COVID-19 Elevates Incidence of Impostor Syndrome in 1st Year PhD Student

A virtual MIT student, by any other interface, still belongs here.
March 2021
Brandon
K.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

“Please have your tracking number or a copy of this email and your MIT ID with you when you come to the Facilities Customer Service Center located in Building 7 Room 019. Keys may be picked up Monday through Friday from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM excluding MIT holidays.”

Great! Today was the day I would finally pick up my key to lab. Now I’d be able to come and go independently, instead of having to rely on meeting someone there anytime I needed to get in, which was what I’d had to do for most of my lab rotation. After an exclusively-virtual fall semester, I was ready to take this next step towards feeling like a full-fledged, autonomous MIT student and dispel some of the lurking uncertainties brought about by the Purgatory-like nature of online class. There was just one problem: where on Earth was building 7?

Well, my lab is in building 8, so surely that must be right next door to building 7, right?

Nope. It’s across some long stretch of buildings and on the opposite side of Killian Court. When I asked one of my lab-mates how to get to 7 from 8, he laughed. “You just walk down The Infinite, of course.”

Ah, so that’s The Infinite I’ve heard so much about. Got it. I dutifully proceeded down the decidedly finite length of hallway (although admittedly it is quite a long one), marveling at the sweeping archways, the polished stone floors (that can’t be marble, right?), and the interesting snippets of research on display. Juxtaposed against the grand, Platonic architecture of these imposing buildings, signs of a more pedestrian existence: Exposed pipes that crisscrossed the ceiling. Restrooms, water fountains, fire extinguishers. Conjoining buildings, jumbled staircases that very much feel as though they were added as an afterthought. 

MIT had held such mystique and allure in my mind for so many years, and now I was actually here as a graduate student. This was a dream come true, but I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of unease: what if this really were a dream? Did I really belong here, and was I really an MIT student given that all I’ve actually seen of the school is a few virtual backgrounds of professors’ homes? While I was mostly thrilled to be traipsing down The Infinite, part of me was nervous that at any moment an authoritative figure would step around the corner and demand to see my credentials, assuming (rightly, I felt) that I didn’t belong.

Prior to COVID, I hadn’t realized how much of my sense of belonging to a community was contingent on physically being there. At my undergraduate institution, I walked to class and was intimately familiar with the campus layout, the shortcuts between buildings, and the best spots for coffee or food. I also routinely accessed the incredible resources campus had to offer, like the maker spaces, gym facilities, and study rooms. In short, I felt at home on my undergrad campus. Because my graduate curriculum was exclusively online due to the pandemic, I now realized exactly how much of the typical college experience I was missing out on. I felt this absence acutely when I was stopped one day on my way to lab by someone asking me where the MIT Library was. I could only shrug and ask, “Have you tried Googling it?”

I successfully found Building 7 and located Room 019, down a set of those jumbled stairs which led me to the basement of the building. I emerged into a low-ceilinged, carpeted office that contrasted sharply with the soaring architecture above. For all the mystical grandeur on display, MIT was just a normal workplace, staffed with normal people going about their normal lives, and this claustrophobic office was where that work was accomplished. Did I count myself among their number, I wondered? A fortification of manilla office furniture topped with plexiglass separated the definitely-belonging from the vaguely-unsure.

“Can I help you?” A terse woman asked as she emerged from the manilla fortress.

“Hi, yes, I’m here to pick up a key for Brandon Krupczak, please.”

The woman arched an eyebrow but made no other response, and crossed to a box and began rifling through manilla packets. Why did “They” make everything in the office the same bland, dreary color, I wondered?

After a short rummage through the box the woman looked back up at me. “There’s nothing here for that name, would the key be under any other name?”

Startled, I half-laughed, “It really shouldn’t be, that’s my only name.”

The woman arched her eyebrow again and resumed searching but did not return even a ghost of a smile—maybe a side-effect of all the dreary manilla. My anxiety rose with each passing second that my key did not emerge; this was all the confirmation I needed. They didn’t really want me here, I didn’t really belong, and to prove it they had revoked my key!

“Ah, here we are.” The woman said finally. “You have your MIT ID?”

“I sure do,” I replied proudly, whipping the plastic card out of its designated spot in my wallet and proffering it for examination.

The woman leaned into the plexiglass palisade and quickly glanced at the ID. “Here you are,” she smiled, and handed me the manilla packet with my name stamped on it. “Have a nice day!” she said cheerfully, and wandered back into the depths of her fortress.

As I retraced my steps back to lab, I realized the initial terseness was all in my head. Nobody was out to get me, nobody assumed I didn’t belong here, and no one thought I was an impostor but for a sad, lonely little voice in my head.

As I unwrapped my packet and added the golden key to my keyring, I tamped down that lonely voice and buried it in a deep corner of my mind. I did belong here, I realized. I had worked hard to achieve this. Countless evenings in undergrad holed up studying in the library, countless hours bent over a lab bench learning the ropes of academic research, countless little moments in time where I had consciously chosen to pursue the path of the scientist - all had accumulated to bring me where I am today.

COVID-19 has made life hard for a lot of reasons. As an incoming graduate student, one of those difficulties was adjusting to life at a new school where I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t really meet anyone because of social distancing. With all of my classes being virtual, it seemed like I was attending Zoom University, not MIT, and I felt like I missed out on a lot of the important cultural elements in my first semester.

It’s not for lack of effort, either - my program’s faculty and professors have made Herculean efforts to provide alternative welcoming plans, group activities, and course curricula to accommodate the necessary changes brought about by the pandemic. I applaud and thank them profusely for their important work. But no matter the effort and intention, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed my first year at school, and it made it more difficult to feel like I was truly a part of the MIT community.

So my message to anyone who feels similarly: Hold fast. Have courage. The vaccination light has emerged at the end of this dark pandemic tunnel. We’ll get there in due time and emerge stronger for our efforts. If COVID has elevated your anxiety or made you question your sense of belonging in the community, that’s okay. It certainly had that effect on me. But I’m choosing to stride forth regardless, in the sure knowledge that I’ve worked hard to get here, and I won’t be resting on my laurels. If there’s one thing this pandemic has illustrated without question, it’s that we can use Science to make the world a better place, and that is exactly why I am here.

It’s time to get back to work.