Monday August 12th
The Certainty of Uncertainty
I have often heard that a PhD is difficult
When I have pried into why, people have often told me about the uncertainty of everything. You are at the mercy of your advisor(s). You are at the mercy of funding and your SMEs for your dissertation. You are at the mercy of doing well enough in quals to stay. You are at the mercy of topics that may just not pan out, failed experiments. If you are an international student, you are at the mercy of all of this, for your visa to stay in the country and in your programme.
However, this uncertainty excites me, because my entire time in the US has been one of uncertainty; it has been a conveyor belt of uncertainty. The process through which I attained my green card (which was a great idea to obtain before pursing a PhD because it deletes one layer of uncertainty), I used to joke, was one in which I was “forever teetering on staying in the country, by a single form or lack of signature, or a mistake of some kind, or by the vagaries of some immigration official’s temperament”. The entire process also took me a bit more than the length of PhD study for most people; a total of around 9 years. Once I got it, I promised myself that I would always take chances, because this was not something afforded to me while I was on a visa. I used to think about whether the US can really be a place of dreams and opportunities because while I was on a visa, I felt like a slave. I was forfeiting the potential everyone in college saw in me to get a card that was not guaranteed, through a broken process.
At one point, everyone I knew who had ever gotten it had done it through marriage to an American citizen. My prospects felt dim. Near the end, I grew resentful of that promise, and began to think that it might be a lie, but I pushed through and at my wit’s end, got that magical card that promised me the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my time in the United States. I promised that I would choose employers, too; they wouldn’t just choose me.
So what is it like to constantly expect change? I often expect that things will break, fail, and not work out, and that I will have to be flexible and find a way for things to work regardless of things that go wrong. I often expect that things will just unexpectably burst into flames, and I will end up laughing maniacally about the absurdity of everything. Because if you knew me, if you knew my journey, you, too would think it is absurd that I am still here.
It’s been more difficult for me to expect that things, when they are stable, will stay stable. Years ago, someone told me that they just wanted the white picket fence, and the normalcy of having one job, for say, fifty years, and getting up and doing the same things and being able to take vacations and all the things you would expect. That’s difficult for me to process, because technically I am “abroad” (being an immigrant), and my life would have been certainly a higher degree of “normal” if I had stayed in my home country. Yet, I relish the change, the opportunity, and am excited by the journey. I mean, I might actually get to learn Agda!!
When I was in the process of obtaining my green card, I would save everything. I had tiny little pieces of papers and pay stubs from the time I landed in the United States, because I was afraid that not having that little piece of paper, at the right time, would mean deportation. It bordered on obsession. An immigration officer could, after all, ask you for that tiny piece of paper from that time you bought a Kit Kat on the way to JFK TSA and you had better have that receipt. I grew weary of always being pulled aside, put into rooms with people who spoke no English, being questioned, missing my connecting flights. Is this what America is?
So now I’m sitting on a blanket, having thrown out all the bulky items in my apartment, and the part of my mind that is from my home country is terrified, but the stronger part of myself, from this journey so far, is over the moon with excitement. Being able to walk ahead and not look back is a really liberating feeling. I’m happy to throw everything away because I can move ahead, green card in hand, to the next part of my life.
SF to LA; can you tell which is which?
So why are you writing this?
- I’ve seen many people struggle to get their first “in” in the tech industry. I’m not by any means anyone of note, but one of the things I can relate to is having resilience to stick something out and find a way no matter what. I can relate to that, and one of my side projects is encouraging and supporting (even if it’s an email every once in a while) those who are trying to get their foot in the door. It matters a lot, even though many who are in the industry can often forget. I think it’s an important part of engineering culture to help others up, in the same way someone probably helped you up when you were getting started. Sometimes it takes someone else a bit more energy, their path was a little bit harder than yours, and they’re near broken by the process. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid, or that they’re not cut out for this, but that maybe they just need a hand up, and some encouragement. Maybe you’re the one to do that for them. I think that being kind, supportive and encouraging them is the least we can do in this industry to help up and coming engineers, in the same way someone was kind to us all starting out. Help them in the next part of their life. Many times, it’s not just about learning a framework, or a language. It’s so much more than that, in the same way my journey to here has encompassed so much more than just graduating school and getting into grad school. So if you can (and want to), email someone, ask them how their day is going, if they would like to be taken out for a coffee or tea, and be a mentor if you’d like. It really makes a difference. Real engineering culture is kind, and pays it forward, because it’s collaborative.