On Failure

As I might have made clear in my last post (“Titmice, EEGs, and my Quest to be a Real Scientist”), I’ve been planning this story for a long time. I imagined it would take the form of many of my previous posts. Young, naive Kenzie does something dumb, feels discouraged, and gets her dreams smashed or whatever. A kind Swarthmore mentor comes along, tells her not to give up, and she realizes that she’s learned a lot from the whole process and makes up her mind to keep pursuing whatever it is, even if it’s hard. So maybe I’m overly aware of my own classic narrative, and maybe I need to write in a way that doesn’t directly reinforce my teenage angst, but I nonetheless thought that my post, “On Failure,” would follow the above trajectory.

As I’ve said before, I spent a large portion of winter break applying to REUs, or Research Experiences for Undergraduates, at universities up and down the East Coast. I crafted a personal statement not all that different from “Beakers and Flasks” that I thought was humble and hopeful (my parents thought it was entirely too self-deprecating). I asked multiple professors for recommendations, and I shared with them a Google doc with the due dates, requirements, and websites for 10+ different programs. I rewrote my resume upwards of five times, until I finally stopped panicking about its general emptiness. I’m sure there were a lot of things I didn’t do right, given that I was going off website information and what I thought the typical college student did for the summer, but I think I can say that I tried pretty damn hard.

nsf reu pic
A screenshot of the NSF website that lists hundreds of REUs by discipline. You can ignore my 1000+ unread emails in the other tab.

The first rejection email, from University of Vermont, one of the coolest programs and most specific to Neuroscience, came within two weeks of me submitting the application. I was a little upset at the speed with which they could shut me down, but I knew I had nine more chances. Rejections to the most popular programs, at MIT or Cold Spring Harbor, rolled in first, but I was able to brush those off as being among the most competitive. However, when April came around, the beautiful tree in Sci Quad bloomed and the solidified plans of my classmates made themselves apparent. I started to despair.

I alternated between checking my email every hour and going days trying to avoid the inevitable. After reading the line “we regret to inform you…” again and again, each time from increasingly less desirable programs, I got closer and closer to taking the complete L on this summer. I applied to an unpaid psychology research position in Pittsburgh, and was rejected from that. I went in totally opposite directions, applying for Lang Center grants to travel to Latin America (also rejected) and restaurant jobs in my hometown of Asheville, NC (not one email back). In an effort to compensate for my clearly-lacking resume, I applied to be a tutor/lab TA for an Intro Bio class at Swarthmore. I was rejected within a week.

vince and students
One of my favorite Bio professors, Vince Formica, with a group of students (i.e. not me) who did research with him over the summer.

If this were any of my previous posts, this is the part where something would fall into place. Perhaps a kind professor would take pity on me and offer me a position in their lab, or at least tell me some reassuring story of how they worked at Walmart during all their undergraduate summers. Maybe I would go home after all, find some job at Chick-Fil-A (my guilty Southern pleasure), and have some life-changing experience—amidst waffle fries and sweet tea—more meaningful than lab work would ever be. Maybe a spot would open up in one of the many, many programs I had dreamt about for months, and maybe they would finally decide to take a chance on a girl who was starting to look more and more like a dumb blonde. Like an admissions mistake.

But this isn’t like my other stories. Instead, I’m sitting in Sci Commons, my second home, during the last week of classes of my sophomore year. And I have no idea what I’m doing.

eeg data
Sample data from Swarthmore’s EEG/ERP lab. My roommate and some other Swat students will be working in this lab during the summer.

It’s not that I’m completely SOL. I’m in contact with a Neuro professor at UNC-Asheville who may let me work on a project in her lab, and I’m still holding out hope for some sort of evening job to compensate for the unpaid research. I may still go to Latin America without the grant, swallowing the cost for the sake of fulfilling the Spanish minor study abroad requirement. And I suppose I’m still waiting to hear from a few assorted programs and internships to which I have been hastily applying the past two weeks. But I love plans and routines more than I care to admit, and so the unending uncertainty, coupled with the generic stress of final papers, exams, and move-out has gotten to be nearly overwhelming.

I think I could reasonably be angry. Maybe angry that no one stepped in to tell me what I was doing wrong, maybe resentful that summer grant funding was incredibly limited this year, or perhaps, most rightfully so, maybe bitter about a world that rewards connections, extroversion, and those who don’t need to make money for the summer just as frequently as it does academic accomplishments.

But to be angry, besides being incredibly rare for me, is unfair to all the people who could have helped me had I been a little more vulnerable. I could have taken my resume and personal statement to Career Services, and maybe they would have called me out for the excessive self-deprecation. I could have met with my advisor with the sole purpose of discussing summer research, and maybe she would have cautioned me against banking on hyper-competitive REUs. I could have reached out to professors in person, rather than defaulting to email, in order to ask for help. I could have attended department events earlier in the year advertising the research opportunities here at Swarthmore. I could have talked to friends whose summer plans I had idolized as being prestigious, and I might have learned that hardly any of them participated in the types of programs I was applying to.

unca 1
UNC-Asheville’s campus in the spring. If I end up doing unpaid research here, I can’t complain too much.

Ultimately, I am not going to have the type of summer young and naive Kenzie envisioned in January. But if I’m being fair to both myself and my college, it’s probably no one’s fault. Instead, through enduring more rejections in three months than I have endured in the rest of my life combined, I have been humbled beyond any positive connotation of the word. Yet I have found sympathy from professors who, knowing my situation, indicate they have not lost hope in me by still forwarding me assorted internships. I have friends who make me feel better my reminding me that their paid summer research position involved pipetting for 8 hours a day and not much else. And through all the positive feedback from my science professors, lab instructors, and Writing Associates during my coursework this semester, I have not yet lost all hope that I can one day be a Real Scientist.

If I’m still working at SwatStories when I return to Swarthmore next fall, I’ll tell you how the whole thing ended up. In the same self-deprecating style that may have gotten me into this whole mess, I’ll tell you about cloning neurons or scooping waffle fries, whichever better exemplifies my summer. Regardless, I think I know by now, whether it’s from years of studying the psychological immune system or from having to get over less-than-ideal situations in my past, that it will be okay.

Still, keep your eyes peeled for a post along the lines of “A Guide to Acquiring a Summer Research Opportunity from Someone Who Did It All Wrong.”

Okay, so it’s not related to summer research, but it’s vaguely related to summer in general. Celebrating the end of classes at Swat’s annual spring party (for which we all inadvertently dressed the same).

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