You can’t go home again

Next week I’ll be in Chicago for the NCWIT summit*. Carleton’s an Academic Alliance member so I’ll be representing us there. I always look forward to the summit—this is my third one—but I’m especially excited about this one because Chicago is my grad school home.

I’ve been back to Chicago a number of times since I graduated, but I’ve never made it back to campus. My advisor left right before I finished, so that’s one big tie back to campus that’s not there anymore. But I still do have a number of ties there, and so this year I decided that I’d make the time to go back and visit my home of 5 1/2 years.

I’ve spent a good part of this week setting up meetings and letting people know I’ll be on campus. It’s awesome (and a bit weird) how many people remember me. Especially since it’s been…let’s say, a number of years…since I graduated. Of course I’m eager to discuss research with like-minded people, so I dutifully did some poking around on the various labs’ and groups’ sites.

In the process of poking around, I learned two things that really shouldn’t shock me anymore, but still did:

  1. I have zero research interests in common with my old lab. Zero.
  2. My research interests are much more aligned with the CS faculty than the ECE faculty.

Now, you are probably thinking “well, DUH! You are a computer scientist, after all!”  And yes, you’re absolutely right. I’ve identified as a computer scientist for at least 9 years now, and probably longer since the switch to CS really happened during my post-doc days. But part of me still identifies more as an electrical engineer. That was my undergrad identity. That was my grad school identity. That’s what I thought I was going to be when I grew up. Identities are hard to shake, apparently, even if they don’t quite fit anymore.

The thing is, shaking that identity, and taking some risks to do so, opened up a world of possibilities that wouldn’t have existed had I stayed the course. My postdoc, my current position, and all the research opportunities of the past…bunch of…years, none of that would be possible if I hadn’t decided to assume a new identity as a computer scientist. And of course, it was my time at my grad school alma mater that put me in the position in the first place to make that identity switch—where I gained the confidence in myself, and constructed a support group, and worked on the right research projects, to allow me to ultimately explore and eventually assume the computer scientist identity.

So I’ll visit my old lab and my thesis committee and reminisce a bit about my engineer-self. And I’ll make some new acquaintances as my computer scientist-self. And I’ll feel equally comfortable in both worlds, even if I can’t exactly talk research with my old lab anymore.

* If you are a reader of this blog and will be at the NCWIT summit next week, please introduce yourself and say hi!