When asked the entitled question ("Why Choose MIT?"), especially by prospective students whom I haven’t gotten to know well personally, I’m often at loss as to how to respond.
The follow-up question that I’ve always secretly wanted to ask back is this: When your initial reasons for going to MIT are no longer true, can you still justify being here?
But first, my reasons.
Academic excellence is the obvious answer that comes to mind, though not a sufficiently satisfactory one, especially since prospectives often ask the question in face of competitive alternatives — and some in much sunnier places.
Well, then, I would encourage them to attend their departmental visit weekend, which was crucial to my own decision, as I found the grad school culture at MIT quite unparalleled among the schools I visited.
The fact that grad students make up about 60% of the population (and internationals almost 40%) was a good sign to begin with. My department did a great job explaining the policies and milestones for my program, and to my relief, communicated a clear intent to help students pass and succeed. With well-developed graduate housing communities and vibrant graduate student organizations, including many welcoming groups for women and internationals, I felt that I could really see myself enjoying life here, despite the flurry of snow in March.
Thinking back, however, even I was not entirely persuaded by the wonderful first impression, although I would one day join the rank of senior grad students who heartily verified its validity and generously offered many more compelling reasons to choose MIT. But couldn’t they just have easily discovered similar character and strength about another place had they ended up there? A person who has only attended one grad school hardly has an objective basis for comparison.
So, all great things aside, I really came to MIT to two personal reasons:
- my advisor and research topic seemed a great match (plus, fellowship funding became available in a timely manner); and
- my boyfriend at the time was admitted into another school located about an hour away. (When he got off their waitlist, I took it as a cue that MIT was the right choice.)
Little did I expect that by the end of my second year at MIT, these two personal reasons would begin to crumble.
I spent hours being stuck on research, which I had been told was normal; but the breakthroughs and “Aha!” moments, even though it finally led to the completion of my master’s thesis, were no longer sufficient to sustain my motivation. I wondered what I was thinking when I first started out. Was it that I didn’t know myself well enough to choose the “right” research topic, or was it that I had changed somehow, somewhere along the way? Either explanation (or even both) did not help address the greater suspicion I had: Perhaps I was unfit for grad school, or even, simply unfit for research altogether.
The relevant question was no longer why I chose MIT, but rather, why did MIT choose me? I had been warned during orientation that most people, at some point during their time here, struggle with the possibility that MIT had made a mistake. Yet I was still quite caught off-guard when I actually experienced it first-hand.
Likewise, the relationship was not going well. I questioned the past and doubted the future. The boyfriend moved out West for work after the completion of his master’s program.
I considered leaving too. However, an internship that summer convinced me that it was easier to explore alternative career directions in school rather than in a company. Besides, my visa situation mandated that I return to MIT for at least another semester.
So I was back for a third year. I TAed for funding (with no clue about the career path it would eventually lead to!) I took and audited various classes, some at the expense of my GPA, to explore different research topics. Eventually, I switched advisors and research fields, thanks to the aforementioned supportive department that made it possible. I broke up with my boyfriend as well.
Behind the relief of fresh starts, however, loomed the uncertainty about whether I would end up feeling just as stuck, and just as unfit, as I did previously, with research, relationships, and otherwise.
No prospective students would have guessed all this of someone who is now happily married (to another guy), in the last semester of her PhD (presumably), and has enjoyed TAing enough to take on a teaching job afterwards. And I daresay that no prospective student would have wanted such a winding path. It was not a path that I would have chosen for myself — it was better! And I do not say so just because of the seemingly favorable outcome, for which I am certainly grateful. But a far greater reward lay in the realization that I could not actually orchestrate a happy ending, in spite of all the good reasons I had going for me in the beginning.
Why did I choose MIT? The true reasons were not revealed to me until much later, and it was a worthwhile journey. It was only when the initial presumed reasons disappeared, and the once independent, confident self utterly humbled, that I could truly put my faith in One who is wiser than my understanding, to hope in things that last longer than grad school or marriage, and to seek the love that is beyond my natural capability.
And that, finally, is long and honest answer to the simple question.