A celebrity crush, computer programming, and an interview-inspired more positive take on my PhD.
A celebrity crush, computer programming, and an interview-inspired more positive take on my PhD are a few of the things currently bring me joy. Two others are quilting and travel with and travel to visit friends, which I will write about in future posts!
I am a lesbian with a very limited number of celebrity crushes. But I definitely currently have one: Hilary Knight, the star power forward of the USA Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey team. [She is not “out” as LGBTQ, and there is no evidence that she identifies as straight or not straight. I am just madly crushing on her.] She is a four-time Olympian, former Boston resident, and graduated high school the same year as me from my boarding school’s arch-rival. I have been following her on Instagram since the Winter Olympics in 2018 when the USA beat Canada in a shoot-out to claim gold. That summer, after being dumped by my girlfriend, I “direct messaged” Hilary saying that she should date me. There was no reply :-(. This Olympics, I watched most of the semi-final (USA beat Finland) and gold-medal (USA lost to Canada) games and saw Hilary score in both. The hockey watching was fun, but more importantly the Olympic build up and Olympics meant lots of cute photos of her face on my Instagram feed. And, in a very this is the 2022 Olympics not the 2018 Olympics move, I am now following her, and only her, on TicTok.
I spent a week in January updating and improving two different computational pipelines (multiple pieces of programming code connected together) that I had developed over the past two years. Both of them were in pretty good shape already, but I wanted to make them more streamlined and less “hard-coded” so that they would be easier for other people as well as my future self to use. I wrote code to analyze and process my data probably eighty percent of the days I worked during the last year of my PhD. I also took a Coursera course to learn Python, a new to me, and more commonly used, programming language. But since defending in June, I had written very little. It was fun to dig back in and make improvements that I had been hoping to make for a while. Here you can see my GitHub “read me” for an earlier version of the code; my next step is to update the GitHub posted code and “read me.” The experience brought me back to my freshman year of college when I first learned how to code and quickly realized how much joy it brought me to program.
By the time I arrived at orientation week my freshman year of college, I had decided that I wanted to be a computational neuroscientist. But when it came time to sign up for classes I realized that I didn’t actually know which classes I should take to achieve that goal. With my orientation week advisor (and now really good friend) in tow, I marched across campus to find the professor who taught the computational neuroscience course and ask for his recommendation for what I should take in terms of prerequisites. It turned out that he lived on campus, so we knocked on his door, and the only thing I remember him saying was: “You need to take CAAM 210!” CAAM stands for “Computational and Applied Math,” and there was some math in the course, but really it was an introduction to functional programming using MATLAB. I LOVED the course. I was so excited about the final project that I used a printout of the resulting graphic in my application to be an orientation week advisor as a sophomore. I also applied to be a “labby” for the course to help students in my residential college who took the course in the following semester with their assignments. In the end I didn’t become a computational neuroscientist, but taking that class profoundly affected the rest of my time in college. Not only did I ended up being a CAAM major, I used, and built upon, the skills that I used in CAAM 210 for my research, which eventually led me to graduate school. I have been trying to identify and connect with activities/subjects in the academic sphere that bring me joy and that have sparked enthusiasm in my past, and I have realized that programming definitely falls in that category.
A new Interview-inspired perspective
I am slowly starting to apply for jobs and to think seriously about my post-academic life. This has meant preparing for a few interviews and also actually having a few interviews. The first thing you hear, or are told about, when preparing for a non-technical interview is to have STAR format examples of instances in your past where you have taken actions to bring about a result (S: Situation, T: Task, A: Action, and R: Result). It turns out that I have plenty of these: the situation where I needed to cross reference between frog and human data and then successfully developed a new computational pipeline, the situation where I had a valuable data set and analyzed it for informative findings for the community and submitted a manuscript for peer review, the situation where I wanted to get a paper submitted by a certain deadline so that I could move on to other things and I made sure that happened, etc etc. There are many examples from my research and other activities where I found myself in a situation, identified tasks to take to resolve the situation, took action on those tasks, and delivered satisfying results. I have many STAR examples, or put another way, I got plenty of sh*t done during my PhD.
This perspective is in contrast to the way I have largely thought about my PhD the past one and a half years. I have usually focused on my journey from struggling for a long time to eventually succeeding to have an effective scientific creative process. I am incredibly proud of the progress I made figuring out how to “work smarter” and not just “work harder,” but reflecting on my PhD from this lens has often been exhausting - I can be incredibly hard on myself and focus on how ineffective a student I used to be, instead of focusing on the growth and successes. But it turns out that companies do not care about your “process,” they care about the results you have delivered and will deliver from them. And so, it has been really fun to write cover letters that highlight my strengths and achievements and to curate my best STAR examples. No job offers yet, but I’m already gaining a lot from my first steps into a new world.