Confessions of a Terrible Grad Student, or: Grad School, a Pre-Mortem

They warned me about all of the bad reasons that people get PhDs.

They said that lots of people go into grad school just because it’s prestigious. But I knew that didn’t motivate me, because my friends and family would be more impressed if I produced something tangible.

They said that lots of people go into grad school because the path to admission is clear-cut and easy to follow, and I knew that didn’t motivate me, because I would have found it easier to get a tech job anyway.

They said that you have to love your field so much that the thought of spending your life on a narrow subset of it sounds delightful rather than confining. I told myself that I loved what I did.

They said that you need to love more than just taking classes in your field. You need to love the actual mechanics of doing research — calibrating equipment in the lab, or feeding rats, or skimming papers to see if the proof already exists, or managing the people who take the surveys, or running regressions in Stata. I told myself I liked the research I had done independently, that the work I’d done as a research assistant hadn’t been *that* boring, and that things would get better once I had more freedom.

They told me that if I worked as a research assistant for a year or two before applying to grad school, I would have a stronger application later, have a huge head start in narrowing down my research focus, and could avoid a costly mistake.

I told myself that I knew what I was doing, and that working as a research assistant would build few new skills.

They told me that you can only be great at something you love, and I rejected that. I silently railed against the selfishness, the weakness, the low expectations, and the indulgence implicit in the expectation that happiness is necessary for accomplishment. If people can sew garments in dangerous sweatshops or spend hours in the sun every day just to fetch water or serve as soldiers, then surely I could put my all into a cushy first-world desk job.

Over and over, I told myself that I wanted to understand poverty, and identify and advocate for policies that could help, and that good intentions and stubbornness would be enough to power me through a career as a researcher, personal emotions and preferences be damned.

I was wrong. I wasn’t strong enough.


“What are your research interests?” a professor asked at the start of my first grad school visit.

“I’m not totally sure, but I’m really interested in behavioral economics and development.”

“Well, that’s very broad. What aspects of behavioral economics?”

“I have no idea,” I thought.

“I’m especially interested in self-control and bounded rationality,” I said.

I met other grad students, who all seemed far more self-assured and experienced than I felt. So I bullshitted. Everyone kept asking about my research interests, and I always made my best, most honest guess at what I would be studying in a few years, but I never said what I really thought:

“First, is having Research Interests really a thing? Do you think your life would be really different if you were studying something else? I find most things pretty interesting, but nothing really stands out. My goal is to alleviate suffering. Right now it seems like running development randomized controlled trials is the best way to do that, because development RCTs target impoverished populations and often produce actionable evidence. But I’m not sure.”

The Opposite of Mission Creep

First year was mostly about classes. I was happy as long as I had a deadline in the next few days, but when I tried to plan farther ahead, I panicked. I set aside days to work on coming up with research ideas, but I drew only blanks. I found small holes in the literature, made a half-hearted effort to devise strategies to fill them in, and lost interest when no great strategy presented itself. A professor said that we first years should be looking for research ideas everywhere. Economics in the supermarket! Economics when you interview your gas station attendant! Economics when you can’t decide what to eat for breakfast! That terrified me. I was willing to do economics for fifty or sixty hours a week, but not 112.

I made friends, sort of. I worried that if something awful happened to me, I would need to work hard to hide my distress from the people in my program, because they either had incredibly controlled, stress-free lives or were great at putting on a brave face. I thought they never complained about anything “real”, just about petty small-talk issues like exams. I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to understand just how much stress the first-year requirements caused my classmates, and how real their gripes were. But exams and deadlines never felt like an existential threat to me. I didn’t care the way they did. Anyway, I knew that people would be more open with me if I were more open with them, but my uncertainty about whether I wanted to be an academic and my inability to come up with new ideas felt like a dirty secret that could jettison my job prospects. So I kept quiet about the issues that bothered me most.

My plans to become an international development economist wilted in the face of time pressure and reality. I didn’t want to live in far-away countries. I didn’t want to manage years-long experiments, nor could I imagine myself emulating the non-experimental development literature. I didn’t bother signing up as a research assistant on a development project or talking to development faculty, and I never seemed to make it to development seminars. I had entered grad school without the skills needed to do good research in a foreign country — language skills, familiarity with the country, experience managing people and large projects — and I finished my first year with no more of these skills than I entered with.


In the beginning of second year, my happiness nosedived. My second-year lectures were quite good, and I learned a lot from doing class assignments, but my patience for sitting in class and doing schoolwork was dramatically lower. I wasn’t depressed second year, or constantly miserable. I became sad whenever I entered my department, and happy as soon as I left. If grad school had been “just a job” I would have quit, but I had promised myself that I would spend five years figuring out whether I was good enough at research to justify making a career out of it. I felt bound to honor my pledge, but I found myself constantly wishing for an out. It sounds crazy now, but I sometimes hopefully pondered the fact that a legitimate mental breakdown would be an excuse to leave. But my job was not difficult or uncomfortable by any reasonable standard, and the mental breakdown never came, so I felt ridiculous and weak and ashamed for being sad and bored.

I had to choose two “fields” I would take second-year classes and exams in. My first choice was public economics, which encompasses almost everything relating to the public sector. Many recent papers in public economics had received press attention and some had influenced policy, partially because of the increase in the use of extremely large, representative datasets and the “credibility revolution” in the methods used in microeconomics. I found the research being done in public economics largely important and credible. Choosing my second field was harder.

I didn’t think I would be any good as a development researcher.

I took a class in behavioral economics that was brilliantly taught and immensely illuminating, but I couldn’t figure out how making a marginal contribution to behavioral theory could make the world a better place.

I took a class in labor economics, which appealed to me for many of the same reasons as public economics. The class was well-taught, but somehow it nearly bored me to tears. Reading the assigned papers made me miserable. I eventually dropped the class. That led to the first lie I told as a grad student. Another labor student asked me why I dropped the class, and I said I wanted more time to focus on research and my other classes. In truth, I dropped labor because I couldn’t stand it anymore.

I took a class called “big data”, which was about machine learning and its applications in economics, and I actually enjoyed it. I usually spent the second half of the 2.5-hour lecture daydreaming, but I enjoyed the assignments, which required either mathematical derivations or code. “Big data” fell under “econometrics”, which is essentially statistics, and I chose econometrics as my second field almost by process of elimination.

At the end of my first year, a professor had suggested an interesting question for me to work on and helped me access data, and I kept working on that project on and off. I turned it into my second-year paper. I found interesting results, and successfully doing research should theoretically have been the best part of my life, but most of the work was tedious, and I felt worst while working on that project.

There’s a diagram that posits an inverse U-shape between the difficulty of the work and its engagingness, with peak “flow” occurring in moderately difficult tasks. Empirical research was not at all conducive to flow for me. Most of the work was tedious (“cleaning” data, running regressions, and formatting the results), and some of it was nearly impossible (convincing people to give me access to data).

I hated myself for hating the work. Billions of people had much worse jobs. How could I complain about “repetititve and not always challenging”?

Things only got worse when I had to study for my second-year exams — not because I was worried about failing the exams, but because I didn’t feel like reading. In theory, I had learned all of the material before, but I had immediately forgotten all of the boring parts.

My productivity hit rock bottom. I could stare at a paper for half an hour without taking in a word. I could study all day without learning much of anything.

First-derivative sign change

After my last field exam ended, I rushed across Cambridge to a Boston Python User Meetup. I sat through a talk I didn’t understand, and then through a talk about using Pandas with financial data that I did understand. I went to the after-event, at a bar, and talked to programmers working in various areas, and to a recruiter who was looking for a statistically-informed developer to create adaptive pre-tests for online courses. I took a couple business cards, said I’d get in touch if I decided to leave my program, and went home. I’m an MIT alum with many friends in the tech sector, and talking to software developers didn’t feel like flirting with running away — it felt like walking up to the train that could take me back home.

With interest in my work gone, I had spent second year motivated only by fear and shame. I spent that summer simultaneously figuring out what work I actually enjoyed, and what I was going to do with my life. I considered leaving Harvard immediately, staying for long enough to tie up loose ends and build skills while looking for a job, finishing my PhD, or trying to make academia work while avoiding the parts I didn’t like. I looked into various career paths by talking to and emailing friends, browsing job listings, doing a lot of Google searches, and participating in a consulting competition. I decided to try to finish my PhD, but exit as quickly as possible, and then move into a private-sector job. I now try to take on projects that I will enjoy instead of projects that matter.

That summer and in my third year, I figured out that I do like some things about academic life. I like working things out on pencil and paper, and I like writing code. I like helping other people, whether by providing feedback on a presentation or proposal, answering my students’ questions, or explaining a concept or procedure. Other people’s stuff is always more interesting than mine. 

But I’ve still preferred some of the non-research jobs I’ve held to the life of a grad student. I like having an employer; I’m much more appreciated when someone actually needs my work. I like facing varied challenges, working near the people I’m working with, and, most of all, I vastly prefer writing code to writing text. (80,000 Hours’ research suggests that the things I don’t like about being a grad student are things that would give almost anyone “low job satisfaction.”) 

Once I was sure I was leaving, I came out. I told people that I wasn’t going to stay in academia and that I had never been sure that I wanted to. At first, telling my former dirty secret felt like weird oversharing. Some of my fellow grad students were taken aback, and took a minute to figure out how to respond without condescension (“That’s good too…”). But for the most part, people responded positively, and I felt much better.

I Wish I Could Write a Happy Ending, But I Failed

I’m very happy now, so I want to write a happy ending, but I don’t think that’s appropriate. I entered grad school meaning to figure out 1) when, how, and whether economic research benefits society, and 2) whether I would be a great researcher.

The second question turned out to be easy. I don’t like research enough to be great at it. I can make myself work long hours, but when I don’t like my work, I don’t dream big dreams. I solve the problem in front of me. I focus on the next deadline. I think about the minimum necessary to avoid failure instead of hatching grand schemes. I’m more creative, ambitious, and big-picture when I’m anywhere but my department.

But the other question is hard. I don’t know how important economic research is to the rest of society, and I don’t know how to figure that out. Economists talk endlessly about identification — showing that we can form credible conclusions — but rarely about social impact. Academia uses productivity metrics that have little to do with the real world. When a professor advises me on whether a new research project is worth my time, I might hear whether the question or methodology is novel, or that the project might be worthy of a top field journal, or that it’s worthwhile as long as it doesn’t take time from my job-market paper. I won’t hear whether the question has policy implications, whether it lies in an area where research can impact policy, or whether the work would be noticed outside academia.

I don’t know where the returns to effort are highest. Am I more likely to change the world by spending years on one international development field experiment? Or is it better to spend the same amount of time writing several papers using existing data from the United States? Or even more papers on methodology? Should I replicate other’s studies? Or expose bad methodology? Is it better to shoot for quantity over quality and “publish” in a blog or the popular press, even if I’m often wrong? What kind of research impacts policy most? Where is it most likely to impact other research? Who is listening?

I have no idea. Someone ought to write a paper on how to do socially beneficial research. As long as that someone isn’t me.

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19 Thoughts About Marriage

“There is no such thing as true love, or soul mates, or a truly satisfying and happy marriage. Except for me and my wife.” — paraphrase, some humanist philosopher

1. My definition of marriage, covering only what I think almost everyone will agree on: A risk-sharing agreement between two people who take responsibility for each other’s well-being. They almost always live together and raise children. A legal marriage makes some financial risk-sharing nearly inevitable. The agreement is usually costly and difficult to leave without clear evidence of abuse or sexual infidelity, and so is generally intended to be permanent at its outset.

2. The most obvious thing about a permanent commitment is that it shouldn’t be entered into lightly.

3. A commitment only affects your actions when the way you promised to behave doesn’t match the way you currently want to. A promise to brush my teeth every morning is as good as meaningless, because I always do. A promise to take care of someone when they’re sick only makes a difference when your relationship with that person has degenerated to the point that you’d rather not. Or so I thought when I was 19.

4. So when I was 19, I didn’t see the point of marriage. I didn’t want to force my future self to stay with someone she didn’t want to be with, and I didn’t want to ask someone to do that for me. Why not just do the best I can in a relationship for as long as it lasts, and then move on?

5. That logic sounded right, but it didn’t always feel right in my gut. Not when I was 20 and started to appreciate stability, when I was 21 and saw that life wasn’t as good without someone to share it with, or when I was 22 and learned that wherever Ben was felt like home. When I was in my early twenties I wanted to marry Ben as soon as I was “old enough”, but I thought marriage sounded like a bad idea.

6. [3] is wrong. A long-term commitment changes my incentives now. There’s some anecdote where an old man tells his grandson why marriages lasted longer in his day: “People my age didn’t grow up with mass-produced disposable everything. When something broke, we fixed it instead of walking away. Relationships are the same way.” Marrying someone makes them harder to dispose of and replace, so it’s less tempting to treat them as disposable.

7. I’ve been sneakily conflating marriage with commitment. But Ben and I have already committed, step by achingly deliberate step, over several years. We went through almost every question of “100 Questions to Ask Before Getting Engaged” before moving in together. We discussed how much money we’d put into each other’s medical and housing expenses, and decided the answer was “a lot.” And — less deliberately and unavoidably — we became closer and closer, until we reached the point where if Ben broke up with me I’d probably cry for six months and move somewhere without so many memories. Maybe in our case, marriage is an affirmation, declaration, and clarification of the commitment that already happened.

8. But let’s pretend that I can talk about marriage and commitment as one giant package. Even so, the theorizing in [3] and [6] seems shaky. Taking an empirical view on marriage — looking at what marriage does for the average person, or the average person who is similar to me — may be more reliable.

9. 41% of the marriages that formed a few decades ago failed, in the sense that they ended in divorce. People sometimes talk about that number as if it implies that 41% of those marriages should never have happened (and 59% should have), but that may not be right.

10. About 27% of marriages between people with college degrees ended in divorce, and people with graduate degrees are even less likely to divorce. It’s unclear whether this is because more educated people are better at picking partners, have better partners to choose from, or face fewer of the stresses that make relationships fall apart. About 70% of married people in the top income quintile describe their marriages as “very happy”, compared to about 50% in the lowest income quintile. People who marry very young (under 18) and high-school dropouts are dramatically more likely to divorce, making averages very deceptive.

11. Married people are happier and healthier than demographically similar unmarried people.

12. Obviously, since everyone is different, statistical evidence isn’t very informative about a specific marriage’s chances of success. Statistical evidence tends to only guide my action when the action has an effect that is either so large or so consistent that the data screams at you — stay in school! don’t smoke! don’t do opiates! These data refuse to scream at me. They just shrug, say “you do you”, and try to change the subject back to Meghan Trainor.

13. What might my marriage for everyone else? Leah Libresco has written about an “outward-facing marriage”, which exists for the purpose of fostering joint projects like raising children, running a business, or volunteering. This seems to have been the historical norm, especially when almost everyone was struggling to survive and running a home-based business or subsistence farm. Libresco talks about a marriage between people who share the same values and try to help each other act ethically.

14. The “inward-facing marriage” that exists for the personal satisfaction of its participants is a modern invention. Stephanie Coontz has suggested that this attitude makes modern marriage more fragile, a thing that ceases to have a purpose once it ceases to be joyous and fulfilling.

15. Although marriage is usually a tax hit for high-earning couples with similar incomes, there are a lot of legal benefits. Most of these are more appealing for the old and the sick.

16. Just as my early reasoning about marriage didn’t feel right with my intuition (see [5]), none of these more optimistic facts speaks to my heart. A pact to act ethically, a team devoted to making the world a better place, the ability to fall back on a second income if a business venture fails: these things sound right and good, but I have no emotional response to them.

17. There’s a cold and rational part of my mind that is almost always in charge. There’s another part of my mind that takes over when I see a cute puppy or when Ben complains that he’s cold or tired; it makes me run towards him pretending to be an airplane whenever I catch sight of him from a distance. She wants to marry Ben so that she can bring him a blanket and read him a story when he’s sick, so that she can shower him with hugs and takeout when he has a terrible day, so that someone will keep her bed warm in the winter. She is sure that she has met her soul mate.

18. Sentimental-Liz’s views don’t make a lot of sense to Rational-Liz. Rational-Liz thinks that you don’t need a marriage certificate to read someone a story. She thinks that even though old married couples in public are really cute, you don’t need the government’s permission to go grocery shopping together.

19. Rational-Liz and Sentimental-Liz have reached the same conclusion, even though their logic is very different. They have resolved to put aside their differences, because they both really like Ben.

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Do people read this blog?

Trying to decide between writing things and sending them to whoever I think will appreciate it most, as I have been doing lately, or posting them here. Leave a comment if you want the blog to stay.

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Brain dump: Effective altruism

In college, I took a course called Problems in Philosophy. Near the end of the semester, I sat in the back of the lecture hall, probably trying to discreetly eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and trying to satisfy my participation requirement by speaking exactly once, while the class discussed Peter Singer’s argument that the moral logic we apply to everyday life implies that we are obligated to forgo small luxuries in order to give to the very poor:

“To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

At this point the students raise various practical difficulties. Can we be sure that our donation will really get to the people who need it? Doesn’t most aid get swallowed up in administrative costs, or waste, or downright corruption? Isn’t the real problem the growing world population, and is there any point in saving lives until the problem has been solved? These questions can all be answered: but I also point out that even if a substantial proportion of our donations were wasted, the cost to us of making the donation is so small, compared to the benefits that it provides when it, or some of it, does get through to those who need our help, that we would still be saving lives at a small cost to ourselves – even if aid organizations were much less efficient than they actually are.

I am always struck by how few students challenge the underlying ethics of the idea that we ought to save the lives of strangers when we can do so at relatively little cost to ourselves.”

I heard this argument, found it airtight, and was terrified. Was it wrong to buy a cup of coffee? Would I have to give up all of life’s small delights in order to help others? I was already spending as little money as possible — I ate mostly rice, peanut butter, and bananas, and refused to buy “luxuries” like salt — and I didn’t want to live that way forever. I decided that Singer’s argument was too extreme, that it had to be wrong even though I couldn’t articulate why. [1] I tried to push it out of my head for a year, but couldn’t. I slowly accustomed myself to the idea of living on very little. I realized that I didn’t need a big house, foreign vacations, or frequent restaurant meals to be happy. (I also learned that a year’s worth of salt costs about a dollar and that I should buy that sort of thing instead of torturing myself.)

Second semester sophomore year, I saw a corner of a formal-looking letter peeking out from my boyfriend’s desk drawer. I snooped and found out that he had become a member of Giving What We Can: he pledged to donate everything he made over some threshold to charities that work to alleviate global poverty. We talked, and talked, and I started donating to charities recommended by Giving What We Can and Givewell.

A year or so later, I got real about living far less luxuriously than the median American. I calculated the cost of rent, food, taxes, and insurance, and decided that I could comfortably live on about $18,000 per year, or far less if I moved to a less expensive area. [2] I also joined Giving What We Can, and pledged to donate the greater of 10% of my income or everything I made over $34k, post-tax and inflation-adjusted.

All of my friends have nicer homes than the 450 square foot one-bedroom that my fiancé and I pretend has two bedrooms. I have only ever paid for one trip that wasn’t for the purpose of visiting my or my boyfriend’s family, and it cost about $400. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to cook cheap but healthy food. I don’t feel deprived, because as long as I save money on the big things, I can afford to eat out regularly and buy clothes that don’t have holes in them. In fact, joining Giving What We Can has relieved a lot of anxiety. I gave myself a $100 a month discretionary/fun budget and a $1000 a year travel budget, and as long as I stay inside that range, I don’t feel guilty about spending money on myself instead of donating it.

After college, I found out that there’s a movement behind the conclusions that I thought my boyfriend and I had come to on our own. “Effective Altruists” hold that people should be more altruistic and should try to have the greatest impact possible, which may mean to donating to cost-effective charities, working in an altruistic job, or earning as much money as possible in order to donate it. They are friendly and have Meetups and stuff.

[1] While it’s possible to save a life for the cost of a night out, it isn’t likely. For example, it costs about $5 for the Against Malaria Foundation, one of the most cost-effective charities, to provide a bed net, explain how to use it, and return months later to ensure that it is being used. Although malaria is very prevalent in some tropical countries, it causes death far less often than you would think; various organizations have estimated a cost per life saved of about $4000 for AMF. (Going off memory, don’t quote me.) However, a thousand bed nets make hundreds of people healthier even if they don’t save a life. Perhaps we should ask if we are morally obligated to move into an apartment that costs $150 less per month if doing so saves a life every two years.

[2] Two years out of college, these calculations seem pretty accurate. I’ve actually paid off my college loans and have been saving a large fraction of my grad student stipend.

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If someone’s bothering you, talk to them about it?

I used to live in a co-op called pika. It was awesome but exhausting. When the co-op extended a “bid” to someone we hoped would move in, we sent them a letter. Part of it went like this:

“pika used to have rules, but we got rid of them a couple of years ago.  We do, however, encourage you to not play accordion in public spaces after midnight or steal other pikans’ laundry from the laundry machines.  pikans are assertive enough to let you know if your habits are bothering us.  The flip side of it is that we also trust you to let any of us know if we are doing something that bothers you.”

I live with my boyfriend. We have no rules. When he does something that bothers me, I let him know and suggest a better course of action: “Could you keep the door shut while you’re listening to that?” “If you’re going to stand right next to the window, you should probably wear pants.” “Our compost experiment is attracting fruit flies; can you think of a way to make it less gross?” Not a big deal, no hard feelings, issue is resolved quickly.

In theory, clear statements about preferences can replace rules among any group of conscientious and caring people. My boyfriend and I don’t need formal rules because we know each other well. When we guess wrong about what’s okay, we talk about it and fix the issue. This is an effective and flexible system. Rules, on the other hand, are a blunt weapon. We could have a “no shoes” rule and a “no loud music” rule, but sometimes context makes it obvious that shoes and loud music are okay.

When I was in college, I thought my co-op’s letter had it right: People should be more assertive. They should communicate their preferences clearly and, in the face of criticism, listen and be willing to change. If I had gotten a tattoo, it would have said “If someone is bothering you, talk to them about it.” Ignoring the problem was bound to lead to fury trickling out in confusing, passive-aggressive hints. Appealing to an authority figure instead of confronting the problem at its source was a cop-out that disrespected the problem-causer’s ability to deal with criticism. Formal rules were too inflexible.

Yet despite that attitude, and even though my acquaintances are kind and reasonable, I’ve attempted very few confrontations with people I’m not extremely close with, and few or none of these has been sucessful.

One reason an attempt at level-headed confrontation may fail is that the target of the complaint is large or diffuse. One hot summer, my room in the co-op bordered a porch with a hammock. People sat outside my thin window and talked late at night, keeping me awake. I could have asked people to talk elsewhere, since there were plenty of other places to sit, but that wouldn’t have solved the problem because there were different people outside my window every night. I posted a sign requesting quiet after 11 pm. I felt kind of dirty about it, but it worked.

Another reason for failure is that people frequently do something annoying without being fully conscious of what they’re doing or its consequences. They may be happy to change their behavior if asked, but will soon forget and go back to their old habit. As an undergrad, I was sometimes woken by people conversing outside my door in the wee hours of the morning. Once or twice, I asked people to talk in the nearby lounge so I could sleep. They were happy to comply, but a few days later I would be woken by a slightly different set of people conversing outside my door. Eventually I gave up and lay awake or read a book while waiting for late-night conversations to die down.

When I’m working near someone with a distracting habit like tapping a pencil on a desk, I usually leave or switch to a less-demanding task until the distraction passes. In my experience, people don’t mind being asked to not do something distracting and will stop, but they will eventually start again without noticing.

Confronting someone over an annoying behavior has a cost. It’s stressful. No one has ever responded negatively to a reasonable request I’ve made, but they will only stop what they’re doing for a short time before resuming the annoying behavior without noticing. At that point, I can repeat my request; this leaves at least one of us feeling like a jerk, and makes me wonder whether the person is secretly upset with me. Confrontations are draining and provide only a brief respite. As a naive freshman, I thought that I had to choose between fixing problems with an uncomfortable but brief conversation or living with them indefinitely. But the choice is actually between ignoring a problem forever and having an endless series of “hey, can you stop doing that pencil thing” conversations.

My dorm used to have hall meetings at the beginning of each year. All six to eight residents would eat dinner and talk about how they wanted others to behave — don’t leave dirty dishes out, ask before having a guest over, no loud music after midnight, etc. It was much easier to make requests like “don’t play loud music” when the request wasn’t targeted at anyone in particular. These requests sometimes resulted in rules.  Later — although I’m not sure I ever did this — it felt much easier to ask people to live within the rules once they were the official hall rules that everyone had agreed to, and not just my possibly-crazy personal preferences.

Since “talk about what’s bothering you” isn’t a panacea, I really like my dorm’s alternate plan of “set expectations and talk about potential issues before they become a problem”. I shared an office with eleventy million people this past year. We sort of talked about office rules but didn’t reach a consensus, so that although there was a lot more talking than I would have liked I didn’t feel justified in asking people to be quieter. I’m going to be sharing an apartment with someone I barely know this fall. I plan on talking to him about apartment rules when he moves in, and then not enforce them; although most problems *can* be solved by talking about them, the stress just isn’t worth it for me.

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Why I left Facebook, and reading recommendations

I deactivated my Facebook account during my hermit experiment. I thought I would miss Facebook, because my Facebook friends suggested lots of good reading material and because it enabled me to keep in touch with people I don’t see anymore. After a week without Facebook, I realized that neither of these reasons was good. First, on reading material: I have a lot of reading material from my RSS feed; these blogs recommend more articles and books than I can ever read, and I think that ignoring Facebook’s recommendations improved the quality of what I read. Here are the blogs I subscribe to via RSS:

And I’ve read or started some great books (not all before leaving Facebook):

  • Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, by Sudhir Venkatesh. A sociologist spends a decade in Chicago’s housing projects and reports back on the lives of some of Chicago’s poorest people and the organizational structure of a gang. I’m about halfway through and find this book entertaining but too full of personal anecdotes and too light on results; I should have just read Venkatesh’s academic work.
  • Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. This book gives an overview of the history of marriage that gradually narrows its scope from the entire ancient world to today’s middle class white Americans. Coontz shows that marriage’s history is more nonlinear than often thought. For example, “In England between 1500 and 1700 the median age of first marriage for women was twenty-six, which is higher than the median age of marriage for American women at any point during the twentieth century.” Our perceptions of this era may be skewed because “The age of marriage was sometimes much lower for the very wealthy, especially for aristocrats.” She also shows that marriage for love is a truly modern luxury that creates a new set of problems.
  • Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray. Murray argues that America’s founding virtues of religiosity, family, industriousness, and honesty are much less common than they once were in poor areas, that the loss of these virtues matters, and that income inequality and residential segregation have greatly exacerbated these trends, which have scarcely touched the upper-middle-class.
  • Paying for the Party, Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. Two sociologists (more sociologists?!) move into a freshman dorm in a large state university and track the women of the floor for five years. They find that a Greek-dominated social scene and poor advising mean that the university serves wealthy out-of-state students far better than more disadvantaged but harder-working in-state students, leading to decreased mobility.

As for the second reason I left Facebook, I’m not sure how much it actually helped me stay in touch with people. There are some old friends I interact with on Facebook that I don’t see in person, e-mail, or text, but when I’ve run into an old friend that I’ve “kept in touch” with through Facebook, it isn’t clear that Facebook helped. We have to catch up on everything and straighten out the details (“Did you get a new job or something like that?”). I walked past at least one frequent Facebook contact without recognizing her until too late, then was suddenly unsure whether she’d be interested in talking to me. I like to find out when someone moves or gets married, but these things are rare and I’ll surely find out these things whenever they become relevant to me. It’s also important to have some way of contacting people, but by this point in my life I have a phone number or email address for anyone I might conceivably want to contact.

There is one reason I regret leaving Facebook, which is that without it no one except my mom will read my blog. You can subscribe via email (with the Follow button) or RSS, though!

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Reorganizing my social life: Quality and quantity

Near the beginning of this semester, I ran a ten-day experiment in being a hermit. I worked in places where I wouldn’t run into anyone I knew, avoided groups of people I knew, kept spontaneous conversations brief, didn’t go on organized runs with strangers, and in general only interacted with people when it had been scheduled before the experiment. [1] I deactivated my Facebook account. During that time I felt as if I had a lot more free time and was much more relaxed, and I only felt a little bit lonely. I realized that the social interactions I had been skipping weren’t really valuable.

Friends are useful. They provide entertainment, advice, insight, and sometimes material support. In addition, since I becoming a grad student I had been very cognizant of the fact that since colleagues are important to career success, it mattered a lot whether people knew me and saw me as competent and pleasant to be around. So during most social interactions with people in my department, I focused entirely on maximizing what the other person got out of the interaction and left feeling as if I’d earned another point in Forming Relationships. [2] This is tiring, and my hermit experiment revealed that if that’s what being social is like, social interactions don’t make me happier at all. Networking is useful, and many social interactions are enjoyable, but stepping away from unnecessary interactions made it clearer to me which of these I am doing and what I get out of it.

Close friends add much more to my life than not-close friends. When I think about the times I’ve been glad to have friends, I think about these things like these [3]:

No, wait. Having read several articles speculating that social media causes unhappiness because people present their joys and successes but not their failings and make others feel inadequate, I’m hesitant to publish a list of “reasons my friends are awesome and I love having them!” My friends are cool and I do love having them, but the sort of event I’m about to list is pretty rare, and it took me a while to write this, so I hope you don’t feel socially inadequate.

  • Walking around Somerville or going on long drives with Amirah and talking about love. Do all hopeless crushes eventually die? How sure does she have to be that there’s no future with him before she breaks up with him? Should I get married?
  • Sitting around a failed campfire with two old friends and one I had only recently gotten to know, talking about what was awful and wonderful about our parents and whether we can really blame them for how we are now.
  •  Making it feasible to do activities that are difficult or risky without a partner, like hiking, rock climbing, or buying furniture on Craigslist.
  • Knowing that if something happens to me, financially or medically, there are people who will lend me money keep me from dying.
  • Spontaneous dorm conversations: Hours talking about race relations in the US and what it’s like to enter the mainly-white American upper middle class from somewhere very different. Working out what we owe to where where we’re from and what we owe to the rest of the world.
  • Comparing experiences with people from different backgrounds.
  • Riding a bus with a woman I had met earlier that evening, who asked about my life and my research and was encouraging and caring with a genuineness I hadn’t encountered in ages. (Thank you, Marya. I went home and cried, either because I was happy or because there aren’t more of you.)
  • Walking back from dinner with Diana as she talked about how her life felt disarrayed whenever she moved or changed jobs, and realizing that I hadn’t had that feeling since I moved in with my boyfriend.
  • Being grounded by people who know me very well, who can either explain things to me or make fun of me in a way that makes clear that  I’m dealing with an issue differently than most people would (and that I can probably worry less about it).
  • Making it comfortable to do activities that are unusual to do alone, like eating in restaurants.
  • Any conversation that results in learning: Even if I’m not participating, I like to hear smart people talk about whatever they find interesting.

In short, I like deep conversations, new information, and activity partners. With the exception of the last two bullet points, having many casual social interactions and adding to my list of acquaintances doesn’t do many of the good things that friendship does for me.

After my hermit experiment, I started trying to cut back on low-quality interactions and increase high-quality interactions. [4] I am a big fan of spending a few hours alone (or alone in public) with someone. I’m generally afraid that it’s way too weird to ask someone to join me in the park for 2.5 hours for an interesting conversation [5], so I tend to ask people to dinner, even though this is expensive and constrains scheduling. I find that dinners with someone I’m not already very close with have a bimodal distribution of outcome quality. Sometimes we end up having a quiet and pleasant but mildly awkward meal while talking about work. Often I end up learning many interesting things about someone I thought I knew well, learning more about the world from their perspective, or bonding over our deepest hopes and fears. Having more than two people reduces both the mean and variance.

I suspect there are better ways of instigating interesting and serious discussions. Although one-on-one meetings tend to naturally lead into great conversations, there is a serious barrier in that I can’t just “ask out” someone I’m not close to without making them (and maybe me) uncomfortable. One of my friends in college ran a “relationship support group”, which mainly covered romantic relationships but also had special editions like “parent problems day”. Anyone could come. I could organize something similar, like a “how to stay sane in grad school support group”. Leah Libresco invites her friends over to debate a particular topic. I’m not too interested in touching hot political issues, but I could invite people to my place with some formally stated topic planned in advance. (“What do we owe to society? Nothing? Everything? Come by at 3 pm for tea and conversation. Bring only yourself and your opinions.”) [6]

It just occurred to me that this is exactly what church youth groups and young adult groups do: gathering disparate people together in a safe space to discuss difficult topics. I’ve participated in some non-religious discussion groups, but despite the high quality of the conversations, the people in them didn’t easily become friends. I think this was because they didn’t know each other outside the discussion groups, so that doing something else with the person felt like a big step, and because the discussions were formal and sometimes adversarial. The people in those groups didn’t feel at all like people I could come to for advice outside the context of the discussion group or share personal issues with. A church discussion group is valuable in that it brings together people who are already friendly and inclined to trust each other.

Next part: Why I’m not on Facebook anymore

[1] I kept hanging out with my boyfriend.
[2] I’m not that good at making other people like me. On further reflection, I think this sort of other-oriented behavior is good for coming across as a generally pleasant but boring person and is good for ensuring that no one strongly dislikes you but bad for forming close friendships.
[3] Names randomly generated to protect privacy.
[4] It’s tempting to eliminate meeting new people, since I generally don’t like new people, but since my friends will gradually move out of the city I’m in and I will eventually move myself, this is not a good long-term strategy. Meeting people should be thought of as an investment — it doesn’t pay off if I’ll never see them again.
[5] Want to sit in the park for 2.5 hours and have interesting conversations? I’m down. We can let the conversation flow where it will, or you can suggest a topic (tell me all your problems, please!), or I can bring conversation-starter flashcards.
[6] Since writing this blog post, I organized a dinner rotation, which I think is going quite well.

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