You Can't Run Before You Walk

Navigating the initial stressful months at MIT
APR 2019
Shashank
A.
Mechanical Engineering

After completing my undergraduate studies in 2014, I began a slow-paced government job in India. As part of the job, I got a chance to explore the depth and widths of the country, with temperatures ranging from -10oC to 50oC. Overall it was an enriching experience, it taught me a lot about the practical aspects of the field I was working in. While travelling was one aspect of the job, office work was less exciting but more comfortable. The daily routine of the office from 9 am to 5 pm for 5 days a week was really easy. The food available at the office canteen (which was a five-minute walk from home) was delicious, and there were no household worries, as a maid took  care of washing clothes and cleaning the house. In short, food, clothing and shelter were all set. Such was the case at the professional level. Since I was a new employee, there was no pressure, no high expectations. The work goals were easy to accomplish. The weekends were free and there was a lot of time to go out for hikes and take baths in lakes and springs around the hilly place I was living in. While my work was was comfortable, there was little room for growth in my career. I decided to go for higher studies and got admitted to MIT.

Though anticipated, life at MIT was a huge cultural shock to me. Living the MIT dream was very  different from what I thought. The people were professional and competitive. The technical lingo was so confusing that I began to suffer from imposter syndrome. I realized that all I had learned during my undergraduate studies had already evaporated in the last two years. The pressure started piling up in my head. My own expectations of making quick progress in my research and courses started eating me from inside. The concept of weekends and working hours was gone, and within two months of me being at MIT, there appeared to be no hope.

Luckily, my departmental student mentor came to the rescue. I told him about not being able to cope with the courses and feeling that I was not making progress in my research. He said a simple thing: “You can’t run before you walk.”

He went on to explain, “It takes time to absorb things. Just give it some time, devise a schedule for yourself, form study groups, meet your TA’s, and it will be all fine.” I realized I had been doing it wrong since the start. I never tried exploring all the support systems MIT provides. I was still behaving similarly to my undergraduate days with no planning whatsoever. Following the advice of my advisor and many others, I formed a study group with some of my classmates and started meeting with them on a regular basis to solve problem sets.. Working in the study group, I realized that I was not the only one struggling. The study group helped me not only to get up to speed  academically but also to expand my social group. To make progress in my research, I started talking with a senior Ph.D. student in my group. These conversations made me realize that quality research needs to be rigorous, which usually takes time. This realization, in turn, helped me to get rid of unrealistic research goals I had set earlier and to make decent progress. Within no time, I was able to get things going. It has been approximately three years since then, but I find the social and behavioral learnings I got during that time to be relevant even today and expect them to be useful for my entire life. Coming in, I knew  that academic life is much different than professional or undergraduate life, but actually adjusting from one to another was a completely different experience. You need a high level of commitment and self-discipline to accomplish the transition. But once you are in, the fruits of hard work are amazing.

The initial phase is tough but not impossible. In my experience, patience and consistency is key. Remember, “You can’t run before you walk.”