What are you doing?

A feeling common among senior undergraduates (and senior high school students, and junior undergrads, etc) is the your-life's-about-to-start-what-are-you-going-to-do pressure. The common questions one faces include but are not limited to: What are you doing post-college? Are you getting a job? Where are you going to live? What about grad school? Will you stay in academia? What about high-paying tech/business/etc jobs?

pairs of question marks on a purple background

Surprise: That feeling of uncertainty doesn't always go away after graduation, or even after a year. Probably not even after five, but I haven't gotten that far yet. I may be more on track than some. I've set my sights on a career in science and research, the next step of which will, for me, be grad school. But I'm sure I'm more uncertain than others.

So, from a student who's been there, here are some thoughts on...

College, Internships, and Figuring Out What the **** You Want To Do With Your Life

You already know that there are a lot of questions to answer.

For example:

four computers in a row on a table

If you're considering a STEM career, like me, then a lot of people will say you have two options -- academia or industry. Even before you try to tackle which of these you might like, though, you may need to figure out what specific area you want to enter -- if you're a computer scientist, would you want to develop algorithms? Would you rather work on security applications, or distributed networks, or use your CS knowledge to program laser space robots, or any of thousands of other options?

Some programs of study prepare you for specific careers; others leave you with a remarkably open-ended future.

So... how might you even start figuring out your life?

The most important thing to know

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

That's important, so I'll say it again:

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

If you pick a career direction now, you aren't stuck with it for the next forty years. People change jobs. People change careers. I had a particularly good role model in this regard: my father has owned a sailing school, consulted for small businesses, recorded punk bands, and then there was this thing in Africa... Point is, you can do whatever cool things you want. You don't have to do the same thing forever.

Granted, knowing that you can do something else later doesn't necessarily help at all with figuring out what to do now. On to the next section:

wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

The "Figure My Life Out" Toolkit

Your two best resources are

  1. yourself
  2. other people

By this, I mean that you should (1) try new things as a way of figuring out what kinds of things you like doing, and you should (2) talk to other people about their experiences in doing different kinds of things. Gather information about what makes you happy, what kind of work you find worthwhile, what kind of jobs sound just plain cool, and so on.

Try new things

There are several ways to proceed.

Three of my favorites:

1. Classes.

The reason I took my first computer science class was because one day, I looked at my laptop and thought to myself, I don't know how you work at all. I signed up for CS101, vaguely hoping that I'd learn something about the Magical Innards of Computers. I didn't -- instead, I learned some Magical Incantations and Rituals for making little Java applications. I also learned that programming was fun, and that I'd probably enjoy further classes in that area. Now? The graduate program I'm entering has a heavy CS component, and most of the other programs I'd applied to were CS programs.

The point of this story: Take classes in novel areas. Either in person, at school, or via one of the increasing number of free online courses. It's one of the best ways to explore new subjects. If, after the first couple class sessions, you really hate it? Drop the class. It's worthwhile to remember that you may love a subject but dislike a professor, or love a professor enough to make any subject taught interesting. Regardless, it's a nice, easy, safe way to explore new stuff. You never know what you might find.

2. Independent learning.

My personal favorite here is reading books on all sorts of cool non-fiction topics. Pick up a book at the library on a topic you know nothing about, read it, see if it interests you. Other options include taking free online courses (see point 1), joining clubs to try out new activities, volunteering for new programs, ... lots of potential here. Spend time thinking about what activities you find worthwhile and important -- helping people or animals in need? Engineering solutions to problems in the world? Making a lot of money so you can live the life you want?

3. Internships etc.

The best time for this, if you're in school, is those warm summer months between semesters. Summer internships. Summer research programs. If you're interested in cognitive science or computer science, I have a fantastic list of resources for you. A lot of Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs exist across the sciences; lots of government agencies and national labs have programs as well, not to mention a myriad of companies!

Semesters are good, too: A relative of mine took a semester off for the NASA USRP program; friends have spent semesters interning at or just plain working for software companies. You don't have to leave school, though -- while studying abroad, I nabbed an internship in a psychology research lab as a part of Sydney Uni's Study Abroad Internship Program. Many schools have field work programs or internship programs -- does yours?

Two pieces of Important Advice:

Don't do the same thing every summer

and

It's okay if you don't like your internship/job/field work/etc.

Spend a summer or two doing research on a university campus. See what it's like working in at a government facility. Try out an internship with a company. Test out different environments and see what you like. See what you don't like. Discovering that you don't like some particular kind of work is as helpful -- if not more so! -- than finding that you do like something. You'll be able to rule out jobs that make you do that.

I admit, I didn't strictly follow this advice. I spent two summers on a research project at my home college, then two summers at different NASA facilities -- again, research projects, not with a company. I dabbled in research during semesters as well.

What I did do, however, was vary the kind of research I was exposed to. Working on autonomous learning in robots at Vassar was science; the laser space robots at NASA last summer and the Autonomous Vehicle Lab the summer prior were very much engineering projects. The emotions group I work with now, among others, exposed me to psychology and cognitive science research methods.

... okay, so that's all well and good. How do you actually find a good internship opportunity?

Google is your best friend. So are people you know -- see the following section. I've been invited to apply, but I've also spent weeks or months searching online for intriguing opportunities. Search for lists of internships (e.g., in cognitive science and computer science) or lists of databases of internships, and search all these. If your university has a Career Development Office or the like, go talk to them; they have even more resources.

My advice: Start early. Deadlines for summer internship applications tend to be in January and February; sometimes, they may be as late as March or as early as October. You'll need time to find the opportunities to apply for, and you'll need time to collect the materials (such as an updated resume) for your application.

a group of people around computers

Talk to people

This point sounds relatively straightfoward. Okay, have conversations with people. But there are several ways to get the most out of those conversations...

1. Listen to advice.

You know all those other people who want to give you advice? Let them. These people may be your grandparents, your professors, other relatives, older students, current professionals ... anyone, really. Let them talk. Listen to what they all have to say. You don't have to take their advice -- not a word of it -- but now and then, they say useful things. And you won't hear those useful things unless you're listening.

2. Use your resources wisely.

You probably know a lot of people. These people probably know a lot of people. Some of those people might be working jobs you're interested in. Some of those people might know people who are looking for people to work for them. Get the gist?

A further couple points:

Tell people what you're looking for. If they don't know, they can't help you or hook you up with opportunities they find.

If you're in school, your school probably has a Career Development Office or the like. Talk to the people there. Tell them what you're hoping to find -- whether it's a specific internship, information about a particular field, or just that you're hopelessly confused and would like their help. They have resources for you. It's their job to have resources for you.

See if you can set up informational interviews with people in fields you might be interested in, to get the scoop on what it's like to work that kind of job.

Attend job fairs -- a lot of schools host them; does yours? -- and even if you're not looking for any particular job yet, it's a great opportunity to talk to recruiters about the kinds of jobs out there.

3. Ask a whole bunch of questions.

The best thing to remember is that, in general, people really like talking about themselves. Use this to your advantage. Even simple questions like "So, what's your job like?" and "Can you tell me more about what it's like to do X?" can lead to worthwhile information.

pastel beach and ocean with the glowing morning sun

Then what?

The next step is pretty simple. (Do recall, simple does not necessarily mean easy.)

You've learned about your options. You've learned about what you like doing. You've learned about what you find worthwhile. It's time to stop evaluating possible directions to go in and actually go in a direction.

Maybe now, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. Great -- do that! Or maybe now you've concluded that no job will ever make you content. That one's a bit tougher. Try to find something at least tolerable, or, like some people joke, marry rich? Or maybe you like everything, and the sheer number of options is still overwhelming. Your best option here: find a reasonable job in a reasonable location near people you like. Go in some direction, at least for a while. If you love it, great. If you don't, move on.

Still have questions? Post a comment below! Maybe I, or someone else, will have helpful advice for you specifically.

And no matter what, remember: You don't have to do the same thing forever.


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Why did you pick cog sci?

When I can tell a ten-second answer is all that's wanted, I say, "because I took an intro cognitive science class in my first semester of college and loved it."

_yellow-orange gradient background with word cloud showing fields influencing cognitive science: education computer science artificial intelligence neuroscience philosophy anthropology linguistics psychology_

Some people realize I must've had some reason for signing up for an intro cog sci class in the first place. They tend to be satisfied with an answer like "because I read a book on consciousness before college, and wanted to know more."

The real answer, the one that's actually about why, is this:

No one knows yet how or why I'm a self-aware person. And I'd really, really like to find out.

Mysteries and mysteries

A couple years before I ventured across the country to begin my Vassar education, I started reading books about mysteries. Not fiction mystery novels -- actual mysteries, in which no one knows whodunnit yet, though a whole lot of people have theories. Things that are hard to think about, or crazy difficult to conceptualize. The nature of space-time. Infinity. Perception. (My favorite my favorite exhibit at the Exploratorium in San Francisco was always the optical illusions.)

_optical illusion of several rings of color that appear to move when you look at them_

First, it was books like Richard Wolfson's Relativity Demystified, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds, Mario Livio's The Golden Ratio. All the grand mysteries of the universe, its structure, and the math and physics underlying it. I didn't completely grasp the details of the theories, but it was sure fun to try!

Then I decided to read about people. I honestly don't remember why I picked up Susan Blackmore's Consciousness: An Introduction -- was I just browsing the generic non-fiction science books section? I remember the library. I remember kneeling on the carpet, pulling the book off one of the lower shelves.

This book opened my eyes.

At first, I was a little disappointed. Why couldn't Susan tell me how people worked? How I worked? I wanted answers! How am I a person? Why am I a person? Why can I think about myself thinking? Perhaps I'd assumed, up until that point, that scientists had all the hard problems figured out and now were just filling in the details.

My dismay was swiftly and thoroughly overridden by the realization that here was one of the Big Questions in the universe. Still so much left to discover. The twinkling thought: could I help discover it? And utter fascination. I distinctly remember standing on the local community college campus before a class, staring wonderingly at the landscaping, thinking, what is it like to be a tree?

_xray-like image of the human head from profile view_

So I read more. I read what I could find in my local public library system. (I wonder what I would have read and learned had I instead had a proper university library at my fingertips.) I also bought a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach, which intrigued and confused me. I was severely disappointed by Andrea Rock's The Mind at Night, because I'd naively assumed that I could read one book and then understand why people sleep and how dreaming works.

I read William Calvin's How Brains Think, which didn't actually tell me how brains think but did introduce me to some relevant terminology. I learned how complicated memory is and how to pronounce aplesia from Eric Kandel's memoir In Search Of Memory. Judith Rich Harris's No Two Alike was part of my introduction to the nature-nurture debates, a lot of twin studies, and just how important the environment and an organism's interactions with it are in determining what the organism is like.

I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, and some others, too. As before, I'm quite sure that I did not fully understand any of the theories presented, not having a background in cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, or neuroscience at that point.

Basically, I discovered the mind sciences at an opportune moment, in time to sign up for an introductory cognitive science course my freshman year.

And now?

I still don't know why or how I'm a self-aware person. No one does. I do, however, have a much better idea of the theories other folks have, the problems being tackled, and some of the methodologies being used in the quest. Maybe, now, I'll be able to help solve the mystery myself.


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View from the room

During my senior year at Vassar, I periodically took photos through my bedroom window of the trees and the courtyard area between all the senior apartments. The end result? This series, showing the seasons changing throughout the year. Photos are unedited.

trees are still green!

September 10, 2010

mostly green still!

October 8, 2010

rainy day

October 15, 2010

trees are turning red, carpet of yellow leaves

October 26, 2011

two days later: half the leaves are gone!

October 28, 2010

it was a blustery day - red leaves in the air

October 28, 2010

carpet of brown and red leaves, bare branches

November 5, 2010

bare branches, red tree behind, blue-gray clouded sky

November 17, 2010

First snow! Some ground still visible, pale clear sky

December 15, 2010

old snow everywhere, gray skies

January 11, 2011

fresh snow storm! everything is white

January 12, 2011

one of those rainy snow-slush days

January 18, 2011

even in winter with the ground covered in snow, there are blue skies sometimes!

January 25, 2011

tired of snow yet? a nice bright sunny day

February 10, 2011

the world has melted! gray spring day, still bare branches

March 11, 2011

evening light-rimmed clouds behind the branches of the trees

March 11, 2011

grey spring day, but at least there's some green on the shrubs!

April 13, 2011

that's more like it: buds and leaves on the trees, green grass, blue sky with puffy white clouds

April 29, 2011

the same beautiful spring day: it's all sunshine and puppies!

April 29, 2011

If I did this kind of series again, I'd make a point of putting the camera in the same place every time, and taking photos at set intervals. I think it still turned out pretty cool.


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the entrance arch under the library to Vassar's campus with a banner hung welcoming the newest class: of 2011

Gender, scientists, and reductionism: Why Vassar is special

This fall, for the first time in four years, I'm not returning to Vassar. What better time to muse on the college's specialness?

Over the summer, a couple divisions became more apparent to me than they had been previously:

  1. Gender in technology fields - I worked in a lab at NASA Goddard of fifty-some interns/apprentices with a large number of mentors who dropped in on a regular basis. I was the only female on my project; I generally worked in a room with fifteen guys. Only one of the mentors I knew was female, and she was a professor from a collaborating university, not from NASA.

    I should emphasize that the difference I'm focusing on here is not in treatment but in sheer numbers. Why is it that fewer women end up in technology fields? The fact that so many prominent organizations focus on promoting women in technology -- including WIT, the Women in Technology project, NCWIT, and of course the Grace Hopper Celebration, which I attended last year -- suggests there's a problem. It's at the point where it doesn't even feel weird to be the only female in the room. Is there something wrong with that?

  2. Science vs engineering - I mentioned this recently. There is a clear division between those who have been trained as scientists and those trained as engineers. Yes, each have their own goals and purposes, but why isn't there more crossover?

  3. Reductionism vs dualism - As elaborated in one of the first essays I wrote here, I'm not a dualist. A prominent place to find dualisms is in many of the world's fine religions. Some of the conversations I had with people this summer have accentuated just how different that point of view is from my own.

The fact that I noticed these differences now -- not during a previous summer or semester -- highlights just how special a place Vassar is, and how different being at an undergraduate liberal arts college is from being in the rest of the world.

My closest friends at Vassar were also non-dualists; Vassar's mix of genders is unique enough to begin with that the ratio in technology-related majors continues to be unique; Vassar lacks an engineering department and is generally full of scientists.

The rest of the world has different ratios of people and mixes of beliefs. I'm finding it fascinating to explore.


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backs of students heads, wearing black motorboard hats and tassels - photo by Terry Bolstad

Don't ever stop

This one's a life update post, but it's also a "here's some cool science!" post.

A few days ago, I graduated from Vassar College with a Bachelor of Arts in Cognitive Science and a correlate in Computer Science. I was decorated with general honors, departmental honors, membership to Psi Chi, and membership to Sigma Xi. My time there was awesome.

What's next?

No lazy summer!

Well, no lazy summer break for me! I've already spent three days in my summer lab at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where I'll be working on a number of software development projects. The primary one is a LIDAR-assisted robotic group exploration project, in which we're going to have a small fleet of robots -- a mothership and some workerbots -- use 3D LIDAR data to autonomously map and plot paths through an area. This kind of robot fleet could, eventually, be used to explore other planets. One of the big challenges will be dealing with the 3D image data. I'm looking forward to learning more image processing algorithms!

Another project is the redesign of the Greenland Robotic Vehicle, a big autonomous rover that'll drive across Greenland, collecting a data about snowfall, mapping, and exploring. Did you know there's ice on that country two miles thick? I may also get to play with a robot that has stereo vision.

You can see some of these robots (and what life in the lab may be like) in this great video about last year's interns.

So far, I've met a bunch of intelligent, friendly folks, started catching up on already-written code, and begun to delve into the platforms, libraries, and algorithms we'll be using and developing this summer. Our mentors have already proven themselves to be enthusiastic and helpful. Just yesterday, one of them told us,

"You're engineers at NASA. You want to go where things are, and then go beyond."

That may end up being our theme for the summer.

A little overwhelming?

shiny silver model of a space shuttle

There's going to be so much going on. It'd be easy to get overwhelmed -- especially now, jumping in and floundering around in the code, the projects, the people. So much to learn.

But as I sat in the lab today, reading about ROS, going through tutorials, reading about PCL and feature detection in point clouds, digging through last summer's confusing pile of C# and C++ programs, I realized I wasn't overwhelmed. And it was because of all the other experiences I've had that've gotten me to this point.

Confidence. My first URSI summer, flailing through Microsoft Robotics Studio and complicated conceptual theories. Figuring out how to deal with webcams and image data my second URSI summer, reading papers on optical flow and implementing algorithms. Last summer: excavations of an open source flight simulator, the Aeronautics Student Forum, dealing with different work styles and communication styles in my LARSS lab. And more.

I think about all those experiences, and I'm not afraid of this summer. I could almost be overwhelmed -- perhaps thinking that everyone else has more of the right kind of experience; I wasn't trained as a classic engineer -- but I know I can succeed. My non-engineering, cognitive science background sets me apart and lets me look at problems a little differently than everyone else. I'm an asset.

I know how to learn. I know how to do research.

I can conquer this summer.


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