Sunday March 8th

The Little Engine that Could and Mentorship

It’s March and I’ve just celebrated my birthday!

  • My birthday was better than I anticipated. Firstly, I had a meeting with a professor for an hour, and I have to catch up on grading his assignments this week, which is Spring break. As I have the time, I’m trying to slice up his work into bits instead of grading everything at once. Lesson one of grad school as a TA; never try to grade everything at once. Do a bit at a time and come back it, etc.
  • I also received my official letter (and signed it) so that I’ll supposedly no longer be TA-ing from Fall; just taking classes and focusing on Research.
  • One of the things the TA professor mentioned to me is that he felt during grad school like giving up. He worked seven days a week and burned out quickly, working from 6am to midnight every day. Finally, he decided he was going to quit, and started his truck and started driving, when he noticed that his gauge was on empty. He was broke, and his car had no gas, so he just turned his truck around and went back to his place at school and cried. That sounds like grad school to me lol. It is meant to break you and build you back up again. In many ways, it can be quite demoralizing. But you become a professional in the process, and deal with failure in a way many people will never experience.
  • My TA professor has a sense (as it seems some of the other professors do) that I’ve had it pretty rough in terms of my general setup this year. My week is typically packed end-to-end, and I promise myself usually half a day off on Saturdays. Even so, sometimes it’s difficult not to feel like you are falling behind. I just have a very strict schedule. So it was good for him to see that. One of the things I appreciated his saying is that he knew it wasn’t necessarily fair, but it is what it is. You play the hand you are dealt, and having to deal with that upfront and surviving means you know that you can.

I feel like the Little Engine Who Could

  • A lot of the time, like most grad students, I don’t quite know how I ended up in grad school. To get into grad school is difficult, grad school is difficult; you’re really competing with the best, regardless of the school. Even if you are in that pool, there is no guarantee that you will get in; it takes a bit of luck, timing, fit and hard work and excellence is not necessarily a guarantee that you’ll get in. I speak with my advisors and I feel fortunate every single day to be so supported by them.
  • I had the opportunity to proctor an exam last week, too, and my advisor asked me if I was okay doing it, or if it was too much of a bother, he could ask another grad student. I immediately replied that I definitely would do it, because “it’s nice to have a little bit of power as a grad student”. He laughed. But it’s true; as a grad student, you relish the bits of opportunities to feel empowered when you can.
  • If anything, I am the Little Engine Who Could; I don’t give up. I will cry, I will break down, I will be angry, I will fall over again and again, compose myself, get up and try again. I thought about a time recently where I was walking to catch the bus in the morning and literally slipped twice on ice, dusted myself up casually, got up and walked again.

I believe in Opportunities and in Making Opportunities for Others

  • I like to believe that I am mostly someone who has, either by hard work or by other means, found most of the opportunities I have had today. I like finding tiny cracks in doors and making a way in, and then carving a way for others to follow. I have endless optimism in finding ways to succeed and in sharing those with others. To this end, I’m constantly involved in opportunities to mentor others, do outreach, and am driven by research that can in some way, help others.

I joined this group recently

  • I joined this online group that is involved in Open Source work using AI and Privacy. Today, I attended their IWD (International Women’s Day) Meeting, which was sort of a meet and greet online. By the end, we had decided to start an online study-group. The group is filled with bright, ambitious ladies who are hardworking. One of the things they spoke about was the lack of confidence. I am learning a lot of the AI and Privacy tools myself, but it’s important to me to be in a community that has a good culture, good values, and is driven by mentorship and collaboration.
  • One of the most difficult things for me has been finding my footing quickly in new spaces; things are just so different here. But I’m trying, and I’m doing my best.
  • One of the things I still struggle with consistently is a lack of confidence. I have gotten over the fear of just applying for things if I feel like I might have a shot of getting them, but that is just the risk-taking side of myself; it still isn’t because I feel like I have the confidence to really be deserving of anything. Because of this, it makes me self-doubt, over-analyze, and take a lot longer to do things than some of my male peers. This also presents an opportunity for insensitive male peers to belittle or mock some of my efforts, but I’ve gotten used to sucking this up over the years, having spent the majority of my life in technical pursuits. Because I know that I’ll get there, and that not everyone’s opinions matter. But it took me a long time to learn this lesson, and to not care.
  • There is also a common difference in the manner in which knowledge is showcased; I’ve noticed that I tend to like working with more experienced (or experts also) developers or scientists because I don’t enjoy the overconfident-novice personality in a group while learning; the person who “gets it” quickly and uses it as an opportunity to show off, versus the person who uses their understanding of a concept as a means to communicate it and explain it to others, to bring others with them. But the latter takes a certain degree of maturity, and often, experience. You have to be comfortable enough with the idea that knowledge in itself is not particularly remarkable, and that you can teach others the tools, too, and instead empower them to find something valuable in their application.

So how do we inspire confidence in others

  • I’ve found that a lot of the confidence in such groups comes from supportive environments and groups that have a great learning culture. Curiosity and clarity and questions are encouraged. Giving people the space to ask “dumb questions” or to give silly presentations is allowed.
  • I think about these things a lot having been in the Programming Languages community, where we’ve discussed why some languages thrive and others do not. In the same manner, in Academia or a field of research, in another group I’m in, a professor told me that “you want your research topic to become a well-known niche, because then you get to be an expert in that niche”. What she was saying is that essentially, is that you want to do things that have an impact in a manner that has potential to encourage others to work on problems using the work you’ve done. So in a way, like Programming Languages, it has to be useful/have value and be something that you can communicate in an effective way. Therefore, like knowledge, you want it to be empowering.

I’m still thinking about this

  • But one of the things that stuck out for me is a comment I found in a NYTimes article recently on Academia. Someone was talking about the uselessness of humanities PhD degrees, and in response someone commented that we should fear for scientists or engineers who don’t think about the consequences or have empathy for the things they make or the research they do. I think about that a lot, particularly as someone in CS Grad school, because the truth is that many of us don’t care. There is a paradox of optimism as a grad student, with simultaneous narcissism, that what we do will matter, because we want it to (for our careers), but not necessarily because it will make the world better. Because if we cared about making the world better, we would be thinking about groups or ways in which the things we make or propose hurt certain demographics present and in the future. But we often don’t.
  • This ties back to my online group, and my studying privacy. I really think it’s one of the ways that can make a difference, but I want to make a commitment to myself that I will not be so consumed within Academia that I forget about others and the world that exists beyond its walls. I don’t want to lose the empathy I came in with, that has gotten me here, while simultaneously not knowing if people who do have empathy make it through grad school. I believe that we have to wrestle with these issues, but I don’t know quite how this is dealt with quite yet.

And that’s it

Written on March 8, 2020