How I realized graduate school was the right choice for me
The best ideas come in the bathroom
The best realizations really do come in the bathroom. I was washing my hands in the sink when I heard the bathroom door shut as another girl entered. If you ever lived in a college dorm in the US, you can imagine what a dorm bathroom looks like. It has multiple stalls and sinks so that it can be used by many people simultaneously, but as with all communal spaces no one will take the initiative to notify the building’s maintenance staff if something isn’t working properly unless it’s absolutely necessary. That was the case with our floor’s bathroom.
Every time someone would go in or out of the bathroom we would hear a few BANGs to open the door and a loud SLAM as it shut. So far, everybody had gotten out after 3-5 strong pulls and I was hoping this time I would also escape the bathroom with three tries.
I turned off the faucet, wiped my hands with the paper towels, and started dreading the door opening act. I had been locked out of my room for an hour earlier that day and it was already midnight. I couldn’t deal with this again.
I pulled the door a few times and it didn’t open. I pulled it again. No luck. Heather, the girl that had gotten in after me, was also ready to leave and tried to open it. Nothing. We started laughing and joking about how it’s always a struggle to open this door. We heard another floormate on the other side asking if we needed help. At this point, we had a 3-person army trying to open this door. Try again. Nothing.
Luckily, I had a credit card on me so I tried carding the door to force the lock to open. Still nothing. Our last resort was calling campus safety again, but I had already annoyed them an hour ago after being locked out of my room. It would be super embarrassing to ask them to unlock another door for me. Was I never taught how doors work? Why was I just getting locked in and out that night? Whatever, I didn’t really have the energy to philosophize, so I dialed their number.
“Hello! I am calling again to ask for your help because I am locked inside the bathroom on the 7th floor of X dorm. Yes, sir, it is me again, I don’t know what is up with the doors on the 7th floor tonight.”
“Okay, so they’re coming to open it but it may take a while” I said to Heather as I sighed. She could see it on my face that I was not expecting to get out of there anytime soon. We started chatting and it turns out that we were floormates during our first year in college and we were both graduating seniors now in our last semester.
“So, have you decided what you’re doing after?” she said.
“Yeah, I’m doing a PhD in Physics so I’ll be working in a lab with atoms and lasers.” I had already committed to MIT and had picked a lab group to work with, but I was still having second thoughts about whether graduate school was the right decision for me. Maybe I should have gotten a job in consulting or finance, or maybe tried out the industry scene, or should have taken a gap year to travel around the world and get some more perspective on what it is that really excites me.
“Oh wow! That sounds very cool. What are you going to be working on? Have you decided on the research?”
I always get the “wow” factor when I tell people I’m studying physics. In this instance, I thought to myself that this could be a nice way to practice my pitch to non-physics people when they ask me about my work. So how do you explain quantum computing and simulation to someone who knows next-to-nothing about the field?
“Oh okay, well that’s the cool part! I’ll be working with super cold (ultracold) atoms and lasers to form these systems and structures that we can use to simulate and eventually test quantum computers. Now, do you know anything about how classical computers work? See they work on a binary system where information is encoded in bits of 0s or 1s, but with quantum computing you can have a combination (superposition) of 0s and 1s encoded in qubits (quantum bits). It’s going to revolutionize technology…”
Now I was getting all hyped up and talking fast. I had already gone to full-on quantum physics nerd mode. She seemed to be enjoying my presentation delivery because she kept giggling and laughing at my hyper excitement. I almost started jumping up and down talking about quantum computers. I was secretly hoping it would take the campus safety officers a little longer to open the door because I had found an avid listener whom I could talk to about the most exciting thing ever! QUANTUM!
Suddenly, our conversation was interrupted by a deep voice on the other side of the wall. “Ladies, don’t worry we will get you out of there soon. We are going to have to break the door because none of the keys are working and it is not a lock problem. Please bear with us until we solve this.” It was clearly one of the campus safety officers.
We heard the same voice again: “ladies, please back away from the door. We are going to break it and enter now.”
We backed away and heard these loud banging noises on the door. After a few minutes, we were finally out. I greeted the officers and Heather, and then went to my room smiling, thinking to myself “you know you’ve found what you’re truly passionate about when you can’t shut up about it even when you’re locked inside a bathroom.”
Going to graduate school is a hard decision to make. It is a long-term (in my case six-year-long) commitment with humble compensation. To get through graduate school, you have to absolutely love what you are studying. Did I make the right decision in deciding to go to grad school? That night I was more confident than ever that I had made the right decision, even though I might have a different answer to that question if you were to ask me during finals week.
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