Jun 7, 2007
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right
Posted in: Academics & Research
I graduate tomorrow, so I guess this is my last entry here, or something. Certainly my last entry as an undergrad.
It's been quite a ride for the last four years. I came in as a premed, somewhat intimidated by the idea of an engineering school, and unsure what I wanted to major in meanwhile, but leaning toward course 9 with a focus on molecular/cellular neurobiology - something premed-ish, but with an element that was not just straight up bio, and in which I had some preexisting interest. I didn't intend to take any computer-related classes, any engineering classes (hands-on stuff, outside of a lab, was scary), or any math beyond the General Institute Requirements. I'm leaving as a course 9 major with a lot of side classes in 6 and 18, who went for systems, computational, and mathematical neuroscience and neural engineering, who took a 30 hour/week software engineering lab that I didn't need to graduate, who TAed a robotics class/competition, who learned how to use power tools.
This place will change you, reroute your life in interesting ways, if you let it, but you have to let it. I was a good target for being changed because, in truth, I was only on the track that I was on when I came in, by default, and it wasn't a lifestyle that I actually enjoyed or a goal that I actually cared about. Of course, if I'd gone to pretty much any other school - certainly any non-tech school - I would still be on that track. I'd probably have gone through college roughly the same way that I went through grade school - top grades, untried, well-liked but with almost no close friends or social life, feeling vaguely unsatisfied and not sure why, secretly fearing that I hadn't had enough challenges in life or in academics and would cave the first time I hit a wall.
I'm no longer afraid that I haven't been challenged enough. You don't get something for nothing. In addition to rerouting your life, making you rethink your values, and so on, MIT can do interesting things to you psychologically, and you should realize that before you go in (though it's unlikely that you can really realize it until you're there). It can hurt you sometimes. I could have had a much easier life the last four years if I'd been just about anywhere else. As a top high school student you've probably spent the last four years (or twelve years?) working toward the goal of getting into a top school, and it's been portrayed to you that if you just get into that top school, you've done what you needed to do, you have it made. That's not true - it's once you get here that the fun really starts.
So what am I doing now? Well, I'm living in Somerville (a town that borders Cambridge) in a house with a bunch of other people, mostly MIT people. I'll be working in Cambridge, as a software engineer of cognitive systems at Charles River Analytics, an applied artificial intelligence contract R&D company. As an R&D company that does a lot of government work, it's got a quasi-academic feel to it, publishing research papers, attending and presenting at conferences, and collaborating with academic labs. I think it'll be a lot of fun, and if I decide to try for grad school again at some point in the future it'll be good preparation. It's a (well-paying) job that uses my major, even! I really want to come back and be on one of those Life After Course 9 panels that the Brain & Cognitive Sciences Society puts on, because there were definitely times when I'd liked to have gone to one of those panels and seen someone like me there.
On that note, a tip that I've been wanting to bring up for a while: Course 9 (along with many other science majors) is not considered a particularly "employable" major according to popular stereotype. Every year at MIT, there's some large number of students who get into huge fights with their parents because their parents don't think their major is employable (I've known people whose parents pulled their tuition over this). Usually, these parents believe that some subset of the engineering majors and course 15 are employable, and anything else is a waste of time and money. Usually the students are resentful and rebellious and fire back that they want to do something that makes them happy.
Back when I actually went on College Confidential, I'd see parents argue about this - happiness with major vs employability - in the parent forums.
Here's my tip: Happiness with your major and employability are both important concerns, but they aren't mutually exclusive. You can major in what you want and be fine, but have a job/field in mind, that you would enjoy, where you are gaining the skills to be hired in that job at the bachelor's level. If you're in a major that doesn't suggest bachelor's-level employability, take employability booster classes to supplement it. I know a couple of humanities majors who are getting business minors for this reason. I know physics kids who take a couple of EE labs for this reason. I did this. I didn't like computer science as a whole field for its own sake enough to major in it, but I liked it as a tool to solve interesting problems, and I liked certain aspects of it for their own sakes, and now I have a job where I'll be using it, and particularly some parts of it that really interest me, as tools to solve problems related to what I studied in my major. It's the best of both worlds.
A few more final tips for incoming students: Take your living group selection seriously. I cannot stress this enough. Try to pick a place that fits you in the summer in case you get stuck there, but consider Dorm Rush (REX), not the summer, to be the time when you're truly making your living group decision. Don't settle for a satisfactory living group when you could have a great one. Find some activities that you like, but don't try to do all the activities, ever, right away - give yourself a chance to get used to MIT. Be open to change. Speak up about issues that concern you. Find a community that grows naturally (people you chose to live with, people with whom you share interests, people in your field, something like that), instead of accepting an artificial community that somebody imposes on you (e.g. class identity). Don't be cocky. Ask for help if you need it. Stand up for yourself as a student. Stand up for MIT culture as a student.
Keep MIT special.