I Really Just Cannot Write Anymore of My Thesis by Chris S. '11
I wish I can bang out essays like blog entries.
Hello MIT blogs!
I love blogging. I applied to be a blogger on whim almost four years ago, and interestingly enough, I am the last guy that still seems to be around from the batch that got selected with me on that fateful day in September, so long ago. So, no, I have not forgotten about my duties. It’s just every time I try writing something, I feel like I should be working on my thesis instead, so I stop blogging and revert to thesis mode. Now I have 60+ pages of it finished, and trying to get words out of me is starting to feel like making myself vomit when there’s nothing else to throw up, so maybe I should take a mini-break?
All the blogs I promised in here will still get written, but I need to finish my thesis first ;) so I’ll just provide a brief update of what I’ve been up to this semester –
This semester, I am taking three and three-quarters classes (45 credits), which is the smallest number of credits that I have ever taken at MIT (the second lowest comes in at 54, which is four and a half – I have never taken just four classes in one semester at MIT. I did originally sign up for four and three-quarters, putting the last class on junior/senior PDF (you can designate two classes during your junior and senior years, outside of your major and minor, as pass/D/F), but ended up dropping that class too because of senioritis. SENIORITIS IS REAL GUYS. IT HAPPENS AGAIN IN COLLEGE. BEWARE.)
Four years ago this time, I was sitting blissfully by our high school pool, basking in the afternoon sunlight, fantasizing about a place far away known as MIT, and the kind of things that I would encounter there. High school was amazing and all, but I was ready to leave – I was ready to fly far away from Asia and be part of a new great adventure.
Now, I am sitting in front of the wooden desk in the room that I have lived in for the last three years, shutting the window because Boston nights still gets quite cold, even in late April. I do not yet know where I will ultimately end up for med school (that comes in a few weeks), but I am excited about the prospects. I am ready to leave, but not so much because I have seen everything there is to MIT (by far impossible – I’ve seen like less than 20%), but it’s because I am getting old and there are so many of you young ‘uns coming in. This place is a magical place, and in the four years here, I still do not feel the energy level ever diminishing – not even one bit. This place is still just like the school that I set foot on three Augusts ago, and in many ways, even better and more improved.
Looking back, I’ve completed the requirements for two majors, along with a slew of classes in between that I took for fun. I have written countless essays, completed numerous psets, and taken many, many exams. Just this last Thursday, I took my last regular examination at MIT, and I didn’t feel a sense of relief. Just moments after the exam, I was already anxiously discussing my answers with fellow classmates, exhaling in relief when our answers matched, and feeling my heart skip a beat when we had widely differing solutions. Perhaps that part of me would never change.
It is impossible to write a blog detailing why you should come to MIT, why you should pick this school over Stanford or Harvard, or why you should not go to Caltech. The simple answer is just that it’s really different for every person, and there is truly no one-size-fits-all answer. There are a few overarching principles that I believe hold true across the board, however, that I realized from my four years of being here:
Firstly, MIT will train you how to think. The Latin motto of this school is mens et manus, which is simply mind and hand. Beginning from the selection process and extended across all the courses that you will encounter here, MIT places a heavy premium on being able to create – being able to innovate. It is not sufficient to just have book knowledge; MIT wants you to be able to do something with that knowledge, to create something, to blow something up – to apply it somehow, in one way or another. I am not even an engineering major here and I’ve already learned so much. Like I said in a few entries ago, I went from a confused freshman pipetting water from one beaker to another to running simultaneous experiments side by side, sketching out future experiments in my lab notebook, and discussing my research with postdocs and grad students in my lab. My history thesis took me on research trips to Washington DC (at the National Archives) and Manzanar, CA (four hours outside of Los Angeles). With the very rare exception of one course, I have never taken a single multiple choice exam here. The exams here ask students to design experiments, to explain phenomenons, to defend their rationale and explanations. You will not be asked to regurgitate anything that you crammed for the test the night before. Instead, you are asked to apply that knowledge to new situations on the exam – to take it to the next step. Remember those “Critical Thinking” questions that used to be at the end of your math textbook in every section that comes after all the basic drills? MIT exams are that, times 10. Regardless of what major you are here, you will not leave this place without being a better analytical and critical thinker. You might not be able to impress your guests at cocktail parties with the precise names of all the blood-clotting factors, but you will able to take them through a 10-minute impromptu lecture on the brilliance of the biochemistry of the human blood-clotting cascade.
Secondly, MIT is hard. It is harder than anything that you have ever seen. There is no getting around it, and you might as well be prepared to hear it now, because it is not going to change. During your freshman year, some of you guys might come in better prepared than others (some General Institute Requirement classes may seem rather easy if you come from a very competitive schooling system), but the playing ground will even out by the time you enter your major – I promise you. For those lagging behind, you will quickly learn how to swim (don’t worry, you just will). I am not going to pretend that there are not going to be those who drown, but there is help here, and you won’t be left behind with the right blend of support, resolve, and introspection. I’ve heard freshman year often being compared to a boot camp, where everyone is put through the same classes with the same safety net (pass/no record) for incoming frosh to get used to MIT-level rigor before branching out into their respective majors. It is very much true, although the difficulty and pain does not end after the GIRs are finished. Depending on your major, you will be put through another grind with the more difficult advanced-level subjects in your major and the laboratory classes, but you should be already doing something that you like, so this may not be as bad as the GIRs. Just like any other boot camp in real life, some of you will come in more fit, in better condition, and better trained to take on the challenges, and I might argue that some of you will sail through MIT – and that’s great, more power to you, but I still believe that you are in the minority, and most people here still tackle MIT bit by bit, one day at a time. There will be nights when you will be up till daybreak, watching the sun rise over the Charles – there will be days when you stumble through your day, exhausted and groggy from the amount of psets, exams, meetings, and events. But you will emerge from the other side – that’s what long weekends, IAP, and the summers are for. It’s just like recovery after working out or running a 5K. You feel like crap when you’re in the midst of it, and you feel worse with each step that gets you closer to the finish line, but collapsing on the grass after the event feels like heaven – the celebratory ice cream at night even better.
Lastly, and most importantly, MIT has developed for itself a spirit and a culture that no university can emulate. This is perhaps one of the most amazing things about this Institution – MIT is so rife with culture and inside references that only alumni know and carry on with them.
You will not encounter any alum that do not know what Lobby 7 or what the brass rat is, and older alums will even regale you with tales about how 8.01 was “a lot more hardcore, back in the day.” Each one of our dozen-plus dorms and living communities has an unique personality that cannot be found anywhere on campus, and you do not just live in the buildings themselves – you become part of that culture the longer you live in and contribute to the dorm. Go on a citrusy expedition during your Freshman Orientation; lead the said trip as a junior or a senior. Learn the extensive collection of MIT lingo/slang; discover your own meaning of IHTFP. Learn the esoteric Athena command codes; fail to remember the Athena cluster combinations. Find your own best view of the Boston skyline; figure out the best way to get to your dorm to Kendall during a blizzard. Go on a fraternity or a sorority formal; ask someone out to one of them. Party with Boston-area college students, get to know them, and take a break from MIT students complaining about psets all the time. Study at the Reading Room and know why that room made CNN headlines; stand in the Stata Center during a rainy day and know why Frank Gehry got sued for that building. Have snowball fights in Killian Court; build an igloo on Briggs Field. Take pictures of the Dome; take lots of them during your time here. Learn how to work Stellar; have a heart attack when you check exam grades on Stellar. Set up your laptop to print to any Athena printer; pick up your homework that you’ve sent ahead of you at the printer right next to your class. Find creative ways to recycle your Athena header sheets; fold them into paper lotuses. Do the Mystery Hunt during IAP; attend the Integration Bee and the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies. Take a picture with President Susan Hockfield; eat lunch with a Nobel laureate. Find a UROP – keep that UROP – quit that UROP – find another one, or two, or three; stay in the lab past 3 AM; operate a piece of equipment that costs more than $100K. Take a glass-blowing class; take pistol, sailing, fencing, archery, and earn your Pirate’s License. Apply for a grant and travel to Europe (or do the Cambridge-MIT Exchange); have a romantic rendezvous while you’re there. Enter a competition and win money to change the world in Africa or India; see your wildest imaginations blossom into practical solutions to urgent problems. Take a graduate level class; figure out why the grad students think we’re smarter than they are ;). Eat LN2 ice cream; steal dry ice from your lab. Pull an all-nighter to finish your lab report; then pull another one after that, just for fun. Learn a new programming language; take introductory economics (14.01 and 14.02). Register for eight classes; drop half of them three weeks before the final. Don’t get addicted to coffee; don’t drink Monsters. Apply for a College Card and head on over to Symphony Hall for free BSO concerts; find the hidden temple inside the Museum of Fine Arts. Ride an entire Saferide loop for fun; memorize the Saferide schedule. Get to know Tosci’s; decide whether you like JP Licks or Berryline better. Shop at LaVerde’s; grumble at how expensive it is, and buy that juice you’re holding anyways. Get a super steak burrito at Anna’s; ask for the tomato salad instead of the lettuce at Sepal’s upstairs. Take a picture with Tim the Beaver; BE Tim the Beaver. Memorize the course numbers; guide confused tourists through MIT’s building numbers. Take a picture for the Korean tourists; be PART OF A PICTURE with them. Sign up for the List Art Gallery’s artwork lottery; attend concerts and recitals on campus. Collect free T-shirts from student groups; eat nothing but free food for a week and attend cool lectures while you’re at it….
Want more? I’m just getting started :D
Stay tuned for Tim the Beaver’s adventures in Oxford, England! :)