(Don’t) Stay Frosty

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Another other-Friday, anther semihebdomadal blogpost due. This one prompts us to think about our research networks. Having squandered my wit on “semihebdomadal” (courtesy of the UN Free Rice app Vocabulary quiz), I’ll tackle the three subheadings – Brackenridge alum, research mentor, and career connections – in order.

Before we addressed any of these subheadings, we were told to create a Pitt Commons profile and connect with Brackenridge alum. One short “ask Cathy” search later, I was filling in text fields and uploading that one decent picture that I use for everything now. With my profile set up, I arrived at the home page. Instantly, I was presented with thousands of potential connections. Why had I never even heard of Pitt Commons?

Why had I never even heard of Pitt Commons?

Okay, for those who, like me, may be hearing about this service for the first time, Pitt Commons is a networking tool that introduces current Pitt students to Pitt faculty, Pitt faculty to Pitt alum, and Pitt alum to whatever qualifies as “friends”. Pitt Commons is like LinkedIn but navigable. Pitt Commons is like LinkedIn but less scary because it has your school logo on it. In other words, Pitt Commons is a dream come true.

Now, there’s a Brackenridge group on Pitt Commons which is private. (A reminder of our lofty remove from the hoi polloi.) Once you’re admitted, you can scan through the ranks of Brackenridgers past. Many work in Medicine. Many work in Law. Many work in Academia. The alum to whom I reached out had fallen into that last category until a shift to nonprofit communications.

That career shift caught my eye. While I’ve managed, despite myself, to make it through college without changing majors, I recognize my tendencies to dabble, to abandon, and to reinvent.

The more I read about this Brackenridge alumnus, the more it was like staring into a psychic mirror. From his time as an English Professor and his work designing rhetoric for government agencies, right down to the moustache that I’ve been struggling to grow, this guy seemed like as good a target as any for questions about my own future. (It should be noted that I completely lack the qualifications to be an English prof. I’ve just always had a thing for tweed, and sometimes magic mirrors show us what we want to see.)

My question to him concerned grad school. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind more and more as I near the start of my senior year. I wondered, if he had known about his departure from academia way back in 2001, would he still have gone for that doctorate? Since I sent that message minutes before starting this post, I’ve yet to receive an answer. Nevertheless, it took a weight of just to have asked.

Sometimes the weight is on the question, other times it’s on the answer. When I ask about grad school, it’s a manifestation of the fear that I’ll unwittingly ruin my chances of happiness if I stop thinking and trust my instincts. Typical “What if?” anxious, Robert Frost stuff.

Other times, as in the case of soliciting a research mentor, the differential effects of one answer versus another are clear, immediate, and important. A “No” means something very different than a “Yes.” Under those conditions, we do our best to guarantee the desired answer before asking.

Michelle Wier does great work on women in politics and the court systems. She has a lot to teach me about data analysis, coding, and research in general. She has been an extraordinarily active and committed guide throughout this process. That said, I’ve had a lot of great instructors at Pitt, and Michelle was the first one that I asked to mentor me.

Michelle has had me in three classes. When instructing, Michelle deliberately cultivates an air of fallibility so that students will feel comfortable making mistakes and asking questions. As far as I’m concerned, the method works. While I’d hope that most students don’t find their networking decisions as governed by anxiety as mine have been, I stand behind the notion that having a grad student fully in your corner is at least as useful as having a professor emeritus who only kinda knows your name.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say on the third point. Less than a year out from graduation, my professional goals remain an ominous question mark. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. It therefore behooves me to make connections across as wide a variety of fields as possible. Have I accomplished that fully? No.  Or, more optimistically, not yet.

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