Get Beyond the Bubble

Mechanical Engineering

Last Saturday night I was in my living room surrounded by a dozen people, but there was only one topic of conversation: the joys and sorrows of working at a hospital. My girlfriend Jaimie is a psychiatry resident, and we had invited her co-residents over for dinner. Doctor-talk monopolizing the night wasn't a surprise; I’ve come to expect little else when we spend time with Jaimie's colleagues, at least when the MDs outnumber the PhDs. (When I tell people Jaimie is a “real” doctor, she tells me not to say that in front of other specialists like surgeons, oncologists, etc.). 

Jaimie sometimes apologizes to me after I've sat through hours of Doctor talk, but I don't fault them for it. They spend 12-plus hours in the hospital 5 or 6 days a week, and they're expected to study for certification exams in their off hours. It's natural to talk about the things one does most, and doctoring is just about the only thing they do.

The long doctor talks make me grateful that MIT isn't as imposing as the hospital seems to be. I do discuss research with my labmates, but we talk about plenty of other things, too: politics, philosophy, sports, and what we're planning to do when we finally graduate, to name a few. That being said, a diverse range of experiences isn’t necessarily the default setting at MIT. I know from experience that MIT can be a very insular place.

My first two years here I lived in the graduate dorms. I met lots of other grad students with whom I organized mentorship activities, played intramural sports, and went out drinking in Boston. It was fun, but my whole life was MIT – I was within half a mile of my office 95% of the time. Living so close to campus and spending time only with other students meant I never truly left work. Those first couple of years I would make midnight trips to the lab to set experiments to run overnight — because it was convenient and because even being home at midnight didn't turn my mind away from experiments.

When asked about college, Harvard alums are known to say they went to school "in Boston" rather than mention Harvard by name. While this reeks of countersignaling, I’d guess the primary reason for this behavior is that Harvard alums don’t want to be the target of the many deeply entrenched stereotypes associated with their alma mater. In my first two years at MIT, on the rare occasions I would meet non-MIT folks, I would engage in the same dance, avoiding mention of the name "MIT" as long as possible. In my case I don't think it was from fear of assumptions, but because I was afraid those assumptions were accurate. My whole life was MIT, even if that life was more than just research and classes, and I was ashamed that my identity didn't extend much beyond that of an MIT student.

Yet at MIT, apparently unlike Jaimie’s residency program, you can make enough free time to choose to be independent. My third year I moved out of the dorms, lived with a few Harvard grad students, and started dating Jaimie (a Tufts medical student at the time). After that, when I met someone new I could also name-drop Harvard and Tufts. And as counterproductive to not being an amalgamation of stereotypes as it sounds, I found my small bit of separation from MIT to be extremely valuable. I no longer saw my MIT-induced hopes and fears reflected in everyone I interacted with, and I no longer made midnight trips to the lab. It wasn't that I needed to avoid all monolithic institutions, it was just that I needed to not be surrounded by people who were caught in the shadow of the same institution that loomed over me.

I'm not suggesting that you should never live in the grad dorms or take part in MIT culture. The dorms can help provide a soft landing in Boston, and I've made many of my closest friends in Boston through MIT student groups. I imagine some students are energized by pursuing their research with laser-focus at the expense of a life beyond MIT, and I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. What I am suggesting is that if there comes a time when you feel trapped by MIT, you don't need to look very far to find some space. Boston is much more than the strip of buildings between Vassar Street and Memorial Drive.