Benefits Of Not Fitting In

It’s been several months since I wrote anything, but now that the first semester of grad school is winding down, I finally have sometime to sit down and write.

The Materials Science program setup here is different from most places, here we have 4 PhD students and 40+ masters student in this year. The program also has almost no flexibility in courses so we all have to take the same classes. I have no problem taking classes with masters students, but the problem is that they are 95% from China. Why would that be a problem? You might ask. I did not think it would be one either at the beginning, but it did not take long for me to realize that it was really hard for me to fit in. Having been in the States for more than 8 years now, I have evolved into a hybrid of American and Chinese, and it is impossible for me to identify with either one completely. First year in high school in rural Texas was a real cultural shock, and now if I tried really hard to fit into my classmates’ social circle, it would be a reverse cultural shock, and I am not willing to put myself through that. It can be lonely at times, but looking back at several years, I have always been the lone wolf of a cohort. Let me elaborate on that and tell you about the benefits of not fitting in.

During college, I transferred schools, changed majors, and started doing research as a sophmore, so I was not well connected with my cohort of physics undergraduates. Being in a research lab all the time, made me close to many of the graduate students. I had the opportunity to see what their life is like, and thus decided that I also wanted to do research and become a graduate student someday. Had I hung out with other undergraduates all the time, I probably would have better homework grades, since they all worked together. But at the same time, I would not have the insight of graduate school life, and might not choose to continue to study, and my life would be very different.

I did two REU (research experience for undergraduates) in the summers at Georgia Tech and UC Berkeley respectively. During both times, I was not close to my cohort of undergrad researchers. Seeing them hanging out on the evenings and weekends together, it did seem like the natural thing to do, but both summers when I was not hanging out with people my age, I was getting to know my graduate student mentors. I was learning more about research, grad student life, talking to different professors about opportunities to do a PhD with them.

At LBL when I interned for one semester, the building that I worked in was far away from all the other interns, so I was naturally distant from them. I spent a lot of time hanging out in the lab and it made me close to Brian, a research scientist, whom I am still friends today, and he gives me invaluable advice on many things. Also I met a very nice and well known professor while I was having lunch alone at LBL one day, I made sure to follow up with him and talk about research ideas regularly. He later helped me write my research proposal for NSF fellowship and got me where I am today. Once again, by not hanging out with my peers, I had the chance to develop relationships with more senior people, who could give me advice on career advancement, personal development and many other aspects of my life, which my peers could never gave.

Later when I worked at Glint Photonics, the company was basically dominated by white males who enjoy mountain biking and skiing in Tahoe. I obviously was unable to fit in. To make friends, I resorted to dating apps. If you intend to find true love on a dating app, you may or may not reach satisfaction. But if you just want to make friends, it could be a great resource, and you can always learn something new from other people. Due to the silicon valley culture, I got to meet a lot of tech entrepreneurs. Even for many of them I only met once, I got to learn about what it’s like to develop a product from an idea, how to overcome unforeseen obstacles when building a startup, and other skills I could not have acquired otherwise. I also met people working at hedge funds, law firms, and to learn what their life and work is like. Thanks to the fact that people really like to talk about themselves. Had I bowed to peer pressure and join the while male clique trying to fit in, I can probably learn things from the 3 or 4 of them. But meeting people from different backgrounds and doing different kinds of work was really eye-opening. Especially for someone who just spent 4 years of thinking about nothing but science, I realized the possibilities of other career paths, and I become more comfortable talking to people outside of science.

Writing this blog made me realize that I have never been someone who likes fit in especially with a cohort of peers. My drive to learn and success always directed me to befriend older people who have more to offer. Not that I have been plotting and using them, but rather I really do enjoy hanging out with them. So sometimes being a lone wolf does not mean that you are anti-social or even anything bad necessarily, as long as you are making good use of the time and energy you are not hanging out with peers.

—————————————————-update (01/30/2018)—————————————————-

I have just done my personality test and found out I am a INFJ, which is world’s rarest personality with less than 1% of the same “breed”. Guess this also explains why I have trouble fitting in, because it is really hard for me to find people whom I can find deep and meaningful connections with!

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