[musings] using big words

In high school, I was actively encouraged to not use words like salient, salacious, or salubrious. They got in the way of the what I wanted to communicate, the teacher explained. She told me to stop using the thesaurus.

I never used the thesaurus– okay, maybe for words like “good”, but who doesn’t? Everything, for the most part, is natural and spontaneous. People find that when conversing with me in a long conversation, I pause once in a while to find the most exact word, like salient, salacious, or salubrious. I am looking for an exact word, not the most fancy version. If saying healthy will suffice, I will say healthy instead of salubrious. If you are staying in a cottage by the sea to recover from gout, by Jove I will say that your situation is salubrious. Words don’t just carry their definitions, they also carry their connotations. “Annoyed” and “irritated” are listed as synonyms of each other quite often, but most native speakers would agree that they are distinct moods. As it is with “healthy” and “salubrious”.

When I started writing papers at college, I found that I could throw all of this “you can’t use big words” suppression out the window. Professors simply don’t care for the most part– English professors mostly just care if you use it in the appropriate situation. In my professional life as well, I am privileged to be part of a deeply academic atmosphere, highly educated and precise. What was thought to be weird previously, is the norm now.


being in control

This will be a short and spontaneous post. I met someone new today and she sincerely complimented me profusely on how in control I seemed of my own life. I was disconcerted because it echoed what a lot of people tell me when they first meet me– that I’m incredibly well-rounded, have great sense of organization and can seem to juggle a lot of things simultaneously while also striving for (and accomplishing) great results. I can also sincerely say that I never fish for compliments; hence my disconcertedness every time.

To me, I guess these things are second nature and I’ve always had a great appreciation for being well-balanced. Where this sentiment came from, I have no idea. It is certainly not from my quite staid Asian family, which predictably values the pragmatic over the philosophic. Yet, somehow I turned out that way and I’ve strived to make my education and pursuits come full circle. I have a finger in every pie, and in every major discipline, I at least know the basics.

Everyone is different and we all imbibe knowledge in different ways; I just want to share some of the ways that I’ve used to become an apparently “in control” person. Honestly, I feel inside I’m a mess and a jumble, but to many I seem like a role model.

Read the news. There’s really no way around this. Of course one may focus on the news that one finds interesting but one must stay up to date in the news. It takes years to build up extensive background knowledge from the news, but it is quite worth it.

Something sounds interesting? Follow up on it. Meet others who are interested in it. Read a book on it, etc. For college students: don’t try to load up classes on one field. English major? Take a math class. Computer science major? Take an art history course.

Time management isn’t something you necessarily have or you can acquire really quickly. It’s about developing and learning about how you work best under time constraints and eventually developing a system that you can rely on. Studying, too.

I’ve always been a big proponent of having both quantitative and qualitative activities in my life. For example, no matter how many math or economics course I was taking, I was always playing music, whether in lesson or a chamber music group. I think it’s important to pursue your passions in both sides even if you are particularly bad at one side (I’m a subpar musician but I stick it out anyway). Music has been a huge part of my life and a big coping and relaxing mechanism over the years. Catharsis in music is wildly different than the satisfaction from a problem set or program well done. Silo-ing ourselves off to only feel one kind of satisfaction? Sounds like a very hollow existence.

[college] classes to take, no matter what

For many of us, college is the first time that we have the ability to study one favorite subject in-depth– our major– yet, we must remember our perspectives as humans and even within our majors will fail to grow properly if we shun other disciplines. Learning different perspectives and ways of thinking are key to becoming a forward-thinking, rational individual.

To that end, I strongly encourage a few classes that everyone should take, regardless of your major and interests.

what better reason to learn real analysis and topology than to understand this supremely funny comic?

what better reason to learn real analysis and topology than to understand this supremely funny comic?

Computer Science– Nowadays, computer science is increasingly one of the most popular and lucrative majors. However, there are many people (like me), who found it difficult and did not excel in it. Nonetheless, computer science gave me valuable insight in thinking small-to-big, going backwards and looping– all ways of thinking I had never encountered before but now use in my daily thinking. Exploring different methods of thought is critical to becoming a good reasoner, in whatever you decide to pursue.

Formation of Identity– Of course, there is no course called “Formation of Identity.” However, any class that talks about identity formation, whether individual or societal, ranging from ethnic identities in South Asia to transgender identity in the West, is a great eye-opener. These courses on identity help us to understand our own roles in society better, and help to clarify the subtleties the ever-hot topic of equity.

Macroeconomics– Our lives are significantly affected by money, yet many do not understand the basic concepts of interest rates, what the Federal Reserve system actually does, or what “quantitative easing” and “austerity” mean. Honestly, learning the broad principles that govern our economy by yourself can be daunting and full of jargon; thus, having the opportunity to learn it in simple terms in college is something that will be indispensable in the long term. After you have mastered the simple concepts, you will be able to approach the jargon and at least be able to piece together quickly enough the meaning.

Statistics (and if you can, Econometrics)— I swear, this is not my inner economist speaking, but statistics are thrown at us every which way in this age of “big data.” The media is increasingly fond of authoritatively saying “The data show..”, a phrase that even I used to think was infallible. I mean, if the data says so, then it must be true. Little did the naive me know, data can be manipulated in many, many ways. Learning statistics helps us figure out if the data manipulations are reasonable and subsequently, if we can trust them. Taking it a step further, econometrics introduces you to more sophisticated analyses that attempt to prove causation; like does smoking cause cancer? Does playing Mozart to babies cause the babies’ IQ to go up? As our society continues to go nuts about number-crunching, a basic knowledge of statistics is a must.

women who will: why a women’s college

On 30 May 2014, I graduated from a liberal arts women’s college. These four years have been instrumental to my development as an individual, and I would argue that the very fact that it is a women’s college has been the lynchpin to all that I have achieved.


From here on, I will refer to my college as W, its first initial; this blog is a personal and I would not like to link it to my professional endeavors.

W provided me with two very incredible things: women role models and women peers.

First, the women role models at W have opened my eyes to what my future may hold. For me and many others, gender identification is a large part of our lives and due to societal constructs, we can never really view male role models as the same as female role models. To me, women role models are simply more inspiring because in Western society, there is still a well-documented glass ceiling that men do not face. At W, this glass ceiling does not exist. As a women’s college, W makes a point to have gender-balanced faculty and staff. At every stage in my college career, I have had both women and men for guidance. Witnessing established, professional men interact with and respectfully treat their women counterparts as equals is critical. As a woman, I can relate to the women professionals and think that, “Ah, I can be like that one day.” Every day, I am also reminded of our thousands of women alumnae, who in spite of the glass ceiling, have become successful and live life according to their own terms.

Second, the women peers at W have opened my eyes to what I can do now. W tends to attract a specific type of individual: in-control, ambitious and intense. Being surrounded by women my age who know what they want and go out to achieve that has been an profound experience.  I recognize that some in my college were unhappy with such a high-stress and competitive environment, but for me, it was a source of inspiration and drove me to continue on. Those that succeeded were my friends, my intellectual equals– if they could do this, then so could I.

As much as is possible, W was a paragon of meritocracy– a model that I will continue to look back at and refer to for the rest of my life. W is the world as it should be; judged on merits and not gender or any other irrelevant features. It is a cosseted bubble, but one that let us know our potential and gave us an even playing field to try out our weaknesses and strengths. W made me realize that there are thousands like me in the world, hungry to continually better herself and stand up for our desires and beliefs. As I get ready to face the world as a new graduate, I am reassured that I am not alone.

[college] the trials and tips when applying to jobs.

The years have passed by quickly, and I soon became a senior in college looking for employment. I had numerous friends who had worked in investment banking over the summer and returned triumphantly with full-time offers. As fall semester quickly ran past, I went to dozens of interviews, watching in despair as my fellow classmates were offered the second-round interviews and finally, an offer. Without an exaggeration, I would say close to 70% of my mathematics-economics circle were already gainfully employed, and I felt incredibly inadequate in an environment that prizes the ambitious.

January arrived, and I was unprepared to meet it. January signaled the end of the recruiting season for most large companies I wanted to enter– economic consulting firms, investment banks, equity research firms. However, after much scrutiny, I discovered another recruiting season that had just started: economics research assistants (RA). I sent off shamelessly many applications to think-tanks, top universities and economic institutions, and anything that had “STATA” in the job description. I knew a PhD could be in my future, so becoming an RA could be an incredible asset when it came time to apply to graduate school.

The year started off slow, despite my renewed resolution to apply to RA jobs. I was rejected or never heard back from UPenn, Yale, American Enterprise Institute, Columbia Business School, MIT’s J-PAL, Brookings, and the list goes on. However, the ball started rolling inexplicably in March. I received numerous interviews from the Federal Reserve— Philadelphia, Richmond, Boston, Washington DC (I did have a prior one in December at Kansas City). After a whirlwind two weeks, I am extremely grateful to say that I landed an dream offer with one of these locations and have accepted.

There is a fair bit of irony in how the world works, because this position is probably the most prestigious one I could hope for– ever. No other job I interviewed for can compete, though perhaps Goldman Sachs would be a distant second. I won my dream job after almost nine months of uncertainty, agony and grueling work applying and interviewing.

I hope by sharing my experience, others who are in the job market for the first time as a college senior, or will be in the job market soon, will find some helpful pointers. If you have any other questions, please feel free to contact me via email, or using anonymous ask.fm.

a pretty flower arrangement in the lobby of the Boston Fed.

a pretty flower arrangement in the lobby of the Boston Fed.

Don’t give up. This sounds stupid, I know. Everyone will say this to you. However, rejection is hard. It is so difficult to read “We have decided to pursue other candidates” or “We did not feel you were a good fit” and not feel depressed that you are just not good enough. Let’s also be honest– very likely you will have classmates who receive the job offer instead of you and you think, “why did they get an offer? Aren’t I as qualified as they are?” In my case, I had these bad thoughts especially often since on paper, I have impressive grades. It is incredibly hard to remain optimistic and continue applying because you fear the rejection and you think that it is not worth it because you will be rejected anyway. Some of my friends have missed out on great opportunities because they got discouraged too early and decided to “focus” on school instead. Right up until March, I was applying to at least 2-3 jobs per week; in busier weeks I applied to as many as 10.  Continue reading

[college] orientation for introverts

In just a few weeks, orientation will begin for college freshmen. At most colleges, especially small ones, orientation can be an intense bonding experience, and a positive experience that makes your friend circle for all four years. Yet, for introverts like me, orientation was torture. Having to go to mass events teeming with overeager first years, then being encouraged to spill my secrets to strangers, and everywhere, people plastered with sweet smiles. I know they were all very nice people, but the relentless onslaught of cheeriness made me feel even more depressed.

the kind of people I typically get along with understand this joke.

the kind of people I typically get along with understand this joke.

At my college, we did most things in our pre-assigned “first year mentor” groups. Being an introvert, you can usually immediately pick out who you do not get along with well; in this case, this was my roommate and my entire first year mentor group. For the first week, I tried so, so hard, despite that. I felt even more alone after that, as I realized time and time again, our thoughts did not align.

Some people have asked me on ask.fm some advice for college, and my number one advice is always “do everything”, which seems like a contradiction on the surface. It’s not. Try everything that you’re interested in at least once– at those activities, make an effort to talk to others.

I wish someone was there to tell me that I did not have to sit through the onslaught that was orientation. It is perfectly all right to shun and skip out on orientation events– there are plenty of ways to make friends, through classes, through extracurricular activities, and even through work. All of my good friends at college have been made that way; I knew none of them during orientation. Everyone has their own pace of finding and making friends, and do not let it bother you that perhaps you may not have a huge circle of friends by the time school starts. Tend to your own interests and your garden of friends will naturally grow.

the one thing to know when you enter an elite university

There will always be someone smarter than you.

Think about it– the type of people who congregate to these elite colleges are people who were valedictorians of their high schools, or close to it. They are people who are driven and have been constantly busy with ambitions and pursuits for four plus years. Those amazing undergraduates who do cutting-edge research and found companies on the side that you read about on the Harvard or MIT news? These types of people are going to be your classmates. In the 300-level class I took at MIT, the professor asked us if any of us had started our own company. No one had, and the professor was genuinely surprised. Surprised. In my own college, I am constantly impressed by the caliber of people around me, and flabbergasted that yes, she is the same girl who falls asleep in our math class.

a joke that I've come to understand.

a joke that I’ve come to understand.

To get a flavor of the people in your elite college, stalk the accepted threads in College Confidential. Do you fit the general mold of those accepted? If you do not– by that, I mean, you fall short— know that you have a lot of catching up to do. I do not doubt that you are a capable person that has distinguished yourself in your own way (unless you relied heavily on sports recruiting, the power of money, and your relatives are alums); you will need to apply this tenacity to making up for what your high school has failed to teach you. Mostly, because most of us cannot self-teach, this means attending the remedial classes in college. It may be embarrassing and mortifying, but trust me, underestimating is way better than overestimating your abilities. In the long run, you will suffer less if you grit your teeth and admit that you know close to nothing. After all, in an elite college, you are pitted against people who know everything and are not afraid to show it.

The easiest (laziest) solution is to not attend the elite college. I have many friends who did worse than me academically who are pulling 4.0 GPA’s in state college while in my elite college, only 3-4 people graduate per year with a GPA above a 3.90. Those in state college have much less stress about trying to catch up because everyone is relatively on the same playing field and they learn together at a pace better for them. They also have more time to devote to other subjects besides academics. In high school, one of my acquaintances was scouted by Columbia University, but he eventually ended up going to Penn State. I applaud his courage, because he simply was not a good student and earned poor grades, and thriving in an elite university would be a daily uphill struggle for him, especially as he would have to balance a demanding sport and demanding academics. Do not be swayed by the prestige. Think about you and your own sanity.

Hard as it is, acknowledge your weaknesses. Acknowledge there is always going to be someone smarter than you. Acknowledge that there are some things you cannot do no matter how hard you try. For example, learning four years’ worth of what you were supposed to be taught in high school in the space of a semester. Acknowledge that sometimes the costs exceed the benefits. Go into your elite university with your eyes wide open.