Dear Alicia (circa 2015),
Hi! It’s me. Or you, from the future. I’m writing you from the fourth semester of our grad school experience (the one you’re about to embark on!).
I know you’re simultaneously thrilled and terrified to start a PhD program at MIT! Let me tell you, it’s going to be one of the most incredible things you’ve ever experienced.
It’s going to be harder than you ever imagined, but also more rewarding than you ever believed it could be. You’re about to meet some of the best friends you’ve had thus far, and learn more than you ever thought you could in a very short time.
Having done it once, I wanted to give you a few pieces of advice on how to make things easier in your first two years. Here we go:
1. Academic: Talk to that faculty member you trust as soon as you start to feel like you don’t belong here.
You know who I’m talking about.
He’s not your advisor, and people will tell you his research group is already full, and I know that’s why you’ll be hesitant to contact him. You don’t want to bother her/him since s/he’s probably super busy. But you know you trust him, and you know that he cares about the wellbeing of all students, above all. I promise you, he wants to help!
So please, reach out as soon as you start questioning what research you want to do, when you feel like you aren’t smart enough to be here, when you think you’re not going to be able to complete the courses or research or qualifying process. He will help you; he will listen.
Don’t wait for someone else to “force” you to talk to her/him, nearly a year into the process. Do it in September. Or October. As soon as you start to feel like you’re drowning. S/he will care. S/he will help you make sure you find a research project that’s a good fit for you.
2. Personal: You’re going to feel like you’re the only person out of the 22 in your class who is struggling and doesn’t understand what’s going on.
Do yourself a favor and be honest with your classmates. Tell them exactly how you’re feeling, even if they don’t reciprocate. Grad school can have a weird overtone where it seems like you’re expected to know everything and not struggle - and in your first semester, you’re going to deal with your classmates all pretending that everything is fine, even though it’s not.
Every single person in your class year, all 22 of you, will feel like they’re the only person who isn’t getting it or doing well. But few will show it or talk about it until your first year is over, at which point it’s too late. So talk to them. Be brutally honest with them about how you’re feeling.
Don’t hide the truth. You will find your biggest supporters among these people, and you will find that commiserating helps a surprising amount. Knowing that your peers feel exactly the way you do is invaluable as you go through your qualifying courses.
3. Self-care: You know you need to have balance between your work life and personal life. Do not feel bad about creating and enforcing boundaries with your work life.
Unlink your MIT email from your personal email. Don’t look at your MIT email outside of working hours, and definitely don’t look on weekends. Feel free to take 24 hours to reply to things. Learn to say “no” to faculty if you need to.
Don’t drop everything to live and die by your advisor’s words. Take time for you. Do yoga, go running, watch movies, hang out with your friends. Just because some people you know work 80 hours a week doesn’t mean that you have to.
Grad school doesn’t have to consume your entire life, so don’t let it. Keep doing the things that make you “you.” If you want to get involved with scientific outreach, do it. (Seriously - you’re going to have a ton of fun doing that!)
Take time to get out into the mountains, to sail the Laser at the MIT Sailing Pavilion, to go running along the Charles River. Work hard, play hard.
Above all, know that even if you don’t take this advice, you will still be okay. I’m living proof of it. We might struggle sometimes, but we are learning how to overcome. I’ve had some interesting experiences that didn’t necessarily have to be as bad as they felt at the time, and that is okay too...
- You’ll get through switching projects.
- You’ll get through getting your first failing grades.
- You will learn how to succeed here.
- You’ll learn how to conduct research on your own.
- You’ll learn how to ask for help (which I highly recommend that you do early!).
- You’ll make tough decisions that others will question, but they’ll be what’s best for you.
And you’ll get through it.
Grad school is the hardest thing you’ll do up until this point in life. But it will be so worth it, and we’ll be a better person for it.