Sometimes when I get bored, or when I feel like I’m in a slump, I re-read comics, articles, or stories that have made me smile. There is one comic in particular, from the PhD series, that I read every time someone asks me to check over an important e-mail they have written. It says “Average Time Spent Composing One E-mail …” The first square says 1.3 seconds and it shows a professor writing responses like “No.”, “Yes.”, “Sure.”, “Do it.” The second has a graduate student biting his nails, agonizing over every word of a very long, very polite e-mail for a period of 1.3 days.
Hysterical, but also incongruously disturbing. Professors are just people. Why do students agonize so much over what they write? And for that matter, why do people agonize over interviewing with or writing to any person who might have some control over their future?
What I’m about to say is not earth-shatteringly profound, but it is a useful fact: seemingly important people are just people.
I learned this during my senior year of high school during my interview for Georgetown University. Georgetown was actually my first-choice school, and I applied early action, hoping that I could get accepted in January and be done with the long and torturous college admissions process. I had an interview in mid-November with a lawyer alumna who lived about five minutes away from me. She scheduled the interview for 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and like a good student, I arrived at her house wide-awake and nervous at 8:55 a.m. and rang the doorbell.
After the first ring, nobody answered. I waited 20 seconds and then rang it again. Still nobody. After the third ring, a man (who I presume was the woman’s husband) answered the door in a forest green bathrobe that revealed a good amount of his chest hair.
He saw me dressed up and standing in high heels at his door and woke up his wife, who came down in her pajamas and fed their baby while conducting a grueling question session that convinced me I was not going to get into Georgetown (I didn’t). But what I learned was that even though this woman had at least some say in whether or not I would get into Georgetown, she was just a person who occasionally overslept just like the rest of us.
My mother confirmed this for me a week ago, the day before my first medical school interview. She called to wish me good luck, and to tell me a story. About 10 years ago, my father had to fly out to California to deliver some bad news to some people in his company. My mother said she imagined these people with butterflies in their stomachs, waiting for my father to go out there, while she was yelling at him for leaving a mess in the midst of his packing. The moral of the story was that here were these people, terrified at the thought of seeing my dad, and yet he had someone at home yelling at him to pick up his dirty socks. “So don’t think that anyone is above you, Sarah,” she told me before the interview, “Everyone has someone at home telling them to clean up their mess. They’re all just people like you.”
I guess my point is that there is no reason to fear people, or to fret over how powerful or important they are, or to be humbled by the thought of how ground-breaking their research is. Because the truth of the matter is that they’re just people, and at one point or another, someone probably yelled at them to clean up their mess.