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Some Things I Wish I Knew Coming In by Abby H. '20

in retrospect,

The word advice comes from the Old French avis comes from the Latin ad and visum01 and if you look to your left, you will see a biochemist attempting to understand language by lysing the words and fractionating the letters into roots and x-fixes (from videre, “to see”). That’s how I feel about advice: it’s something that’s by nature seen. Seen in the sense of sending a message to someone, but they just look at the message and don’t respond.

In Spanish as in English, you hear ( oír02 unless someone directs a mighty Oye! toward you, in which case you should look and listen instead of just hear (protip) ) and listen (escuchar) with different verbs, and you see (ver) and watch (mirar) with different verbs.

I can’t think of an appropriate transitive verb in any language to act as the deliberate version of “to see advice.”03 maybe because this is an awkward phrase that nobody really uses In my head, it’s kind of a mash up of escuchar and mirar. You can give or take advice, but there’s some mirscucha valley in the middle where given advice can be digested by the recipient regardless of whether or not they ultimately take it.

I rarely take advice. That’s why I’m not framing this post in the form of a Letter To My Past Self. If 2016 Abby received that letter, she wouldn’t care what it said because her approach to life is almost04 trial and error is the best way to learn and I'll die on that hill if I'm not already dead from one of the trials a brute-force algorithm.

Some of you have emailed me in search of advice. I often give, or am given advice. It’s not always good advice. Sometimes the advice conflicts where it should overlap. And personally, though I see it, it never makes it to the zona mirscucha. Why should I expect it to make it to yours?

If you happen to be in the market for advice, I hope you both see and mirscuchas the lovely bullet points I’ve prepared for you today.


  • Go to class. Structure and routine are good for you.
  • UROP early and often. In the life sciences at least, it’s crucial to have research experience. I have about two years of experience in the same lab, working on the same project. From that, I have gained a lot of useful skills, but probably only one recommendation letter that I can use for grad school applications. If I had put some thought into it, I might have done a semester or two at other labs to network a bit and to get a feel for what different research areas are like.
  • Get to know some professors. Again, it sucks to look back on the classes you’ve taken and not know if any professors know you well enough to be willing to write a recommendation letter for you. Also, these professors are at MIT for a reason; talk to them a bit about their research and you might figure out why.
  • Get to know your PI(s). You want to get your name on a publication as an undergrad? Your PI would love to help you do that. You want to research at another university or intern in industry? Your PI has connections and will put in a good word for you. Applying as an outsider to summer research programs and internships is stressful. You will get rejected from many if not most if not all positions if this is your strategy. I was offered the internship I’m doing this summer through a mailing list. I applied to the same company through the normal hiring portal and was rejected from every position. As much as I hate it, networking is important.
  • Decide on a path or prepare for all the paths. I might have been applying for M.D./Ph.D. programs right now had I taken another year of organic chemistry and the MCAT. I wandered around for too long wearing a mask that said “yeah idk what I’m gonna do after I graduate” knowing full well that I wanted to go to grad school. The mask was just my way of rationalizing the fact that I wasn’t going to office hours to get to know professors and I wasn’t signing up for poster presentations and I wasn’t trying very hard in my bio classes.
  • Be flexible with your path. Yeah, I know this contradicts the last point. That’s how advice is sometimes. If I had taken on more classes and research and networking, I would be so burned out at this point that I probably would have quit blogging and WMBRing and working desk and every other non-academic activity I’ve come to appreciate as my favorite parts of TFP. But, if I had taken a course 9 class before junior year, I might have realized that course 9 was the way to go in time for me to switch over and develop an understanding of the neuro-computational stuff that kept me from even considering course 9 in the first place.
  • Do MISTI the summer after freshman year. You may not end up going to the country you wanted to go to the most, but it would be hard to regret travelling on MIT’s dime without the inevitable upperclassman commitments that you’ll accrue and that always spill over into summer. Plus, it is hard to get an internship as a first year. It’s also hard to get an internship your second year, but it’s a little easier if you did something impressive like wow research in India as a freshman! the previous summer.
  • Join the clubs you want to join, but consider joining some that might help you in the UROP/internship/job hunt later on. This advice courtesy of a course 16 who wishes he had joined Rocket Team. I also think it fits into the “prepare for all the paths” category.
  • Say yes. You’re a hermit but you’re missing out on some great parties.
  • Say no. You can only handle so much.
  • Keep a journal, take photos, take videos. Document your life with a paper trail made of more than just transcripts and psets. These are your glory days. You’re going to want to remember them.
  • Don’t let eating become a chore. Food is good. It fuels your body. Your body is good. It deserves fuel. It does not deserve the extremes of poor nutrition. I’ve dabbled in the greasy-delivery-food-binge lifestyle, and I’ve lapsed into the I-only-need-water-and-saltines diet from time to time. Neither end of this spectrum is a happy place.
  • Take exams backwards. For some reason, I do a lot better on exams when I start with the last question and work my way to the first one.
  • Learn people’s names. MIT is a special district within the simulation where often you will feel like there are only about twenty people in the world05 confirmation bias, promiscuous teleology, etc. because you see those people everywhere. It sucks when you don’t know those people’s names.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. It’s okay to be average. It’s okay to be below average. It’s okay.
  • Keep speaking Spanish. You spent four years learning it; there’s no reason to toss that effort down the drain and only circle back to the language to make ridiculous and ugly portmanteaus when your English brain can’t summon the idiom “to take with a grain of salt.”
  • Work on making your callbacks less convoluted.
  • Don’t pigeonhole or typecast yourself as a writer. It makes it hard for you to write earnest posts like this without getting worried that the audience won’t like the shift in tone. You can change your tone without betraying your voice.

This post is by necessity a work in progress, so I’ll be adding to the list from time to time.

  1. and if you look to your left, you will see a biochemist attempting to understand language by lysing the words and fractionating the letters into roots and x-fixes back to text
  2. unless someone directs a mighty Oye! toward you, in which case you should look and listen instead of just hear (protip) back to text
  3. maybe because this is an awkward phrase that nobody really uses back to text
  4. trial and error is the best way to learn and I'll die on that hill if I'm not already dead from one of the trials back to text
  5. confirmation bias, promiscuous teleology, etc. back to text