In undergrad, I lost the journey for the destination.
I came to college with blinders on. I was determined to focus 100% of my energy on academics and not let anything distract me from good grades. And, for better or worse, that is exactly what happened.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I fell naturally onto the graduate school path. But I made myself a promise. This next phase of my life would be different. I would seek the balance of experience that had been so dismally absent from my undergraduate years. I would foster friendships, explore new areas of interest, and learn about what I actually enjoyed doing.
Although it has certainly had its ups and downs, these past six years of graduate school have been vastly more enjoyable than the four I spent as an undergrad.
What I found at MIT was a culture of acceptance and a plethora of opportunities. True, some graduate students keep to themselves and live a more ‘adult’ life. But I’ve never been fond of adulting. Also true is the fact that nearly every club and activity at MIT is open to graduate students — not to mention all the classes!
Here’s an overview of some of the wonderful resources on campus that I’ve used to expand my horizons. Of course, this is a biased list based on my personal experiences, but it should give you an idea of what’s out there!
1. Club Sports
Want to become more active? Need an outlet for that competitive drive? Or just want a structured way to meet members of the MIT community? Consider trying one of MIT’s many sports teams.
My colleagues and I have had a wonderful time with the club sports in particular. Although varsity sports require a level of commitment that is largely impractical for graduate students, club sports offer a more variable — but still competitive — experience. These clubs meet anywhere from once to five or more times a week, and unlike with varsity sports the organizers understand that you might not be able to attend every practice. Moreover, they tend to be geared towards beginners! Coming in with experience is fine, but if you’re in the mood to try something new, they’re always an option.
Most club sports will offer some kind of beginner classes on a routine basis, to get people up to speed. For example, I was on the taekwondo team for several years and found it a wholly rewarding experience (until an injury prevented me from continuing). In addition to being great exercise, it also provided me with a connection to the larger MIT community. I was able to interact with everyone from freshman undergrads to senior graduate students in a comfortable setting.
2. Academic Diversification
Want to learn programming? Want to brush up your chemistry skills? No problem! Yes, you’ll be in a class of mostly undergrads if you take an intro-level course. But so what? You’re never too old to learn something new!
Don’t have the time to commit to a full course? MIT has an answer for that, too. There’s this wonderful grading option called P/D/F for graduate students. That means you can take a class, but the only grades you can get are P (for passing), D, or F. This removes the pressure to be a perfectionist — as long as you don't get a D, it’ll look great on your resume.
Don’t have enough time for that? Auditing is also an option. You can sit in on a course and, most of the time, access the course materials as well. But you don’t complete the assignments and don’t get graded. This is an especially good option for lecture-based classes.
The best thing is that you don’t have to choose how you want to take a course until fairly late in the semester. I have personally used this to great effect.
3. Teaching Opportunities
Want to share your knowledge? Give back to the community? Mentor some wide-eyed undergrads? Or just learn how to be a better educator? Perhaps some teaching experience is in order!
If you’re a graduate student, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing some teaching. In particular, you’ll probably be a teaching assistant (TA) for at least one class while at MIT. Most graduate programs require this, and for many graduate students that is the extent of their teaching experience.
But it doesn’t have to be. MIT has a huge variety of teaching opportunities, from certificate programs and paid TA positions to volunteer and outreach events.
TAing: Although this varies by department, many programs at MIT allow you to TA courses beyond the number required for your degree. Often, these additional TA opportunities carry a financial incentive.
UROPs: Want some help with your research? Interested in mentoring undergrads? You can do both by being a undergraduate research opportunities program (UROP) supervisor. You can advertise on the UROP website that you’re looking for an undergrad to help you with a specific project, and students will apply for the position. You act as a supervisor and are responsible for training and mentoring any UROPs under you, which is a great introduction to mentorship.
One great thing is that it doesn’t usually cost your lab anything. Although some labs fund UROPs directly, undergrads can take a UROP for credit, or apply for funding from the UROP office directly. This means that your PI will generally support you having a UROP.
I’ve mentored many undergrads through this program, and have found it to be a wonderful experience.
KTCP: Don’t think you’re any good at teaching, or just want to get better? MIT offers a program called the Kaufman Teaching Certificate Program (KTCP), which is a low-intensity course that you can take as a graduate student or post-doc. You learn about teaching practices, get feedback on your teaching, and construct a teaching statement. I’ve completed this program and found it extremely useful in improving my own teaching.
ESP: Want to ‘get your feet wet’ in a low-pressure teaching environment? MIT has a program called the Educational Studies Program (ESP) that hosts a number of different teaching outreach programs. Two of their larger programs are called Splash and Spark, directed at high school and middle school students respectively.
In Splash and Spark, local students pay a small fee to come to MIT for a weekend and take classes offered by the MIT community. These classes can be an hour to several hours long, and can be on any topic. And I mean anything! Many are academic, focusing on special topics in math and science, etc. But just as many are not, focusing on everything from baking to video editing. You don’t need any experience or materials to teach these classes. A small amount of funding is available and anyone in the MIT community can volunteer to teach.
Have a free weekend? Want to create something new? One great way to interface with the MIT community and build a project from the ground up is to participate in one of the many MIT hackathons. A hackathon is an event where each team is given or decides on a problem to solve. They then build a solution to that problem over the course of the competition, which typically lasts 1-3 days. At the end, each team presents their solution.
Some of these hackathons are technical in nature, some focus more on social issues, and others are business-based. But one thing they have in common is a desire to bring together problem-solvers with different areas of expertise. You might be the programmer in a group, or the mechanical engineer, or the writer, or the business-expert. Whatever your skillset, you are welcome at a hackathon. You will likely join a group of people with other areas of expertise, and together you’ll have the skills necessary to build something truly unique!
Is your thesis project a product or service you’d like to bring to the world? Have you ever dreamed about starting your own business? Do you think you have skills that could help someone in starting theirs?
If you want to start a company someday, MIT has many resources devoted to making that happen. There are a variety of different events (such as hackathons or entrepreneurial classes) devoted to bringing team members together and building a prototype or business model.
If you already have a product (for example, from your graduate work), there are resources to help you get seed funding. This can be through a competition, such as as MIT’s 100K Pitch and Accelerate. Alternatively, there are resources like the MIT Sandbox Fund where you are matched with mentors and other resources and asked to reach certain milestones.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, graduate school is about more than just a thesis project. I’m incredibly thankful that I took a moment to step back and ask myself what I wanted out of my PhD experience. I started small, dabbling in hackathons and sports teams and learning programming through introductory classes. Then I discovered how much I loved teaching and mentorship and made those opportunities a priority. Finally, I found myself ushered into the exciting world of entrepreneurship.
All of these experiences have shaped my focus — and in some cases my research — in enriching and unexpected ways. They’ve helped me view the future as being full of options beyond the straight academic path. Perhaps I’ll choose a teaching position, or delve into the world of startups. These are options that would have never occurred to me before!
Whatever your passion or fleeting interest, I urge you to pursue it. Grad school is a wonderful time to take off those academic blinders and explore your extracurricular passions!