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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

[guest post] on undergrad by CJ Q. '23

by laura c. '23

picture of someone on the back of a large MIT sign

(the lighting was way better from this side)

one of the hazards of constantly doing is that it’s often hard to put aside time for small things, like art or writing, if they haven’t already been ingrained as habit. it feels very tempting to put off tasks like these which require creativity or synthesis, basically everything featured on this blog. which is also to say, I’d like to write more now that I’m transitioning from college to the next phase of my life.

I’m excited to say that I’ll probably be pursuing a Ph.D. in quantum information next year! probably because I haven’t committed to a program yet, not that I’m unsure about the Ph.D. I don’t know where I’ll be next year, but I like to think that’s part of the fun.

I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I used to feverishly consume advice and self-help content, whether in the form of long-form blogs by wise and accomplished seniors, or anonymous forum posts from fellow students. these days, I think that online advice is often useful as a starting point, but it also lacks the context and nuance you might get from someone who actually knows you. for the same reasons, I’m also more cautious now about giving advice to other people. so as a disclaimer, I don’t intend this post as advice for younger students, but I do want to put out some of my thoughts about my time in college and what I’ll do after for my own reflections and in case they help start some conversations. specifically:

  • why I chose to major in physics and mathematics
  • how I decided to go to grad school
  • what I focused on during undergrad
  • how helpful high school was for college
  • things I found surprising
  • other thoughts about mit

I want to keep this post (relatively) short because again, it’s mostly not advice. if you find yourself in a similar situation as I was, or if what I’ve written resonates with you, feel free to reach out! there are also so many other online resources like the mit admissions blog which cover more diverse perspectives on the last point.

on majoring in physics and math!

I was incredibly lucky to attend a high school with amazing STEM (and non-STEM) classes and teachers. I read a lot of popular science articles, and I also read a lot of textbooks (shoutout to the secondhand copy of campbell biology 6th ed. which was featured in my common app!). but the main reason I decided to study physics was that it gave me intuition for the equations that I had already learned to solve in math class.

when I got to college, I was initially unsure if I would double major, or what I would double in—mit only assigns majors at the end of the first year, and does not allow double major applications until the second semester of sophomore year. at the time, computer science seemed like the more practical choice, since I hadn’t decided on grad school (more on that later). however, the first semester at mit is taken on pass/no record, and a friend convinced me to take abstract algebra. in hindsight I think this was one of the most important decisions I made in my freshman year, because it completely changed my mind about higher level math. I had come in with some exposure to math olympiads, but was convinced that clever problem-solving techniques in pure math weren’t my strong suit. but algebra, and as it turns out a lot of higher level math, is not like this and mostly about taking abstract definitions which are inspired by familiar objects, and using standard mathematical frameworks to prove universal fundamental properties. not knowing that I would have to memorize definitions for a math class, I came completely unprepared for the first of three quizzes and was devastated to receive a 50. by the end, however, I figured it out and received a 100 on the last quiz. later, I also realized that I was really interested in the mathy parts of physics, and it made sense to add a math major, which only requires eight non-introductory classes. (a note here is that mit doesn’t restrict enrollment for most technical classes, so you can take most classes even if you’re not majoring in the subject.)

why grad school?

I knew I liked physics even before I got to college, but pursuing a Ph.D. was a whole other issue. I grew up in an immigrant household, and while both my parents had attended college, they no longer worked in the same field as the degree they had received. I had always internalized the expectation that I would graduate from college with employable credentials and get a job. to be very clear, physics majors are employable! nearly half the physics majors in my department each year go into industry right out of undergrad. similarly, there are potential exit strategies at every stage in academia. but that was very difficult to grasp as a high schooler, without knowing any family friends who were academics and only seeing the average salary of a grad student. I had two experiences that really changed my mind.

first, I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I had a “winternship” in new york in january 2020. I landed this from the mit externship program, which places students with programs run by mit alums. my project was on analyzing transaction data using machine learning techniques, but I think my supervisor gave me an offer because he had a Ph.D. in physics and was impressed by some projects on my resume. the project didn’t work as well as we hoped, but its real benefit was being able to interact with other people working in finance who had gotten a Ph.D. and then left academia. both of the younger people in my group wholeheartedly recommended doing a Ph.D. if I was interested in it and affirmed the abundance of exit strategies.

second, in summer 2021 I worked at the Caltech Institute of Quantum Information and Matter through the SURF program. while this wasn’t my first research experience, it was the first where I felt I had accomplished something nontrivial, and it felt like exactly what I wanted to do as a job. my project was essentially on local scrambling in random quantum circuits as a model for thermalization in condensed matter systems, which meant I got to do a lot of analysis but also learn about real physics. also, pasadena is lovely and there are succulents growing out of the ground!

a common thread here is that mentorship has been really important for me, mainly because I didn’t expect to and didn’t always feel secure enough to take this route, and I’m lucky to have stumbled upon pretty good mentors who convinced me otherwise without thinking too much about it.

what have I done in undergrad?

having gone through most of it (see halfway post), I think the most important thing I accomplished in undergrad was figuring out what I want my life to look like. that includes my work and career, which to me are very fulfilling, but it also includes my social circles and day-to-day life outside of work. while I’m a bit disappointed that very few of my grad school options are near new york or the bay area, where most of my friends will be, I feel grateful for the people in my life throughout college. I’m also glad that I had the chance to live off-campus, which is standard at some schools but not at mit, which comes with a totally new set of lessons about managing your time, nutrition, cleanliness of environment, etc. in addition to that, I spent a decent amount of time on teaching and outreach work, which I hope to continue in some extent throughout my life. as a result, I don’t think I’ve worked “as hard” as some other students, but I feel personally that these other endeavors are equally important. as a side note, I’m mainly interested in theoretical physics, which means I’ve never had extended research experience in a physical lab and therefore have never had to spend a lot of time in lab. if I had been more interested in experimental physics, I can imagine that my lifestyle would be much more structured than it currently is and overall pretty different.

how helpful was high school?

pretty helpful, but also not as helpful as you might think. I came in having taken AP Physics C, proof-based multivariable calculus and differential equations, a few introductory programming classes, and having read a little bit of Griffiths’ Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. I thought I might be able to spend more time doing research in college, but a lot of subfields in theoretical physics have a pretty high barrier to entry and it turns out I spent way more time in classes (it’s not even close). on one hand this makes it difficult for many students to figure out what they’re interested in and to commit to theory as a career, but on the other hand it’s quite humbling and even reassuring to realize that the gap between a graduate or industry researcher and an incoming first-year student in college is much larger that the typical gap within incoming students. even if your high school didn’t offer any college-level subjects, you would probably be more or less caught up as long as you had a good grasp of the content you learned in the first year at mit. if I did have any advice though, it would be to focus on learning math well first, especially multivar and diffeq, because they’re useful in most technical fields.

thoughts about mit

a lot has already been written by other people, but I think it’s important to include my overall thoughts about attending mit in this post. first, mit was my top choice, but I was only admitted off of the waitlist, and my parents expressed some worries that it would be too competitive. until last year, I had never read malcolm gladwell’s essays on the big-fish-small pond effect, and I’m still not sure whether I agree with the premise that college should be thought of primarily as a hoop we jump through to become employable, but personally I’m quite happy that I decided to come here.

I had heard many times that the main benefits of these places are the peers and the network, but I think the reality is more nuanced. like other private schools, mit has the benefit of financial resources that they can give to students and campus groups, which is great for exploring activities and meeting people and grabbing free food; not to mention, they tend to be fairly generous with financial aid. a large endowment itself enables all of these aspects of the experience. obviously, it’s also been really cool to meet so many faculty that are experts in their field, though I don’t think fame always correlates with quality of mentoring. ultimately, mit is a school, and one other reason that I feel my time here was so rewarding is that I just really enjoy taking classes and learning.

other things I found surprising

I think the most difficult thing I had to internalize was that growing up is hard. maybe it shouldn’t be surprising in hindsight, because so many interesting novels are about growing up and dealing with change, but in high school I didn’t really think about myself as in the process of growing up. I chatted with an old research mentor last year, who told me that he had seen many graduate students not prioritize their own mental health and support networks as they navigated research and adult life, and suffer as a result. it seems obvious that everyone deserves to have their emotional needs met, but I hadn’t realized how important this was to hear from a mentor figure until I finally did.

all this is not to say that studying physics and math wasn’t at times long-winded, meandering, and extremely frustrating. but even though physics is hard, the rest of life can feel even weirder. personally, I’ve found it very helpful to focus on the positives at each turning point in my life, and those are the feelings that have stuck with me.

p.s. an alternative title for this post is “on my love”. happy late international women in stem + valentine’s day!