I’ve had my preconception of grad school before entering MathMods, and I’m sure many of us did. Grad school is supposed to be difficult, intensive, and cold. But I also expected there to be a life outside of lectures — an opportunity for growth in leadership, community involvement, and others. At least in my North American conception, the university isn’t just a place where your only route on campus is between the bus stop and a classroom.
In my undergrad, people took extra-curricular activities as a part time job. Being around these students, it was hard not to do the same. At one point or another, I was busying myself with rehearsals, lab, teaching, and running a nonprofit at the same time. Even then, I felt I wasn’t doing enough, and indeed, many students were doing more than I. Obviously, things changed in MathMods.
But MathMods is different, and the expectation must adjust to it. Language is a challenge, so the usual extra-curriculars are largely out. But the important skills that these activities offer can be learned despite their absence. In this post I want to talk about how to make the most out of your stay in MathMods.
First, grad school is what you make out of it. You can certainly just do the minimum and move on. But grad school is also a place where you learn to deal with frustration, bureaucracy, and personnel. You can look at the professors as insurmountable obstacles to what you want, or you can look at this as an opportunity to learn from tricky situations. How you face the coordinators says something about your ability to handle conflict in the workplace. Similarly, how you deal with teammates in a group project has direct link to your professionalism.
Naturally, much of the emphasis in this program is placed on hard skills. That is, learning math, physics, engineering, etc. What is sadly overlooked is soft skills, and there are plenty of ways to demonstrate your control, or lack thereof, over of it. I have seen students do things so rash and irresponsible that it’d surely cause friction, if not outright termination, at work place. Even if your plan afterward is a PhD program, social skills matter. It will affect your relationship with your colleagues, with the university administration, and ultimately your reputation.
This all sounds easy, but it isn’t. Soft skill is more delicate and subtle than learning an equation from a textbook, and it’s all too easy to trivialize it as secondary. And more so to equate good practice with passivity and inaction. I can’t recall how many times people have approached me, out of anxiety or frustration, about speaking to prof. Rubino. I also know instances where others remain silent, not daring to utter a word. Being the representative, I have to overcome all these feelings myself. It isn’t always easy.
But this is precisely where the test for discretion comes in. There is a time to tactfully display strength, to diplomatically push back; then there is a place to defer and concede to the fact that the situation simply will not change. Accepting the inexplicable rigidity of bureaucracy is a difficult exercise of the latter. Submitting unconditionally demonstrates no resolve. There usually is a very reasonable set of steps to take, and the learning starts on this path. If it works, great; if not, persist. If not still, take a turn and think of another, perhaps bolder action, to get a response. The point is to probe the available course of action toward a certain situation or kind of people. On this note, I highly recommend Kafka’s The Trial.
Of course, language barrier is also problematic since it could simply bar you from any experience. But there is also something to be tried here – to either stay comfortable or taking a chance. Getting embarrassed is actually a great way to learn. We all know it, but it is hard to counteract the inertia. Yet it is vital to try.
The thing with soft skills is that you never know when the test comes. It catches you off guard, there is no proper way to prepare, and you do not easily recover from a fall. The safe environment of university shields you from creating catastrophe, but on the outside it is less forgiving. At the same time, the confidence derived from overcoming these obstacles only strengthens your resolve. It is a quality that will empower you to push through the inertia and do more.
So that’s a word on grad school and social skills. While there might not be chances to attend board meeting, teach a class, or play music, it enters subtly at every turn. What you can get out of MathMods and living abroad in general extends beyond sight, and there is something untold, yet valuable, to be gained, just by paying attention to how you react to frustration and tumultuous encounters.