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MIT is hard by Masha G. '24

and I still don't know what I'm doing

The class average on the first 6.00601 Intro to Algorithms midterm was a 71. I scored well below that, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, and I don’t feel that bad about it. I generally feel out of my depth in that class, and every pset is a struggle of trying to figure it out and then, once I’d gone to office hours and been more or less told the solution, wondering how on earth anyone could ever figure that out. That class requires a different mode of thinking that I often have trouble wrapping my head around, and it can be very frustrating.

The thing is, I don’t know anyone who scored higher than the average. That’s what really gets to me. Clearly, there’s half the class out there, somewhere, and they know what’s going on. They can wrap their brain around graphs and data structures and weird optimizations and ridiculously specific algorithms. These people are here, somewhere, and yet I don’t know any of them. MIT is so big, and everyone here is so smart, and sometimes I just forget that. But it’s moments like these that make me really remember how insane MIT actually is. In a lot of ways, though, it’s comforting. There’s no way I could possibly compete with someone scoring a 90 on 006. But I don’t need to. I’m satisfied with how much I’m learning, and that’s just going to have to be good enough. It’s liberating to let myself be bad at things, even if it sucks in the moment.

 

The only class whose lectures and recitations I regularly attend, at this point in the semester, is 8.033 – relativity. And yet, sitting in lecture, I never feel like I know what’s going on. I mindlessly copy down what’s written on the board into my notes with a five minute delay from when it’s said by the professor, line after line of some derivation of some mind-bending property of spacetime, and try to catch at least some sense of what the general idea of the lesson is. The psets take long hours of sitting at the stud and being confused. I’m still not sure what sort of mathematical object a tensor02 a common definition states that a tensor is anything that transforms like a tensor. make of that what you will is.

The problem is that physics is hard. Really hard, and in a completely different way than 006 is hard. Thinking about four dimensions is weird. After the last midterm, I texted my friend that “humans were never meant to understand this in the first place,” and, honestly, I stand by that. Physics is so mind-bogglingly deep, which is both what I love and hate about it. It’s so interesting, but it’s so obscure, to the point where I will sit in class and stare blankly at the board and wonder why I even bother. The thing is, I don’t need physics, not really, for the sorts of things I want to do. It would be helpful, sure, but a solid foundation in quantum physics isn’t really necessary to understand the Earth’s climate system, a topic I find much more interesting. I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by sticking with physics for so long, and these days, I’ve been leaning towards the idea that maybe it’s time to let go.

 

I’m probably going to switch majors. I wrote a two post series back in June about all my feels on this subject, and at the time I came to the conclusion that I wanted to continue with physics because it was fewer classes, and I was interested in it, and basically, why not. But I also entertained the idea of switching to 18C. In particular, let me quote:

Though 18C sounds great, I don’t think I’m ready to let go of physics just yet, despite it being less relevant to the career paths I see for myself. Course 8 also offers a flexible major, called 8-Flex, where I take fewer strict physics requirements and am instead able to count courses from other departments towards my major. I’m pretty sure I could only take one course 8 class per semester for the rest of my time at MIT and still fulfill all the requirements. As long as I stay interested in my physics classes, this can be enough.

….

But there’s also a non-negligible chance that somewhere down the line, I’ll lose interest in higher-level physics, or I’ll find the classes too hard or not engaging enough, at which point I will easily switch to 18C because I’ll be taking so many of those classes anyway.

Well, several of these things seem to be happening: physics is getting really hard and not super engaging, for me. I don’t particularly love my other classes, either, but with those, at least, I am sure that the material will help me in the future. I think my being a physics major has hinged on me really enjoying physics classes, and I’m just not sure how true that is anymore. I think, in a vacuum, I love physics. But I don’t live in a vacuum, and it’s stressful to waste energy and time on something that isn’t really important to me at the moment. Course 18C seems to be calling. Who knows, though, I will probably go back and forth on this ten more times in the next month, let alone in the vast amount of time I have to actually make this decision.

 

I have a friend, also a ’24, who is 23 years old. She’s an international student from Israel, so she served in the army for a couple of years before coming here to go to college. In a lot of ways, the age difference isn’t that noticeable. Last year she was just as much of a clueless freshman as me, now she’s just as much of a slightly-less-clueless sophomore; she’s just as confused about 006 as I am. But there are ways in which it’s so clear that she has four years of life experience on me and everyone around us. She’d already had four years of fun and growth and personal exploration before getting to MIT. She knows what she’s working towards, and what she wants. She takes five classes and is on a varsity sports team and says she’ll only go out once a week and then actually sticks to it.

I don’t have the self-control or the direction that she does. I don’t even wish that I did. I wish, instead, foolishly, that I had gotten P/NR for my first non-virtual semester. I try not to think too hard about what should have been and what would have been, but the purpose of freshman P/NR has never been so clear as it is now. Getting adjusted to fully in-person life on campus, meeting new people, keeping up a social life, going out on weekends… all of this is a lot. It would be one thing if I just had to handle difficult academics or just focus on making friends, but together, it has been so, so much. I’ve been feeling so burnt out on both fronts, and I don’t really know what to do about it except to power through.

  1. Intro to Algorithms back to text
  2. a common definition states that a tensor is anything that transforms like a tensor. make of that what you will back to text