When people hear that I’ll be spending the next half decade at MIT, many seem to think I’ll be spending my days huddled over an intelligent robot plotting for the technological apocalypse. When people hear that I’ll be spending the next half decade — and, hopefully, a lifetime — studying philosophy, many seem to think I’ll be spending my days in a leather recliner, sipping tea and reflecting on the meaning of life. When people hear that I am studying philosophy at MIT, many seem confused, surprised or even skeptical.
Not all that long ago, I would have been similarly confused. In fact, a few years back, I didn’t even know MIT offered advanced philosophy degrees, nor less that MIT featured one of the best philosophy departments worldwide. Certainly, I would never have guessed that MIT’s philosophy department is, by all accounts, one of the most supportive, tight-knit, productive and happiest communities in the world of elite academic philosophy.
Three years ago, as my practical life goals of corporate law started to give way to an academic passion, I began to investigate grad schools. After a few crazy years, I ended up applying to all of the top departments. During application season, on the days when I dared to dream about the possibility of having many options, I imagined simply choosing the “top” department. When the acceptance calls began coming in early January, it quickly became clear how complicated this decision would be. With offers from many incredible, successful departments, I began to realize that no straightforward list or piece of advice could make this decision for me. I was choosing the community that would shape me as an intellectual, as I transitioned from undergrad to full-fledged scholar, from college kid to true adult. I took quite seriously into consideration the advice that you really need to be happy in your life to succeed and thrive in grad school. I didn’t merely want the resources to work in isolation, but the opportunity to join a strong community that would push me, inspire me and support me throughout my pursuits.
When I visited MIT, I met one-on-one with nine faculty members, and in every single meeting, I encountered a top scholar who had taken the time to carefully read (at least) one of my papers. Rather than awkwardly prompting me to ask more questions about the department, each professor simply talked philosophy with me, often running well over their scheduled time for the meeting. When I talked to the MIT grad students, honesty, respect and openness seemed to reign. Grad students as well as prominent faculty openly and passionately held many conflicting opinions, and yet the community seemed to thrive. I learned that MIT philosophy was a community in which people regularly talked, were engaged, enjoyed daily tea together and overall maximized their membership in the department. Quickly, pros and cons lists faded into irrelevance, and my choice became clear.
Since day one of orientation, my interactions with the people around MIT have been overwhelmingly and consistently positive. Everyone I’ve met thus far emanates positive, curious attitudes towards my research interests. Some have taken much undergraduate philosophy and have serious philosophical interests of their own, while others are surprised to learn MIT even has a philosophy department. Yet, everyone seems curious to discuss serious research endeavors, even those radically different from their own.
Still, I can’t say I never had doubts about the potential downsides of philosophizing in what seems to be such a tech-focused, hands-on place. In August, I randomly encountered a mind-blowing news story about the incredible innovations of the MIT Media Lab. Of course, as a soon-to-be MIT student, I was thrilled by this glance into the insane awesomeness of MITers at work. My companion, similarly wowed by the story, asked me if I dreamed about what I might create while at MIT. While I am obviously thrilled to be surrounded by the inventors of the future, I do sometimes wonder whether, at MIT, greatness is measured in part based upon some perceptible wow-value that my work, even at its best, will never have. Even my most grandiose, fantastical MIT ambitions do not include inventing any incredibly cool stuff.
Now, as the “Hi. Where are you from? What do you study?” phase of my MIT career starts to slide into more hardcore study and research, I am waiting to see how my status as a philosopher will impact my status within the broader MIT community. As far as I am concerned, as my philosophical studies pick up steam, I sincerely plan to try my absolute best to continue to make the most of my time in this brilliant, zany, curious, inventive community while I am a part of it — even if I never build a robot.