Answering my own questions by Mollie B. '06
My perspective on the MIT student mentality about working hard.
A few nights ago I insinuated that there was a list of questions prospective students ought to be asking about schools they’re considering, headed off with the questions
What is the student mentality with regard to work? Is the program composed of self-starters, with very little peer pressure to work hard, or do students in the program encourage each other to work hard? Is hard work a virtue or an expletive? Is there a lot of competition between students, and is it destructive competition?
Before I give a set of answers about MIT, I want you to stop reading and think about what your ideal program would be like. Unlike questions about campus safety or housing prices, these questions don’t actually have “good” or “bad” answers. You just have to know yourself and know what you need and want as a student. (A question like “Is the campus safe?” obviously has a good answer and a bad answer. A question like “What is the student mentality with regard to work?” is much more open to different strokes for different folks.)
Is hard work a virtue or an expletive?
Hard work is a virtue at MIT. In fact, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said hard work is the virtue at MIT. MIT is often said to be more egalitarian than our peer institutions; students here are less impressed by your granddaddy’s yacht than we are by people who take 100 units in one term. (Sidenote, for reference: “normal” courseload is 48 units, and one unit is supposed to equal one hour per week spent on the class. 100 units is absurd and awe-inspiring.)
“I learned a lot of different things from different schools. MIT is a very good place… I was just in love with it. It has developed for itself a spirit, so that every member of the whole place thinks that it’s the most wonderful place in the world… and while you don’t get a good sense of proportion there, you do get an excellent sense of being with it and in it, and having motivation and desire to keep on.” -Richard Feynman (Class of 1939)
People get very caught up in the idea that we all work hard because we have to — that the courseload here is so bone-crushingly difficult that we have to work night and day, sunrise, sunset, just to keep our heads above water. I’ll admit there are weeks like that (see last term’s midterm week of death). But there really is an element of all of us doing it to ourselves — we’re here because we secretly or not-so-secretly like working right at the edge of our abilities. I think I can confidently generalize that we all like a challenge. (Adam likes to quote Road Trip: “If it were easy, it would just be called the way.”) MIT is not really a great place for grade-grubbers or the easily-discouraged.
Is the program composed of self-starters, with very little peer pressure to work hard, or do students in the program encourage each other to work hard?
This is the question I’ve been asking of every graduate program with which I interview, and I think the answer to this question is extremely telling. MIT is most definitely an environment in which students encourage other students to work to the best of their abilities; in a sense, there’s a great deal of “peer pressure” to achieve excellence. Some of this is unconscious — when you’re surrounded by smart people doing cool stuff, it’s natural to want to do cool stuff too. At some schools, I suppose you join the group by buying expensive handbags, but at MIT, you join the group by learning how to push yourself and produce good work. (See this article, one of my all-time favorite Tech columns.)
One of the faculty members interviewing me a few weeks ago said the graduate students in her program had to be self-starters in order to achieve — that there wasn’t much pressure from other students to spend long hours in the lab or get a paper published in a top journal. I have to admit this really turned me off — after four years of a culture that supports aiming high, I don’t think I’d be happy surrounded by students who didn’t really concern themselves with whether or not their work was groundbreaking.
Four years ago, I chose between undergraduate programs at Ohio State and at MIT. There’s often a feeling among students that MIT is the hard road, and that going to state school would mean an automatic 4.0 and admission into a top grad school. I’m sure for some students, that would work; it wouldn’t work for me. I do consider myself to be a “self-starter” (you almost have to be to succeed in any college, let alone an elite one), but I need nudges from other students and from difficult coursework in order to not become bored to death. I don’t think I would have gotten a 4.0 at OSU, because I think I would have gotten bored and slacked off. (Many of us at MIT have “got bored and slacked off” stories — Adam stopped doing his homework in fourth grade because it was stupid and instead played with glue all day, I got bored in third grade and started reading books inside my desk instead of listening to the teacher. You probably know how it goes.)
Is there a lot of competition between students, and is it destructive competition?
A thousand times no. I suppose there’s competition (after all, I just said that we all love a challenge), but there’s never sabotage on a grand scale like the rumors you hear about cutthroat colleges. I think part of this stems from a) notoriously difficult problem sets combined with b) most freshmen taking the same classes — freshman year, you form study groups with other people in your classes who live in your dorm, and you get very used to working together and helping other people think through problems. Although it certainly didn’t seem fun at the time, I have fond memories of my 18.02 study group doing psets freshman year while munching on pizza, listening to 80s music, and gossiping. Jessie wrote an entry this fall about getting help from a fellow dorm resident in the middle of the night. We MIT students have each other’s backs.
I hope this has helped a little. Aditya is right, it’s hard to get straight answers to this question out of anyone. But I think it’s a terribly important element of student culture, and I hope this description excites you rather than turning you off to MIT.
Quickly answering a few questions before bed:
1. Everyone is always welcome to email me (my email address is on the blog banner), although of course I make no guarantees as to the speed of my responses!
2. Dan asked, “1) Are there math UROPs? What kind of research can an undergraduate do in mathematics? 2) You say master’s degrees in pure sciences aren’t very useful? Does that hold true with mathematics? And is environmental science considered a ‘pure science’?”
There are math UROPs — a list of past course 18 UROP supervisors is here. (Admittedly, this is not a long list compared to the number of supervisors in other departments. And to be honest, I have no idea what on earth a math UROP would do!) I believe most of the aspiring mathematicians I’ve known have gone straight to PhD programs (or industry — course 18 grads make mad money straight out of undergrad), but I’m not sure if that’s because I only know a few math undergrads and therefore my sample is skewed.
3. Minh and Lizzy asked how I found my UROP position. In the middle of the summer after my freshman year, I emailed about 10 professors whose research sounded interesting, introducing myself and sending a resume of my previous lab experience (I’d worked at the NIH that summer). Two emailed me back and I interviewed with one; two and a half years later, I’m still in the same lab I interviewed with in August 2003! I’ve since found that it might be a better strategy to email professors’ administrative assistants, if you can find the addresses — professors get tons of email, and your message might get lost in the deluge. Lizzy also asked how early housing would work — I have no clue, and you’d be better off emailing Housing (they’re very nice!). Incoming freshmen often come early for programs like Project Interphase or to try out for a fall sport, and of course there are plenty of dorm rooms open, but I’m not really sure how it would work logistically.
4. Alexandre commented, “I like how the MIT Student/Future Harvard Medical Student read a material safety sheet that warned of “irreversible effects” [of phenol/chloroform] and decided to test some on her fingers!” Hey, a good science education teaches you to question everything. Just wanted to make sure I could trust those material safety data sheets! ;)
5. As for everyone who wondered what would happen to the blog once I graduate… take that up with Ben, he’s the boss. :) Seriously, though, I promise to keep the bloggers informed of my doings, and they can disseminate that information as they see fit!