Saturday, February 28, 2009

Maybe I'm Just a Snob

Holy Suckfest of a weekend. And not the good kind, either. I'm gonna lay out all the gory details for you folks, despite the full knowledge that if someone from the program I visited happened upon my blog they would undoubtedly recognize my tale of woe. I don't think I care - maybe they can use it to improve their plans for next time. 

The trip did not begin well. What was supposed to be a 2hr flight turned into me being stuck on the goddamned plane for 8 hours, including a re-route to a different state due to weather conditions. I arrived in MidWestern City at 11pm, well past the time I was supposed to have dinner with Potential Advisor. Therefore, I did not get to eat until 11:30pm, and it was airport food. Yuck. It took 1hr and 10minutes to get a cab from the airport because all flights that had been re-routed all came back to the City and landed at the same goddamn time. Something like 20 flights. Rather than being met at the airport by my grad student host, I had to take a cab and arrived around 1am. Thank goodness I had enough cash on me. None of this was really the school's fault, though I wished they had just put me in a hotel where I could've taken a shuttle, especially considering what I found at my hosts's place. 

I don't know what I expected, but it certainly wasn't a camping-size air mattress on the floor of a living room in front of a big-ass drafty window. I froze my ASS off, and maybe got 2 hours of sleep the entire night. My host was nice, but extremely clueless. 

I paid for my own transportation to the university at 7am or so the next morning. Besides my complete and utter exhaustion, the interview day itself wasn't that bad. It turns out that I have not yet been accepted and neither has anyone else. 4 of us were interviewing with Potential Advisor, with the expectation that she will be accepting 3 students for next year. We're supposed to find out our status next week.

First, the most basic details about the trip:

There were about 25 of us interviewing for the entire psych department, 7 for social psych. Out of the entire 25, I think 6 of us were NOT wearing suits. A couple people were wearing jeans. I was like WTF happened to business casual? (Not that they actually told us that, this is just what I was told by grad students at my MRU.) I don't know if maybe the high number of suits were due to people being clueless and erring on the side of being overdressed, or if I just missed something. Either way, I didn't think it mattered. But my advice to those of you seeking future grad school admission - if you get an interview, email current grad students at that U and find out what people normally wear. Don't go by what anyone else says. 

Another thing I did not expect - a fucking LOT of walking. And I don't mean around campus, I mean around the CITY. Instead of having lunch delivered, we walked like 5-6 blocks to a restaurant. In the FREEZING COLD & SNOW. We're all looking at each other like "Don't they know we're all wearing HEELS??" A few of us almost busted our asses on patches of ice, and one poor girl got splashed by a passing car that hit a puddle. She was from FL. I wanted to give her a hug or something. 

The entire schedule for us was 16 hours long, nonstop. I shit you not. Interviews and presentations from 8am until 5pm, then off to dinner with grad students, then off to a grad student house party. No one was told to bring a change of clothes or shoes ahead of time, so only the lucky few whose hosts had cars were able to change before dinner. I was not one of those lucky few, which means my ass was stuck in 4" heel boots that were forced to walk probably a total of 30 blocks of the city over the course of the day. Not only that, but my ride to dinner and the party took the girls she was hosting back to her place so they could change into sneakers, and for the rest of the night I was the only one of 4 people lagging behind as we walked to the restaurant, back to the car, out to the train station, from the train station to the party, from the party to the bus stop, from the bus stop to my host's apartment. All on 2 hours of sleep. I wanted to kill someone and was amazed that I managed not to cry from the pain in my feet. And my boots are comfortable! Just not for that much walking and standing for over 16 hours!

The grad student party was held in an apartment and there were about 100 people there. You could barely move without stepping on someone. The department-bought booze was gone about 2 hours in, but I managed to drink enough Tom Collins so that the pain in my feet escaped from my awareness until I had to head back out in the cold to walk some more. 

It was by far the longest day of my life. I paid my own cab fare back to the airport this morning, which I'm not happy about. If I could've taken a plane home last night after the party I totally would have, but luckily my host gave me an extra blanket and TURNED THE HEAT ON last night so that I was able to actually get about 4 hours of sleep before heading out this morning. 

As I'm sure you can imagine, given the circumstances described above, that I was not exactly at the top of my game this weekend. I was much quieter than I normally am, and had little interest in socializing with anyone other than the professors until I had a couple of drinks in me at the party. But even in my frazzled state, I still think I managed to impress the important people. 

And now on to the real details of the experience....

I was shocked when I met my Potential Advisor. She looked like she was my age, and I was like "This is not going to work. I will be reminded of how far behind I am the entire time I'm here." But it turns out that she's actually the age I thought she was, so it's all good. Don't get me wrong, she's still really young, especially for a tenure-track professor, but there are enough years between she and I that I can maintain the same level of respect for her as I would someone much older. 

And I loved her. Just like I thought I would. My interview with her was not "Where do you see yourself in 10 years" like it was with the other students who applied to work with her. Instead it was me saying "Are you familiar with studies X, Y, and Z? Those are great examples of the kind of work I would like to pursue, except I think a better methodology for what I would specifically want to look at would include doing A, B, or C." I somehow, in my extremely sleepy state, managed to convey my enthusiasm for and knowledge about my research interests in a specific yet still open-minded way. I think that she and I really clicked, but the verdict hasn't come in yet so we'll see. 

In an interview with another faculty member I asked questions about his research that he had never considered before, which prompted the response "Wow, I never thought of it like that. You've just given me ideas that'll end up in me writing some new proposals on Monday morning!" I didn't even do it on purpose - he's not a potential advisor, but I do know a lot about his line of research and my goal had to include impressing all the faculty, not just PA. 

Another interview included the professor describing the overall theory behind his work to two of us. He spoke using incredibly technical terms (as technical as psych gets), and at first I had difficulty knowing WTF he was talking about. Other students told me that their eyes were just glazing over talking to this guy and they just nodded and smiled. But something about what he said clicked with me all of a sudden, and when he stopped I asked "So your particular line of work sounds like an extension of Mega Rockstar's theory, but with Z and X modifications to account for A and B. Is that accurate?" He grinned. Turns out that Mega Rockstar was his grad school advisor! While the other student sat in silence, I then explained "Even though I did not apply to work with you specifically, here's how I think your theory might be relevant to my research interests....."

My final interview was with a faculty member who is responsible for teaching all the stats and methods courses and two other students were in the interview with me. Both of them were very concerned with the amount of stats work required and kept asking about being placed on academic probation because of her classes, how hard they are, etc. I asked about what is covered in each of the courses in the sequence: "Is the first course mostly concerned with ANOVA and basic stats models using pen and paper versus SPSS or SASS? Are linear regression models covered in the first course or the second? Does the department mainly use SPSS for analysis? Etc." I was really surprised by how intimidated these other students were about stats, considering how utterly crucial it is to an academic career. But maybe I'm just a snob. 

I really liked the faculty there. I am not a fan of the facilities. My MRU has an entire building devoted to Psych, and though I feel the department there is just way too big, the drawbacks of a smaller program were not apparent to me until this weekend. What's weird is that this program is one of the better-funded programs in the country, with lots of federal grant money. Yet I asked a current grad student (out of curiosity only) if they had an animal lab, and the response I got was "I don't know.....maybe in another building or something......?" It just seemed off

My Potential Advisor is very well-funded - we're talking millions of dollars in NSF grants, plus another source of funding from a huge national organization. I know most of you don't know a lot about psych research - but millions of dollars is a LOT of money for psych studies, especially considering that most money is spent on computers and surveys. She's in a fantastic position, particularly for a brand-spanking new faculty member as young as she is. It definitely makes her lab attractive. 


I don't like the campus. That's not the real problem for me though. The real issue I'm struggling with is that (with the exception of 1 person who will be done in a year) I don't really like the grad students. I can't figure out why. I get the sense that most of them are doing research for the sake of doing research - they're not considering or focusing on the value of their research. They're not looking outside the social psych body of research in their lit reviews for other information that is extremely relevant to what they're doing. I pointed out a series of studies in Personality Psych that deal with the very foundation of one student's research, and they had no idea what I was talking about. They looked it up during downtime I guess though, because they came up to me later and said "That was a great point. I looked it up earlier, and I've added several controls to my proposal to account for that phenomenon." 

Again, maybe I'm just a snob or something. But in talking to these students, most of them are not familiar with the current research in their own areas - areas that I've mostly just skimmed over. I have no way of figuring out if it's the program that's causing them to focus so narrowly, or if it's something about their personalities. The faculty talked a lot about viewing things from different perspectives and keeping up with other sub-fields, but maybe it was just lip service. My Potential Advisor knew her shit though. I'm not sure what's going on there. 

I don't know how important the other grad students should be in considering a program. Maybe you all can help me decide. But I have a really hard time keeping my mouth shut when I see possible errors or blind spots in someone's research, and I don't want to gain a reputation as a meddling know-it-all. The alternative, of course, is to just keep it to myself and let them produce faulty research, but I don't want to be affiliated with a program that's churning out bullshit or narrow-minded studies. (Not that I know they're doing that, but I get the sense that it's a real possibility.)

Again, maybe I'm just a snob. But collaboration is something I value, and I would rather collaborate with and learn from people who pay as much attention to the field as I do. I know that I have lots and lots to learn, but if the students who are ahead of me aren't people I can learn from, isn't that a problem? I really want to be in an environment where the enthusiasm and love for my field is shared by everyone (or at least almost everyone) around me. The faculty has it - how can a 1st or 2nd year grad student already be so jaded and still be so clueless?

It's breaking my heart a little. This is a very well-funded R1 university with a Potential Advisor I can just tell I would develop a very close mentoring relationship with. I'm torn between wanting constant intellectual stimulation from those around me and knowing that if I went to this school I would stand out as a stellar PhD candidate. I know it sounds incredibly arrogant, I know. I can't help it. 

What about the rest of you? How do you (or did you) feel about the other grad students in your program? Because I feel like those of you I regularly interact with share the same level of passion and knowledge about your respective fields and you guys are the kind of people I would love to spend the next 5 years with. During the whole day yesterday all I could think was "I found a Dr. Isis. Now where's my Ambivalent Academic? My SciCurious? My PhizzleDizzle? My Leigh? My Juniper? Bueller? Bueller????"


amused said...

I definitely got very little sleep and had some sore feet at my prospective weekends... I have to get back to my work but if you want to email me with any specific questions about social psych programs, I will answer them as best I can!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Not necessarily a snob, but maybe you are not really in a position at the current stage of your training to really know whether the grad students you have met are or aren't really engaged in their fields. Regardless, it is more important that they be nice friendly people to be around during your graduate studies.

Arlenna said...

Why would you have so much trouble respecting someone younger in an advisor role? I know it can seem intimidating that someone made their way through the maze of the track faster, but is that a reason to disrespect them and feel like you wouldn't trust them as your advisor/mentor?

Isis the Scientist said...

Bear in mind you've only spent a weekend there. It can be hard to really get a feel for the graduate students in a short period of time.

leigh said...

the relationship with your mentor trumps relationships with your fellow grad students. the latter is important too, but only to a point.

trust me, there is a lot of jading going on the first 2 years. and yes, you're generally still fairly clueless at that point too. i see it in my lab's 2nd year students. i personally had a couple of very good senior students in my lab, but also of tremendous value to me is our postdoc-turned-faculty who has been an unbelievable help and close friend to me.

because in the end, i see my fellow 5th years a couple of times a month, or random passing each other on campus. the people in your direct environment are far more important...

JLK said...

Thanks, Amused! I might take you up on that once I've had a little more time to process the info I'm working with.

@CPP - They seemed nice and friendly. I think that because I'm so intimidated by the thought of picking up and moving halfway across the country with no friends around that I'm really hoping to find people I "click" with. I'm disappointed that the only person I clicked with there is leaving next year.

@Arlenna - it's not about her moving through the track faster, it's about me being behind because of my nontraditional status. Turns out she actually took nearly the same path I did, though. But on the respect issue, if an advisor was my age or very close to it, I would have difficulty trying to avoid forming a peer relationship rather than a mentoring one. In the sea of academia, finding someone so young would ultimately make me want to be friends with them, especially with the common interests and passions behind the pairing in the first place. I want to be friends with my advisor - AFTER I graduate. I feel like it wouldn't be wise before that point, but maybe some of you out there disagree that it would be a bad thing.......?

@ Dr. Isis - I agree with you. Certainly all of the problems with logistics and sleeplessness colored my experience from the outset and probably made me less receptive overall. Like I said to CPP above, I think I have high expectations because I'm going in with the mindset that these students will be my primary social circle for the next 5 years. I'm hoping that another program will require interviews so that I have something to compare it to.

@leigh - I was surprised to learn that there are NO postdocs in the department there. I was really hoping to find one to latch onto in order to get the hindsight perspective on things, but no such luck. I just felt like such an outsider there - it's hard to explain. Psych usually attracts a diverse group of people, they they all seemed so....the SAME.

There wasn't a nerd to be found. That's it! I figured it out! There weren't any NERDS! It was like an MRU sorority descended upon this grad program and took it over. See, I was the chick in high school who got busted for smoking in the bathrooms and hung out with the kids who were constantly in detention. The non-conformists of my catholic high school, if you will.

In college I hung around with the folks who stood out as unique among a crowd of abercrombie-wearing, Jetta-driving, Jagerbomb-drinking, techno-listening co-eds. These are the people I found this weekend. There wasn't a single smoker to be found, for crying out loud.

In general, the quirkier a person is, the more interesting I find them. Potential Advisor is quirky. The grad student who is leaving next year is quirky. Everyone else was basically wallpaper. The grad students at my MRU are the same way. Is this what I'm doomed to find at any school? Surely the rebels must be SOMEWHERE.

Mrs. CH said...

The people who you will be working with, or even in the same office with, will have a major impact on your grad school experience.

When I was applying for PhD programs, I visited two departments: one had an amazing bunch of grad students, the other didn't. I ended up going to the latter, as it seemed abetter fit professionally. Now I realize that was a mistake. Having to interact with students with extremely negative attitudes, no desire to socialize or collaborate with other students, and tunnel vision when it comes to research is trying to say the least.

It might not be a total deal-breaker, but I definitely suggest taking it into account.

ScientistMother said...

I ended up leaving my first PhdLab because the grad students were so negative, and non-friendly. I hated going to the building. Your environment makes a difference

Juniper Shoemaker said...

You have to take my only grad school experience so far with a boatload of salt, because I wasn't the most engaged of archaeology students to begin with. That said: clicking with the other graduate students matters most in unstable programs mad-strapped for resources and particularly embroiled in campus politics. JLK Choice #4 doesn't sound like it has this problem.

The best student in my master's program, who passionately wanted to be an archaeologist, occasionally expressed wistfulness over the school's lack of Nerds. So I have an inkling that one's wholehearted commitment to one's research doesn't wholly trump the frustration one feels when her classmates don't turn out to be exciting intellectual sparring partners. Again, though, the program you just visited doesn't have problems with funding. And it's competitive. There's a much greater probability that it'll attract more than one student like you. :)

I hope you hear good news from #2 and #3 soon! In the meanwhile . . .

Ambivalent Academic said...

2 thoughts:

1) Your fellow grad students are your primary social circle until you join your lab...then because you're spending so much time there the lab group trumps all. For most biomed students this happens towards the end of the first year...sounds like you go in with your lab already chosen so if you like the mentor and the lab group you're probably going to be fine.

2) I don't know about psych, but my experience in biomed (and perhaps academia at large) suggests that the field tends to attract introverts - remember how many people chimed in with "I'm and INTJ too!" when the personality data were circling this blogging community? While introversion might be relatively rare in a general population, it is over-represented in academic/research communities. My point is that the people you didn't "click" with this weekend might be people you could totally "click" with in the future - but a weekend just isn't enough time to get to know them.

In short, the people you're interacting with are really important to your happiness as a grad student...but I wouldn't write off this bunch just yet.

Can you email current students in your potential mentor's lab? That might be a good way to get a better feel for them.

PhizzleDizzle said...

I have no advice here. Just that I'm sorry you had a bad weekend, but after reading the post it didn't sound all bad, given the title. It sounds like you established a great rep and rapport there with a number of faculty, and that's always a good thing, whether you end up there or not.

JLK said...

@CH & ScientistMother - thank you for your candid feedback. The way things are going, I may end up in a position where this one program is my only option. I have no idea what my decision is going to be if that turns out to be the case.

@Juniper - They're definitely not strapped for resources, but the program turns out to be not that competitive. I found out on my visit that they received 100 applications for my program, of which they intend to accept 7. A 7% acceptance rate in psych PhD programs is NOT low at all. And also related to what you said.....

@AA - There is no lab group for potential advisor, unless I started searching for students who worked with her when she was a post-doc, but that won't help because it's a different school. This is the school I've mentioned where the PA is brand new. The prospective students I was with this weekend WILL be the lab group, but because the social psych program is so small I will be spending just as much time with the students working under other advisors. The shocking thing is that none of these students WERE introverts! Maybe I should've been a

@PD - thanks. I wonder if I would feel differently had I been accepted during the weekend. The consistent flow of rejection into my email inbox is somehow making that program look worse instead of better. I don't want it to be my only option, ya know?

Ambivalent Academic said...

Sorry it didn't go as well as you had hoped. Sounds like your situation is different from mine as far as peer groups go so I'm not sure how valuable my input is. In any case, I sympathize with your situation. While it can be hard to choose between several equal options this is still more comfortable than feeling as if you have only one option available. Sorry for the frustration (as well as the other rejection re: your subsequent post). It may also be worth remembering that your graduate studies aren't forever...if it's a good fit for now as well as your long-term career goals (you mentioned that this PA is particularly attractive?), then maybe some of the other less-ideal things don't matter quite as much. Also, if the students you were interviewing with are to be your peer group, it's possible that they weren't really on the top of their game last weekend either. maybe they're a lot cooler and more fun when they've had adequate sleep and aren't feeling under so much pressure to impress.

Anyway, the right decision will happen eventually. Hang in there and try not to stress too much in the meantime.

Arlenna said...

I can understand wanting to avoid getting too personal with someone your own age, but if s/he is a good professional mentor s/he won't let that happen anyway, it doesn't need to be on your shoulders to avoid. It's very possible to have a strong, constructive, close relationship with a mentor without it crossing the line into unprofessionalism.

I also think you're worrying too much about how people might perceive you: it's okay to be the sharp-question-asking person, and it sounds from the responses you got as if the people there would be receptive to respectful questions/points like yours. You could be the breath of fresh air they need to whip up their sails on that end, and you might find that being valued for that in your dept. is also valuable to you and your confidence.

As for facilities, even if your department doesn't have them, it's very likely that someone on campus does at a MRU. So you will almost surely be able to find an interdisciplinary collaborator, which is good for all kinds of training and funding reasons anyway.

Hang in there! This actually sounds like a pretty cool opportunity--sometimes things turn out to be better than you think at first.

JLK said...

Thank you, Arlenna. Your comments made me smile, and I really needed that today. I need as much positive spin as I can get! :)

Drugmonkey said...

I had some thoughts rattling around after reading this post and dredged them up for something I was writing for today....

post script: I was reading a blog entry recently, which I can't dredge up right how.[This one at Pieces of Me, thanks Stephanie Z!] The blogger was a grad school applicant who was very disturbed that the grad students he/she met on an interview trip were mind-dead drones. There was a worry expressed that one would have to live with these people for the next many years with a slight concern about the personal and professional relationships. My advice to n00b grad students is to go WAY out of your way to develop personal relationships outside of your primary domains of interest. Way outside. Beyond the improved dating pool, this feeds back eventually into your professional perspectives. One of the stumbling blocks to our ongoing (yep, all the way up to retirement) ability to think broadly about interesting scientific problems and solutions is a disdain for other types of science, combined in most cases with an ignorance about them. It is very hard to escape developing an understanding and appreciation for the science that is so damn important to people you like. People you like because you have first developed relationships on the sporting pitch or in your shared enthusiasm for art, music, beer or whatnot.

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