Had a long conversation with Gill last week, since registration for next semester is coming up. I told him I was afraid I wasn't becoming a "Real ECE" - I can push things around on paper, and sort of plug stuff into breadboards, and solder and code, but it doesn't all fit together; I still feel uncomfortable playing in ECE-space, and I graduate next year. I can stumble about in piano-space, drawing-space, to a slight extent in coding-space, and pretty decently in abstract-math-space, but in ECE space, I don't know anything. I'm still terrified that someone's going to find out that I'm a fake ECE. That last sentence was an oversimplification; I know the "fake it till you make it" thing, and I know I'm mildly competent and I know how to learn the stuff, but there's still a sense of unease that I'll be a person with a degree that I can't live up to.
Gill said there was a tipping point of sorts where that "Huh, I feel ok with this!" thing happens and you become able to play, and that it seems worst right before you hit that point, so I was probably right on track to get the revelation either this summer or early next year. He also said the important thing wasn't necessarily to learn ECE stuff, but to learn how to learn ECE stuff, because "ECE stuff" changes so rapidly and there's too darn much of it for anyone to cram into their minds.
The other half of the conversation was tougher. He asked what I wanted to do after Olin. I told him I wanted to become a professor, one who made changes in engineering education - maybe even a university administrator, if I could do that and not drown in bureaucracy or lose touch with teaching. (And before I become a professor, I want to work in industry, probably at a design firm, and do volunteer work.) I know that to become a prof at a good school where I could make a worldwide difference, I need to go to a good grad school. For which I need good grades. Which I... don't have, exactly (they're not abysmal, but they're not gorgeous by any stretch). And that I would need to stop doing so much tutoring and extracurriculars and little things that I think do good for other people but that "don't count" so much and buckle down on my schoolwork and doing research.
It's a quandary. If I do what I want to do to help out schools now, I won't be able to get very far. My possibilities of becoming a good prof will be limited by not going to grad school and getting a phd. If I'm selfish now and work my way up, I'll be able to help so many more people in the future - but that means having less of an effect on them now. The question, as Gill put it, is whether to buy into the system you want to change. Ultimately, it's a decision I have to make and live with.
I think my answer is yes. That I need to be selfish and buckle down now to be able to change what I want to change when I grow up. But I don't want to sell out. I'm happy doing what I'm doing now; I was happy being "Very Good Studious Asian Girl" before, and they were both effective - just different kinds of effectiveness, different kinds of happy. I can't go back to the way I was before, isolated and selfishly focusing on grades (or at least focusing on my own more than I do now), without feeling like I've lost something. (Having a life, for instance. And being a little human.)
How do you buy into the "academic respectability" system without losing your soul?