Friday, March 3, 2017

Strapless Boots

We’ve all heard “Hard work and determination are all you need to succeed. Look at me. I pulled myself up by my bootstraps, without any help.” These words might be considered motivational to some, but can seem like criticism to others. Determination and hard work were critical to my earning a Phd in astronomy, but the support from others was also instrumental in making my success possible.

When I was young, I loved Carl Sagan’s COSMOS series. My mother would rent the videos from the public library whenever I asked. I dreamed of being an Astronomer, but living in a rural part of Northern Virginia limited my access to people in the field. I found out when applying to colleges that I needed to major in Physics to become an Astronomer, so I indicated as-such on my applications. I selected a small, liberal arts school in Pennsylvania because I quickly realized that I would be a minority in my discipline. The smaller-sized classes made me feel comfortable while pursuing my degree, and allowed me to build closer relationships with the faculty and my peers.

The faculty at my college were immensely supportive. Any time I started to feel discouraged by my lack of preparedness for Physics, my instructors took the time to help me understand my studies. They encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree, so I signed up for the Physics GRE with little preparation. As a result, I did terrible on it-- better than 1% of the other test takers. The rejection letters from graduate schools started pouring in. Regardless of this, my advisers and other senior faculty encouraged me to apply to all the top Astronomy schools. I also applied to a lesser-known Master’s degree program in Physics out in California as a back-up. It was the only acceptance letter I received. So I packed my bags and drove to San Francisco.

The Master’s program contained students from many backgrounds-- both academic and personal. Many of us found that we needed to retake undergraduate-level Physics classes to prepare us for the higher-level courses in the program. Because of this, we quickly bonded by working on homework together, making sure no one fell behind. We supported each other through periods of self-doubt and wanting to give up. I had never experienced such camaraderie before. This empowered me to pursue my Ph.d.

I applied to graduate schools and retook the Physics GRE. This time I scored a 24% which, while better than before, still wasn’t high enough to earn my Master’s or get into Phd programs. Again, I felt discouraged. When I met with my research adviser about this, he urged me not to give up. He felt I was ready for a Phd program and encouraged me to stay an extra year in order to focus on my research and study for the GRE. My advisor listed graduate programs that he thought better-suited my research interests. He even suggested that, if I didn’t want to continue in academia, he would help me find alternative career paths. Motivated by his confidence in me, I agreed to give it all another go. I studied rigorously and received a much-improved 46% on the Physics GRE. I was then accepted into one of the Phd programs suggested by my adviser with guaranteed access to a 4-meter class telescope, which proved to be critical for my dissertation research.

Though this is only one person’s experience, I can’t help but wonder if we should ditch that bootstrap saying. Having determination doesn’t mean you have to accomplish your goals all on your own. A lot of my own success stems from determination, but I cannot ignore the encouragement and support I received when I wanted to just give up. Instead of straps, I like to think that my boots have zippers. As I pull the tab, the teeth close behind me keeping me up, supporting and propelling me towards my goals. My hope is to pay it forward by being the teeth in someone else’s boots.

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