There’s a common feeling that many incoming graduate students can attest to: I don’t belong here. MIT seems designed to keep us feeling this way, perhaps as motivation to work long hours, or perhaps to perpetuate its imposing reputation. It starts from the moment of acceptance. Elation and surprise are quickly followed by weeks of confusion, uncertainty, and doubt as you scramble to understand what it means to find a research position and how to navigate the expectations of classes and professors. For many students, there is uneasy silence from their departments, and a feeling that everyone else “gets it” while you’re just trying to catch up. There’s an apt name for these feelings: imposter syndrome.
These feelings persisted throughout my first semester, and the culture of silence kept me from discussing them with my peers. I did not want to admit that I struggled to keep up a facade of comfort while surrounded by people who seemed to take the graduate school experience in stride. Every so often, I was able to share these feelings with friends who reciprocated, but for the most part I felt that I just had to keep pushing on.
The cumulative stress had me seeking ways to escape the academic environment. As I was struggling with imposter syndrome in my classes and lab, I would seek relief in passions outside of academia. When faced with looming exams or project deadlines, I would find myself driving up to New Hampshire for a weekend of climbing or spending a long Friday morning with chisel and mallet in hand, working on a cherry coffee table. Invariably, after the initial guilt of not doing “what I was supposed to be doing”, I would come back to my work with a clear mind and renewed motivation.
While reluctant to take valuable time away from coursework, I sought out the emotional escape of places that were most familiar and exciting to me: the Hobby Shop for woodworking, the Mechanical Engineering Makerworkshop for personal projects, and the climbing community to spend time in nearby wild spaces. These spaces quickly felt comfortable and understandable. I knew how to navigate their particular subcultures, and I could easily relate and connect to the people I found there . Spending time catching up with fellow climbers about the weekend’s adventures felt normal, and taking an afternoon to make something gave me the satisfaction and pride that were missing from my school experience. Most importantly, it was the feeling of spending time in a setting that I visited regularly: chatting with other regulars, getting to know what they were working on, and sharing in the excitement of a mutual interest.
Inevitably, my participation led to my giving back to these communities through volunteer service roles such as helping to run Makerworks and teaching new climbers. It was these experiences, after many hours spent in the folds of these familiar spaces, that began to change my relationship to the rest of MIT. When I felt the most behind my class and lab mates, I would seek out the sense of community and belonging that I felt in my favorite cliffs and workshops.
Gradually, the sense of belonging to those groups of people began to creep out of the physical spaces that they inhabited and into my daily experience. I would ride the high of a successful personal project out of the shop and into my lab. I would find familiar faces in classes that I could relate to over our hobbies. The sense of not belonging to MIT as a whole began to recede and was replaced by a more nuanced mosaic of people and spaces that challenged me while making me feel welcome. The imposter syndrome didn’t completely disappear, but the communities I had joined made its bite more manageable.
Now, more than halfway through my time here, I feel better able to navigate the challenges of graduate school thanks to the time I spend outside of it. I continue to pursue an ideal balance between the two, and I always encourage others to do the same. I urge you to find the spaces and people that you are most comfortable in, be they on or off campus, school-related or otherwise. Participate in them actively, and seek to become a valuable part of those communities.
Even better, find ways to give back and build them. The value is not just in getting your mind off of the stress of school, but also in feeding your sense of familiarity and belonging. As graduate students, we are constantly challenged to push outside of our comfort zones, but without something to keep us tethered, we can be left feeling like we’ve been cut adrift from it entirely. If we find and maintain that link to what gives us comfort, then we have a foundation from which to take on the rest of our graduate experience.