“There’s no wrong choice.”
This was an oft-stated sentence from my friends and family when I was deciding between graduate programs. And okay, sure, when you have the option to attend two wonderful institutions for graduate school, there is no “wrong” answer. But there is often a “better” answer.
In pursuit of the “better” answer, I scoured the internet. I researched professors, learned about programs, and heard what current students had to say. I attended visit weekends and made lists upon lists of pros and cons.
But at the end of the day, I had to face reality: I was completely, 100% torn. Everything seemed to balance perfectly, leaving me on the knife-edge of decision. I had two acceptance emails ready and waiting, and I just had to click “send.” Send one, and my future would take one path. Send the other, and my future would be completely different.
Ultimately, I made the right choice… for what I consider to be the wrong reasons.
Be careful of interview weekends
Perhaps the biggest mistake I made was to place far too much importance on the visit weekend. In my lists of pros and cons, I heavily weighted the “feel” I got from different campuses during my visits. The MIT Biology department threw a wonderful set of events for the prospective students, and I was simply blown away by the students, professors, and panels that I saw during my time there.
And though that feeling might translate into day-to-day happiness for some students, it very much did not for me. I ended up in a lab outside of the Biology department proper and almost never interacted with my year-mates past my first year in the program. Clearly, I could have kept up those relationships if I had put time into it, but, in the end, my day-to-day reality just didn’t involve any of the people I initially came to MIT to interact with.
This story has a happy ending, however: I stumbled upon a few wonderful communities during my time here at MIT. My labmates are wonderful, my extracurriculars are fantastic, and I adore MIT as a place to learn and study.
Professors are paramount
Another mistake I made was to consider the structure of the graduate program as more important than individual research programs. How many courses you have to take to graduate, how many classes you teach, and how your thesis committee is formed are all important factors in a graduate program, to be sure.
However, for most programs, after you pass your first year of coursework, you’re working with a single professor in their lab for over 90% of your time. Thus, your day-to-day happiness tends to revolve very tightly around how much enjoyment you get out of the research — and how much you enjoy the lab environment. Thus, the most important thing you can do is to — painstakingly — go through the list of all the professors in the program and make sure there are more than five labs you’d potentially be happy working in.
Although the structure of the MIT Biology graduate program is wonderful, practically speaking, the research directions weren’t a good fit for me — and I kind of glossed over that fact at the time. This story also has a happy ending: I was able to join a cross-departmental program called the MCN (molecular and cellular neuroscience program) and therefore have access to the campus’ many neuroscience labs.
All extracurriculars are not created equal
Finally, I made the mistake of discounting the importance of extracurricular activities. For example, I knew I wanted to teach, but naively assumed that my teaching experience would be roughly equivalent at all the institutions I was considering. It turns out that the amount of support you have for pursuing teaching and the number of teaching opportunities can vary greatly. Luckily, I was able to find plenty of opportunities to grow my teaching “muscles” while here at MIT.
Furthermore, I became involved in other communities around campus, such as the entrepreneurship and hackathon groups, which simply wouldn’t have been available at many other schools.
Your life outside of lab matters. If you’re like me, you might think that extracurricular activities will simply fall into place once you’ve chosen a program - after all, they’re so much less important than the program itself that they don’t warrant thinking about, right?
Wrong. If there’s something you enjoy, it’s okay to take that into consideration when choosing the place you’ll spend the next 2-8+ years of your life!
So did I make the wrong choice? I don’t think so.
If I had to go back and do it all again, I would make the same choice, but my reasons would be almost completely different. I would choose MIT because of the community as a whole, because of the wonderful focus on technology and innovation, because I love the work I’m doing now, and because I love what I’m doing outside of lab just as much as what I’m doing inside of it.