MIT in a Year

How to make the most of a brief MIT experience
APR 2019
Abigail
C.
Civil and Environmental Engineering

Nine months. The length of a human pregnancy. Also the length of my time at MIT.

To clarify, this is not a story about pregnancy.

Ask most MIT graduate students how long they plan to be here, and two years is the minimum. Many will be here well beyond four as they pursue a PhD. But for Master of Engineering students such as myself, time is more limited.

Since arriving at MIT to pursue my master’s in Environmental Engineering, I have been amazed by the opportunities offered. I feel lucky to be here and know that I cannot let these nine months go to waste. In this post, I’ll offer the tips and tricks that I am using in order to make the most of my condensed time at MIT.

Embrace Your Classes (especially the difficult ones)

I took a variety of classes during my first semester. Some were harder than others, and I found myself dreading those sessions. I’ll admit I didn’t always enjoy challenging my brain and — at times— feeling utterly lost during a lecture. One class in particular tested my resolve. Coming to MIT, I had zero experience with signal processing, yet I signed up for a graduate-level class on the topic. Unsurprisingly, it proved challenging. I spent many hours puzzling through homework sets with classmates and meeting with my professor during office hours. Halfway through the semester, I debated whether or not to drop the class. After a great deal of anguish, a realization occurred to me. The reason we’re at MIT is to be exposed to advanced topics; of course some subjects won’t come easily. I crumpled up my list of “pros vs. cons” and kept the class on my schedule.

This decision proved right. By the end of the semester, I actually began to enjoy the class. While difficult at first, learning to think in an entirely different way yielded rewards both tangible and intangible: I gained proficiency in the MATLAB programming language, as well as renewed confidence (and ended up with an A, too!). Sometimes we must experience confusion before clarity, but it is worth sticking it out, especially at MIT where a support network of faculty and fellow students will help to ensure your ultimate success.

Enjoy the Fun Stuff

In October, I attended a graduate retreat through MIT’s InterVarsity fellowship. While not a member of the fellowship myself, I was invited by a friend who was. When she proposed the trip, I was skeptical. I wondered if I’d be able to finish my homework that weekend, or if I’d fall behind in thesis research. Ultimately I agreed to go, and looking back, I thank my former self.

During the three-day stay in New Hampshire, we relaxed, enjoyed nature, and bonded with grad students from MIT and other schools in the Boston area. An especially memorable experience was a kickball tournament (which the MIT team won!). I hadn’t played kickball since elementary school, and it felt wonderful to “let off steam” and run around like a kid again.


Fond memories: a moment of camaraderie during our kickball tournament

The moral of this second point may seem trite: “don’t forget to have fun!” While the cheesy expression might elicit a groan, it holds true. MIT offers many clubs, activities, and events. I’d recommend everyone to try at least one thing — I promise the homework and research will still get done.

Make Lasting Connections

It’s easy to become comfortable in a daily routine, only interacting with a handful of people in your lab. But MIT is full of brilliant, interesting individuals and I recommend taking the time to get to know those around you. Form relationships that will last beyond your time together in school. You never know when you might meet a new best friend, a future employer, or even a life partner.

Asking for advice from older students and professors can provide valuable wisdom. By speaking with PhD candidates, I have not only made friends who will continue to work at MIT for several years after I graduate (which means I’ll have a better excuse to come visit campus), but also received guidance in choosing classes. From their own MIT experiences, these older students know which courses are more interesting, which require less homework, and which are best suited to my research.

I was initially too intimidated to talk to my professors, but every one I’ve had so far has been extremely accommodating; all are willing to explain difficult concepts from class or provide valuable life advice. Last semester, I grew to know one professor quite well; he connected me with another former student of his, which ultimately led to a job interview. Clearly, these relationships pay off.

In a longer degree program, I would have had a much longer list of advice. But for those of you in my shoes, consider this your “To Do” list for your nine months here. I hope it will make this fleeting stay feel much more rewarding.