Coming to Terms

It may be that I’m coming from the traditional Asian family. In such a context, there are only a few career paths worth taking. Doctor, lawyer, engineer – anything that can be labelled and understood as smart and difficult to achieve. Or anything that makes money. I am decidedly none of these. I would say that I ended up label-less, in a field difficult to explain to my mother. I shrink the job description to a few words. Despite the universities and degrees, the cost and travel, it’s not as glamorous as she’d hoped. She can’t explain it in a word to her friends, to my aunts or my uncles. All she has to show are the names of various institutions, places where they’ve never been, but only hear about in the news. Huge organizations where working there doesn’t mean much unless you can say that you actually do something apart from the ever-nebulous, analyze.

Anything that has a label would be better. Or else, anything else would be better.

“His degree will essentially be in Neuroscience. That’s not what he does, but that’s what will be written on his degree in any case.”

(This last comment goes unheeded. Neuroscience is a known, labelled, respectable science, bien sûr.)

“See, that’s what I dreamed of you doing.”

(I had no knowledge of said dream.)

She continues, “Anything would be better.”

(Really? Anything?)

I put aside the fact that after ten years, she doesn’t really know what I do. (But perhaps I’m giving her too little credit, and her statement still holds. That is another matter altogether.) And that, even if she doesn’t know it, this is what she wanted at one time. It’s just that my ultimate employer doesn’t yet start with “World” or end with “Bank”. In her mind, she knows what those people do. And it’s respectable.

My efforts to explain the last ten years bear little fruit. Through a mishmash of opportunity and ‘interest’, I have fallen into what I’m doing today. Your school teachers and professors don’t seem to mention the significance of a label once you get out into the world. It’s somehow important. It’s somehow critical that you can fit your days into a single word, or maybe two. At some point, I came to envy those who could graduate and immediately say, “I’m an engineer.” Or “I’m an accountant.” Or “I’m a doctor.” And people know what they mean. There’s no need to go further. They don’t endure the moments of pause or confusion and the necessity to breach an entire subject matter just to convey how they spend their time. Yes, I envy that. Or perhaps self-branding is a skill I don’t have. But I’m skeptical that that is the solution.

The closest label that we’ve been stamped with is social scientist – a label that could mean nearly anything and one that has been gendered and pushed aside as soft. And this is forever hard to swallow. But perhaps I’m finally coming to terms with the idea.

“What do you do?”

“I study *mumble mumble*…”

“Hm okay, but you do do statistics? That counts. I’ll add you to the mailing list for our seminar.”


And with those couple of words, perhaps I finally began coming to terms with the label. For now, let’s set aside the fact that external validation seems necessary for me to accept what I’ve become. And that there’s some feeling that the career defines me. With those words, it began to take the form of something real, respected, and worth the brain energy spent. Based off a simple interaction, this is delusional, of course. But perhaps, all the same, it was some recognition that I’ve spent some of my years learning at least some things. So yes, perhaps I finally am coming to terms.

But then, I’m also adding words to say Computational Sciences and Engineering on that final piece of paper…so maybe not.

Learning to Learn

And with that, another year is over. Yes, I know it’s only the beginning of June. And I realize that this is month 6 of 12. But I’m talking about a year in which I’ve created my little academic bubble and languished in it. In the last mile, in those final weeks, walking out of exam after exam, fending off sleep to make word counts, holding off crippling anxiety as THE exam approached, all culminating to walking on that plane and leaving it behind. At least for three months. Three glorious months. I make it seem like an ordeal. Perhaps I need to rein it in a bit, but maybe, I’m not that far off.

One year, completely gone. And what have I contributed to the world? Hard to say. In this respect, learning seems extremely selfish. Will we students really pay it forward? Who knows. If I’m not, what has been in it for me, really? I’ve had small moments of reflection along the way, but have only now allowed myself the time to put it down in words. If I’ve spent all of this time learning, what has been the biggest lesson? On the whole, I’d venture to say that it was learning to learn. Before this year, I’d never explicitly acknowledged the challenges I have with this undertaking in a way that is productive.

Let me say now that I do not intend to discuss learning how to learn with this post. That has been done a number of times already (Coursera, TEDx, HBR, Learn.Love.Code.), and by those who make a career of studying it. I’m only hoping to relate my experience of simply getting into a mindset supportive for learning based on existing (self-imposed) barriers. This means recognizing the challenges in the first place, their foundations, and working to overcome them, a process which, I’ll posit, is one in which I need constant reminders.

I could attribute it to the nature of doctoral studies – that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, we acquiesce that we don’t know or understand everything. But I have to acknowledge that it’s my institution too. [Let it be known that I’ll give credit where credit is due, despite my reflexive scruples about the complex that comes with the ivory tower.] Learning alongside people who you respect and find amazingly capable, and finding that they’re asking similar questions, it’s encouraging. But there are times when you feel inadequate too – the dreaded, but famed “imposter syndrome”. It’s real, and it comes in waves. You periodically convince yourself that a wrong decision was made somewhere. Countless times, I’ve rationalized, “Too bad, I’m here now. If a wrong decision was made, they’ll have to deal with it. I’ll simply wait until they drive me out.” This is decidedly an unhealthy way to go about it. Luckily, the sheer number of things to do often crowds out these thoughts.

This year, remembering three key things has been important to me. And these ideas have formed the basis of my experience in learning to learn. They’re simple. Perhaps that’s why they’ve helped.

  1. The Decision, with a capital D

Mais à elle seule elle est plus importante que vous toutes, puisque c’est elle que j’ai arrosée.

Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This one was an accident. I simply wanted a Le Petit Prince daily planner because it’s cute. How was I to know that it would become an integral piece of my experience. Looking at it every day, I eventually took it to heart. To do what I want, I needed to make it a real, tangible, reachable goal. I came to graduate school. I came to learn such and such. With this explicit decision, I’ve invested time and money and have made inevitable tradeoffs. This is what I’ve decided to spend my time doing. Did I really want it? Well, then. I need to water it.

This seems very simple. But I hadn’t forced myself to pin it all down before. Forever the jack of all trades, master of none. The decision is key. I came back to school to learn. I didn’t come because it’s expected. I didn’t come to please someone else. I didn’t come because I was bored, or because I didn’t know the next step. I wanted to know more. Or at least have the tools to find out.

There are endless distractions. Part of coming back to school is the network. You want to meet great people, build lifelong friendships and colleagues. You want to discover all you can about the opportunities in this field and what you can contribute to it. You want to explore the city and all it has to offer. You want to move ahead, be involved, have an impact on your immediate world. And you can do these things, but not at the expense of your learning. With so many distractions and obligations pulling every which way, the dangers of graduate school can be many. It’s not merely an expected rite of passage as going to college has become for much of the middle class. The sirens of graduate school, though momentarily intriguing, can throw you off course. You’ll forget what you came here for and may find at the end of it that you’d never really decided what you wanted at all.

Deciding to learn means making an explicit decision to focus on learning at this point in time. Particularly in doctoral studies, it means realizing that your time as a student, inclusive of academic obligations and freedoms, is short. At some point, you must prioritize a topic over others, regardless of how interesting they may seem. The daily reminder of my decision and that only I can take the time to cultivate my learning kept my focus when I found my resolve wandering.

  1. Learning requires humility

She’ll probably never know how much this affected me. In the first few weeks of school, a girl in front of me in class had taped to her laptop: Learning requires humility. It was impossible to miss. And to follow it up, in jelly letters on her planner: I am wrong often. I studied this with fascination each day. She has the self-awareness to admit her pride as a significant barrier to her learning. And the commitment to remind herself to confront it each day. Directly ahead in my line of vision, I too became committed to the reminder each day. A reminder that I before didn’t know I’d needed. But I did.

Learning requires humility. I took this one to heart too. It’s no secret that I struggle with a sometimes overwhelming sense of pride. But I need to often ask myself, for what? Often, it’s become only a hindrance and not helpful in any way other than to feed my own discomfort. I made a decision to learn, and that’s what I intend to do in spite of debilitating pride and inevitable embarrassment. I will admit that I do not know. I will take advantage of my professors and peers, extracting all information and understanding. It’s part of my commitment. It’s part of the commitment that you must make to learning. Some people make it naturally. Some do not allow their pride to veil ignorance. But I find such cases to be uncommon.

  1. Grades don’t matter

Really, they don’t. Perhaps this one is relevant only to the perfectionists among us. Perhaps I can only say this as a doctoral student. It’s the very last degree. There is no more school to do, in theory. But the argument holds when it comes to learning. And it’s important. In a number of classes, my letter grade fails to convey how much I actually learned in the course. In fact, my highest grade often means that it required the least learning. (Of course, this is not always the case.) In some cases, I found that I only truly understood the material a little later than hoped – after the exam. I would venture to say that this can often be so. But learning is happening nonetheless.

The system has ingrained in us the importance of grades. You are ranked based on how well you perform according to arbitrary standards, or simply the knowledge or opinions of an individual. This seems somewhat flawed. In some respects, it can be more of an evaluation of psychological or political prowess, e.g. What does this professor want from me? Still, one doesn’t realize how deeply we adhere to the system until one make the effort to change mindset. This reminder is urgent, insistent. It must be to elude the ever-near spiral of self-doubt and self-loathing. And overcoming the threat of the spiral is so important to achieving more and discovering more. Even so, it’s a hard one to internalize, and as a result, requires constant recognition.

These have been my thoughts over the past several weeks, as I was forced to contend with inevitable questions: am I really doing what I wanted / want? Is this the life that I’ve chosen? For what? At least I can say that I’ve grown in some ways. I’ve realized some things. And what has changed the most is a newfound capacity to learn, despite challenges and despite ego. To what end is to be determined. With that, I begin summer. A glorious summer. But I will take these with me. Perhaps the formulations of my commitments will change in time. For now, I’m content with this list. That they comprise the most significant of my realizations and only a year of personal growth. Finally, it seems, in my twenty-some years, I’ve started the real journey of learning with openness and humility. I hope to make it a lifelong venture.