Susan and Steven, “team captains,” handing out the jerseys with Dr. Freddie (PLACE Project Director)
In the epidemiology MSPH/PhD program at UNC, first-year students are enrolled in a seminar that encourages philosophical discussion of epidemiology and public health, provides an additional opportunity to interact with faculty and staff, and has unofficially become a biweekly occasion for junk food consumption (because calories don’t count during academic seminars). This semester, the seminar has mostly required regular readings, a few forum posts, and sharing articles. An additional assignment, which we are completing over the course of the semester, requires us to interview epidemiologists.
As someone who appreciates the value of networking and is always looking for new sources of advice, I was excited to see this assignment on our seminar syllabus. Staff and students alike have encouraged us first-years to “go forth and meet faculty,” so to speak, but the whole idea of showing up at someone’s office without a clear agenda is a little uncomfortable for me. I don’t think that I’m all that socially awkward (though perhaps that’s debatable) and I’m rarely intimidated by professors, but I tend to be very concerned about imposing on other people’s time. For this reason, I don’t usually make my way to a professor’s office, at least for an initial meeting, without a good excuse.
This personal hesitation about scheduling informational interviews isn’t much of a revelation for me. In all four years and 165 credits of undergrad, I only attended faculty office hours twice. On both occasions, I was completely comfortable stopping by, because those meetings had a clear objective: seek clarification on some homework problems. Homework questions weren’t a reliable impetus for me to meet professors, though, since I was independent (or stubborn) enough that I rarely had questions to ask. I could figure out most answers of the answers to my assignments through thought, Google searches, course materials, and crowd-sourcing.
While it might often have been easier to consult a professor about my questions, it seemed disingenuous to go to office hours “unnecessarily,” without first consulting these other sources. My undergraduate advisor actually joked about how I only visited when I needed his signature; I would stop by with the appropriate forms already filled out and only asked questions after I had scoured every resource on the College website. I struggle to justify taking up someone’s time just to get on their radar screen or to ask questions that might be answered elsewhere, and I worry that people aren’t interested in taking the time to entertain inconclusive conversations on abstract, philosophical questions.
Given my resistance to unfocused meetings, I was grateful for an excuse to speak with people I may have otherwise not approached. I have conducted two interviews so far, and both have illustrated something that I really appreciate about the program at UNC. As at Virginia Tech, the faculty, staff, and students I have encountered here are friendly, open, and unpretentious despite their many accomplishments. I learned a lot about my interviewees’ careers and their motivations for their work, but through these interviews, I also gleaned a lot of personally relevant advice.
One comment that stood out to me was a professor’s reassurance that it is not necessary to figure everything out right now. I have a strong impulse to commit to projects early and deeply for many reasons: to demonstrate commitment, to gain an additional source of feedback, to connect to another group of people, to apply what I’m learning, to immerse myself in the jargon… all that and more. I generally do enjoy those benefits, but I know that I have a tendency to go a bit overboard (and a bit crazy) trying to prove and improve myself in this way.
The interviewee who told me not to worry about finding my ideal project right away explained that her thesis did not come out of her first couple of projects. She said that she did, in fact, do some work that she didn’t enjoy on the way to her first really gratifying research endeavor. Maybe this is not Earth-shattering news to anyone else, but it is good for me to hear. I stumbled upon what would become my undergraduate thesis in the second month of my freshman year; the path to success that I experienced with that was a little serendipitous. Talking with someone successful who didn’t immediately stumble upon her ideal project reminds me that success doesn’t always depend on being as lucky as I was in my first research experience.
Another interesting point from my interviews was one about maintaining perspective. One interviewee mentioned how easy it can be to buy into the opinions of your professors. In the classroom especially, she explained, students receive positive reinforcement for aligning their values with the values of the instructor. If your professor regards one aspect of research (e.g. literature review, methods, application) as most important, it often is most rewarding to conduct your own research in a way that is consistent with the professor’s preferences. My interviewee thus warned that you need to be vigilant about what you think will make you the best researcher and resist focusing solely on what earns the most approval.
More advanced students have explained that the program (and research in general) will often necessitate that you make choices between perfectionism and having a social life and healthy habits, so during the interviews, I asked about strategies for balancing those aspects of graduate school life. One recommendation that seemed particularly useful is determining how much time specific tasks are worth. An interviewee explained that she often decides that a paper is worth “x” hours of her time, and so she will write for that amount of time and then stop, even if the product is not perfect. This hearkens back to a line commonly uttered by a Virginia Tech professor (Paul Heilker) during one of my study abroad modules last semester: “lower standards, crank out text.” So far, I have been maintaining my standards and just relying on tried-and-true method of late nights, coffee, and naps, but in situations where this won’t work, setting time limits for less essential tasks seems like a smart way to manage a busy to-do list.
It might just be a mirage, but from these interviews, I get the impression that my classmates and professors are actually real people. They have attained success despite their own challenges and uncertainties when they were starting out. They figured it all out eventually; so will I, and so will my classmates, no matter how clueless we may feel at times!
I’ll keep thinking about how to reconcile my desire to talk with people and my desire to respect people’s time, but for now, I still have at least one more “get out of awkwardness free” card left. Though I don’t know who my final interviewee will be, I’m already looking forward to it, because I find that I finish every conversation with an epidemiologist with a renewed sense of excitement for what I am getting into.