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MIT student blogger Laura N. '09

What I want to be when I grow up by Laura N. '09

Did I go with the baseball announcer idea? Or the Daily Show script writer? Read on to find out.

When I was in preschool, we had to make a crayon drawing of what we wanted to be when we grew up. My classmates drew astronauts and firemen. I drew a mail carrier.

I only know this because the crayon drawing still exists, in some scrapbook in the back of the kitchen closet. I don’t remember why I wanted to be a mailman, but I guess it just seemed like a fun job at the time.

During primary school, I remember wanting to be a librarian. I just thought all the electronic scanners and stuff they used all the time were really cool. I also wanted to be a novelist. One year the PTA sponsored an “Author Day” at my school. They invited a children’s book author to speak, and donated a copy of one of his books to all of the students. We each got it signed. I still have mine. It’s called “They Came From Center Field,” and it’s about this group of friends who teach a bunch of aliens how to play baseball. It’s like 50 pages long and awesome. Apparently a local newspaper covered the event as a feature story. Somewhere in that scrapbook in the kitchen closet there’s a newspaper clipping with the line: “It was really cool, because I want to be a writer when I grow up,” said Laura Nicholson, a third grader at Ocean Avenue Elementary.

Later life goals have less charm. In fifth grade I wanted to be President of the US. In middle school I wanted to be popular. Freshman year of high school I wanted to be anything on Earth but dear God not an engineer. Junior year of high school I secretly wanted to be an engineer. Senior year of high school I came out as a wannabe engineer and applied to MIT. Freshman year of college I wanted to never have to pick a major. Sophomore year of college I “wanted” to work in robotics, because they make you pick something eventually. Junior year of college I wanted to be a baseball announcer, a wedding planner, a movie producer, or one of Santa’s elves.

If I told you that now, right now, I finally actually figured it out, would you believe me?

Speaking Spanish started the whole thing. I’m going to let you in on one of the not-so-pretty secrets about MIT: it makes you feel really, really dumb. Some logical portion of my brain knows that I must be pretty smart, after all, I was accepted here and everything, and that’s not exactly easy. But after just a couple of years of never breaking 65% on an exam, you start to feel pretty stupid. In fact, it got to the point last year where I wasn’t sure what I’d learned since coming here. The professors obviously taught me something, but I wasn’t convinced that I had learned any of it.

In high school, I was good at Spanish. I mean really good. I was the teacher’s pet in every Spanish class I ever took. If I stumble across a Spanish word I’ve never heard before, there’s a decent chance I can figure out what it means- either by context, word roots, or just a gut feeling. Don’t ask me how you can have a gut feeling about what a word you’ve never heard before in your non-native language means, I just do. Languages just make sense to me.

I studied Spanish for about 7 years in high school, but after my first semester at MIT I didn’t touch the language. I was a little rusty starting out, but despite that, literally almost every person I met in Madrid exclaimed over how good I was at Spanish.

And I started back at them blankly. “Wait…you mean…there are things I’m good at?” After 3 years of MIT, I know there are lots of things I’m not good at. Like differential equations. They’re super useful, and controls engineering fascinates me, and I wish to God I understood it better, but it’s just HARD. It doesn’t “just come to me” the way that language does. And to be perfectly honest, I was getting more than a little jaded. My concentration in robotics was almost entirely influenced by the fact that I had fun on my high school FIRST team. Which is great and all, but doesn’t necessarily indicate lifelong interest. Okay, so I get this major in robotics, and then what? I work for iRobot and build a better Roomba? Am I really going to dedicate my life to designing robotic vacuums so that rich people can show off flashy toys to their friends? Uck, talk about dissatisfying.

So while in Spain, I suddenly realized, “Hey, here’s this thing that I’m actually good at, which I’ve forsaken for years in order to bang my head against various engineering textbooks. Clearly this means I was always a humanities person at heart, that I’ve been wrong this whole time, and I could never spend the rest of my life as an engineer.”

So I sat down at the desk in my room and started to list math-less fields which interested me. Within 30 seconds I had written the following:

-cultural studies
-public policy

I re-read the list and immediately freaked out. “I could never spend the rest of my life doing these things, there’s no engineering on this list!!!”

Wait, did I just say that?

Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I apparently hate engineering so much I can’t live without it. Or something. But I mean, it does seem like a shame to get an engineering degree from MIT and then…you know, not use it. Clearly I needed to consider some interdisciplinary career paths. Which makes a lot of sense. I’ve always had one foot in each world. Surely the world needs people like me for something.

So, I went to my fall-back: the web method. My brain works best when it can see the interconnections between my own thoughts. Whenever I have a problem to work out, I write down all of the components of it and look for the connections between them, and portray it in a neatly organized web. Actually, it’s a perfect example of the double life my brain leads: a weird cross between creative and analytical thinking.

I took out a sheet of paper and wrote on it all of the different topics I could think of that I found interesting. I rearranged them, clustering related topics together, drawing arrows between logical paths and lines between indirectly related groups. My plan was to find the dream career which would magically involved all of the diverse things I was interested in.

Well, that would have been a bit of a stretch. But after a few minutes of writing, erasing, and rewriting, I had a pretty coherent web of interconnection between all of these seemingly disparate topics. I drew a dotted line circle around the core of the web and next to it neatly printed the words “international development.”

And froze.

Did I just…choose my career path? Just like that? Thirty minutes before this I was still contemplating the pros and cons of announcing baseball games, and then I just started writing and doing my diagramming method without really giving much thought to what I was heading towards and then just- BAM. There it was.

And it makes so much sense! I remember one time a few years ago someone asked me if I wanted to be a doctor. When I said no, they started talking about malpractice insurance. I said, “oh whatever, the only reason I would become a doctor would be to open a health clinic in sub-Saharan Africa or something like that.” Meanwhile, I was going along studying engineering and wondering how I could make a fulfilling career out of it.

It’s sort of like a retrospective facepalm moment. Duh! It was all right there, in front of my face, and I just couldn’t put 2 and 2 together.

But after a little traveling, some international experiences, a little returning to some non-science loves, and finally realizing that it is possible to combine science and humanities…everything came together.

Of course, I’m a little late in figuring this out. There’s even a 2A concentration actually titled “international development.” Too bad I didn’t have this revelation 2 years ago, huh?

Ok, you know what, forget it. Sure, it’s my senior year. Sure, this idea might be sort of insane. But I’ll just change my 2A concentration. That’s really only like half of my major. I have 8 classes left. It’s totally doable.

…and if it’s not, you might just get an extra year of blog entries out of me…

31 responses to “What I want to be when I grow up”

  1. Snively says:

    Yay! You’re actually going through with it!

  2. Congrats!!

    (Now can anyone tell me how to combine my love for Chemistry, biology and Japanese?)

  3. Laura says:

    @ Little Peonies: that’s easy, work as a biochemist for a chemical firm in Japan.

    Man, it’s like I’m an expert at this now.

  4. Chris Mills says:

    That’s super cool that you were able to find a job that combines all of your interests. Now I’m tempted to test your ability to synthesize careers (btdubs that’s a fallback for you, career analytics, helping people find what they want to do smile

    Anyway, what do you come up with when I give you:

    (interests generated by random word generator)

  5. mohit says:

    Excellent post! It is a glimmer of light for those of us who love engineering with all our hearts but also love other stuff….and freeze everytime someone asks what do you finally wanna become…..Thank you soo much for this entry!!
    Note to self: Add this page to favourites.

  6. Excellent Post!
    I myself am all about Robotics, Physics, engineering and mechanics.

  7. Barack Obama says:

    Hey Laura!!

    Nothing is too late…Just go for it!
    The most important thing is to follow your heart and don’t live a regrettable life!


  8. Emily says:

    Laura, that was an awesome post! But I was reading the Course 2A website, and I didn’t see any concentration on Int’l Development…am I missing something?

  9. Oasis '11 says:

    A good entry into ID is doing Peace Corps after you graduate.

    I met an MIT alum (Kyle ’06) when I was in Honduras, and he’s been there almost 2 years doing Peace Corps. He told me that he had no idea what he wanted to do when he graduated, so he signed up for Peace Corps. Through his two years in Honduras, he says he had a lot of time to think about what he wanted to do after he left, and he felt that his time in Honduras had really clarified and distilled what exactly he wanted in his life. Moreover, he told me that the Peace Corps is a excellent experience if you’re considering a career in international development, or even working for the State Department.

    Something to think about. Good luck!

  10. Alex says:

    Whoohoo!!!! Laura for another year!!!

  11. Steph says:

    This was an enlightening blog, Laura. Good luck with the new concentration.

  12. @ Laura: YAY! I mean, I knew all this already, but seeing it in a blog entry makes it feel so much more official, you know? Also, what’s my life plan?

    @ Anonymous: DLab — that was the plan. Laura and I were going to take DLab this semester, but it’s grown into such a popular class that ~100 people register for ~40 spots, so they have to run a lottery, and luck was not on our side. Hopefully next semester.

    @ Oasis ’11: Interesting you should say that — I’ll let Laura answer that post. smile

  13. @Laura: Thanks. I’ve also thought of something along that line in the past, but it seems like an uphill task given how many of Japan’s own graduates cannot even find stable employment themselves.

  14. sohbet says:

    Thank you very much for this useful article. I like it.

  15. Rohan says:

    Very inspiring post. The combination of sciences and humanities really intrigues me, and, at times, I feel like this combination provides for a better understanding of the world. The reason is that science or humanities by themselves cannot answer everything. Good luck with your endeavor!

  16. Yan Z. says:

    5 minutes ago, I was writing an obligatory college update email to one of my former teachers and literally had no words to describe the cloud of disorientation and uncertainty floating around my head.

    And then I came here, read your post, and realized that (1) I am hardly the only person whose intellect will feel like mush under the sheer difficulty of the coursework and (2) everything turns out fine in the end if you let it.

    Thanks for making my first week a little less scary.

  17. RobotGrrl says:

    “I work for iRobot and build a better Roomba? Am I really going to dedicate my life to designing robotic vacuums so that rich people can show off flashy toys to their friends?”

    Robotics is more than designing vacuums. It’s mainly about research and innovation- which makes it way more fun than what you mentioned! For instance, ever since the Dartmouth Conference about AI in 1957, we’ve been trying to create something that has a ‘general’ AI. We assumed it would be incredibly easy, when it actually isn’t. The amount of thought that has to go in to programming something how to perceive its surroundings is astonishing!

    So, although the Roombas are great, they aren’t the only robots out there- they don’t really interact with humans on a “face-to-face” basis (unless it started vacuuming your face- but that would be a really bizarre scenario). When I think of a robot- I see my robot ‘BubbleBoy’, my humanoid ‘MANOI’, Kismet and Leonardo! They’re all very sociable robots, interacting with humans and their environment.

    You could create a company that builds robotic agents to entertain, or build one like Kaspar- helping autistic children! The possibilities are endless, yet extremely beneficial.

    My point being, the future of robots just isn’t in household maintenance. It’s in interaction between the robot, its environment, and humans. Maybe you just were introduced to the wrong view of robotics. ^_^

  18. han says:

    que buena historia… me gusta…
    creo q nos parecemos jjaja a mi siempre me gustado la mate y las ciencias pero ahora veo q tambien me gusta dibujar… aunq dibujo horrible y no tengo paciencia pero me gusta jajaj es raro
    tengo un dilemma por momento, quiero estudiar pure math pero no se que puedo contribuir a la sociedad con eso cuando graduo :-( parece q esta major no es muy practico.(escribo en español porq solo quiero q tu lo leas eso… y tambien queria probar cuan bueno es tu español)
    really thank u for this entry… It is the longest post I ever have read completely at mit blogs.

  19. Anna says:

    i have had consistently the same problem as you. i juyst cant seem to find what i really want to do with my life. im good at math and science fields, which is what most of my classes this year are centered around (junior year in high school) but i also like the arts and government and psychology. i cant see myself being an engineer or even a pharmacists as my father often hopes i will become. it just seems too boring. but i dont want to choose the wrong school in the end or spend all my years on something that i end up not really liking in the end. what advice would you give me?

  20. Anna says:

    i have had consistently the same problem as you. i just cant seem to find what i really want to do with my life. im good at math and science fields, which is what most of my classes this year are centered around (junior year in high school) but i also like the arts and government and psychology. i cant see myself being an engineer or even a pharmacists as my father often hopes i will become, but that is the direction i seem to be headed. it just seems too boring. but i dont want to choose the wrong school in the end or spend all my years on something that i end up not really liking in the end. i want a career that i know will be able to support me. what advice would you suggest?

  21. Monorina says:

    Some one tell me how to combine by passion for:
    1.Computer engineering(I write love letters to my comp.,its that bad)
    2.English(love writing stories)
    and *drumrolls please*

  22. Alex says:

    Han… Bad news for you. Yo tambien hablo español. Soy de Puerto Rico y espero poder caer en ese 3% de estudiantes de Puerto Rico que hay en MIT. Tengo el mismo problema que tu en cuanto a lo de dibujar. me gusta pero no soy ningun Picasso. Cuando diseño o dibujo cosas me quedan feisimas. Yo quiero estudiar Ingenieria Mecanica o de Computadoras. Si me pudieras dar algun consejo para mi aplicacion por favor hazlo.

    Well, Great Post Laura, Again! It’d be cool having you one more year. Mucho Love…


  23. Daniel says:

    @ Monorina

    Well, swimming and dance can simply be classified as pastimes, and expecting a career out of them will significantly lower your number of career options. But as for computer engineering, and robots, those could be combined into a career, such as a uni prof. And English will also come in handy there, too, because you must write about all the research you do. MIT goes with this combination perfectly. Either attend MIT for grad, undergrad, or try and become a prof at MIT.

    Hope I could help! smile

  24. @Daniel: Don’t forget postdoc. =)

  25. John Wong says:

    As a older person living beyond school I have
    an independent perspective on this. I think
    your primary passion was Spanish, yet somehow
    you ended up as a science/engineering major.

    I think you let other people influenced your
    career decision. However it’s never too late
    to do things on your own

  26. Shivani says:

    Awesome post – four years below you, I’m going through much of the same. Not so much in terms of what I want to do for the rest of my life, but more like, here’s an application, rate what it is that you like to do with your life and somehow put that into a major. I love interdisciplinary studies – how cool would it be to biologically understand how a brain learns something, such as a language or religious or scientific ideas, and communicates those ideas in that language? Wow.

  27. Ryan Lane says:

    Good for you Laura!

  28. Ankur Gulati says:

    i empathize with u Laura.
    in my 3rd yr B.Technology Civil Engineering at
    IIT Roorkee i am also going thru the same dilemmas
    after more than 2 yrs at the campus my fav lecuturer is my english teacher( amongst all those professors
    after having failed to get a cgpa of more than 6.7 i can only boast of 3 A+’s in humanities subject(english, modern drama, technical communication)…
    i am all the more interested in:

    civil services
    designing my dream building
    being entrepreneurial about all these things…
    + earn a lot of money wink