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MIT student blogger Sam M. '07

It’s the terror of knowing by Sam M. '07

Ten dollars for my thoughts on grad school.

DID YOU KNOW? Norah Jones is the daughter of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar.

So I’ve got a photographic record of picturesque Barcelona, but I figure that can wait a few days. Because I got to thinking this afternoon. The other day Mike, who I may or may not know, asked…

“What are you thinking about doing for grad school?”

…and the emphatic answer is I DON’T KNOW! I NEED SOME TIME TO THINK!

So here are a few of my thoughts on the subject right now, which I hope will give you some insight into being an MIT undergrad.

1. I think that, along with most of the chemical engineering Class of 2007, I’m getting a little tired of being in school right now. Not that this is MIT’s fault–MIT is, of course, the greatest school that will ever exist in the entire universe–but after three years of problem sets, finals, UROPs, all-nighters, super burritos, Pour House, and everything else, most of my classmates aren’t too excited about the prospect of another 4.5 – 6 years of higher education including 2 years of classes and a 250-page final paper.

Now, this might be a result of the chemical engineering curriculum at MIT, which is structured to hit you with most of your major classes and labs between your sophomore spring and your junior spring. True story–last semester my fellow UROP Adam ’07 produced a paper for the one-semester class 10.26: Project Laboratory in Chemical Engineering that was longer than the thesis written by his grad student over a 6-year period. My own work paled in comparison, a mere 84 pages of graphs and charts detailing effectively two weeks of research. So, understandably, coming right out of 10.26, not many of us are excited about getting our own research projects in grad school. But I’m going to take it pretty easy next year and try to take a few more interesting humanities classes that I’d always neglected, so maybe I won’t be so stressed out when it comes time to pick a grad schools.

2. The discipline I chose, Chemical Engineering, doesn’t really need graduate work. If you go into something like chemistry or biology or another scientific field, the nature of most undergraduate curriculums is such that you’re probably going to need more than a bachelor’s degree to get a chemistry- or biology-oriented research job. Otherwise you might end up as a lab tech or something like that. Engineering doesn’t really work that way–although more jobs are open to you with a master’s degree or PhD, from what I understand there are jobs in industry open to people with only bachelor’s degrees. Some people in my class are looking for work to get a feel for industry, then planning to return to grad school with a more balanced perspective between industry and education. The 29-year-old grad student I currently work with in lab took this approach. A few of my classmates are even searching for the much-coveted holy grail of “a nice company that will pay for you to go back to grad school.”

Not even everybody in my chemical engineering class even wants a chemical-engineering related job, though. Some are “selling out” and going into finance right out of undergrad. Some are pre-med, devoting like the next ten years of their life to the poverty-stricken pursuit of higher education. This is why they tell probably everyone that chemical engineering is absolutely the most versatile major, even though they really only say that at chemical engineering faculty luncheons and choice of major fairs.

3. I can’t go to MIT for a PhD. Now, this isn’t a bad thing, because after four years of Boston winters and twenty years in the (relative) Northeast, I think I might be ready for a slight change of scenery anyway. But, in case you might be wondering, almost every engineering course does accept MIT undergraduates with appropriate qualifications into their PhD programs. The lone exception is chemical engineering, because professors have decided there are too many similarities between the engineering and curricula. For this reason, most of the science courses also refuse graduate admission to MIT undergraduates, with the recent exception of biology. In fact, in the chemistry curriculum, most grad students are required to take classes like 5.04: Principles of Inorganic Chemistry II with undergrads, for whom it’s an elective.

I have heard people ask whether, for this reason, it might be better to go somewhere else for undergrad and then go to MIT for grad school instead. Well, I have no regrets doing it this way so far. The chemical engineering PhD program here seems to be great based on grad students I’ve talked to, but I’m sure there are other opportunities out there for you.

4. And do I really want a PhD right now? Another option, detailed by Mitra, is to go for a five-year Master’s of Engineering degree. Currently, you can get these in Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, and Biological Engineering, even without overloading on courses in your undergrad and ending up looking like some caffeine-addled toddler. It’s not quite the same as an Master of Science, which you would get in most two-year programs. In fact, for the chemical engineering degree, instead of doing a thesis, you go out into workplaces and solve problems for actual companies. One grad student I know got to go to General Mills and use knowledge of steam tables to engineer the spherical shape of Cocoa Puffs.

The only problem with this option is that if I decide that I later want a PhD, well, there was a year of higher education that I kind of wasted.

5. Well, I don’t really want to know what I want to be when I grow up. If anything, MIT has only confused my childhood dreams, but in a good, horizon-broadening way. Coming into MIT, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up–an actuary (at the time, it was rated as the #2 job in the world in terms of profitability and lack of stress). Two majors later, I really don’t know where my MIT education is going to take me yet. Right now, as a result of my UROP (turning turkey carcasses into oil), I’m mostly interested in energy, but I could see that changing depending on the opportunities that came along, and I feel confident that there are a lot of jobs where my chemical engineering knowledge will be useful.

Somehow I can’t shake the feeling I might make a difference to the human race. But that difference could require a PhD to find, or it could need me to get right out of undergrad and start looking for it. Sometime during freshman year, I realized that finding success at MIT is not quite as “easy” as it was in high school, when I got good grades and applied to top colleges just because it was the “right” thing to do. There are lots of different paths to happiness that don’t involve getting all A’s and overloading on classes. The exception is if you are pre-med, in which case yeah, getting good grades and applying to top med schools is pretty much your only goal. See you when you’re 30!

So I think I just talked myself into grad school with this entry, but we’ll see what I think when I wake up tomorrow. For now, I’ve been looking at applications and thinking of essay topics in my free time at work, and I’ll try my best to rock the career fairs at MIT (open to all students, by the way), so hopefully you can get another entry to this effect next April. Then I will achieve my ultimate dream of pulling an Alex Doonesbury on my blog.

You know why I am having so much trouble deciding? Because there is no Get on it, Ben Jones! And other college admissions departments too! I know you’re reading this! I have Statcounter!

Next up, some real rambling… this time in La Rambla, in Barcelona!

9 responses to “It’s the terror of knowing”

  1. Now, before you talk yourself completely into grad school, allow me to share a tale concerning one of the other options.

    I know for a fact that Course 10s can get very good jobs fairly soon after granulation–after all, my dad was one of them (’78). He’s been with Kimberly Clark for twenty-two years now, with only about five years of space in between that and his graduation, when he was working for some company in the greater Boston area. To give you a sense of salary, I’m the eldest of five kids, and it’s only just now that funds are getting super-tight, as I’m heading off to college at the end of August.

    If that causes you mental unrest, I’m sorry. However, there was a study over in Europe somewhere that stated that, when making highly important decisions, it is better to read up on it and then let the brain process through everything by itself, rather than actively thinking about it.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Turkey vs. Sam vs. Grad School


  3. Nicole says:

    “Somehow I can’t shake the feeling I might make a difference to the human race” = lyrics from Avenue Q, right?

  4. Jon says:

    haha, I spotted the lyric from Avenue Q….I was like, “wow…that sounds familiar…maybe if i sing it I’ll remember”…and yep….I did

  5. David says:

    You said “most of the science courses also refuse graduate admission to MIT undergraduates…” Right now I’m trying to descide between majoring in physics or engineering. If I wanted a PhD in physics from MIT, could I get an undergrad and PhD in physics, or should I major in EECS undergrad, then get a physics PhD?

    Thanks, and good luck in your descision!

  6. Dinyar says:

    David: As far as I know (and that isn’t too much to be honest) the physics department doesn’t accept any former MIT undergraduates. I remember a post by Mollie (I think) stating why (she was pondering about graduate school in her posts a while ago, you might want to search for it).

  7. Sam says:

    Rhiannon — Haha, this is beautiful, now my commenters are providing me with advice on what I should do with my future. Finally, Ben has achieved the deep MIT blogging community that he always dreamed of. Thanks for your input–salary definitely isn’t my primary concern, but it’s great to hear that I can do some meaningful work right out of undergrad and raise up to five children, if I choose.

    Anonymous — Hmm… you may have given me an idea for a new banner.

    Nicole/Jon — Yep. For a musical about muppets having sex, it’s got some remarkably insightful lyrics.

    David — Well, to paraphrase the incomparable Mollie’s most recent entry, Physics majors are allowed to apply to grad school, but are generally not encouraged to do so. Anyway, I wouldn’t let the possibility of getting a physics PhD from MIT influence your choice of undergrad major. There are plenty of other great grad schools you could attend for a physics PhD if it comes down to it. It’s not hard to make a schedule such that you keep your options open in both majors up through sophomore year. Who knows, maybe after taking 6.001 and 8.03, you’ll end up deciding you like EECS (Electrical Engineering / Computer Science) better than physics anyway!

    Dinyar — Thanks for your input, too! You got me to stop being lazy and actually check Mollie’s blog for the answer.

  8. Mike says:

    Woo hoo! My own entry! I rock!

  9. Mark says:

    interestingly enough this blog comes up first if you Google “PhD vs. Masters in Engineering”… really interesting to read as I am considering some of these issues myself. I am already in grad school, mind you (in general, in Canada you start out in a Master’s program and you can “upgrade” to a PhD). Whether or not I should upgrade (my thesis supervisor, who is great, is strongly suggesting that I upgrade) is what I am weighing right now – and I’m having a really hard time deciding. I balk at the idea of spending an extra 2-3 years in school but it would be so much more easier to do a PhD now than decide to go back years from now. (I do environmental engineering research, more specifically water treatment). I’m coming up with many of the pros and cons that you have, and I seem to change my mind every day.

    However, all that being said, I do have to say that grad school so far is great… being able to research a topic and make up my own experiments and discover things on my own. It’s an educational experience I just did not receive as an undergrad, and I’m really happy that I’m getting a master’s degree at least.

    I would also mention for you, Sam, coming from MIT, one of the huge advantages you have is the ability (even if you go somewhere other than MIT for grad school) to get your education at very well reputed schools with great name recognition, which I think will definitely make getting *any* job easier. I, on the other hand, have to consider the potential liabilities of overqualifying myself for many jobs at an institution that has at best a decent (but not amazing) reputation among Canadian universities, let alone around the world (I go to Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS and I don’t really expect non-Canadians to have heard of it).

    Anyhow, it’s good to know that other people are grappling with the same decisions as me, and I wish you luck no matter what you decide to do.