15 March, 2009

Useful Uses for Anger

I have been rejected by all the institutions to which I applied for graduate studies.

Family and friends keep asked me if I was OK about it, and I told them that yes, I'm just peachy because there's always next year (there is, right?). But I'm not. I guess in reality I'm kind of torn up by this, as well as mightily pissed off, but I don't tell them this because I don't want them to worry and I don't want them to see just how much I care because then I think they'd share in my disappointment. I have an uncle or two in Scandinavia that I think went to graduate school, but I'm fairly sure that they went for professional degrees. But of the family that I grew up with here in the States, no one else has ever gone to grad school. And they're all looking at me expectantly smiling and prodding me on, expecting me to set a gleaming example for the younglings of my generation (I'm the eldest of the current generation). And in addition to this pressure, I put myself under more, muttering fervently the exhausting mantra: "Do more, be better!"

Failing to get into grad school, failing to even get so much as an interview, is not doing more or being better. And because of this I'm not so much pissed off at the institutions (they had very few spots, I understand) as I'm angry at myself. Angry at not selling myself better. Disappointed that I didn't find the wonderful advice that Eppendork, Dr. Isis, PhysioProf, Ambivalent Academic, et al have shared with the world via their blogs.

Part of this, I know, is that I am sick of being stuck in small-city Midwest, sick of the same grey weather, sick of the same fucking patterns of everyfuckingthing. Especially sick of the bougie locals who think science is just cute. But it's also largely that I'm restless, I want to move on, and as far as I am willing to see, the only direction to move on in is up.

But a larger part of it is that I am having a hard time separating my self-worth as an aspirant scientist from being rejected.

I want so badly to tear through some new applicable literature*, to sink my teeth into a new set of experimental skills and shake the living shit out of them until they splatter beautiful data everywhere, to learn further and deeper and have peers with whom I can discuss it all, to design and fail and design and fail again and again until I have hammered out elegance! Most of all, I want to be challenged!

The anger I currently hold is of a useful sort. I can use it as fuel. It was anger at being trapped in an endless surburban tract with people who cared more about their lawns' green-ness than the dynamics of molecular orbitals that motivated me to do well in high school so I could get the fuck out of the South**. It was anger at national politics that caused me to harrass the university newspaper's cartoonists until they let me into their club, and that later got me condemned by Catholics, fundamentalists, and Republicans across campus.

So it is this anger, me being mad at being mediocre, that will have me kicking in doors this coming summer and contacting specific professors instead of relying on the sparkliness of specific programs. It is this anger that will have me dissecting my essays several more times, and maybe even being more careful with whom I ask to write letters on my behalf. I am going to beat down the door to academia, even if I'm not sure I want a post-postdoc career in it, with manners and all the charisma*** I can muster. I'll keep the anger to myself, but I'm sure as hell going to bend it to a useful use.

*I frequently read papers on topics other than my projects, but it's always kind of bittersweet because I don't get to use them for anything.

**At the time I thought that I was getting out of the Midwestern mindset (I lived in the interface of Midwest and South) when I came to Michigan, but it turns out that Michigan was just as dopey and the food wasn't even nearly as good. Seriously, why do Michigan tomatoes taste like nothing?

***Note to self: get charisma. Best strategy likely to be attaching my name to a celebrity like a male anglerfish, but much handsomer.

Even Toaster's anger contains polka.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

If you are serious about grad school, you should be looking for positions as a post-graduate research associate in a laboratory for the year. Do you have a sense for what was problematic about your applications? Was it grades, GREs, lack of undergrad research experience?

Science Bear said...

I agree with our dear Comrade. If you need to chat about it feel free to stop by the cave and I'll be sure to heat up some cocoa.

Most of all, I want to be challenged!
This was one of the major reasons I went back to school, but was quite surprised when for the first time in my life things didn't come as easily as I had expected.

...being mad at being mediocre..
WHEN you get into grad school, this is something you're gonna have to get used to. I wasn't prepared for the transition from super geek into just another over achiever and actually ended up pretty depressed my first year.

I'm not sure what happened with your interview/application but if you wanted to talk about the process or some of the pitfalls I went through feel free to mail me.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

I'm really, really sorry, Toaster. That blows.

CPP has given you the same advice that two other (awesome) scientists have given me off-blog. I'm striving to take it. I hope you do, too. Let us know how it goes.

Juniper Shoemaker said...

P.S. Science Bear, I may stop by for some cocoa, too . . .

Toaster Sunshine said...

Comrade PP and Science Bear,

I believe that the primary problems with my applications were 1) undergraduate grades because I am not good at taking exams with words (when I can draw a picture to explain a concept, I do very well) and 2) lack of any publications with my name on them.

I had 2 years of research experience as an undergrad, and now I've been hired into a lab at the university as an intermediate research technician in a BSL-2+ lab. There's currently 1 paper in the works with a collaborator that's going to be going to PLoS that I hope will help for the next rounds.

The general GRE was good, now I'm considering whether or not it's worth it to take the CMB Subject GRE.

Thanks for your sympathy and advice. It'll be OK, it's just that at the moment, it's like a load of shitmissiles has landed on my head and is politely refusing to leave.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Hey Toaster - Sorry for your pain. All good advice above.

Definitely take the CMB GRE if you think you can score well on it. That should help offset poor grades. Grad programs shouldn't expect you to have publications at this point. If you do that's a bonus but not a requirement. Definitely get yourself into a post-grad RA position and kick some ass there. An excellent letter from a PI in that context can and should greatly offset poor grades.

And everyone's already said it but it's worth saying again. Get used to feeling mediocre...as a grad student you will spend a lot of time feeling just plain stupid and unworthy. For some reason this seems to be a part of the process. I don't like it (like Science Bear I found it rather depressing - still do sometimes) but I have yet to hear of any grad student for whom this was not the case. Grad school is an exercise in intellectual masochism. But if you want it as bad as you say you do, you will find a way for it to work out. Hang in there.

Prof-like Substance said...

I would add that it is a good idea, as you mentioned in your post, to contact potential advisors ahead of applying. It lets people know that you are interested and gives them a heads-up to look for your application. Also, I know this works differently in different fields, but I would strongly suggest looking more at potential advisors than the program as a whole.

Ambivalent Academic said...

I second PLS.

Do you read the Blue Lab Coats blog? Some of the best career/application/interview advice I've ever gotten came from there.

Hermitage said...

You should definetly NOT tie your self-worth into your applicant status. I had fucking shittastical grades coming out of undergrad and the only thing that saved my ass was working my connections like it was candy. Make sure to keep up a camaraderie with past and present PIs so they are ready to lay it on the line for you next applicant cycle and DEFINETLY contact professors ahead of time. Some will ignore you, some will inundate you with their last 4 yrs of pubs and ask what you think. Even those that ignore you will remember your name come application time. You WILL get in somewhere awesome and proceed to be fabulous, just remember to take over your half of the universe or I'll cut you^^.

Toaster Sunshine said...

Thank you all again. I will definitely be taking your advice into consideration as I build my Ivory Tower Battering Ram/Death Ray. Maybe I can parley with them to not wreak destruction if they let me in.

I know better than to dismiss threats of being cut by those skilled with scalpels.

However, allow me to ask the following: what is the best way to contact potential advisors? So far the best method I've been able to come up with has been to read a couple of papers and then contact them with specific questions on what they did, then maybe segue into grad school questions. I tried that once with a German study, and tried to write in German, and the prof wrote back in English (apparently it was that obvious).

I guess I'm somewhat intimidated. The coolest paper I read recently was from Harvard, and I suspect that contacting them will just result in me getting swatted aside like nothing more than the Perl script kiddie I am (seriously, they used some intense motherfucking modeling).

Prof-like Substance said...

I always apreciate if people start with their interest in grad studies (lets me know where they are coming from) and then ask about on-going projects in a way that lets me know that they are familiar with some recent papers from the lab. For instance, if you said something like "I really found the results from publication XXX interesting for YYY reasons and am curious where your lab is planning to take these data in the future." Realize ahead of time that your question isn't going to bowl them over (most likely), but it shows that you have thought about it. It makes an impression.

PhizzleDizzle said...

TS, I'm sorry...but you know, shit happens and life goes on. Did you know the founder of TSMC failed out of his quals at MIT? Yeah. He said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

So pluck up and keep on truckin dude. Take CPP's advice. And when reapplying, check out FSP also - she and Blue Lab Coats are great at giving advice on this sort of stuff.

And yes, Michigan tomatoes (the ones I ate, at least) tasted like nothing.

quietandsmalladventures said...

my old adviser once told me that if a prof wants you in their lab, you will get into grad school. it worked, i'm a second year. definitely read some papers (beware that depending on their frequency of publication, the project you're reading about might be long gone) and check their faculty research interests. if you can travel there, set up an interview, if not email them and discuss both your interests and their interests (especially how they overlap). since you have experience, relate techniques you've done to their projects (oh cool, the really outstanding experiment you did here is a larger application of technique X that i've been working with....). DO THIS NOW. i got accepted to georgetown (#2 choice) in may after they had someone decline their acceptance. my uni is still interviewing now.

on your apps for next year, play up your research experience (i don't mean embellish, just emphasize).


DrL said...

Love that video! (I've seen them live, but never seen any videos before)

I am sure you will get to grad school if you persevere. It is one of the things we scientists must do. Persevere. When experiments do not work, when bureaucracy makes life difficult, when papers get rejected... Having gone through some setbacks at this stage will help you later when you encounter setbacks in your research in gradschool (everyone has them).

Do contact profs by email and state your interest in working with them as a grad student - why not be direct? This is how I got into my PhD (almost a decade ago, but still - if it worked then it can still work now, even though the volume of email that profs now get is bigger. Make sure the email title does not look like spam - I am sure you can think out of something, you Perl geek ;-)