**I wrote this post a while back, didn’t get around to completing it, had a few setbacks, some low points in my life, and couldn’t make myself complete it. Then I realized – what the heck, it’s my personal blog, I don’t need to be perfect. So here this post is, in all its unfinished glory from the coming-of-age perspective that can only be charmingly provided by an uncertain 22 year old (now almost 23.5).**
February 16, 2021-
Recently, mortality and short iron butterflies as an options trading strategy has been on my mind. Mortality because I lost a family member recently, am losing another possibly very soon, and short iron butterflies because I’m making futile attempts to stay away from YOLO-ing on the stock market and other YOLO traders on r/wallstreetbets. Here’s what a short iron butterfly looks like. If the stock price stays stable, you get the maximum gain. There’s just a very small frame where you’re “in the money”.
This got me thinking about where my maximum stability is, and where I would like it to be. I spend much of my time not being stable and have been that way throughout much of my young adulthood. It’s really tempting to blame it on graduate school – after all, I live and breathe this reality of being a graduate student every day. It’s so tempting, that much of the first quarter I was here as a student, I thought about quitting every day, because it was one of the biggest changes I could make at the time. I thought I needed something drastic to change in order for me to feel a different way.
Objectively, there’s a lot to love about being in graduate school and in this program, specifically. I have a great research mentor, a good lab environment, responsive program advisors, and I am paid to have a lot of thinky thoughts while collecting a degree on the side. Not to mention, it’s sunny all the time in Los Angeles, and I’m 10 minutes away from the beach, a fact that I’m ashamed to say I’ve taken advantage of less than 5 times. This knowledge- that I am lucky to be where I am, that I ought to feel very grateful for what I have – just made me feel more hollow on the inside, for being so unhappy. It’s very strange when you guilt yourself for feeling a certain way because you believe you should be feeling a different way. Save yourself the emotional distress and just allow yourself to feel how you feel.
I have finally been able to put my thoughts into a diagram, thanks to the short iron butterfly. The problem is that my priorities have shifted as I’ve gotten older. Profound, isn’t it? (Joking). But I honestly feel that this may be at the heart of many complaints about graduate school. It’s that graduate school, for many, coincides with that nasty period in young adulthood where you’re trying to figure out who you are and what you want out of life, and trying to use grad school to point you in that right direction, when you don’t even know what direction you’re aiming at.
Some of us make that fatal statistical error, and conclude that “correlation implies causation,” and decide to quit. This also applies to other aspects of life- you don’t feel happy, and you think maybe you should quit your relationships and cut yourself off from the world, and just maybe you’ll feel better.
Enter the “short iron butterfly” philosophy. What does fulfillment, or “being in the money” look like, and what does a lack of fulfillment, or “being out of the money’ look like? Do you spend most of the time being out of the money? If so, why? Your short iron butterfly might not and will probably not look like my short iron butterfly, but my hope is that this will help you to identify what fulfillment looks like to you.
When I first graduated with my bachelor’s, I was so excited to go to graduate school because my priority at the time was to have an interesting job. I thought that 100% of personal fulfillment would come from having a very dynamic career, where the day-to-day looks different, and I’m constantly challenged to learn at a very rapid pace. If this is you, and this has been you for a very long time, then graduate school will suit you very well. Indeed, this is one of my favorite things about my current position. I’ll never be bored.
However, in the last 2 years out of undergrad and in graduate school:
- I have done a little more growing up in this city of Los Angeles, where I’ve had a few unpleasant encounters with people here, which has increased my wariness
- I have way more free time than I used to, which means I sleep an adequate 8 hours and also waste more time consuming mindless content
- I spend a lot less time at home home with my human fam, and a lot more time with the sigfig and our two snuggly fur kids
- There’s a contagious virus, which affected a lot of the events I’d usually help out with (science outreach, science fairs)
- I was out of the lab for about 3 months.
- I consumed a lot of messages about “it’s a pandemic, you’re allowed to feel anxious, go easy on yourself” which didn’t help, and messages about “if you’re not doing that thing you always wanted to do during this time, you just never had the motivation to do it” which doubly didn’t help.
These experiences have collectively enabled me to recognize that a true sense of fulfillment, for me, needs to come from a recognition of where I fit into society, making my day-to-day intellectually challenging, and spending my free time intentionally. It would be best if all three of these qualities were innate to my job, but it’s also important to recognize that these three things could come from three different areas of life and that it’s my responsibility to do what makes me fulfilled.
My Three Aspects of Fulfillment and Why I Have Total Control
Career Dynamism: I went to graduate school for the intellectual challenge, and that hasn’t changed. Perhaps the most obvious thing to explain on the diagram is that sometimes I get completely sucked into my little science world, and want to spend all of my weekdays and weekend time thinking and planning and doing and learning. Then I experience burnout, which is about me caring about whether or not I’m doing my job well enough to the extent that I never think I’m doing well enough, which is just a hair away from me thinking that I’m doing horribly, which is exhausting, and I start associating that exhaustion with lack of interest in my job. Bad, but not something that can’t be cured (for me) with a couple days off. However, interest in what I’m doing is really important to me. Right now, I’m bouncing between learning about data science and about bioinformatic approaches to analyze “omics” data, which is very new and involves more knowledge of linear algebra and Stack Exchange than I’m comfortable with. I’m also doing my fair share of academic writing in the hopes that funding will rain from the sky (not yet, but maybe one day). It is the sort of exercise where you sweat from your pores and tear ducts without lifting any weights, and involves finagling your project so that it fits the funding mission to a T, in addition to making sure that all the elements of your figure perfectly align. It’s fun, always in retrospect. However, for me, if I get caught thinking too much about the potential “Broader impacts” of what my work at the bench and awesome computer with 32 processing cores actually does, it actually puts me in a really dark place. You mean, I’m not actually moving the field any closer to use of the microbiome for targeted therapeutics? You mean, even if I really exert myself for half a year of data collection and analysis and subsequently conclude that a phenomenon truly does NOT happen, science doesn’t really care?
Servitude to Society a.k.a. “Broader Impacts”: If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to witness it, does it really make a sound? Similarly, if a graduate student is doing cool science in her lab but it never gets published, does she actually make a footprint in society, or is she actually just deluding herself into thinking that she makes a difference? I’ve also thought about switching to something that has a more direct impact on society. I read an article on Science careers about a postdoc who had quit the lab to deliver mail, and it resonated with me. I’ve always coveted a Starbucks barista position myself, and have written cover letters and revised my resume in the hopes that senpai would notice me (I’ve been unsuccessful my last three attempts). At Starbucks, these barista are delivering life-saving caffeine to a sleep-deprived society which gets behind the wheel, operates on patients, and tries to not to crack under the pressures and stressors of life.
Let me tell you something. It’s unfair for me to complain about being a graduate student and having very little impact on society because only 6 people have seen my paper on ResearchGate. Graduate school doesn’t owe it to me to make me feel useful. I could easily reframe my job position as that as a graduate student, I am able to pass on what I’ve learned to others in my lab, which could help them in their own respective careers.
Free Time: I need time off to rest my brain. Sounds self-explanatory, right? Less obvious about this leg of the short iron butterfly would be explaining why too much free time is a bad thing. When I whine about graduate school, I find myself explaining, “Yeah, it’s cool that I get to dictate what I do on a daily basis, and that I’m paid to troubleshoot….. BUT (I don’t have enough free time) or (the work I do actually contributes very little to society.)” It’s extremely unfair for me to pin the blame on graduate school. What does free time even mean to me, and why do I want it? The free time I want encompasses having the time and financial resources to work on my own personal projects. Both of these things I have, but when I have free time, I squander it by doing very low-effort thumb exercises (scrolling on my phone).
Sure, with other positions that I could take up with my current skill set, I might have a little more financial resources. But if I’m going to waste the time I could have used to just degrade into brainless phone mush which doesn’t even make me feel happy but only distracts me from my problems, why do I even need this time? Therefore, it’s my responsibility to plan my free time to work on little side projects which make me fulfilled and not empty.
7.11.21- I guess the TL;DR version of this is that when I was younger, my values were pretty shallow/stupid. My metric of fulfillment was my ability to “finish the degree”, “get an interesting job,” but after I did that, it felt like things were going downhill from there (because my metric was stupid). I’ve recently decided to refocus on three things that will never expire:
(1) Am I continuously challenging myself to learn and grow?
(2) Do I improve aspects of lives around me, no matter in what way?
(3) Do I spend non-work time connecting in meaningful ways, or just being a social media consumer?