Plan to Feel Unprepared

Technology and Policy Program

There are few things more intimidating than standing in front of an MIT classroom after your very first semester, preparing to lecture on topics you just finished learning about.

I was in this situation during my first IAP (Independent Activities Period). I had been dreading the thought of teaching this lecture on International Climate Policy all through winter break, and I was pretty terrified right up until the evening of the class. This was the least prepared I had ever felt speaking in front of a group, even though I spent plenty of time practicing in the days leading up to the lecture.

I’m the type of person who likes to be prepared for everything—I over-pack on every trip I go on, I always have snacks, and I took my time making the decision to come back to graduate school so that I could prepare for it with some professional experience and thorough soul-searching.

Three years after I finished my Bachelor’s and spent some time working at an engineering firm, I finally felt ready. I discovered that I wanted to learn more about technology-relevant policy after I witnessed the nuclear industry weather the economic ups and downs of low natural gas prices and the renewed fear of the public after the Fukushima-Daiichi accident. Since I had gained confidence in my technical skills as an engineer, I was certain I could learn the new skills required to understand policy.

Those feelings of preparedness and confidence quickly withered away as I began my first policy class shortly after arriving at MIT. Lecture after lecture, I left feeling bewildered by the information I had gone over in class on political economy, market failures, and third party knowledge assessments.

Recitation was helpful, but presented another daunting new skill that I had to learn:  how to have constructive, adversarial discussions with my classmates about policy, and synthesize what I learned into two papers before the semester was over.

At some point as I was caught up in the chaos of my first semester of classes and research, I cautiously agreed to help teach a student-lead class over IAP on international climate governance open to both the MIT and Cambridge communities. This was a topic I had written a paper on in the Fall semester but was just beginning to learn about. As the end of winter break approached while I was slowly recovering from the semester, the lecture loomed large in my future. I couldn’t help but feel totally intimidated and under-qualified for the task that was waiting for me when I returned to MIT. 

True to my old habits, I methodically prepared for this lecture. I spent more time practicing that talk than I care to admit, and I leaned heavy on one of my research colleagues, a PhD student who gave the same lecture in a previous year. Each time I expressed my anxiety over the class, she assured me I would be fine. But I wasn’t so sure.

But my fears were unfounded. The lecture went totally, completely smoothly. In fact, I even felt like I had some fun up there in front of the class, leading discussions and talking about a topic I care so deeply about. Looking back now, I realize how instrumental that experience was in helping me meet members of the MIT community outside of my graduate program (I don’t think I need to tell you that this place is a treasure trove of brilliant, motivated, passionate people).

The experience also served me well in building my resume; I was able to draw on my IAP lecturing experience to score two teaching assistant positions in the second year of my Master’s. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that, in fact, I was prepared for this lecturing experience, and I was starting to learn something about policy after all.

Grad school is a wonderful, terrifying experience. And MIT is a wonderful, terrifying place.  You can do everything in your power to make sure that you’re ready for graduate school here, but you’re probably never quite going to feel ready, and that’s ok. Launching into the unknown could be the best plan you ever make.