For better or worse, I spend a fair amount of time hanging out with graduate students in STEM fields, many from elite schools. All the worst things you might suspect about them are (at least partially) true: They're neurotic, privileged, insecure, and narrowly focused on their academic lives. At the same time, though, the best things you might think about them are also generally true: They're hardworking, intelligent, and passionate. They crack jokes whose punch lines require an in-depth knowledge of calculus. They use the acronym "PCR" in casual conversation, as though everybody knows what that means ("polymerase chain reaction," in case you were wondering). This is not to imply that I am particularly cool: Nerdy graduate students are—much as it pains me to admit it—my people. The parties are better than you think.
Very often, I hear some version of the following meme repeated: STEM subjects are practical and earthbound and technically precise, while the humanities are emotive and wistful. It's become something of a cliché. But I think this popular perception is out of sync with what is actually going on in these graduate programs. In discussing the humanities, people take for granted that the objects of inquiry are, to varying degrees, disconnected from reality. They assume that the goal of studying, say, Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is to uplift the spirit, discover something about beauty, and enrich one's appreciation of art. With STEM subjects, it's the complete opposite. We assume that people study microbiology to develop vaccines that will save lives, or computer science to design the next #BigData innovation, or mathematics to hone their minds for a lucrative career managing a hedge fund.