Content warning: Usage of the first person to relate a tale of First World Problems, self absorbed rambling. You don’t have to read it.
Photo Courtesy of the first week of my freshman year
I just finished up with my final and arguably most important graduate school visit.
On Tuesday I dove up to Berkeley, stayed at a friend’s place, and biked to Leconte in the morning. Just as I did for nearly four years as an undergraduate, I locked my bike in the racks between Leconte and Birge Halls and walked up the stairs instead of taking the elevator. It all felt extremely familiar.
As an undergradute I had in general a fantastic but also somewhat difficult time in the Physics department at Berkeley. Largely this was my fault: I didn’t know what I wanted, and at Berkeley, in order to get what you want, you have to ask for it. Fight for it even. I didn’t officially join the Physics department until my third year (think: post the birth of this blog), around the same time I realized how much I enjoyed working in a lab. At that point, a randomly assigned faculty adviser sat me down in his office and told me point blank that I could not go to grad school with the experience I had. He was probably right. It was in that moment I that I knew finally what I wanted, and that I had to work doubly hard to get it. I wanted to be an experimental physicist, or at least give it a try.
Flash forward a few years, to this Wednesday, when I found myself in the same building where I once sat down with that adviser. Except this time, I was in the company of 50 or so admitted prospective graduate students, I myself among them. As much as the setting was familiar, the context was surreal.
I am fully aware that I have been offered the opportunity of a lifetime to return to Berkeley for graduate school. I am in a position where I get to study and do physics for at least the next five to six years at one of the best institutions in the world. I am ecstatic, grateful, and humbled all at once.
I have been fortunate enough to receive offers* from other schools (see: Real America) and I’ve put a lot of thought into each of them, even visited most of them. At the moment there are two places left for me in this process of choosing: Berkeley of course, and University of British Columbia.
As a budding theorist in the Berkeley hallway asked me somewhat condescendingly the other day: What the heck is at British Columbia? Well, for one thing, the Canadian national laboratory for particle physics. Add to that students and professors who I got along with surprisingly well, who were friendly and welcoming instead of intimidating or pedantic, a diverse, strong research program, and at least one experiment and adviser I am very much interested in. On top of that add the awesome city of Vancouver and all the mountains and islands and bald eagles and totem poles that Beautiful British Columbia has to offer, and UBC becomes quite an enticing ticket. Just typing those last two sentences makes my indecisive brain do backflips.
Why am I hung up on Berkeley, then? Is it just because Berkeley was always what I had hoped for? Because I want a sort of ‘second chance’ in Berkeley Physics? Because I know that “Berkeley” is practically a brand name on my future resumé? Because it is a place I love and know? Or, is it because I know I would have a rigorous and quality education, the opportunities at Berkeley are practically limitless, there are projects I am interested in within the department, and I know it would be the challenge of a lifetime? I am not sure which of these reasons are valid.
I’ve gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people. I’ve spoken to professors, current students, former students, students in different departments, friends, family, the dogs, and to myself, aloud, in the car. Advice helps, but what I do know that this is a choice only I can make.
I’m certainly being meticulous about it: Choosing the school you do your PhD at is essentially selecting not only your pool of potential advisers and where you will spend a decent chunk of your life, but also the word you will have next to your name for the rest of your career. Maybe that is why this so daunting and difficult for me. I’ve come to the melodramatic yet inescapable maxim that this choice effects the trajectory of my life in ways that I cannot know or understand.
So, even though I know there is no wrong decision at this point, I can’t simulate the outcome of either option. I can’t make an educated guess. My situation now (on the brink of Physics grad school) is so vastly different from where I was at the end of high school (intended English Major) and as such I don’t entirely trust my own intuitions about my future. My interests and goals evolve constantly. In this sense, does my decision even matter? I know this is not supposed to be philosophical, but in typical fashion, it seems to be getting there. I think I would be happy in either place. I can’t make a wrong decision. Or can I?
What I know is this: Berkeley, as an academic and social community, is probably the place I have felt most at home. It is a thriving international research environment, and a politically active campus where I find myself constantly in impressive company. What I also know is that it by living different in places, mostly outside of the US for the last three years, I have gone through so much personal and academic growth which I would not have experienced in the same way had I stayed in Berkeley. I know that sounds a lot like feelgood hippie bullshit, but it’s the true kind of feelgood hippie bullshit. At least I believe it. Vancouver would be yet a new experience, yet a new world to found, explore, and never quite conquer.
I have two more days to decide. I feel filled with a strange kind of energy. It is time for this to be settled. Oj, what do I do?
*For the record, I also had a lot of rejections. But, who cares?