I’m at the point in my college experience when I’ve applied to, been accepted to, and visited some great graduate schools, and now I have just two weeks to decide where I may spend the next 4.5 – 6 years of my life. But, really, I’ve already made my decision, even if it hasn’t yet been formalized. It wasn’t an easy decision to make. Of all the faculty I met with at the schools I visited, I was most interested in the lab of Professor Tom Muir at Princeton University. (I choose Princeton). However, at Princeton, the Muir lab is the only lab that I’m really interested in. This is problematic because if he chooses not to take me, or for some reason I turn out to be a poor fit for his lab, then I don’t really have any other good options in the chemistry department.
With this in mind, I’ve been in correspondence with Professor Muir who suggested that I choose Princeton (of course) and arrive earlier in the summer, so that I could spend some time in the lab before classes started. “Essentially, if you show enthusiasm and good communication skills firing this initial period then you are in – obviously you have to like the lab culture as well. Usually things work out fine.” Sounds promising, right? Except that I’m more than a little apprehensive about having to show “enthusiasm and good communication skills”; I think anyone who knows me personally would understand.
My current research PI has been enormously helpful throughout my graduate school application and visiting process, and so again I went to her for advice. This is how I explained my quandary: I’m utterly incapable of faking enthusiasm (she interjected that I should never have to, and I agree), but even when I am honestly enthusiastic about something, I often find it hard to actively express my enthusiasm, and people find it hard to detect. Basically, I was worried that I would not convincingly communicate my enthusiasm for research in the Muir lab, and be rejected for that reason.
Her response was pretty much what I expected to hear – a confirmation of what I knew, what I had heard from others countless times – yet I found it no less disheartening. When I first joined her lab this past summer, she thought I came across as disinterested (ouch). While I did everything that was asked of me, I failed to relay the excitement of someone who was truly interested in their research. She went on to say that she knows me much better now, and realizes that I am interested and committed to my project. Yet, she knows this mostly because she has gotten better at interpreting me, and suggested that I would benefit greatly from being more expressive and taking more initiative. While she isn’t wrong in detecting that my interest in lab research has increased over the past two semesters, I’d argue that I was far from ‘disinterested’ when I first joined the lab.
I wrote an earlier post about being an introvert, in which I described myself as “just taking a while to warm up to people,” a statement with which my PI mostly agreed. But in this case, at Princeton I don’t have 9 months, or even a semester to win people over. I might have a month. In the first lab I joined (for undergraduate research) it took months before I was the one to initiate a casual conversation with the grad student whose desk was beside mine – and he was probably the friendliest guy in the lab. Why? I don’t know why – I just didn’t.
At the same time, I do realize that I tend to conduct myself in a more restrained manner, especially with strangers, and that can give off a cold or aloof impression. People are always saying “just be yourself,” but what if “being myself” is what’s limiting my opportunities? I don’t think I need changing or “fixing,” but I would hate to learn that my introversion and social restraint are major handicaps. So how do I convincingly show enthusiasm that others actually interpret as enthusiasm? Increase my frequency of the words “awesome” and “cool?” Smile more? Give more thumbs up? To me, those suggestions sound so silly they verge on comical.
But in all seriousness: should I just acknowledge that I am unlikely to please someone who is looking for “enthusiasm and good communication skills,” and choose to attend another university at which there are more faculty whose research I find less interesting, but labs I think I could also be happy working in? Can I change myself to better fit these criteria? (And if so, then how?). To those people who know me personally (I know some of you read this blog – friends, classmates, etc), I’d be especially interested in knowing what you think.