleeting moment of logic before it scurries away. These questions live in my notebook, and I never leave that notebook behind. Keys, phone, wallet, notebook. I never leave the house alone. I am questions.

Who are you now?

Who are you becoming?

Who, in yourself, have you forgotten?

You are more than a letter, or a scene, or your questions. But your letter is meant to be just a moment. Please, share that moment.

What to do when your office feels like a Kafka novel

There may come a time when you work in an office, or maybe on a project, where the environment feels like something only Kafka could have invented. I worked in an office environment like this for a few months once (not presently, my current job is much more straight forward) and I have found myself in several conversations with peers in the last few weeks about what can only be described as Kafka-inspired office environments. I want to share my learnings from the experience as… survival tips.

First: It’s not you. Sometimes, it’s just not. You may look around the room at the people sitting there in front of you and feel like either you or the entire room must be insane. There may a time where the room is insane and you have to keep yourself out of that comparison, for your own clarity. First step is to stop comparing yourself and find a way to stay centered. Even if the room is no longer making sense, you can maintain your own sense. 

Second: Once you have stopped comparing yourself to the group/event/goal that does not make sense, take stock of what matters to you and what options are available to you. 

On a scale of “this is manageable and I can survive with my sanity intact, I am in fact learning some useful soft skills while I navigate this situation” (Score: 1) to I go home and cry almost every night and fear I will fall down into a hole of darkness that I am not sure I will survive (Score: 10), let’s say 5 is “I’m miserable when I’m at work but will get through this and move on. Where are you right now? (At one point in my Kafka office, I was at 8: go home, cry every night, question my sanity regularly, complain to the same friends in nearly non-stop rants. It was time to remove myself from this project.)

If you’re under 5, make a list of things you are going to learn about yourself from it. Give yourself back some control and ways to see how things are going for you as a worker. Are you learning to rephrase your arguments and questions better? Are you making friends with another teammate who offers some perspective on the insanity? Are you learning to negotiate better? Are you learning how not to run your next project/structure your next team? Build this list of goals, focus on your growth there, and survive it. You’ve got this.

If you’re above a 5, your next question is: How important is this current job/project to your long-term goals? If you lose your sanity or your hope and good energy, it’s really hard to get that back. If the answer is anything less than “if I don’t do this I will be black-listed from my industry and all of my dreams will turn to sand” maybe you need to remove yourself from it. Even if you do say “black-listed in industry and dreams turn to sand,” ask yourself, why do I want to suffer for this particular dream, and are there in fact other ways I could reach an equally appealing dream?

Third: If you have some reflection time and realize this job/project is burning you out and you need to leave, find a way to quit in a way that allows you to continue respecting yourself. Sometimes it is ok to say, this isn’t working and I need to go. You can and will find a way that works for you, and you should not be ashamed for acting in a way that preserves who you are. It is not the company or your team’s job to figure out how to preserve you, they can only do that if you are clear with rules and boundaries for yourself. If too many of your rules and boundaries are repeatedly violated and you know you cannot move forward as you are now, act for yourself. Preserve your sanity and hope and good energy.

I believe, from working on different teams over time and watching different political structures play out internally, that every person has a few “good” environments for them that bring out the best versions of themselves, and a handful of really “bad” environments that bring out the worst. I was not proud of the version of myself that I became in my Kafka office experience, and ultimately that was what pushed me to leave. I had trouble respecting and recognizing the person I became to survive in that particular environment. Now that I’m in a much healthier one for me, I see what a really good work experience can be like and what I am like under much better working conditions. I am also much better equipped to interview my potential managers when I interview for jobs/new projects.

Now, especially when I offer feedback to contractors or interview, I try to remember the value of environmental context. Sometimes an experience in a different office might not say a lot about a person’s potential if it was the complete wrong one. I appreciate people who’ve been through the battles of defining and preserving their boundaries, because it means they will tell me clearly what they can or cannot do, what they do or do not enjoy, and how I can support them as a manager. Maybe there are ways we can work together now that were not available in a previous job and this is where this person can really grow and enjoy their work.

In Summary: If you need to leave your Kafka environment, you need to leave it. If you decide to stay, let it be about your personal growth as a manager and teammate and let the rest go. Good luck!

Song of the Twenty Something

Sometimes I think about my time in New York City and think about my life as a ribbon, like the ones from the elaborate May Day dances around May poles that I watched when I was little. My thread moves around and twists into a whole mix of different colors, sometimes weaving into and weaving out of the fabric created by the dancers.

While I lived in Manhattan, my life was woven into a steady stream of carefully planned dinners and drinks with friends who worked in Capital C for CORPORATE jobs. The timelines were clear, the hours ground them into the ground, the bonuses served as a metric for their success. Time was scarce, time to think freely and ask interesting questions at work… even more scarce. Projects they wouldn’t have dreamed of working on as undergrads were justified with just a handful of words. A tense sort of existence and interaction with time dominated our conversations… and it was hard to tell when we were doing a good/bad job taking care of ourselves.

I moved to Brooklyn in June and soon the colors I was weaving into were more forgiving. They asked questions and explored concepts that didn’t have answers yet. My friends had day jobs, and learned the most from what their did in their own time. The questions they explored over dinner tables and hours in the public library, were more in line with my own thinking and desire to explore.

With this opportunity to reflect and collect myself again, I cracked. Pausing long enough in the doorway one evening after I had fully moved in, I collapsed into the bones and flesh in my body, finally tacking stock of the two years of damage from living in Manhattan. My metrics and expectations for myself were fucked up. I had to come to terms with that. The joy I had derived from exploring new questions and developing tools for difficult academic explorations… were finally acceptable again. Not having an answer was ok. I was free to build, anew.

I started to weave my life back into a world of artists and academics and explorers. People whose day jobs explained far too little about who they were, what they thought about, and what they wanted to do with their time. I was at home, once more. ‘What do you do now?’ meant so little.

University was the last time I found this freedom. A space where my academic pursuits devoured 3/4 of the day, but the last 1/4 was for me to do as I chose… and I chose, frequently, to build things.

What I loved about the Liberal Arts program at Yale was that people had these small points of interactions with people who were completely different from them where we built teams and shared thoughtful critique to help each other improve. My natural science requirements brought me in touch with more of the pure science students than my life did normally and I learned as much from them as I did the students who were on a similar technical trajectory in my political science/sociology/latin american studies programs. It meant recognizing my stronger points and weaker points immediately, and asking for help or advice regularly.

Perhaps the best part was that we were pushed to create and innovate. To develop our own projects, learn the practical skill set of executing projects and seeing them through to the end, evaluating our own results, asking for constant feedback, building and changing teams, developing product concepts and testing them… everything that has been so useful to me post college. It was food for the mind and the senses…. and such a necessary contrast to constant work in abstraction and academia.

I think this “side hustle” in extracurricular work prepared me most for the work force. Well, maybe that and experiment design from my academic work. I learned to play by doing and I learned to think by working with my peers in seminars and team based coursework.

For me, the balance I found in college, among the builders and the thinkers, was what kept me sane. I needed to play in both spaces with time to evaluate. I lost that sense of balance in Manhattan, amid the high profile, high focus jobs and culture and regained it in the fluidity of Brooklyn.

It taught me, most importantly, that the concept of “home” is so much more about the people and the pulse of thinking that I wanted to surround myself with. And sometimes that pulse comes in much less obvious forms that I had accepted when I first moved to New York. I am thoroughly enjoying this new exploration process.