Thursday, January 30, 2014

Grad School, and New York

Hanging out in the library
Quite a few times, I heard that I should expect graduate school to be miserable; a professor at Swarthmore’s short answer to whether anyone should go at all was “no” and a different professor said that his first year of his PhD was the worst of his life, and that was just how PhD programs were. I’m just writing to say that so far, this has been hands down the most gratifying and meaningful professional experience of my life. Nothing on the costs/disadvantages side of the ledger — we could be making more money; we could be feeling like we’re having more impact; we are sometimes very busy — seems significant. And the advantages are terrific. My “work” is often talking to really smart people about things I care about; past some not-very-high threshold, there’s pretty much no external pressure for the next five years; once you’re part of an institution/network, opportunities for really cool things just seem to pop up; and the entire structure seems designed to help me pursue pretty much anything I decide is interesting. I’m just really happy things worked out the way they did.

Having said that, I can see why not everyone would like it. A strong perfectionist streak would be a burden. I think people who come from jobs in which they’re used to frequent feedback might feel a little adrift with how rarely anyone evaluates or praises our work. The academic writing and publishing style might be kind of constraining if you're really creative. But probably because of who I am, none of that bothers me, and for a certain kind of person, I couldn’t recommend graduate school enough. Job? Whatever. I’ll deal with that in 5-6 years. For now the experience is just intrinsically pleasurable.

I can’t say Columbia is as high-functioning as it could be. If the university were a PC, the department I’m in is like a fancy video card with the capability to magically update itself every few years. The administration is more like Vista: opaque and not oriented around users’ needs. The campus itself is like a gorgeous enclosure with some truly baffling internal wiring decisions. And IT support/their services are exactly like every workplace IT department you’ve ever encountered. (Are there any large, bureaucratic institutions anywhere that work well?)

But none of that matters because a) outside of my department I need very few things from the school — books, a quiet place to read, and really just one printer that works — and b) New York. Living here is just the best. I feel like there are so many people with preferences extremely similar to mine that it is never a challenge to find something that is cheap and exactly what I want to do. And because those people and I are so similar, I tend to like them.  You're perfect, oh please don't change a thing.

Today I’m going to learn some stuff; tomorrow I’m going to see a free classical show and then Nancy Whang do a DJ set in Williamsburg. And as she says, “I never thought I’d see the day, so I thank you just for being so damn, excellent.”

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