I took too many classes this semester.
It was an accident. Usually five classes or four classes plus a UROP is a reasonable workload for me. Typically at that level, there are some stressful weeks, but generally I feel like I’m on top of my work and can keep everything under control.
This semester I loaded up on project classes. All three of my technical classes have semester-long group projects. My French class is also an uncharacteristic amount of work. So what ended up looking like an average semester is turning out to be really hectic.
I’ve felt pretty overwhelmed lately. I’ve had several weeks where I have deadline after deadline and it’s hard to keep up. Last week was really busy. It was the week before spring vacation and professors were trying to get to a stopping point before everyone headed out for the break. There were a lot of preliminary project deadlines. I gave a presentation for the Multimodal User Interfaces class where we had to lay out a detailed game plan for our final project. I had a presentation for my French class on an influential author and philosopher of the négritude movement in Africa. I had a preliminary report of 2500 words for our semester-long design project for Computer Systems due on Friday. I’m continually running experiments for my UROP to prepare for a conference I’m presenting at in May. I had two other projects that were pushed back because of a snow day we had a couple weeks ago: a French essay and an implementation of a working virtual machine for my dynamic language engineering class, and I would have been a stressed wreck if those deadlines hadn’t been postponed.
The second part of the semester doesn’t look like it’s going to be any easier. In fact, I got some unexpected good news yesterday from my UROP supervisor—I get to attend CHI (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, an important human-computer interaction conference) at the end of April in Montreal! I’m super excited!!! But I’ll be missing three days of school and I’ll have to pre- and postpone project work to clear the time. In general, my philosophy is not to miss out on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in order to do more work. So I’m making time to go, but it means that April will be pretty stressful.
Over the course of my time at MIT, my relationship with work has definitely changed. I feel like this semester I’ve hit my limits in a new way. This was the first semester where I’ve felt like a load of mid-semester work impacted my mood.
I’ve always been pretty good at balancing work and fun and at compartmentalizing the two. Now I feel like my school work is starting to negatively impact my social life. Even when I’m supposed to be enjoying myself, frequently I have work in the back of my mind. I feel so task-focused that I can’t enjoy the present. I’ve been snappy and impatient with my friends. A couple weeks ago, after making a big deadline, I was feeling pretty burnt out. I was at the same time lonely because I hadn’t really hung out with friends in a week and reclusive because I didn’t have the stamina to deal with people.
I’m hitting the point where I have so much work I’m not enjoying myself any more, and that’s new for me. I’m sick of it.
I don’t think this is something that’s unique to me. The middle of the semester is a perennially bad time for mental health at MIT. Stress starts setting in and people get more isolated as they dedicate more time to studying. I think I just haven’t thought about this much before because right when I started at MIT, the novelty and the excitement and the euphoria of being in such an incredible place surrounded by such talented people made me feel invincible and kind of inured me to feeing burnt out. Then I went through a period that was kind of rough but I cut back on classes a little and fortunately my academics didn’t suffer. Now I feel like I’m getting to the point where I’m finally getting used (after almost three years!) to just being an MIT student—where I feel like I’m in the groove of things but I’ve passed the high of being a new student, and I’m starting to learn what I need to do to make this experience work for me. And I’m realizing that at the equilibrium, there is a limit to how much I can handle and still be happy.
There is a real and very understandable temptation at MIT to take on more than you can chew. Part of it is that there are so many amazing opportunities present that you try to take advantage of them all. Another part is that there is definitely a culture here of overwork. Not sleeping enough/taking a zillion classes/being a Renaissance person who can handle a superhuman amount of commitments is glorified. And, for some people, it’s possible—there are incredibly talented people here that can handle six classes and a half dozen extracurriculars. But most people can’t, and it's important to know your limits.
I think sometimes the downside of overwork can be downplayed by students here, including me. Ultimately, it’s important to enjoy yourself, in order to stay motivated and to make life worth living. And it’s important to avoid burning out, because that can be really hard to recover from.
I have a lot of things to look forward to this semester. I’m currently on spring break in Canada with my best friend and we’re having a great time (blog and pictures to come!!!). I’m going to the CHI conference in Montreal next month and the Vision Sciences Society conference in Florida in May to present the findings from my UROP. And I’m really excited to be spending the summer in Seattle, where I plan on sewing and kayaking every evening and going hiking and camping with friends on weekends. There are so many exciting things in my future that I’ll be able to keep myself motivated through the semester, even if it’s more stressful than it could be.
And next semester, I’m definitely planning on taking it easy. I’ll take a lighter class load with more language classes and really focus on research.