I wrote this on my first day of classes this past Tuesday, and decided to throw it up here mostly unedited (meaning, excuse all the typos lol) as a real-time reflection of four years at MIT.
Today is hectic. My sleep schedule, I feel, is about 2 hours later than normal working professionals, as I feel like I can never wake up before 9AM. But today I have lecture at 11, so I rush to get ready at 9:45, going through the motions of brushing my teeth and washing my face, throwing on clothes, fussing with my frizzy hair (quite overdue for a wash day by now), giving up on it, rushing out the door. I jump on the 1 bus and get off at MIT, get coffee, and try to figure out where my lecture hall is. It’s in a room I’ve never been before (1-390) which is surprising, as for the last two years all my engineering courses were typically in one of five lecture halls that I became familiar with.
Today is hectic in part because my mind is still racing--I’m still conflicted between two classes, 6.302: Feedback Systems and 6.832: Underactuated Robotics. The latter I was convinced to take by the graduate students in the lab I research in, who are also in the class. The former I wanted to take to see controls from the electrical systems point of view, but part of me feels like it’s a cop-out, as I’ve already taken a controls course in mechanical engineering and this class feels relatively ‘safe’. But on the other hand, maybe I should really work on building a robust foundation before foraying into the wilds of complicated nonlinear dynamic systems (in other words, stuff that math doesn’t describe well and so we don’t really know how to do it).
In other years at MIT, I would ask the seniors I knew what they were taking, and would often be surprised to hear they had a pretty heavy course load, despite having most of their requirements done. I thought that most people would want to take a lighter load their senior year; enjoy other aspects of MIT, finish strong. And then this morning I became just like the seniors I hadn’t understood at the time--fretting over which class to take because I was suddenly struck with the feeling that I might never get the chance to, again.
When I was a freshman, I came here thinking that I was a bachelors-and-done type of person. I thought that, after about 16 years of school, there was no way I would ever want to do more school, and I was ready to get out into the real world and work on real problems. I thought that maybe I would go to graduate school (5 years down the line) but that it definitely wasn’t something I’d be planning for in the short term.
And yet, my last two years in mechanical engineering, and especially this year, I felt like I got a taste of the power of academia. Nowhere else can you be truly unlimited in your pursuit of knowledge, and nowhere else can you work on problems that are as stimulating and interesting as in research. In many ways, this year especially, I became a sort of halfway graduate student. Even my beginning years at MIT I had a strong interest in research, and by the time I finished I will have been an undergraduate researcher for 3 years (almost the whole time I’ve been here). But toward the end, as I was trusted with more responsibility, and had the skills to take on more, I thrived. I felt I was doing the things I was supposed to, in the place I was supposed to be. By the end of this year, I’ll have completed three, possibly four, graduate courses, almost the load of an entire masters degree. I’ve learned how to keep learning--how to adopt new skills by sifting through (loads of) academic journals, how to find and study things that researchers studied before me.
From another angle, I also learned that being smart, or knowledgeable, or intelligent, is hardly about knowing everything. In movies and television, intelligence or capability is often portrayed as some kind of superpower--Iron Man builds his suit in a single montage, knows the answers to all the questions, learns thermodynamics in a single night. Of course, no one is actually like that. In reality, the smartest people I have ever met, MIT roboticists and researchers, say “I don’t know” pretty much every day. Executing projects is hardly done by knowing all the answers and building pristine, shiny objects. In reality, it’s done by puzzling over equations for days on end, testing, redesigning, and testing again. Often, something comes together right before a deadline, and the team is just as surprised as you are by how well their product works.
In fact, one of my classes is, in fact, built on the idea that you shouldn't try to know, or at least shouldn’t control, everything. In 6.832: Underactuated Robotics, the whole purpose of the course is to get away from fully actuated systems, where every dimension of motion is controlled but are horribly inefficient, to underactuated systems, where some components are passive, and not controlled in any active manner. Uncertainty is increased, everything is nonlinear, and you, a student/researcher/engineer, must embrace this property.