5 years at MIT: post mortem

I wrote most of this 1.5 years ago, but for some reason never published it. This is a super condensed summary of my experience at MIT, written a few months before leaving the Institvte.

Each year in two sentences or so

Year 1 – I experience college real quick — social butterfly Cathy makes friends all over campus, attends frat parties, joins a ton of activities, takes part in a bunch of freshman programs. I also take too many classes and do not get enough sleep, but life is great and college is fun.
Year 2 – I explore the breadth of EECS — I start taking foundational classes and doing *real* research, I go to fewer parties but I continue to make friends, and I also try sleeping regularly, which is wonderful. MIT and life are dandy.
Year 3 – Then, in an attempt to not sacrifice depth while going after breadth, I hit a brick wall, crash and burn, become perpetually stressed, and withdraw from most people. I feel simultaneously empowered yet crushed, and MIT has not quite been the same place since; I am grateful to my friends who kept me alive and sane. I feel ready to leave MIT, for better or for worse. (But I don’t, despite company offers urging me to leave early.)
Year 4 – I essentially take this year off, at least technically, indulging myself with growing URGE, taking less technical classes, teaching computer architecture and ESL, and contemplating my future. I gain a ton of unexpected skills, experiences, and friends; this year is immensely rejuvenating and convinces me to stay at MIT for one more year, for the MEng.
Year 5 – I broaden my horizons by immersing myself in academia, and along with it, the adventures of rushing to my first conference deadline, agonizing over PhD programs, understanding advisor relationships, and working my butt off to make it to Germany. This year is marked first by the fear that the best days of my life have already passed and my unwillingness to grow up from being an undergrad, and second by the gradual realization that life can be better–more free, more engaging, more intellectually rich–in the future.

My main technical interests also morphed over the years

Year 1 – “durrr, what is EECS?”
Year 2 – signal processing (6.003) → speech recognition (UROP/6.345)
Year 3 – vision (MASLAB + 6.869)
Year 4 – vision (UROP) → autonomous robotics/vehicles (6.UAT)
Year 5 – autonomous vehicles → distributed control of agents + transportation

What I learned from MIT

There are no rules. There is no box to think outside of, anything could be possible.
To think further, broader. In some sense, I feel that every year I have spent at MIT has allowed me to think 5 years further out.
To go for it. In the words of my former advisor Professor Seth Teller, if you think something might be your life passion, go at it as hard as you possibly can. Otherwise, you might never find your passion. Become the world’s foremost expert in what you love.
To not be afraid to ask. I have earned and spent tens of thousands of dollars for student groups, by asking. By asking, I learned more about robotics during my CMU visit (Robotics Institute) than in a year working in a robotics lab. At the Berkeley visit (EECS), several professors remembered who I was because of my questions.
Having money is very nice. Having a department rolling in money makes wonderful things like URGE, Maslab, 6.570 possible (with just a little bit of student motivation).

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