Tuesday September 29th
Things that are broken about getting into the Research Community
Memory: why I’m doing this now
- I decided to write this before I get further into my degree because I still remember a lot of it. Yesterday, I thanked my advisor profusely for helping me with my first publication, which I presented as a poster earlier this year. For me, it was the culmination of Herculean efforts from my time before grad school. I had crossed the invisible line. It meant a lot to me.
- It’s sometimes asked of me why I don’t happen to have any research qualifications from say, undergrad. I try not to get upset about it, but try to educate people instead, because it’s upsetting and it’s something I’m very passionate about, because it’s not because I didn’t try. So let’s get that out of the way. I didn’t go to school to study Science (although I did do a split in high school of Arts and Science). As I’ve said before, I realized a gaping hole in my high school education and didn’t think Science was creative (to be fair, I didn’t quite figure out at the time that science, as taught in my country, was wrapped up in neo-colonialism, and that the Arts in my country was the only space sort of exploring ways of understanding that or breaking out of that. Plus, I thought my writing skills were weak compared to my Maths skills (at the time they really were; I wasn’t doing as much deep reading. Yours truly got a distinction in Maths but had to study her butt off for the verbal SATs)).
- Anyways, by the time I even knew that research was a thing, I was taking night classes and going to work full-time. The company I was working at was gracious enough to let me leave work a bit early on a couple days a week to head to class, but of course, with limitations.
Crap situation number one: research opportunities are everywhere (no they’re not)
- The only research class that the school I went to had was a year-long research class (never mind I was actually working in an R&D shop and gave my input often into how things should be manufactured based on customer feedback; research schools don’t seem to care about that, apparently!). It was run by a NASA scientist, who himself worked a full-time job (and you had to take the full class, which ran over two semesters as a part A and B type thing where you would work in a group to build a prototype for a robot using a mix of machine shop stuff, coding, 3D printing, and creating a BOM and all that). But NASA’s schedule is 90/60, so they often work several days and get a day off, or something like that. So basically, there was no way based on the schedule I could take the class and go to work.
- There was also an assembly class (like the language, not PCBs) that I really wanted to take as well, but it was always at like 1:10pm. I took the bus to class from work, and it me about 2 hours each way if I optimized my path (ie took it when the bus was running most frequently, with least amount of time in between connections). And that was also not counting the 2 to 3 hours back, when the bus would most certainly run less frequently (typically at night; after 9pm it was once every hour). So there was no way, if a class was say, at 1pm, that I could tell the place I was working that I’d come in for 9am or (after class) 3pm. That wouldn’t work. We were mostly a 7 to 4 or 8 to 5 or 9 to 6 type business.
- Also, after 9pm if you happened to take the hourly bus, you definitely had to use the restroom at school before, because by the time you got to the Red Line from the bus, the cleaners at night might be cleaning at least one of the only two restrooms at the train station so they might be closed, and you had another 45 minutes to wait if you just missed the train back to the Valley. Fun times.
- Also, applying to an REU and going to night school is not a thing. It should be, though (technically you’re knocking out the first two years of classes / electives or at least a year by going to night school, and if you transfer, it’s at least as a sophomore). It didn’t stop me from applying, and of course, being rejected (this girl is in night school!). But you basically have to be in the pipeline of success already to get an REU. So it’s like they’re punishing people who aren’t already in that pipeline and rewarding those people who have opportunities…. and just giving them more, essentially.
- Even though it’s not research (I guess it could be, though, depending on the project!), I have to applaud Google Summer of Code (GSoC) for not being elitist and $h!tty and considering you, as long as you attend a school, to apply for GSoC. At $46 a credit, you could enroll and if you are part of the open source community, you get your ID and you’re eligible. And they pay. Huge props on that.
- Oh, and PLMW, which is this awesome PL Mentorship Workshop that also isn’t elitist and $h!tty, but rather aims to forge a path (and it does work!) in PL research for all kinds of people! You can be working, a student, etc and apply, as long as you have an interest in PL, but you can (theoretically) only benefit from it once. Amazing programme! Also, if you are in night school, and interested in PL, you can still apply for both Racket School and OPLSS, although OPLSS was a bit stricter about recommendation letters (and Racket school required neither). And both will typically provide you with some degree of room and board at no cost, and will reimburse you for your flight or something to that extent (in either words, they are both options for working people who would like to consider research and grad school).
The assumption that I could just make a poster
- When I first got into the PL community, students would often tell me “you should submit a poster!”. I don’t think they realized at the time what it took for me to stand in the same room as a volunteer with them, because they just assumed that I was like them (except for the one time some kid figured out I wasn’t from my badge and tried to embarrass me in front of my peers, but that’s another story for another time because it didn’t work lol. That in itself was kind of messed up but I was mature enough to recognize it was just insecurity on the part of the person, and that’s human. Also weird that a PhD student would feel threatened by a night school student but alrighty then).
- The truth is that if you don’t have the context about how this is done (and for each conference, the rules are very specific!), it’s a difficult thing to navigate. Most schools have templates that they provide to their students so they have a bit of some context about how to align their figures, LaTeX, etc. I really think we could do better with respect to this. I also am a bit salty that most people, when they talk about “mentorship”, still focus on the same groups (cough REU qualifying people) to do things like partner to write papers, make their first poster, etc. By default they’re missing out on an entirely large group of people; the working people who might be thinking of going to grad school (and I’m including myself as somenoe whose employer was flexible about taking classes, and realize that this was a plus for me!) and don’t know how to navigate that and the students who can’t afford to go straight to college and are taking night school classes to knock some of those out of the way. So yeah, that needs to be fixed.
Research internships and opportunities before grad school favour people already set up for success
- To my knowledge (and I searched high and wide), the only large place that has internships for non-undergrads is NASA (they deliberately use programmes like NCAS to encourage students to transfer to undergrad and go to grad school, etc). And of course, that means you also have to be a US citizen (for the most part; JPL will take you if you have a green card but you typically have to be qualified already) to apply.
- There are some programmes I can recall that are affiliated with labs in other schools (eg USC had a liquid Propulsion lab programme similar get research experience type fellowship that included night school / any school in the application), but they don’t pay. So again, if someone is working, they essentially have to give up their job or miss large chunks of work to do unpaid programmes. And a friend of mine who did do such a programme said it was almost critical to have a car (btw, JPL is similar; it’s a remote-ish facility and there is a bus, but other than that, most people use the parking lot and drive cars or motorcycles…although when I did do the workshop, they housed us in a hotel in Glendale and shuttled us to and from the facility each day. However, this doesn’t work for employees that need to stay super late).
- There is another place that does have internships for night school students (at least on the surface), and they fit you with a lab (the Department of Energy internships; look up DOE internships. They will match you with a lab of your choice, and it’s paid!). But I thought it was probably just a loophole they didn’t think of and maybe they don’t really want night school applicants (that sometimes happens too lol!)?
- Oh, I also contacted a lab once and a scientist there emailed me back to laugh at me that “I didn’t even have any published work” (how dare you contact me, you of no publications! LOL). That’s just elitist and shitty and I never applied to that lab afterwards, even when they recruited me after I got into my PhD. Don’t be like that guy. Be like this guy instead. He mentored a student from high school who now works at his lab!
Why didn’t you just write a paper?
- I actually did! Twice (and was rejected; if you’ve read my blog, you know I bounce back quickly from rejections, though, so I thought oh well and dusted myself off). But academic writing for research is a very particular type of writing, and if you are not tuned in to this and don’t have the practice or guidance, it’s very difficult to do this on your own. The reviews were that they thought I had good ideas, but there were “disturbed” by my lack of blah blah. Well ahm..I really had no context for understanding that part of the process, but just wanted to communicate “I have a cool thing to say”, which isn’t enough if you’re writing a research paper for academia (It sounds silly but I legitimately did not know this!). It’s a language that you have to learn to communicate in.
We should fix some of these things
- It’s really quite awful because we’re missing a huge chunk of a very talented pool of people. A friend of mine who came to LA to become a musician and then (when I met him at NASA for NCAS) was in night school (while working at a pizza restaurant during the day!) for Physics and then switched to Engineering, ended up being a genius at making rockets and working in electrical engineering (he works for a startup doing just that today).
- Another friend of mine transferred from night school to UCLA, and ended up not only interning at JPL (2x), but today works in AI for another well-known aerospace company. And that research class I spoke about at the beginning (with the NASA professor) had a TA (when I was starting out) who got into Caltech because of that experience.
That’s all I have to say for now on this
- If I omitted anything, it’s because I honestly didn’t know, but I did my research and applied to a bunch of places, spoke with professors, contacted people at labs; everything. A professor at a University set up a two hour long Skype conversation with me because I didn’t know whether to apply for a Master’s or a PhD, because when I started applying, the voice of that kid who tried to embarrass me messed up my self-confidence. I’m super grateful to that professor. He told me to just apply to PhD programmes. And I did.
- It’s really frustrating to me, and I feel very angry and frustrated when some of these students and faculty who were in the successful pipeline talk about this stuff, because they really don’t know. I was one of those people who made it through, but there are many, many more of us. Some of us don’t make it through. What a waste. Case in point, the school I attended didn’t want to send my transcript out of state, but the schools I was admitted to needed my transcripts. So I asked them to ship it to me and then I sent it to the schools (a hack). But not every person would do this; someone with less life experience might have thought that this meant they were stuck and just turned the school down (I know of such a person, tbh. They ended up going to work in tech instead, and when I ran into them, they told me that “I was living their dream” by going to grad school. I still encouraged them to go to grad school if they had the opportunity and still wanted to do so; this person can legitimately do anything they set their mind to do).
As for me
- It’s really been a wonderful journey. I highly recommend if you think “I can’t go to grad school” and “I really want to do research but no one will give me the chance” that you check out some of the things I spoke about in this post, or if you’d like to reach out to me, too, I’d be happy to help (within the limits of my time). I know it’s rough, and this is a HUGE blindspot of Academia, but you can do it! I’m rooting for you.
And that’s it.
Written on September 29, 2020