Permission for reference

October 5, 2017

The third postdoc position opening asks for recommendation letters. So I wrote to several professors, naturally including sensei, asking for permission to submit their contact details. I assume it’s a matter of yes or no. But in addition to agreeing, sensei suggested a discussion about it. I related this puzzling issue during a meeting with my advisor, wondering what additional information I should pack up for such a discussion. Advisor frowned:”I have no idea what this is about. He just likes talking to you.” I know that was a stray remark. It nonetheless left such a lasting impression on me that I could get instant gratification whenever I recall it.

And then sensei was abroad, followed by me abroad. When I finally came back, I already felt like out of the application business and just wanted to steadily complete my degree in peace. The complex task of writing sensei an email to follow up on this discussion was therefore easily subject to indefinitely prolonged procrastination. Amazingly though, one day I got an email from sensei asking if I’m back already – it’s the first time ever sensei wrote to me out of his own free will, all for such a trivial matter as writing for me a reference letter? The next day, denoted by

Day 1,

sensei was startled by my arrival in the time interval he indicated would be convenient for him. After comfortably waiting for him to finish plotting an important graph, I brought myself straight to:”So what is it that you want to know?” Sensei pushed aside his work, sat back, and said in a tone more serious than one would use on a stray remark:”Would you like to do a postdoc with me?”

This line is intentionally left blank.

Stupefied stare, frozen smile, wide-eyed, all these couldn’t have lasted too long, because the conversation must go on. The ensuing discussion includes sensei explaining, reasoning, making quite a compelling case – viewed from my hindsight, and me throwing disorganized anxiety and fears here and there, formulating ridiculous sentences. If this was an interview, I would have failed miserably.

OK, a month ago I did learn that sensei was looking for a postdoc and was having a hard time finding a good candidate; I did tell him that I started applying for postdoc openings and the grinding that came with it. He wished me good luck, and I wish I had wished him good luck too. I thought what a coincidence that we were both looking for a postdoc; but immediately suppressed the notion of working with him back underwater when it spookily surfaced – and completely drowned it. Our research fields are not the nearest cousins. Part of me has always been scared of him – critical and demanding as a perfect archetype of an ex-Soviet applied mathematician. If he finds out I’m not independent, not rigorous, becomes disappointed, I will die. It’s therefore inconceivable that he not only entertained the idea, but actually came to the conclusion that I may be the optimal solution among the handful of options available to him, albeit a suboptimal one in terms of relevance or even competence for this position.

The premise is that sensei had been searching for a postdoc for two months with no avail. (Two months is quite short in my opinion. It isn’t clear why he gave up and even stopped posting the offer online.) Then he investigated my profile: I have taken two of his graduate level courses closely tied to the basis and recent development of his research and performed well; I regularly show up in the CST seminars “for some reason” (That’s what he said, “for some reason”; I do not know what he means) so I have some clues what’s going on; our fields of research i.e. nonlinear dynamical systems with an emphasis on fluid-structure interaction and linear control theory towards distributed/event-triggered are pretty detached but not completely; it requires me to learn a good deal of new stuff. But through previous meetings, he knows I’m totally up for learning.

What he thought would be the pluses for me: he won’t pressure me to publish – we share the same despise for placing too much emphasis on publishing – even though I don’t think not publishing at all will do me any good; I will have financial security after finishing the PhD, which actually plays no role in my consideration at all. Most importantly, he offered his attitude toward the research process. Beside the general topic, he doesn’t have a clearly defined project where there are things waiting to be done. He wants me to explore and come up with my own direction. This is THE correct and at the same time a scary way. Before things went south, all postdocs went through this. Going from the blank paper state to having a tiny bit of something on the paper, must be hard. Sensei commented that I’m like his daughter, who also doesn’t want to grow up, or make decisions on her own, but just wants to be Peter Pan forever. It’s alarming that I was likened to his daughter, though it might be just another stray remark. Irrespective of that, to my unbelieving question of “So you want me to grow up?”, the answer was yes.

Another aspect that falls into the category of “most importantly”, is his response to my question that I had always had for him: if you have a great idea and you don’t take many students anyway, why don’t you work on it on your own? Sensei says he simply likes to discuss research with others. It immediately reminded me of the Willems paper that he sent me after the previous artbook meeting. I was amazed to find out that Willems spent most of his time discussing research problems with his PhD students every day. I had thought I am already fortunate enough to have access to my advisor 1-2 times per week with each meeting lasting at least two hours. And this frequency is perhaps constrained more by my own progress rate than by my advisor’s availability. I absolutely abhor some dark cases I heard, often occurring in a large empire-like research group with hierarchical structure from the professor on the top all the way down to the undergrads in the bottom.

Beside the academic utopia these words painted in my mind, a tint of rosiness is added to the picture by the thought of getting closer to – if not intimate with – maths. In my limited trials of postdoc searching, I felt the research opportunities are either something I could apply to but have no particular feelings for, or applied mathematics that I admire (in one instance to the degree of becoming a fangirl of that researcher) but am not qualified for. I mean, I’ve never kissed a guy written a theorem-proof paper before… Right now, perhaps sensei is the only math person in this entire world who would take me – even though he as a control theoretician has that self-deprecating sense of hovering about the border of orthodox math world.

Despite all this, my initial reaction was dominated by a looming decimation of my 5 year plan that I had grown so used to. From the very beginning, I had automatically precluded the option of staying here after finishing the degree, for no discernible reason. Why, everybody around me applies to the US, tries to get into big schools. Sure, unlike the futureless me, they have clear preference for staying in the academia or even the Israeli academia. Doing a postdoc in Israel will not serve that end. Still, because of my advisor’s design and support, perhaps also the sugarcoating of “to test if my love for Israel is true”, I also headed to that direction, and started to discover its merits. It certainly sounds cool if I could get into a “better” school. There is so much going on in the US, research, music (though nowhere near UK), sports, new natural landscape, the proverbial new continent. And it’s a convenient connecting point for my ultimate volunteering program. So a vague future plan was outlined; by and by its roots sprawl deeper and wider in my mind.

Suddenly it was shaken by sensei’s invitation; its survival instinct immediately generated a profound sense of uncoolness and released it all over my head. “Yeah, it sucks that after spending so many years of your youth in this country, you will keep staying put.” “It’s high time for a brand new environment!” “No progress, no upgrade.” “You barely started applying, already giving up?” Too Many Voices. It does feel too soon. Since I’m not good at multi-tasking, I originally planned to launch my full application campaign after the degree, or even after some relax and travel, not minding a gap year; want to take things steadily; my advisor will ensure my stay in Israel until I could go. But sensei wanted me to give an answer in a month, for no other reason than his peace of mind. I guess he just can’t stand any longer evaluating candidates that all turned sour. While that’s kind of cute, it nonetheless feels like it costs me something, as if it deprives me of the opportunity to make a rational decision where I could weigh several offers at hand, but instead have to decide on a single offer. Surely sounds like an interesting game. Not sure if he intended it. Though my advisor did interpret it as an aggressive sign on

Day 2.

Whenever I run into problems, research or unrelated, I naturally turn to my advisor without a second thought. I called to schedule a meeting. But advisor couldn’t meet me immediately, so I had to report in one sentence what happened. In the initial wake of the shock, advisor sighed and said “It’s really up to you, right? What can I say?” I was a bit let down less because he didn’t give me advice but because I could feel his dismay. He then quickly overturned the defeatist tone and let out a series of uninterrupted questions until the magazine was empty. I was quite overwhelmed and can’t remember what were raised. Something like, do you like this topic? What can you do with it afterwards? Are you going to publish one, two, or three papers with him? I only remember my mouth was left open but couldn’t utter a single syllable in response. I decided that it was ineffective over the phone and suggested talking about it in the meeting.

I wasn’t prepared for such a reaction. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. My advisor has discovered some qualities in me that he regards highly albeit are still hidden from my eyes. He has been proud of me, which can be felt through interactions with his colleagues when he’s not around, both here in the school and abroad in the conferences that I recently went to. Sometimes I was even embarrassed to hear from his friends the praising he lavished at me. There apparently is in his mind a 5 year plan he designed for me – going to top schools and bigger names, which I had so far followed with no reason not to. If it indeed all works out, it would have been an acknowledgement for his educational effort too.

Besides, there is also the personal side of the story. I have long regarded my advisor as sort of a benevolent father figure. I’m deeply grateful that he and his wife had taken care of me outside the work/study sphere. I think he too sees me as more than his student, and genuinely wishes for my success and well-being. It’s therefore no wonder that the news came as a disruption to him. From advisor’s point of view, I’m not moving to a better position that I deserve and have no problem attaining; if I really have all that romanticism regarding applied maths, there are plenty of opportunities abroad that he has been forwarding to me every now and then. I may not share all of his confidence, but that’s not the most significant difference.

My advisor has repeatedly stressed how the future career that I want should shape the present 5 year plan. But I’m just such a hopelessly non-careerist person. While my advisor artfully conjured up a plan according to my vague desire for doing research, I ever filtered out all those reasoning about my future. He must be right, but I just don’t have anything tangible to care about it. All I know is right now, I still want to do research, to remain a student, to remain in an academic institution, that is to say to do a postdoc. Before day 1, the different attitudes toward my career did not matter in my natural following of the recommended trajectory that eventually leads to a postdoc position. After day 1 though, sensei’s proposal was able to send me straight off the designated path, as the word “career” simply never grasped me. Only that, I feel really sorry and sad thinking about disappointing my advisor.

2 < Day < 6

At this point, I had figured out the things that matter the most are that the topic is attractive – let’s avoid saying super exciting – for me to enjoy working on it; I like sensei’s person and approach – that should go without saying – to enjoy working with him. Without all the career and mobility talk, the intention to accept sensei’s offer emerged clean. What followed was various sudden realizations that made me gasp.

I had thought I could get along well with sensei while evading the need to read his papers. Now that he is going to become my advisor, no escape!

I had thought I would have an unforgettable graduation as a prelude to the original 5 year plan. I was looking forward to using the departure as an excuse to dump into sensei’s office all my painting projects that are actually dedicated to him. Now I have to keep them for some more time…

The weirdest aspect has to be the fact itself, that sensei is going to be my advisor, and I’m going to be less of his student, but rather an independent researcher that works with him. This poses a really strange problem to an important issue that I so far have not adequately touched upon – it’s the crush about sensei that I have nursed for so long. It must have been inevitably intertwined with my decision making. But the reasoning is conclusive enough so that I don’t have to invoke the bottom line of the impossibility to refuse sensei anything.

It has been two years and a half since I first realized that I must have conceived a crush for sensei. I can pinpoint the material he was teaching at the point of this crucial revelation: balanced truncation. Since then, I had been his student in class twice. In those semesters, I got to see him regularly every week, and derived fun in bothering him with questions in his office hours. In other semesters, I only managed to meet him by the ingenious excuse of “reporting” on my art projects motivated by his art books. But those are side projects that develop so slowly that I meet him for thirty minutes and then vanish for three months. Only occasionally the deficiency can be relieved a little by the irregular seminars I know he surely will attend. Otherwise, a rare sighting of sensei is like that of a deep sea animal to a marine biologist, so thrilling and worthy of a toast.

In all those settings, where I naturally see sensei as someone absolutely superior to me, I could act cheekily, fool around, shamelessly adore him, enthusiastically pursue his fashion in Latex and Beamer styles, etc. But in half a year, this is no longer true. We will be discussing research problems, serious business. Sensei said explicitly that he expects me to grow up academically. I certainly shall not let my personal feelings spill over in our meetings – perhaps not even when I’m working alone. It’s worth noting that sensei is definitely not blind to my crush. Yet he still dared to offer me to work with him, inevitably drawing me closer to him. That means he trusts that I’m capable of managing personal emotions, and/or that he is capable of navigating this peculiar situation. I guess I am.

In fact, I fear that the start of the professional relationship spells the end of my bitter-sweet (mostly sweet) crush life. It may be argued that if I move abroad, my feelings for him may gradually dissipate, thus ending my crush life as well. But that’s a natural one. Whereas now, I’ll have to suppress them with mental power. Will my affection survive unharmed, or survive oppressed, or die oppressed?

Day 6

It was the day of the scheduled meeting with my advisor. After discussing about the manuscript, we came to the postdoc topic. Of course I came to the meeting more or less with my mind made up. But I still wanted to hear if advisor had any thing to say that I overlooked. He lamented that taking this offer would definitely not increase my prospect abroad in the future – I think he actually meant to say diminish but refrained. Other times he could not refrain and used harder words on sensei. He had never done this before; he used to only like to say how smart sensei is and how he respected the science sensei does, the only complaint being sensei’s linearity. I did get the message and could generally feel that my advisor seemed to have a better standing in the world and speaks to a broader audience. Whereas sensei is known only in his small community, so he might not be as helpful if I want to go outside his circle. In fact, sensei has expressed his dislike for America. But all these hadn’t mattered.

There was one thing I did overlook. Advisor had often mentioned before that he would be glad if I continue working with him as a postdoc, or with sensei, or with Prof. A or B here in the school who also likes me, but for the better of my career he thinks I should go abroad. I never paid attention to either the first part of the sentence because I didn’t think I’d stay here, or the latter part of the sentence because I don’t know what a career is. But at this moment, my advisor for the first time described the research project he had in mind if I were to stay for a half-year postdoc with him, and concluded that I had two offers to choose from. It took a moment for me to realize that all along I had had my advisor’s offer, but never even considered it. I simply didn’t see this implicit offer hidden in that repeated sentence that I automatically dismissed. Then I understood better that there are other hurt feelings. It’s like, if I have decided to stay here already, why choose sensei over advisor with whom I already developed good collaboration dynamics? With this new consciousness, I left the meeting heavyhearted. But there wasn’t new evidence to change the verdict.

Day 8

Late in the day, debating whether to soldier on to tackle a new section, or go home and relegate the task to my tomorrow self. Sigalit passed her smiling face through the unnecessarily narrow door opening and wished me happy Sukkot before she left. I was surprised like what? Tomorrow holiday eve again? School to be closed again?

Naturally I lost the combat spirit and packed up to go home. It was before sunset and sensei could still be in the office. Just like the handful of precedents where I really wanted just to refresh sensei’s knowledge of my existence, I said to myself: if sensei is still there, I’m going to drop by his office without a notice. This time I would inquire about the starting date. Well, if he demands a date before I could peacefully finish my degree, that would be a disastrous reason to decline his offer. But if the date is okay, I will tell him my decision. Who needs a whole month for a matter of yes or no? There is no point in delaying the news, no point in living the long holiday days in indeterminacy. No new applications will be attempted. If I was to be accepted to the position I previously applied to, I will fucking turn it down. That’s it.

The lights in his office were still on. I had to go up. But wait, this is about the postdoc offer. I can’t speak kiddishly or girlishly. I need to show that I’m serious, professional, confident – I need to be more Nadya! So I stood still outside the building for a moment, summoned my silly professionalism before arriving at the door. Sensei was astonished to see me, as usual. I stood at the unnecessarily narrow open door, and learnt that the starting date is really flexible. I might even be able to travel a bit in between. I then went on to inform him that the answer is yes. When he realized what answer I was talking about, he smiled and ceremoniously said he is glad to hear my decision. It was nice that I stood at the door and no hands could be extended that far for a handshake.

Isn’t it a tremendously meaningful decision that we just formalized? Yet it simply happened away in such a short interval, like the wind passing me by. Has my life changed? Has my life not changed?

In a little over a week, so much has been thought, so much has been said, tears have been shed, contrasting emotions all rotated. But the solution should be simple and elegant. In the end, we make some research.