Waiting for Rejection, Finding Empathy

SPRING 2017
Leilani
G.
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

A PhD is lonely. It’s especially lonely when all of your friends are getting married, when you are a perpetual bridesmaid watching your closest friends enter a new chapter while you are literally stuck in the same place. Most days, my life is stagnant: my code doesn’t work, paper writing is in the same place, conferences feel like the same talks over and over, social interactions are carbon copies of each other.

Even though I avoid disclosing that I’m a PhD student at MIT, the dreaded questions come out: “What do you do?” “Where do you go to school?” And they respond the exact same way: “Are you serious?!” (could I be making it up?), “Wow, you must be a genius!” (no, I’m just intellectually curious and I got into MIT), and my personal favorite, “You do artificial intelligence? Are you building Skynet?” (I have no response). Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely humbled and lucky to be at MIT. I love what I do, and I wake up in the mornings feeling excited every day. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult. And it definitely doesn’t make it any less lonely. 

Academia is a wild unstable journey where everything is in flux. Most days, you are constantly waiting for rejection: qualifying exam results, paper submissions, even advisor commentary. So in my love life, I chose stability and positivity first. There was the happy-go-lucky cable guy, the chatty financial sales guy from a liberal arts college (who claimed he was actually a financial analyst), the sensitive physical education teacher. They were dependable: regular schedules, consistent mood, stable relationships. But they were also uninterested. To them, my day was just work. But my work doesn’t end when I leave the office. 

I once told a former boyfriend, “My PhD is much bigger than both of us.” He was personally offended that I wouldn’t use my two month vacation to be with him exclusively.  I tried to explain that I wanted to get ahead on research, read papers, maybe even redecorate my home. He absolutely did not understand, and we ended it fairly quickly. I imagine many people would be confused why I would want to work over a vacation. But then again, I don’t live a normal life. It is, in fact, extraordinary.

It took me a while to be confident when people ask, “Why are you still single?” How do you tell someone that, “PhD student in computer science at MIT” doesn’t always make me more attractive, and isn't always the most attaractive career path? There are many stigmas. As a woman, it’s seen as intimidating. As a woman who wants to be married and have a family, it’s seen as risky.

Being socially competent, people are confused. I can’t say how many times people have assumed I’m the event organizer at a conference (rather than a participant), or assume I am masking some kind of painful awkwardness. These stereotypes make dating nearly impossible. In many ways, I really am what they assume when they think of a female graduate student at MIT: I have very little free time, and they need to respect my work boundaries — work comes first, always. 

Recently, I went on the best date I’ve ever been on. We worked silently side-by-side.  There wasn’t burning passion or too much romance with the dull, clicking keys of a computer or the squeek of a highlighter catching on uneven paper. But as he sat analyzing data on this computer, I looked at him from the top of my paper and it felt like we had been together for years.  This is what I had been looking for: someone who understood how important my work was. I didn’t need to settle for stability, I needed to find empathy.