How leaving MIT convinced me to stay

Navigating academia and industry as a grad student
Aug 2021
Anonymous
.
Architecture

Industry or academia?

It’s a question at the forefront of many MIT grad students’ minds. I first found myself at this crossroads at the end of my undergraduate career, unsure whether I wanted to follow the path of a practicing engineer or that of an academic researcher.

Being indecisive, I reached out to many in my network for advice. Many recommended gaining some experience in industry, since it was easier to go from industry to academia than the other way around. Others suggested that the industry-based master’s programs could give me an edge on the job market. As for academia, I was simply advised that the people I chose to work with would be one of the most important factors to consider.

In the end, I listened to my gut feeling above all of the practical advice I collected, choosing a 2-year research-based Master’s of Science (SM) degree at MIT. It didn’t feel to me as binding to a career in academia as a PhD program, but it wasn’t necessarily a degree geared towards a traditional career in engineering, either.

My gut feeling decision was partially supported by the last piece of advice—the importance of people when selecting academia. The summer before my senior year of college, I was able to experience research at MIT through the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP). The summer exceeded my expectations, and with its glow fresh in my mind, I naturally chose to continue working with the research group and professor through the SM program.

However, it eventually became clear that the practical advice I received around industry would continue to occupy my brain as a kind of a FOMO (“fear of missing out”). It didn’t help that Cambridge turned out to feel very different from my summer experience. For starters, the town quickly exchanged its sunny clothes in the fall for more brisk, cloudier weather. In the lab, I also felt that my own identity had been exchanged for another: rather than a star undergrad student brimming with potential, in group meetings I felt more like the inexperienced first-year graduate student who didn’t really understand what academia was all about.

Despite being blessed with funding that allowed me to pick my own research topic, I had trouble choosing one. I was deeply insecure about whether each topic I considered would appear relevant and useful for practicing engineers. Looking back, this hindered me from celebrating the freedom of academia to explore bigger-picture questions that couldn’t be addressed by engineers in practice.

So what granted me this hindsight? Leaving MIT for a taste of industry. Three semesters into my SM degree, I had a fortuitous conversation with engineers at a firm with which my research group was in mutually high regard, and eventually found an opportunity to intern at their Chicago office for an extended period of time.

The arrangements I made to take a gap year from MIT and move to Chicago did cause a few inconveniences—mostly logistical, like needing to cancel my graduate apartment lease and find a place to store my belongings—but were also relatively smooth and supported from the administrative side. Most importantly, my adviser was highly supportive of my decision; I was grateful that she saw value in sending me away for a year and that she trusted that I would return to finish my degree with her.

While it didn’t let me escape brisk and cloudy weather, my year in Chicago ended up being a life-changing professional move. Just as others had advised at my original crossroads, I gained a much better understanding of my field in practice during the year-long internship, knowledge that I’d constantly been insecure about back at MIT. A year at this office was also long enough for me to witness and experience so many valuable aspects about the corporate work life in our industry: understanding the flow of team meetings, managing the daily grind, bonding with coworkers over coffee breaks, learning the different team cultures in the office, and even feeling the helplessness of company-wide layoffs.

However, contrary to the advice I’d received at my crossroads, I also saw many advantages to shifting from academia to industry, even if temporarily. I wouldn’t have realized it by staying at MIT, but the time I had spent at MIT working with my adviser had given me unique skill sets that helped the firm with special portions of their projects. Additionally, for better or for worse, arriving at the office branded as an “MIT student” earned me special attention; despite being an intern and sometimes the only woman in team meetings, I felt that my coworkers listened earnestly to my ideas during meetings, bolstering my confidence that I had something meaningful to contribute.

As my restlessness and insecurities receded, I developed a clearer idea of how I wanted to spend my time in the next few years. By the end of the internship, I noticed how much I’d gravitated towards the more research-based projects in the company. Despite the incredible sense of team morale at the firm, I missed the sense of personal investment in the work, which I felt more strongly with my academic research. By the end of the internship, I knew I was itching to return to the intellectual playground of academia.

Since returning from Chicago, I finished my SM degree and am now pursuing a PhD with the same adviser. After a year of 9-to-5s, I feel more confident in productively and professionally managing my work while embracing the flexibility of a graduate student schedule. Although I still experience some of the mental obstacles common among graduate students at MIT, I am nowhere near as burdened by the insecurities I faced in my first year at MIT, when my mind constantly drifted due to my curiosity over a career in industry.

I benefited from meandering between academia and industry in the fitful way that I did. But I can’t say that my path is for everyone. I had many fortunate circumstances: a positive relationship between my adviser and the firm, funding that could wait for me to return from my gap year, an adviser who supported my decision to take a break, a family who helped with all the moving.

If you’re at a crossroads between academia and industry yourself, know that it certainly makes sense to ask around for advice, especially when it’s field-specific. But also know that no one person can predict whether you’ll be happier in industry versus in academia. Choosing one may not always close doors to the other—and that’s a good thing.