Saturday May 1st
Ask for what you want
- I had two mentoring sessions yesterday; one was really supposed to be office hours, but in our usual manner of enjoying each other’s company, we ended up chatting instead (this especially happens on Fridays and I love this professor!). In one, a professor said to me “you need to ask for what you want”. I’ve been thinking about this for quite a bit, as I’ve had a number of things come up that relate to this advice.
- As a PhD student or any kind of junior, the bridge to coming out on the other side as faculty means that you, as one of my mentors says, “go from being a student, to a colleague”. So there is something between getting from A to B that has to transition or lead to that.
- I’ve thought about this, also, in the context of the way seniors perceive junior engineers, and how they often are frustrated that they aren’t taking initiative, while laying out a route or plan that does not take this into consideration. If I need to get your approval for everything, then my growth with respect to this will be stagnated to some extent.
- In another group I am in, we were talking about “learned helplessness”, as some engineers become comfortable asking for help rather than trying to really dig into solving a problem. Someone mentioned that often, it’s a coping mechanism for setting boundaries in an organization. However, for individual growth, it can be a hindrance.
- I told one mentor that this reminded me a lot of the way my dad tricked me into learning how to swim. We started at the edge of the shallow end of the pool, and he told me to “swim towards him”. But then he kept moving. Soon, I found that I did eventually meet him, but I was no longer at the shallow end.
- One of the interesting observations one of my mentors made is that we tend to think of graduate students as children. Is it little wonder that many find it difficult to transition? It’s certainly been interesting, being older than the average graduate student, and also having a plethora of life experience, particularly in the realm of just having to get stuff done. For example, sitting in my immigration lawyer’s office on a Thursday and hearing “it’s complicated; they approved your paperwork, but you need to leave the country and come back in within the next few days; I would go this weekend, to be honest. I suggest either Canada or Mexico” (okay; I guess I’m leaving the country and coming back this weekend, then…somehow) and having a kind Canadian friend on a shoot I happened to be working on at the time drive me to the Mexican border overnight to just get what was needed done.
- My first two jobs were essentially start-ups, even though they were in technical manufacturing capacities in the film industry, but both involved a lot of moving parts, wearing multiple hats, and putting out fires constantly. And I learned that customers liked to come to me because I would just get stuff done, which would sometimes be a bit of a negative because I would sometimes have to disappear to have lunch. I also learned directly how my eff-ups would impact high-pressure and high-stake environments, and why asking necessary questions was important; for example, sending a 19mm rod-setup with the wrong offset for a large Angenieux lens meant that the lens was unusable because the mount could not hold the weight of the lens, so I had essentially sent them a doorstop, and therefore having to ship the right part overnight, costing us (the company) money, and setting them back half a day of shooting because I had failed to properly ask and prep the right offset for the camera lens. “It’s better to ask more questions than not”, I learned, although especially in that business, you can often get passive aggressive behavior telling you to piss off and that you should know better, so why are you asking them, and please put someone on the phone who knows this stuff now. It’s also a very sexist industry (particularly on the technical side), but I won’t get into that.
- I’ve thought back to another faculty member who has told me, mid-conversation “you know, I like talking to you; talking with you is like talking with a peer.”
- I later thought, maybe that’s because of all the messed up crap I’ve had to deal with and just resolve over the years; some of it was very laughable because it was so painful, but I grew a lot and learned a lot by just having to suck it up and find a way to resolve things. It gives me the ability to anticipate how things will pan out.
- I worked on a team once where they said “here, work isn’t assigned to you; our meetings are just to inform the team what you’re working on”. Wait; WAT?
- Yes, go find something, a project, that adds value. That’s how you survive on this team.
- That’s very much more so like being faculty; you may have a manager, but you are expected to have your own sync meetings, write your own grants, find funding, mentor students, and find your own interesting problems to perform research and publish on. All of this, with good judgment. When you close your eyes and think of the kind of person who is able to do this, do you think of the average college graduate? Nah, didn’t come to my mind either.
- However, maybe we should be encouraging this; part of the current critique of college is that it operates like daycare. And that contributes to students getting owned by the time they graduate. But I’m just a graduate student, and it’s almost nap time. I think because I have worked and have life experience I tend to look a little ahead and am fairly independent already, but I don’t know everything about navigating the system. And often, I get frustrated comparing what I expect the Academic system to do, and at the pace within which it operates, relative to the world I was in before. How does this make sense, I find myself asking.
- I’ve also thought about this in terms of open source; I had a meeting this week with maintainers of this project I’ll be working on over summer, and I asked if students usually end up maintaining the project, because it was important to me and signified, in my mind, the kind of mentorship I would receive. I’d like to be part of an open source project that I can actually be a maintainer on for a long period of time. I was pleasantly surprised that one of my mentors said that last year’s (student) participant is the sole maintainer of their project. That’s awesome. That’s exactly the kind of mentorship I’m looking for. I want to learn more about what the differences are between the average open source project where this isn’t the case, and these kinds of other projects where people are motivated to take initiative and say “I want to maintain this”, in a way that the project signifies something they’d like to see live on and in a way they’d like to help be a part of that.
- During the CRA Grad Cohort Workshop, during a talk, I sort of hijacked the chat and spurred a lot of interest by saying that I wished there was a space for junior researchers to get funding; often you have to rely on seniors to help you write a grant application or some nonsense to get a grant, because that’s Academia; wanting seniors out of the process, but making you beholden to a senior (like a child) the whole way.
- To be honest, my last proposal that I got funding for was one that I didn’t even tell my advisor about until I had gotten a spot and funding. So that worked out lol.
- I also got to navigate the administrative funding part, which was a trip, but is super valuable, and not something I’m sure most in my year are navigating; they probably expect their advisors to do that for them. Instead, my advisor was more along the lines of “if you have any issues, I can step in”. I’m already pretty independent in many ways, which benefits me, but in many ways, it makes me unable to relate to some of my peers. “What do you mean you’re waiting for your advisor? Just DO IT yourself what is so hard?”.
- But what about a bunch of really smart, talented junior students; how could they get their ideas funded? The current Academic system doesn’t really have space for that. They talk about independence, but that’s not really the case; you are expected to be handheld to some extent until really near the end, and then hooray, you’re independent when you’re done! That seems pretty silly to me.
- I have one friend who is working on a project like this, but it would be really cool to see more spaces for things like this, and I think that besides the typical venture capital models, things like Daos are perfect for this for juniors in an Academic program with great ideas. Decentralized, smaller communities that can fund good ideas, and where you can just submit proposals. And you give back to the community by those projects, which are voted on and funded. Also, it would give students the opportunity to see early on what their community (and not some random @$$ government grant organization) actually cares about.
- So I’m excited by anything like that that is an alternative to this top-down nonsense garbage monster of a system.
- It not only shifts the power of the infrastructure, but teaches even juniors to “ask for what they want”.
And that’s it
Written on May 1, 2021