The Duality of a Dual Program

The challenges and rewards of MIT's MST-MCP Program
MARCH 2018
Rounaq
B.
Urban Studies and Planning

Since the dawn of human civilization, we have been fascinated with duality: good and evil, yin and yang, darkness and light. (Oh yeah, light -- the epitome of duality in a scientific context!) It’s kind of funny that I am writing this post in January, a month named after Janus who is the god of duality in Roman myth. What are the odds, eh? Hey, wait, don’t start calculating them. You must be wondering by now why this is relevant. Well, I am in a dual degree program and it gets really confusing at times. Having two voices in your head is tough. Even having one might be scary, but the best way to deal with this is to share, so here I am.

I am in the Dual MST-MCP Program at MIT. Let me give you a quick intro to the program. The Master of Science in Transportation (MST) degree is administered by the Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Transportation and overseen by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE, known as Course 1 at MIT). The Master in City Planning (MCP) degree is administered by the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP -- Course 11 in MIT terminology). In addition to being different in decimal and binary number systems, they are also quite dissimilar in their thought processes.

The MST requires an engineering background with students doing large-scale traffic simulations, transit schedule optimization, travel demand modeling, freight and logistics optimization, etc. The program strives to shape the way people conceive transportation and change the way we travel. On the other hand, the MCP program takes a more big-picture approach by requiring you to think about the ramifications of your models and decisions. It brings together some of the best architects, city planners, political scientists, economists, and engineers in the world. The program offers a very diverse experience rooted in real-life case studies and projects from cities all around the world. Confused yet?

Source: MIT Campus Map

Building 1 (home of Course 1) and Building 9 (home of Course 11, don’t ask me why they couldn’t get Building 11) are on opposite sides of Lobby 7, the “main entrance” of MIT. I find this to be quite poetic because I need to cross the lobby every time I want to go to the other building. The lobby, an iconic feature of MIT, is a bridge connecting these two departments and I walk on it every single day. Balancing an engineering background with a planner’s perspective is particularly challenging, and that is evident from the classes we take. CEE classes require us to delve into the theories of behavioral economics and traffic microsimulation, challenging us to be thorough in our readings and mathematical understanding. One critique that I would make is that this theoretical approach often does not consider the spatial and cultural context. Would autonomous vehicles in Mexico City operate in the same manner as in Beijing? Perhaps not.

In contrast, DUSP provides a wealth of local context through their coursework and projects. I have been learning about case studies in New York City, Santiago de Chile, Singapore, and China while working with the government of Guadalajara, Mexico on their new light rail transit extension. Taking such contrasting classes in the same semester requires a conscious effort to make the switch from “too much math” to “not enough math” and vice versa. At some point last fall, I was simulating autonomous vehicles in Boston on one computer and analyzing the real estate market in Guadalajara on another computer. To be brutally honest, it does get crazy at times and you end up wondering which side you really belong to. Janus, you old trickster, stop tormenting me!

By now, you’re probably wondering why one should even apply to a dual program if it is so difficult. Hang in there, here comes the good stuff!

There are many things you can gain from being in a dual program. You get to meet more people, both in your peer group as well as faculty and staff. From personal experience, I can vouch for the fact that the number of people you interact with is directly proportional to the richness of your life experience and broadness of the mind. (I’ll leave you to figure out the empirical formulation of this relationship.) You learn to look at a problem from different perspectives, which definitely helps you tackle it better, if not faster. I’ve found thesis topics from the dual program fascinating because they tend to focus on problems we face in our everyday life, such as finding affordable housing in Cambridge or transit-oriented development in Latin American cities, or ways to control emissions in Chinese megaregions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you are not alone! There are amazing alumni from the dual program who are now working in governments, planning organizations, and academia. Chris Zegras and Jinhua Zhao, both professors at MIT, are two great examples of the type of people that this program can produce. If you ever feel like you’re overwhelmed and need to talk to someone, they are helpful and are always ready to lend an ear.

Time to wrap it up before I hear you snoring! Should you apply to the MST-MCP program? Yes, undoubtedly. Is it going to be challenging? Of course! Life is no fun without challenges. Is it going to be useful? It will change the way you think and it is super fun to learn about so many different cities. Be “worldly”! Think of planning as the creative and artistic right-brain, and engineering as the analytic and logical left-brain. You want and need both to function well in your life.