On Becoming a Professional Student

How I emerged from the chaos of undergrad to embrace professionalism in my graduate career
SEP 2019
Mechanical Engineering

If you are an academic masochist who constantly enjoys being over-involved and under pressure, then your undergraduate “career” was probably something like mine. My (pre-grad) college years regularly felt like a frenzied, unorganized attempt to accomplish the umpteen items on my mental to-do list. I found myself in constant triage mode when it came to how I spent my time, rationing my temporal resources on whichever project, exam, or activity needed them most in that moment. Thinking more than 12 hours into the future was a luxury I rarely enjoyed. The causes of this frenzied lifestyle were manyfold, such as the intensity of an undergraduate academic schedule and the desire to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. And after four years, these “workstyle” patterns began to emerge as habits.

As I started my PhD studies at MIT three years ago, this pattern continued: my daily schedule was made up on the fly, my to-do list co-inhabited my brain, my Gmail, and several random post-it notes on my desk, and I had little vision for what my goals were beyond the next several hours. My schedule was fairly sporadic too, as I juggled the many obligations and extracurricular opportunities of graduate life. And looking around, I noticed that many of my new-grad-student friends seemed to embrace similar tactics.

As I reflect back, it is obvious to me why this happened: my graduate workstyle was simply an extension of my undergraduate life. In my mind, the only two significant differences were that I now had (1) an office and (2) a boss. I had never taken the time to intentionally reflect on one simple truth: the undergraduate years are a very unique and special time, and while the frenzied tactics I employed to get through them may have been fun/effective/necessary at the time, they shouldn’t necessarily continue into my graduate career. Somehow, I implicitly assumed that graduate and undergraduate careers were characteristically equivalent. I now realize how misleading this assumption was.

Over a year and a half ago, many of my workstyle patterns began to change. These changes, however, were primarily engendered by external factors. First, I became a graduate resident advisor, meaning it was important that I was home in the evenings and acted as a stable role model for undergraduates. Second, my girlfriend moved to town and we got married a year later. This introduced the personal responsibility of having a schedule she could depend on and a career path which was suitable for both of our aspirations. Lastly, I began the four-month process of preparing for my qualifying exams, which pushed me into a highly regulated schedule of preparation. To counterbalance these changes, a new set of workstyle habits began to emerge: I started using a planner and keeping a written record of my tasks and accomplishments; I began embracing a fairly consistent lab schedule; I learned the necessity of saying “no” to certain opportunities; and I started to have a long view of what my ultimate graduate-student goals were and which activities were/weren’t contributing to these goals.

Since then, I have started to see myself more and more as a professional (or as a “professional student”, as I lightheartedly tell friends and family who ask what I do for work). And as I have been undergoing this transition, I have seen one primary value which seems to consistently differentiate my frenzied undergraduate way of doing things from my new professional grad student role. This is the value of intentionality. Through my new workstyle habits, I have sought to embrace intentionality in which classes I take, how I spend my research time, how I take my breaks, and which activities I sign on to. Intentionality starts with having an idea of what my goals are, and then deciding which actions contribute to or detract from these goals. With the infusion of intentional thinking, I found greater dignity and purpose in my graduate career, and these things have acted as a feedback loop which bolsters my productivity, efficiency, and personal fulfillment.

The idea of professionalism can feel stale and sterile, but embracing a mindset of long-sighted intentionality is something that excites me each and every day. Don’t get me wrong: I still watch baseball highlights on YouTube when I should be coding, and I still wear shorts and sandals to the office in the summer (maybe that will change during workstyle transformation pt. 2), but gone are the days where my productivity is a function of the number of free food events scattered around campus. And I am certain that my newfound professional skills will follow me to whatever career I choose next.