Efforts to be taken seriously

It would be a cliche for me to begin with how much of a struggle college and life has been ever since I’ve been back. Several things have been working out to my advantage, and surprisingly several things haven’t. If the Universe was an unruly teenager, I feel exactly like what its parent might feel like. Sometimes, I try to compromise. At other times, I put my foot down and make demands. At other times, I calmly wait until the terrible mood swings get damped to the stable static of normal. I don’t know when these times come. I do know that I have the option of grinning and bearing with it.

Throughout winter break, I have actively been searching for research opportunities. It’s been a complex, vague process that seems to foreshadow all the job-hunting that my future will someday do. I have discovered that the formal term for making official friends is called networking, and this process is no less methodical, cut-throat and precise as any other. The dress-code may be business casual. But there is absolutely nothing that is casual. It is a very carefully orchestrated parade of skills, critical thinking, out-performance and psychological observations.

I had to write up a resume and a CV and a few statements of purposes. As it turns out, I am yet too young to be applying to my fields of interest, namely Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Maybe I am lucky because I want to specialize in something so esoteric, as this narrows my competition pool somewhat. Besides the occasional perusal of new developments and fueled by some basic ideas learned off Wikipedia, I do not have any legitimate experience in this domain. I have worked on a few projects from time to time, but those were out of sheer passion and not for a grade or anything that can be quantified in terms of a resume-comprehensible format. Hence, I have spent the last few weeks reading more research papers than newspapers.

I will be enrolling for the classes I want only next semester because graduate students and other specialized students are obviously given a preference over a mere youngling like me. In my mind, I have already decided that this is something that excites me and that I am passionate about. Hence I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t try my hardest best to get it. I’ve flooded the department inbox with request emails. I’ve borderline spammed professors from other universities with request emails. For every 47 emails I send, 5 reply back. Maybe 2 or 3 of them are looking for people like me. Maybe I can clear the interviews of only one. Or maybe two.

One of my crippling weaknesses is this needless endless worry and anxiety that I won’t amount to anything. What if I can’t get anything? What if I under-perform? What if I cannot live up to the project expectations? What if it turns out that research isn’t really my thing? What if my GPA sabotages my endeavors? Worse, what if I sabotage the interviews? How do I dazzle the readers of my statement of purpose and make sure that they all find me as equal fit for their project?

Three lessons here. Stop asking bad questions of yourself. Stop worrying. Be true to yourself.

In doing my research as to how to write a statement of purpose and what are the things readers look for, I realized that the only way I was going to strongly present my case was to expose my true passion in it. My passion in artificial intelligence comes from a staple background in science fiction, exploratory tendencies and the curiosity to discover what exactly runs the machine-human dynamic in our constantly evolving society. But these are far-fetched ideas, and like the child who loved them, I cannot legitimately present these as a formal reason for why I would like to be a research assistant in these highly esteemed laboratories. I need to be taken seriously, and not just as a child who wants to play around with some ideas and expect them to evolve into something miraculous.

In calming my own frustrations and managing the Universe’s, I have acquired enough patience to actually make it a resume entry. Skills: Expanding reserves of patience.

I have several factors which differentiate me from the rest of the applicant pool. Some work in my favor. Like the fact that I am female and interested in robotics, because women are an under-represented in such circles. Some don’t. Like my GPA. Some can work either ways. Like my age and experience. Or the fact that I attend a prestigious Ivy League institution, but still don’t have an overly respectable GPA.

As of today, I have two offers in hand. One has already committed me for this semester. The other will consider me for their summer laboratory project.

I kept reminding myself that this wasn’t a life or death matter. Initiating my career now wasn’t something that I couldn’t wait for perhaps a few more years. I just wanted to be honest and original and truly work on something which I love, and I hope to love more. That’ probably how I survived three rounds of consecutive interviews. Some were easy. Some were hard. I had obviously done some homework on what was expected before I turned up, and I took every opportunity to let them know that I had. This skill was deployed in the medium of asking specific questions. I didn’t blankly stare and say, “Sir, what is your project about?” but I asked things like, “Sir, why can’t we use this machine-translation algorithm to parse Chinese oral corpora to English?”

I don’t know how things will get to work. I don’t know what to expect from embarking on this new journey, or even how to go about it. My parents constantly tell me that they’re immensely proud of me and despite all the layers of discovering my true worth, I am somewhat proud in my new-found calm. Now, it’s time to gear up.


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