Time for Something Serious

Time for Something Serious

One of the first things that drew me to Caltech was the unbelievable concentration of people that are out of their minds. No, it’s not a mental asylum, and no, it’s not hyperbole. What I mean is that the only bound that Caltech undergrads, grads, postdocs, faculty, and associates are have is that which they impose upon themselves. In effect, we are only stopped by the limits of our own creativity. This is what inspires true greatness.

Here, no one tries the ordinary route. No one wastes their time re-proving things that have already been studied. If you do, you’re wasting your energy. All the courses I’ve taken so far have been for the sole reason of getting me ready to take harder courses that will prepare me for bigger and better things. That’s the reason our core requirements are so extensive and so math and physics heavy. That’s why the only people who stay here are those who genuinely enjoy learning.

Earlier today I went to a dinner presentation with some of the most impressive panelists (note that this is a very subjective observation) at this school. To be honest, I’ve been having a lot of trouble deciding on what major to declare. I know that eventually I want to work in Biomedical Engineering, whether that be in nanotechnology, molecular biology, prosthetics, biophysics, or something else. The question is how to get there. A field that has drawn me more and more over the past few years is Physics. Starting with AP Physics B my sophomore year of high school, then AP Physics C senior year, I simply felt drawn to this notion of problem solving for the sake of problem solving. It’s not memorizing phylogenetic trees anymore, and it’s far more abstract than good old reaction kinematics. I’m not saying either of those are boring or uninteresting, it’s just that physics was new to me, and it forced me to take on a perspective that I didn’t know existed.

Declaring a major seems like a problem that most people had (and one that I still have). Remember though, there are so many people with so much experience that can help you out. That doesn’t mean that they’ll all just try to switch you to their major, either. That means they will sincerely help you evaluate your interests, and listen to the minute inflections in your voice, face, and attitude that are the tell-tale signs of what your heart wants. It is very hard to feel that oneself, but we do in fact express what is in our hearts and souls every day in our fingers, faces, stride, posture, and voice.

Today, I attended a dinner presentation hosted by the Caltech Physics Club that had several esteemed Physics (Ph) and Applied Physics (APh) faculty members as well as several knowledgeable and helpful graduate students.

David Hsieh - Assistant Professor of Physics

Maria Spiropulu - Professor of Physics

Anthony Bartolotta - Graduate Student, Physics (2nd year)

Javier Duarte - Graduate Student, Physics (3rd year)

Sandra Troian - Professor of Applied Physics, Aeronautics, and Mechanical Engineering

Evan Miyazono - Graduate Student, Applied Physics (3rd year)

Dear readers, I would like to share with you now some of the advice offered from these gods and goddesses of academia. Much of it has to do with the graduate admissions process, which struck many chords in me – reminding me of the undergraduate admissions process. Futhermore, much of the talk revolved around how to know if graduate school was right for you. You may be thinking, How does this apply to me? Why am I still reading? What’s going on? Where am I? Well, the theory of problem solving and genuine ingenuity is a state of mind that pervades all graduates schools and is also deep-rooted in Caltech. As I attempted to explain in the first paragraph of this blog (but was admittedly most ineloquent in vocalizing), this school is truly unique. Students that belong here are those who really want to know MORE. They want to challenge themselves. Everyone knows Caltech is hard and it’s clear that you give up things like Division 1 athletics, a massive student body, and the greek life system by coming here. What you gain though – and this is not for everyone – is the experience to be surrounded by other people whose souls want just as badly as yours does to seek knowledge in unexpected places and to beat back the unknown in the name of all discovery. Really think about your answer to Number 2 of Section 3 of the quotations below, and perhaps you may learn something more about what you really want from your college experience.

Graduate School Application advice

  • “Surveying multiple topics is good. Looking at a lot of different fields is good in undergraduate.”
  • “Get letters from those who you have done research with, not just in a class you did well in.

  • “PEOPLE are the most important. Influences in people around you.”
  • “Find out how the department does their admissions.”
  • “Research the groups that are at the school you’re applying to (min 2 not emeritus professors - tell them you will be able to contribute to the school’s research!) Your first year if grad school, do a reading course with the advisors you’re thinking about.”
  • “How does your world view mesh with that group?”
  • “Tailor all of your applications for the school.”

What is Graduate School like?

  • “The scientific fields are quickly melting into each other. The interesting things that are happening are in those boundaries.”
  • “Research is for fun, not for money. That’s why we have grad school.”
  • “You don’t hire someone to solve a problem. You get a graduate student”
  • “Your advisor will teach you how to think. There’s no substitute. They’ll teach you to solve problems that have no textbooks.”
  • “Finding and solving a good problem, there’s no recipe for it.”
  • “You will be forced to do things that are hard for you.”
  • “Somewhere between t=2 and t=4.5 years, you will get stuck. There will be spells of complete despair. It is those moments will begin to define you. Those who get PhDs are those who made it through that valley of darkness.”
  • “It is individual perseverance that will define your path.”

How to find if you are in fact a researcher at heart.

  • “You must have the stamina, interest, and heart of a researcher.” – Maria Spiropulu
  • “Do you want to work on an easy problem or an interesting problem?”
  • “All the proper and projects that will define you will be in topics that you yourself want to chase.”
  • “It’s all about achieving what others may see as impossible.”
  • “Academia vs industry vs finance: if you really like going very deep and thinking long term where the rewards are few and far between, academia. Finance is for really fast paced work. Industry falls in between.”
  • “We’re the kind of people that know if we write together we can do better than we could ever have done alone: that’s academia. That’s not finance.”
  • “Most of the cool problems are solved by people with PhDs. Everyone else just implements their solutions.”

General Life Advice

  • “You must have empathy and respect for every field. They are also problem solvers.”
  • “There are companies like Exxon and Bell Labs that had real jobs as problem solved.”
  • “So many rivers are coming together; if you don’t take the time to go deep, you will miss out on some of the most amazing things that are happening.”
  • “Physics has become a framework for going and doing everything in the knowledge based world.”
  • “Do things according to how you see yourself. Taking breaks around grad school is okay.”
  • “Engineering is not physics. Engineering is when you want to find the best answer or the most efficient way to do something. Physics is when there may not even be an answer.”
  • “A lot of companies are paying you to lose your edge. They don’t spend their time leaving stuff and pushing your personal boundaries.”

As someone who is stuck right now, only fathoming graduate school, industry, finance, and the million other options available, I was surprised by how much this talk moved me. Everything was presented very rationally, yet it was all from personal experience and had a strong emotional component. I still don’t know how I’m going to plan for the rest of my life, but I do know that coming to this school was the right decision for me. All I can do now is make the most of the *unbelievable *resources around me and enjoy the discovery.

Until next time,