Inaccurate Prior Probabilities

Moving to a new city and worrying about the future
MARCH 2018
Conner
K.
Computational and Systems Biology

The day after I committed to MIT for my PhD, a wave of panic set over me. I felt like I was about to repeat a disaster. I’d tried moving to a new city before and things hadn’t worked out well, yet here I was doing it all over again.

I’ve been a west coaster almost my whole life. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Seattle and did my undergraduate at a small liberal arts college in Southern California. While I did well academically in undergrad, the rest of my life didn’t work out quite so smoothly. I struggled off and on with feelings of depression and isolation for most of my time in school. These feelings were particularly bad during the fall semester of my junior year, and I felt like the solution would be to get away from campus so I decided to study abroad in Dublin, Ireland. As it turns out, when you already feel depressed and isolated, moving to a cold rainy country where you know absolutely nobody is not a great remedy. Things just got a lot worse. I stopped going to class and when my thoughts began tending towards darker directions, I realized it was time to drop out of the study abroad program and go to therapy for my depression. That was a great decision. I came home for a bit, went back to school, managed to graduate with the rest of my class, and continued working on my mental health.

Now let’s skip about a year ahead in my life to the day after I committed to MIT and a series of fears began developing in my mind. What was I doing committing to living on the east coast for 5+ years? Why was I moving away from all of my friends and family on the west coast? What if I felt seriously isolated and depressed like I did in Ireland, what would happen to my career? To my life?

The fears got really irrational really fast. I tried to convince myself that coming to MIT was the right choice by researching every possible thing I could. I scoured the websites of research labs, outdoors clubs, running trails in Boston, places to eat, and much much more. (Funny enough, my browsing led me to the graduate students blog, which is part of why I’m writing this now).  Every time I made an argument to myself that MIT is a wonderful place, my brain would make a counter argument. Well, the Charles River might be a good a place to go running, but if I had gone to Berkeley then I could have visited my family in Seattle more easily. The arguments with myself went on and on and no matter which argument I made, I still ended up feeling crappy about moving to Boston. I also felt crappy about feeling crappy. Here I was with an amazing opportunity to go to one of the best schools in the world and all I could do was feel crappy about myself.

Partially due to this and partially due to some relationship stress I was going through at the time, I decided to go to therapy once more. Yet again, it was a great decision. My therapist and I talked a lot about how the human brain is wired to anticipate threats and how that can mislead us in the modern world. It’s easy to anticipate an experience as being bad before it’s even begun. And sometimes the best solution to feeling crappy is to just accept crappy feelings and experience them for what they are. Instead of judging them and feeling worse about them, just observe them and things will get better.

This advice was extremely useful for dealing with my second thoughts about grad school at MIT. Instead of fighting my fears, I worked on simply noticing the feelings I was experiencing and moving on. Instead of projecting worst case scenarios about what could happen at MIT, I decided to wait until I actually arrived and experienced what there was to experience. Thankfully, it turns out that my brain really sucks at predicting the future, and my time at MIT has so far gone immensely better than the worse case scenarios I thought up.

I expect that no matter where I chose to go to grad school I would have ended up doing well. I was fortunate enough to have multiple grad school options, and I think I could have found happiness anywhere by working on focusing on the present and all of the good things around me instead of constantly feeling anxious about the future. I’ve found that just a small thing like walking past the Charles River every day and noticing how it changes makes a big difference to my mental state.

I wanted to write this blog for anyone who feels a bit terrified about moving to new city, worried about leaving family and friends behind, and/or is anxious about bad things from the past happening again in the future. If there is somebody out there who is worried about their choice to go to MIT and is reading the MIT graduate blogs like I was doing a year ago, please take a deep breath and know that it’s ok to feel anxious about your decision. Remember that your brain may also really suck at predicting the future, so it might be worth focusing on what is good in the present.