Tag Archives: grad school

Open House

Today marks the beginning of the MIT Physics Open House. For anyone who has not had the pleasure, this is a couple of days where a graduate department flies out the students who have been admitted to the program in an effort to recruit them and show them why they should choose one school over another. At MIT, it is a two day event with about 70-80 visiting students.

For the current grad students it means that we get a lot of free food and are treated really well (cuz they want us to tell prospectives that they should come here). I like the open house but I also find that it stirs up a moral quandary for me. Prospective students want to know what grad school is like. They ask probing questions and sometimes it is difficult to answer them. I can never decide how much truth to give them.

The truth about grad school is that it is not always a good time. (Dave is going to hate me for saying this.) In fact, often times, it is frustrating, exhausting, stressful, and downright unpleasant. And maybe for weeks or months at a time. I think most of us wake up at least once and ask ourselves if it is really worth it. I know that I thought seriously of quitting at least 9 times. Most of us stay and finish our PhD’s for some reason or another. But a lot of us end up pretty unhappy at one point and somehow get through it. And to be really honest, you don’t go to grad school at a place like MIT because it seems ‘fun’. Just like you don’t live in Boston for the weather.

I didn’t realize it when I started, but your life happens while you are in grad school. Six(ish) years is a long time in your (most often) mid-twenties . A lot can happen… you can get married, have kids, fall in love, fall out of love. You can get sick, get healthy, run a marathon, lose a parent, buy a house, discover who you are, change who you are, develop your professional life, ruin your professional life, gain weight, lose weight. Life happens. These things occur whether you are in grad school or not. I think the one thing that makes grad school different is that the reward comes at the end. You spend six years working for very little money on a project that may or may not work out and in order to reap the rewards, you really have to stay for the whole thing. You aren’t as able to cut your loses and boogie on out half way through because you don’t get the degree that way. Then you have three years of effort without anything to show for it.

I know that I didn’t understand this when I started grad school. I didn’t know what exactly I was getting in to. As I get closer to graduation, I am glad that I decided to stay and finish. But I still wonder at what cost? What else would I have done with my mid-twenties?

Open houses are a great opportunity to explore a grad school program, but it is difficult in two days to really get a feeling for what life will be like in a program. There are lots of questions and lots of very different answers. You come in wanting to ask good scientific questions and find an adviser to work for but it should be more about making sure the place is somewhere you want to be for a long time while both amazing and terrible things will happen in your life. If you happen to be going to an open house, good luck and ask tough questions of both the grad students and the professors. Oh, and don’t forget to have a good time!


Judgement Day

The application essay.   We’ve all done it.  A huge part of the application process where you try to share everything that is anything about yourself in 500 words or less.   As the applicant, you sit there, staring at the computer screen, knowing that so much rides on the choice of those 500 words. 

Remember:  This is your chance to show them who you are.

Yeah, right.  Fat chance.  Especially not for those of us that excel at drawing diagrams rather than writing sentences.

I have written lots of these absurd essays.  And I always face the same problem, they make me question if I really am good enough, or qualified enough, or, well… worthy.  After weeks of fretting, I eventually sit down to write something in a semi-delirious, desperate state, days before the deadline.  Then I swallow my pride and force some (very unlucky) trusted and honest friend read it before I send it off.   And then I hope, and fret, and hope some more that I “captured myself”.

But this application season I have found myself in a new position.  I have been asked to read a bunch of application essays in order to find a new grad student to work for me next year. 

Wow.  Me?  All of a sudden I am the faceless judge of everything you, the applicant, are and think you could become.  (Evil laughing…)

Honestly, even reading these essays is stressful.  How do you judge someone on 500 words or less?  It’s almost more painful than writing one (except for the writing part).  The main problem is the tone.  No one sounds like themselves (at least I hope).  Most of them come off sounding like a elaborate resume listing everything that you have accomplished.   It’s braggy and conceited and how it has to be.  As for goals and dreams, how are you supposed to say that you want to save the world from the energy crisis, without sounding cliche and unoriginal.

It’s not that the essays are really so terrible, it’s just that they all seem so fake.  Because no one goes around patting themselves on the back, selling themselves to other people all the time.  It’s definitely not a great way to make friends and influence people.   And yet in the application essay you have to do it.  Trust me, everyone’s the same.

As I read through these essays, I cringe when I think about how my own have read.  It makes me feel even less worthy of being where I am today.  Most people do a much better job than I ever did of sharing themselves in their precious 500 words.   Now that I am on the other side, I am starting to appreciate the imperfect necessity of application essays.    It is an insight I wish I had before I wrote one.

The essays that stand out are the ones that  remind me of myself, of who I am, or who I want to become.   These are the ones for which I remember the names and the details.   These are the ones that inspire… me.

I plan to use this hint.  I think the next time I write an application essay I am going to try to write it for myself.  Not so much for the black box committee.   I am going to convince myself that I am worthy.  I am going to remind myself who I want to become.  And hopefully, I will be able to convince myself to accept me.