The Alternative?

This is a “reprint” of a post I wrote for an in-class, private blog as an assignment last term, slightly edited. It is a response to articles about mental health challenges in graduate school; something like this one.

I was inspired to fetch and post this publicly by a conversation I had with some more senior (and one former) graduate student today about whether and how we were prepared for the intellectual and emotional work of grad school.

I post this with gratitude to my friends whom I mention here, all now PhDs in their own rights :) 

I feel lucky to be here.

I am aware————————–de=erd   [<– this is the contribution of my cat, Mandelbrot! I’ll use this occasion to try that sentence again]

I was convinced for most of my life that I was only possessed of aptitudes for which I could not be paid: drawing, painting, poetry, the verbal sections of standardized tests, and getting things down from high shelves. This would have been fine– that’s what hobbies and short roommates are for!– except it also turned out that I was pretty bad at doing things that did pay, and pretty miserable doing them, too. I thought I was just not very clever, and rewarding work wasn’t in my future, until I met some grad students.

I had this impression that in order to pursue a PhD, you needed to be some kind of savant– that if I were to meet people who were doing so I’d have so little in common with them that we couldn’t even communicate. But I was way off.

The graduate students I met were sharp, of course, but also friendly and fun! They had meaningful conversations thoughtfully, and, surprisingly, they cared about *my* thoughts, too. They wanted to know what I was curious about, what my ideas were. They even thought some of my ideas and questions were good, and I felt like I was a real, equal partner in our discussions. Meanwhile, at work, I would be asked for my opinion, ignored or over-ridden by someone senior to me, required to execute and stand behind something obviously stupid, and then told to clean up after those ideas went wrong.

And the more I got to know my academic friends, I noticed something really amazing. More than anyone I knew, they sincerely loved their work. People say, “don’t ask a grad student about their thesis topic,” and I can’t think of worse advice. I mean, yeah, don’t ask when it will be done, but if you like to learn,  the person to ask is someone who taken on huge opportunity costs to become an expert in a topic that they care about. So they were experts, they worked hard, and they loved their work. I quickly grew to love graduate student parties, because I could go around and ask, “so what do you study?” It might take a few follow-up questions to convince them I was actually interested, but eventually, I could learn a ton about something from someone who knows all about it, and gave up what is often considerable income potential because they care about it so much.

The value surplus of my friends’ work expand the human knowledge by pin pricks, and I worked to– what exactly? prevent a start-up from failing? Make some board members (marginally more) wealthy?

So if there’s a checklist, my friends had autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and I had none of the above.

After being told by a senior executive that I was here to be “something nice to look at,” being spied on, and finally asked to do something unethical, I quit my last start-up job, and I promised myself I wouldn’t find another until I took those GRE books out of my trunk and put them to use.

I spent the next year gathering research and teaching experience to give this an honest shot. By the time I got into this, I had seen my friends go through comps, prospectus defenses, dissertation defenses, and the job market. It looked terrifying, though they all handled it with grace. They confessed it was brutal, and it was totally worth it.

The choice was perhaps easier for me than them, even with open eyes to the difficulties, because the payoff–rewarding work– was a unicorn I never dared believe existed (and frankly my alternative was pretty shitty.)

My partner, Brandon, persuaded me to write a plan (in GTD style) for how I’d get in to graduate school. I went back to check it out (had to go look in the “Completed” section by the way– what a trip!)  Here are the purposes and principles for my “get into graduate school” project:

  • Enjoy learning and researching for 4-7 years, and expand human knowledge by a pin prick at a time
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to enjoy learning and research (in academia or industry)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can continue to expand human knowledge (pin pricks at a time)
  • Qualify for a career in which I can spread enthusiasm for science among people like me, who initially were intimidated or uninterested
  • Qualify as a expert in something, about which I can write
  • Qualify for a career in which I could feel autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Have an income for 4-7 years
  • Expand my social network with more thoughtful, invested, ambitious people
  • Publish a first-author paper
  • Don’t idolize R1, TT jobs
  • Don’t put your name on half-assed work

Fortunately, all of these things can be accomplished if I end up working in industry. So as as intimidating as the pressures created by the structure of academia are, and as much as I want to fix the issues that plague the academy for the sake of current professors and undergraduates, I am walking in with open eyes and and a back up plan.

It’s fun to end with a photo, so here is Mandelbrot gloating about her astute blog contribution.

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Baby’s First Academic Conference


So I’ve been gone– hopefully this doesn’t happen too much while I’m in grad school, but it seems somewhat inevitable, so I won’t start apologizing until there are readers here to complain 😉 Feel free to pipe up in the comments and redeem one groveling at no cost.

I’ve done a lot while I’ve been gone, but I thought I’d start with the most interesting event, the experience most relevant to new grad students, and the thing that went most differently than I expected: My First Conference.

Near the end of February and the beginning of March, I went to an ACM-SigCHI conference called Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Actually, no one calls it that: they call it CSCW and so will I. :)

Here’s what I knew going in: it’s a medium-sized conference (benchmarked using CHI and iConference, if that means anything to you), my advisor does a lot of work there, and I have a poster to present. But I’m surely not the first self-aware over-thinker to pass through the metaphorical halls of academia, and I was pretty worried about the whole thing.

Here’s were the challenges I identified:

  • the conference hotel was expensive. My travel award had a limit, and $300 a night gobbled that up pretty quickly, not to mention the cross-country flight and registration
  • I have to schedule travel and just hope that I don’t miss something important (SPOILER ALERT: I did.)
  • I have never designed, printed, or presented a poster before
  • Communities like this tend to have norms, history, status hierarchies, and all manner of other unseen mechanics that I would be completely unaware of. (what if I make an ass of myself?)

So here’s what I did.

First, the travel arrangements. I went on to airbnb and found that, even at half the price of the conference hotel, I’d still go over my travel award at the market rate there. This particular conference would have been worth it for me to spend a little money on, but I live on a graduate student stipend, so it was worth some extra hunting to see if I could get within my conference award.

I tweaked my search parameters a few times and found eventually found a residential hotel for half the market rate with a 7 day minimum stay. Even without the cheaper airfare for flying in and out on slow days, it was cheaper to stay longer! The guy had no reviews and he ignored my request the first time, but I was determined, so I sent a second request and I called him on the actual phone (!). (If you do this, I recommend that you make sure that the booking is through Airbnb. They have lots of protections for you if the host turns out to be sketchy, and if you book directly, you lose out on those.)

On missing things and gaining things. The conference itself was on the same days as my classes would have been, so no matter how I booked it, I’d miss one meeting of each class. But the rest of my week is generally free, so I had several days on each side to play with.  I picked the cheapest flight days, triple-checked my calendar, and booked!

So suddenly, I have a little mini-vacation on my calendar! 3 of those days are conference, and the rest are prep for conference and explore the city days! Certainly, not everyone will have the luxury of doing this, but perhaps this is the advantage that grad students (despite their limited funds) have over some faculty in attending conferences.

I took advantage of it and invited my LDR partner to join me there. He’s a 45 minute flight from the conference, and the trip fell just a couple days after our 2 year anniversary. Not exactly a luxury vacation, but we had an absolute blast. I don’t have time to go over all the fun stuff we did, but I’ll give you three of my favorite things I’ll be doing in future conference cities.

  • the work time: I’m putting this first because it sounds boring, but it really unlocked the fun of the whole trip for me. Since I was missing class and had all the same work obligations I do at home, from the first day, I had a lot of work on my mind. My partner also has autonomy over his time and work, so I think he had an easier time committing to the trip because it wouldn’t be a total loss in terms of productivity. So he suggested that we decide early on how many hours worth of work we wanted to do each (non-conference) day, and plan to do it so we could enjoy the rest of the time exploring. We decided on about half of our daily, non-vacation goal amount, and made sure we squeezed the most work out of it that we could. To be honest, I got a lot done because of that constraint, and it freed my mind to enjoy the city.
  • the backup charcuterie: on our first day, we went to Trader Joe’s and picked up a few kinds of cheese, a truffle pate, a baguette, and some beer and wine (I missed you California booze and booze regulations!) We had a mini fridge, so we were able to keep deliciousness in stock throughout our time there! It was great for relaxing and luxurious meals in or a quick snack. We couldn’t find (or travel with) a knife and didn’t want to buy 100 disposable plates or cups, so we used scissors to cut up our food, disassembled paper bags as a cheese board, and plastic coffee mugs for all drinks. No regrets– it was amazing, will do again.
  • the mysterious ferry adventure: You can accomplish this on any form of public transit, but we chose the ferry because we enjoy boats more than buses, BART is loud, and San Francisco has a lot of destinations on its ferry system.
    1.  find the transit vehicle of your choice
    2. Purchase a ticket to the next destination on the schedule
    3. Board the transit vehicle, and disembark when you arrive!
    4. Now, go explore the place you landed.

    We ended up in someplace in Marin County, found a nice walking trail, explored a community of marsh homes, and had dinner and beer at a local brewery! We like to read together, so we brought our books for the journey, and it was a real highlight of the trip. I’ll be doing something similar in future cities (time permitting :)

As the spoiler alert mentioned, though, I did miss something. After my travel arrangements had been booked, I got an email about a department event I was expected to participate in the day after the conference was over. I tried to rearrange my travel, but I wouldn’t have been able to do so without canceling the one affordable airbnb option. It was a bummer, but we worked out a way for me to contribute without attending. The bottom line, and the reason I mentioned it at all, was that I am really grateful for understanding faculty and the opportunity to go to the conference with their support and flexibility. And for all of us very-early-career academics, conferences are an important part of finding and building out your place in a research community, and it’s worth it to ask for what you need and make some compromises and sacrifices to get there.

Poster presentations. This is where I invested most of my anxiety, and where everything was honestly just fine.

Designing the poster was easily the hardest part. My first draft was a disaster. My best advice is to have other people look at it. Once you’ve spent that long staring at it, you’ve lost objectivity.Even though I massively reduced the amount of text on my poster, I wish I had done so even more. I also recommend that you do not use Illustrator to accomplish this. YUCK. I’ve heard people use powerpoint, but that sounds terrible as well. If anyone has software recommendations, please leave them in the comments!

Printing the poster was annoying. It was half the price to do so at Staples as it was at my university, but it was a pain. I went in, they told me to email it to them, I did, and then they told me I had to submit it through the website. Annoying, but it looked fine in the end, and, because I had a couple extra days, I could print it in the destination city instead of carrying it on the plane. WORTH IT. Someone else in my lab got theirs printed ahead of time on fabric, folded it into his suitcase, and that was that. That’s certainly a good option to consider if you have the lead time!

Presenting the poster was actually pretty fun. I can be quite shy in new social situations, and this conference certainly qualified as a new social situation. But the poster presentation gave me an excuse and topic to talk with others about, which helped me feel comfortable and gave me the space to get to know people. If I had something to recommend here, it’d be to keep your eye on your goal for the night. The easiest path is to use it as an opportunity to refine a “pitch” for the study, and this is really useful for that. Sort of like if you broke your arm, for the first couple of days you’d tell the story a different way, and by the end of the week, you’d have the most concise and effective story down pat. There’s a lot you can learn from this, so don’t underestimate it. But in doing this, it’s really easy to find yourself doing a lot of the talking. But you already know what you know– try to get the other people talking so you can find out what they know

Norms, etc. I made the debatable choice of using the conference as the site for an ethnography assignment for class. This meant that I was constantly taking notes about how people were behaving and how I was feeling. The pros were that I noticed a ton that I wouldn’t have otherwise and discovered that I really enjoy ethnography. The major con was that it made me very self-conscious. You are supposed to be reflexive, but yikes.

So I was really worried about violating some unspoken norm and making an ass of myself. This did not happen. (YAY!) People did try to get a sense of where you were in your career, so it was clear from the beginning of conversations that I was a lost little bunny. It sounds bad, but honestly, I asked questions like that, too, and I often told people unsolicited that it was my first conference. I thought it would be a disadvantage to be at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, but people were kind and understanding and seemed to genuinely be interested in my lost-bunny experience.

But most of the reason I didn’t make an ass of myself is that I was too exhausted even by the end of the first day to participate in anything optional, especially if that thing were social. So as silly and obvious as this is, the most useful thing I learned is that conferences are exhausting. I was expecting something like a day full of meetings– tiring, but the kind of tiring where you’re up for a party later to unwind. Now, there were parties to go to (and I did feel obligated to go to them) but I elected not to. By the end of the first day, I knew I would have (and be) absolutely no fun, so I went to the (lovely!) hotel atruim/bar thing, had a drink with my partner to celebrate my survival, and went back to the hotel, presumably to eat some backup charcuterie and pass out.

Next year, I will be mentally prepared to work all day and party all night, but I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t take advantage of the social and networking time in my first year. I will be much more comfortable next year, and in other future conferences, now that I am confident that I have the lay of the social land. I know not everyone feels they need it, but I want to encourage you that if you do, you’re not alone.

My final thought is that it really helped me to have my partner there. Although I often gave up valuable networking opportunities because I wanted hang out with him, it was well worth the trade off for my first year to have someone you know you can reach out to when you are kicking yourself for saying something awkward or thrilled about something you learned, or proud of yourself for gathering the nerve to ask a question. I recommend finding someone you can text or talk to who will support you and help you keep perspective. It’s not a dangerous or scary event by any means, but I found it over-stimulating, to say the least, and it was really great to have someone to reach out to.

So this turned into quite the omnibus post, but hopefully it was helpful to get a sense of what your first academic conference might be like. Prepare for a lot of activity, a lot of people, and a lot of fun, but don’t feel bad if you say something silly or need a break. People understand, and they won’t remember by the time they see you next year. 😉

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