“How’s school?” That is one of the first questions that people ask me, because honestly, what else would they ask me? School is my life right now, it consumes my hours awake and is the subject of most of my dreams. If I am so steeped in something, it should be easy to talk about right? The only problem is, when I try and answer that question, I cannot explain the experience to people who aren’t also going through it. It’s like there is a barrier between myself and the people on the other side, I can’t explain it, and even if I could, they wouldn’t be able to understand it.
This year, I occasionally have thought back on some of my previous adventures, and everything is foggy in my mind. It is only when I re-read one of my old blog posts that my real thoughts and feelings from that time come back… And I haven’t been writing in my blog at all this year. My notebooks are crammed with notes on ways to improve retention rates at community colleges and of meeting minutes exhumed from the Harvard archives, but will I really ever look at them again? So here is an attempt to at least try and get something down before I lose the will to continue.
My Job at MIT:
In July, I applied to a bunch of different internships, two of which really appealed to me. One was being the research assistant for the Career Services Office, and one was being a research analyst at the Institutional Research Office at MIT. I spent the weekend going back and forth between the two. Do I want to stay at Harvard and continue improving my qualitative skills, or do I want to go far outside of my comfort zone at MIT? After talking to those closest to me, I decided that I wanted to take some risks this year, and so I took the job at MIT. My first few weeks were horrible. I have never felt so stupid in my entire life, including when I was trying to learn Turkish. My first assignment was to clean up some SPSS code from the previous year so that we could run the same report using 2013 data. I had no idea where to begin. I would sometimes spend 15 minutes just staring at the screen, hoping that if I stared hard enough everything would suddenly make sense. I felt like it was an obstacle I would never be able to overcome, and that I would be doing everyone a favor if I quit and went to another internship. When I finally completed that project, I was given a new one that involved writing a macro in order to split a data file into departmental level reports. Again, I had no idea what to do, and I felt like an idiot.
This cycle continued until one day it didn’t. Somehow, I had developed the ability to recognize issues in the code or in a data set, and most of the time I could solve it. When I couldn’t, I knew what the issue was, and I could ask someone how to solve it. I started doing projects with more people, and my turn around time rapidly increased, as did my confidence. Looking back on it now, what I do in this internship will most likely be the most important thing I do all year. Not because I am learning important new skills and developing a network, but because I have proven to myself that I am capable of more than I give myself credit for.
The office is also a great place to work. The work culture is both hard-working and relaxed simultaneously, and I don’t really know how they manage it. People can work from home if they need to, or leave early on a Friday, or come in late on a Tuesday… If they get their work done. And everyone does. One of the analysts works best during the hours of 3-7 PM, so she makes her own schedule work around that. We eat lunch at the conference table together most days, and the conversations are sometimes formal, and sometimes incredibly lewd… In the best possible way. It is a really fun group to be around, and the office environment is really enjoyable in general. The walls are all whiteboads, so they are covered in the scribbles of heated discussions of ways to organize data. The pillar next to the conference table, dubbed the “scuttlebuttress,” is the most common victim of graffiti, and is sometimes used in meetings with other departments as well. In addition to the writing on the walls, each cubicle is festooned with each person’s spirit animal, which is decided by the rest of the office. One day last week, I came to my desk and saw that someone had bought a stuffed capabera and left it prominently next to my computer. My first week at MIT, I was told that the intern’s spirit animal was always a rodent, and so I changed my desktop background to a capabera, explaining that I might as well “go big or go home.” I guess it stuck.
Every day, I am reminded how lucky I am to be here. In my advancement course, we read about an example of a controversy at a college, and then spoke to the president of the institution. My Higher Ed and the Law class is taught by the General Counsel of Harvard. My professional seminar course is co-taught by the President Emeritus of Tufts, who is also a member of the Harvard Corporation. My professors are truly leaders in their respective fields, and it still takes some getting used to when I sit down for a one on one conversation with someone who has an extensive wikipedia page.
In addition to access to amazing people, we also have access to amazing resources. For my History paper, I asked for special permission from the Dean of the school to gain access to protected documents, which was granted. The days I spent in the Harvard archives reading those files is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I have worked in archives before, but there is a reason that people coming into the Harvard archive always tell people behind the desk “it is such an honor to be here.” Not only are the archives legendarily extensive, they are superbly maintained. To give you an example of how freakishly good the archives are, I gave an archivist a call number, and he knew off the top of his head whether there was a finding aid for those files. How is that even possible? They helped me get the resources I needed to write what might be the best research paper I have ever written, and that I am hoping to do more with…
My classes this semester are coming to a close, but I am already looking ahead to what comes next. By the end of this year, I will have taken more math courses than I did my entire time in high school. I am also diving headfirst into research methods courses, and wallowing in as much primary source material as I can. As much as I complain about the workload, or about how little sleep I am getting, this is what I enjoy doing above all else, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
How much of a cliché is it for a graduate student to talk about how much they enjoy spending time with their cohort? I can’t help it though, because it is true. One of our cohort members put it best when he said “you know you are in the right group when everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter than they are.” I get to spend my time with a group of bright, passionate, and ambitious people that care about all of the same things that I do. In addition to our studies, we make the time to socialize, and to go on adventures with each other. I have spent nights on rooftops telling stories and days in Salem at beer tastings. I have watched friends slowly sink into ridiculousness at the Harvard Yale game and slap the bag at Thanksgiving parties. Every now and then when we are all together, whether it is at a bar or in someone’s house, I just stop, and I wonder about all of the amazing things these people will accomplish. This is shaping up to be a fantastic year, and