Personal Report, 2022

2022 was a year of transitions. The world saw too many transitions this year: from peace to war, from boom to bust, from order to chaos. With the passing of too many once-formidable faces, an era has moved on. I was lucky that despite all this, and despite many personal ups and downs, I still had a year of very positive transitions: from rejections to recognitions, from university to work, and from striving to living.

This is my second annual personal report. Similar to last year, I wrote ~20,000 words of weekly project logs, which became a good record for me to trace back my work. This year I also started handwriting personal diaries, which provided another ~100,000 words of more personal accounts of 2022. This personal report is primarily to help myself make sense of the year, and to let you know what I got up to. If it happens to not bore you but somehow inspire, that would be my greatest pleasure.

From Rejections to Recognitions

Reading my diaries for 2022 was like reliving the year in 100-times speed - it was a very trippy experience. It was so marvellous seeing my slightly-younger self starting the year with such an enthusiastic anticipation. After all, he had just submitted his first round of MSc and PhD applications. For him, the future held diverse and exciting promises. Little did he know that the first few months of 2022 would be full of rejections.

First it was all the US PhDs, next it was the Australians, the Europeans, and Oxford. The real hit was when my own department at Cambridge also rejected my application, despite support from professors. Funding applications, jobs, internships; I kept applying, and rejections kept coming in. 

Those were months of desperation and depression.  Occasionally there'd be an interview, an aptitude test, or a shortlist notice, and I would get my hopes up, only to feel the fall and the ensuing emptiness. Sometimes I even hated my friends for having fun, as I felt an inability to relax with the weight of impending reality constantly upon my mind.

Looking back now, I can easily point out the signals: I did make into rounds of interviews and many shortlists, so surely I wasn't too bad. But there and then, those anxieties were real: my visa would've ended with graduation, and with no place for refuge, no clear ways ahead, of course I saw mistakes everywhere in my life, of course I get stressed about choices, of course I felt insecure.

I slowly came to realise that life is like shooting: you calculate an aim, shoot your shot; after that it really is out of your hands, the only thing you can do is to let the bullets fly. And indeed, one by one they hit. I got a First Class Honours for my final year at Cambridge,  had the rare privilege of presenting my dissertation at a conference (He, Gvirtz et al., 2022), and pushed another paper into publication at PNAS Nexus (Rathje, He et al., 2022). Not too bad for a first-gen undergrad.

To my surprise, I got into a statistics summer internship at the Cambridge MRC Biostatistics Unit. Being the only social scientist among mathematicians was both overwhelming and empowering. I came out of it with a much larger statistical vocabulary, a group of interesting friends, a paper accepted by the Computing Conference (He et al., 2023), and a much treasured ability to not flinch when confronted by intimidating equations. 

Hearing my resignation about being unemployable, a fellow intern Millie suggested that I try reaching out to startups. "They'd actually try to know you as a person", she said, "instead of just ticking boxes like those consultancies". So I did. Soon I started informally working with a cool startup who taught me basic NLP (Genei), and landed another internship after summer at a credit card start-up called Yonder, for which I moved to London.

My life changed one week in November. My old professor invited me to apply to his PhD, and vouched for my competitive candidacy. A NLP PhD Studentship at Cambridge that I had applied to as a long shot gave me an offer. Yonder also gave me a full-time offer, inviting me to stay as their primary Data Scientist. After discussing with family, I chose to join Yonder while maintaining informal work with the 2 prospective PhD supervisors. My next transition thus began.

From University to Work

Funny enough, the 3 years at Selwyn College was the longest time I've ever lived at the same address. Grasses greened and dried, ivies gone and densed; those red bricks always stayed, watching the passing faces and passing lives. Cambridge really has a way of growing on one; it likes to keep itself in the wandering souls, and let sunsets paint the silhouettes of its ancient courts into memories. 

Being a student was fun. I enjoyed the daily explorations of new knowledge, and the nightly socially-sanctioned alcoholism. But I also grew familiar to the dread of always scrambling for what's next: for years I'd obsess on what I should do to prepare for What's Next - be it college, grad school, or jobs - and ignore what I actually enjoy. 

Transition to work gave me a chance to really think about what I actually want to do, instead of what I should want to do. I do enjoy social scientific research and would definitely do a PhD, but I don't want to become a professor. I do enjoy working with data (it makes me feel like a wizard casting spells), but I also want to be working toward meaningful outcomes, like a new scientific discovery or a positive impact on people's lives. 

I decided to balance industry and research. So while working full-time as a data scientist at Yonder, building models and engines that help people get fairer credits and more personalised rewards, I am keeping 20% of my capacity in social scientific research. So far it's working alright; since starting work in October, I've become a minor co-author to one paper (Maertens et al., 2022) and helped out in an upcoming paper on Twitter climate discourse. 

One day I hope to become a bridge between industry and research. Industry can benefit from the skills in research, and research can benefit from the resources and impact in industry. It would be difficult to integrate the rigorous truth-seeking of research with the fast-moving practicality of industry, but hey, I like building bridges, I'll give it a crack. 

Nonetheless, I am still adjusting to the unfamiliarities of a working life. The most immediate being that I miss the tight-knit community back in college, and the abundant clubs and societies in which one can socialise and procrastinate. Without that familiar dread of striving for what's next, I've also lost a bit of that old Drive, which I fear might be unhealthy. I shall be grateful to hear your thoughts on these. 

From Striving to Living

Moving to London felt like one of those moves that pronounced my life into chapters: from my birth town to Chengdu, from Chengdu to Auckland, from Auckland to Cambridge, and now from Cambridge to London. More pronounced was that this move marked the end of my years as a student, and in my birth town's expression, the start of my "out in society". 

It was also a paradigm shift in my life-view. In my past seven years as an international nomad, as briefly mentioned earlier, my life has generally been about striving towards what's next. I assumed that life is to march along an external standard, that what's next ought to be better than what's here. For the promise of a better future, I was happy to sacrifice the here and now.

This life-view made sense to a 14-year-old lone migrant that I was; it's also commonly marketed by self-help works (such as those I wrote) as "the growth mindset", a "long-term view", and "the bigger picture". But it meant that I needed to constantly justify what I do in terms of the future; it meant that I had to obsessively plan toward a perfection; it meant that I was so busy striving for a better life, that I never learnt how to live.

In 2022, I finally started living. I loved cooking for my friends back in college, and organising "symposiums" where we shared wine and talked about random pretentious topics. I loved visiting art galleries and curating my own little exhibitions with the postcards I collected from them. I loved classical concerts and vinyl records. I loved walking home past midnight with my friends, singing out our romanticisms and our youth. 

I loved journalling. I wrote so much about the sunsets on my long walks and cycle rides: "Sunsets can’t be described and don’t need to be described, for every sunset is different. There will be sunset tomorrow, but the sunset today is forever gone." So much about the many train journeys between London and Cambridge: "Flying past the dimly lit platforms of someone else’s destinations, I was hit by a sense of passing through a story too poetic to tell in prose."

This is perhaps my greatest transition in 2022. I used to be haunted by regrets about "what I could have done", stressed about the need to justify my every move, and live in the fear of making a decision that I may later regret. No more. I saw that beyond the next frontier, there is beauty right now and right here; that beyond striving, life is to be lived.

So, here we are. The end of an era.

I moved to London the day before the Royal Funeral. I remember telling myself that when I look back, that was the day I’d point to and say “that day I grew up”. I remember thinking: "Yes, I moved to London, the Queen is buried. Long Live the New World."

My Guqin Master also passed away this year. He taught me since I was 9. He opened a door for me, inside there was a Guqin, a cup of tea, and a whole brilliant world. He had too many stories, and moved too many lives. He was the last 士大夫. Death is so strange. One is alive, and then one is dead, no more. Like a raindrop fell and gone.

And I am no longer a student. I went back to college for a party once, and as I walked out of the fading chatters that echoed in the staircase, I felt a strange sense of nostalgia, as if I had just walked out of a memory many years later. So we move on, hoping that threads of fate would hold us back. It is perhaps in the trust of fate that we leap so hard, run so fast, away from here and now, away from ourselves, to the forever promise of something and somewhere new, of becoming someone new. 

What's next? I'm not sure; cool research, meaningful work, a life of poetry, I've got everything I've ever wanted. The roads ahead open up with infinite possibilities, yet I sometimes do miss that terrible yet reassuringly familiar dread. I shall enjoy this new life. Be nice, stay humble, and do cool things that make people happy. 

January 2023