Dear Future Grad Students

These next couple of days are Open House in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD. Prospective PhD students submitted applications in December, and a subset were invited to visit this weekend. A subset of those visitors will be invited to begin their PhDs in our department in the fall. The two days will include one-on-one interviews with faculty; department lunches, dinners and happy hour; lab, campus, and beach tours; and most likely, exhaustion.

Dear Future Grad Students,

I’ve been thinking about you all week. I vividly remember my own visit here 4 years ago, and each year as Open House approaches, I find it useful to reflect back.

I left snowy New York in February and was greeted by a typical San Diego sunny afternoon. It was my first time in California, which is basically a mystical land to lifelong New Englanders like me. Even before going to campus, I walked to La Jolla Cove. I was hangry because I didn’t have enough snacks for my cross-country flight, but as soon as I had a few bites of food, I realized I was in love with San Diego. And as soon as I realized I was in love, I started thinking, oh no. No, no, no. Don’t fall in love. You haven’t been accepted yet.

The next day on campus, we were told that the department was not just interviewing us, the candidates, but we were also interviewing them, deciding if this was the place we wanted to be. They’d be on their best behavior. Ah! Please don’t woo me, I haven’t been accepted yet!

It was a great weekend. I met interesting people, and one in particular ended up in a grad program elsewhere, but became a great friend. I heard about fascinating research that had never crossed my radar. I saw the beach, and I saw so much Cog Sci enthusiasm.

But I was also stressed. I wanted to come to UCSD. I wanted to be part of the community of researchers doing mind-blowing work on language and cognition. It didn’t feel like a want then, though. Definitely a need.

I’d like to think I handled those feelings maturely. I took a red-eye back to New York, and once back in my apartment, I called my mom bawling. What if I don’t get accepted? Can I possibly apply again next year? But could I face rejection twice? (This was the question on my mind before I had even been rejected once).

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After my teary phone call to my mom, I went to a formal at West Point with my then-boyfriend, now-husband Steven. Happy on the outside, frantic inside.

To state the obvious, I was accepted. Of course my reaction seems ludicrous now. And most of you are not going to feel or bawl like I did. But you’ll have your own stress, your own feelings, and your own reactions. And we, the current grad students (and likely the faculty), can relate. Four years ago, I wish I had been better able to acknowledge my stress and put it aside to savor the unique opportunity that just being at Open House provides. I fell a little short there, but you don’t have to.

I encourage you to take a moment to put your CV away, unclench your shoulders, and breathe. You’re here. No matter where you are in life, you have some direction of where you want to go. You have have solid, original ideas about Cognitive Science, and you successfully portrayed those in your application. Members of the UC San Diego Cognitive Science Department want to meet you. Whether you end up joining us here at UCSD or not, I hope you can enjoy these next couple of days. We are happy to have you.

Stay Curious,

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P.S. There are tons of resources with advice for choosing PhD programs. I take them all with more than a grain of salt — probably more like a McDonald’s super sized meal’s worth of salt. There are a few that really resonate with me though:

Here’s one effective way to communicate science

Science is very cool. But the way it’s often taught – seemingly arbitrary facts to be memorized or lab procedures to be blindly followed – is less cool. It’s not too surprising that many people decide at some point during their education that science is not for them. Not only do they forgo scientific careers (which is fine – variety is important), but they avoid science in all forms. They skip the science section of newspapers and blogs, comment on the uncharacteristically dry and warm winter without questioning its causes or consequences, and take medications that they’re prescribed without researching the condition they’re being treated for or alternative treatments. In many cases, science that’s relevant to everyday life flies under the radar and people don’t even notice it; in others, they read a sensational headline and run with it or post photos of a seemingly magical dress on all their social media accounts.

And who can blame people for feeling like pursuing scientific information is a waste of time? If their science education brings up painful or boring memories and the rare scientific writing that they do engage with may as well have been written in another language, non-scientists are not going to seek out science in their lives. Exciting more students about science is one way to avoid societal scientific ignorance, but another is to improve the quality of science communication. Efforts to do so are widespread (for example, this summer I’ll be attending a workshop, ComSciCon, whose goal is to improve communication between scientists and their readers), but we still have a lot of work to do.

Nautilus has become one of my favorite sources for science news. At its core, it’s a science blog, but it’s very different from any other science blog I’ve encountered. For one, each issue has a theme, like the current one – Dominoes (subtitle: one thing leads to another). The pieces within an issue do all relate to the theme, but are from seemingly-unconnected domains, resulting in a surprising web of connections among ideas you’ve probably never thought about together (or in isolation, as is often the case for me). Nautilus is also different because there’s a clear effort made to present the content of a post in the format that works most for that post. I recently wrote about the cool experience of learning about how music hijacks our perception of time through an audio tour, consisting of clips and annotations.

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A recent post about an interview with Helen Fisher, a prominent sex/love/relationship researcher and communicator, also provided a non-traditional reading experience. The post embodied so many goals of science communication. It opened by describing the experience of the interview – an interesting comment Fisher made and the actual apartment that the writers met in. Then, once we can picture the environment that the dialogue took place in, the author told us why we should care about the interview: Fisher makes some provocative claims, such as suggesting that an increase in casual sex has caused our divorce rate to stop increasing – casual sex might lead to long-term marital happiness. The rest of the interview is presented in transcript form, but a video of the interview is the main draw. It’s not posted as one chunk, as most videos are. It always bothers me that I don’t get to experience an online video at my own pace in the way that I experience written materials. The Nautilus interview eliminates this bother by posting Fisher’s responses to each question as individual mini movies that are linked to the questions she’s responding to. Thanks to this format, readers can preview the questions, skip the ones they find less interesting, and listen to the interesting ones in any order they want (all of which I did). This solution is fairly low on complexity, but high on genius. More, please!