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!