Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motivated by Nostalgia

The graduate school application process of my lab coordinator and assorted prospective students recently prompted me to examine old emails from my own applications. The intent was simply to get a time frame for when I heard final rejection or acceptance to various schools. The effect was rather different.

I had remembered spending something close to a month agonizing over the decision between two specific schools, the Excel file of pros and cons, the emails requesting more information about programs and research possibilities, the careful phrasing of both the positive and negative emails to convey my decision. I hadn't remember just how heavily I had been courted to those schools and one other.

In one of the emails sent during that decision making process, my current advisor wrote of how much she hoped I would come to work with her, of how she'd thought in recent lab meetings that it would be so great to have my perspective on a lot of the discussions that were coming up. Excitement at my acceptance almost radiated from the monitor. Just over three years later, it seems a bit unreal. The first question that comes to mind: what would my advisor think looking back over these emails? Have I lived up to such expectations? Have I simply progressed into the not-quite-taken-for-granted state of a long-present student? From my advisor's perspective, are there any regrets at having admitted me?

It's certainly hard to imagine that I could have managed to live up to the implied expectations; I just don't have brilliantly insightful commentary to produce at every lab meeting. But it's impossible to have any real idea. My interactions with my advisor are limited to participation in a two-hour lab meeting every week and a 40-minute individual meeting every other week or so. There are plenty of emails, complete with enthusiasm for various ideas and results, but I can't help but feel that any conceptualization my advisor has of me is woefully incomplete, with little idea about how dedicated or motivated I am. It's difficult to assign "on" time to a specific three hours of the week, and if lab meeting day happens to be the longest day of my week, then I certainly don't cut an impressive figure that semester.

Still, it's inspiring - or at least motivating - in a way. Graduate school contains plenty of pressure to get things done, but rarely in a personal way. The only person making sure I'm getting my comps proposal completed by the appointed deadline is myself; my advisor didn't even know when the deadline was (although she did ask me to remind my year-mate). There's some amount of support, but by this point we're supposed to be quite self-sufficient. I work in the standard windowless office, and I have a better-than-standard-but-still-busy-and-absentminded advisor. It's hard to think of myself as anything other than the necessary lackey.

I suppose those emails are the first reminder I've had in a long while that my advisor chose to work with me as much as I chose to work with her. I'm normally quite skeptical about the American tendencies to worth enhancement and carefully constructed "constructive" criticism. At the moment, I'm much more understanding. I still think modern culture goes overboard, but I can't deny the motivating factor of having an explicit statement from your boss that you're a great person and they have high positive feelings and expectations. I can't say I'm much more enthusiastic about my graduate career at the moment, because aching ribs caused by an overly enthusiastic and entirely uncontrolled teenage boy of a karate partner have a significant damping effect, but there is a certain amount of determination and even dedication to my lab that wasn't present before my brief trip to the past.

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