Finding your why
A good reason to go to grad school
I was about 19 years old when my friend and I made plans to bike 70 miles to a state park in our area, camp for the night, and take the train home. My parents were afraid that we would get hurt or lost, so they suggested that I shouldn’t go. I appreciated their caution, but it dawned on me that it was ultimately my decision. I was stubborn, so I went on the trip. I had a blast and came home safe and sound. I’ve always appreciated my parents’ advice, but eventually I had to start balancing their advice with my own decisions. This life lesson is important to keep in mind for other adult-life decisions, such as the decision to go to grad school.
If your parents are making you go to grad school, you will probably be miserable and quit shortly into the five (or more) year commitment. Grad school is so consuming and strenuous at times that it requires an extremely high level of motivation to keep going. If you have a good answer to the question “why am I here?” you will find the motivation to struggle through the ups and the downs to the finish line of graduation.
Finding my “why” started early on. I began college thinking I would earn a degree in nuclear engineering and find a job in industry right away. To that end, I did the logical thing and completed some undergraduate internships. During those internships, I looked around at who I was working with and gained a lot of insight into my future career path. It struck me that the employees who had a Bachelor degree ran a lot of code and did analysis on the results. But the employees who had a PhD understood the physics behind the codes, wrote the codes, fixed them, and coached other people how to use them. I immediately knew I wanted that job. In order to get that job, I obviously needed a PhD.
When I have a bad day at MIT (or, say, a bad month), I remember the reason why I’m here. I’m here because I won’t be happy with the jobs I can get if I don’t graduate. I really want to do PhD level work, and that motivates me to cross the finish line. It has gotten easier as the years have gone by. Now that I’m a 5th year grad student, that finish line seems a lot closer. It wasn’t so easy during my first semester.
One of my worst days in grad school was a few weeks into the first year. In the same day, I scored a C in my first exam at MIT and received criticism on a paper draft from my advisor. On one hand, it was so demoralizing to have a failure in both coursework and research so early on, but on the other hand, it was early enough in the semester that I had time to correct course. Because I had a good reason to stay in grad school, I decided to pick myself up. I gave myself the rest of the day off (and yes, I spent a good portion of that day crying), and then I addressed my advisor’s comments on my paper and started studying for the next exam right away. In the end, I brought up my grade in the class, and the paper was accepted to a conference a few weeks later.
My grad years have given me other “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days” (similar to the ones described in one of my favorite children’s books by Judith Viorst). But my motivation to move past them has always been bigger than those bad circumstances. When MIT has me down, I keep my goals front and center to find the energy to get through to the next semester. When a really great, wonderful, and encouraging day comes along, I really feel like I belong at MIT. So far, my best day ever was the day I made a major breakthrough debugging a code I needed for my research. I spent several months on the issue, knowing that other students had tried and failed to fix it. When I would fix one bug, a bigger one would emerge, and I felt doomed to failure. One day, I was getting pretty close to fixing another issue in the code when I had to stop to run to a meeting with my advisor. He wanted an update on the code, so I pulled out my laptop to show him the bug I was trying to resolve, and I quickly made the code change I hadn’t had time to make before the meeting. Believing that this fix would just lead to another problem, like usual, we were both shocked to see that the fix was the final end to my seemingly endless problem! We both broke out in huge smiles and laughed together! I skipped all the way home, and I was so proud to hear that my advisor was sharing the news with other students in my group. Eventually, I ran real-world problems with this code and won a Best Paper award at a conference with my results.
Debugging code sometimes feels like the perfect analogy for grad school. Debugging is often frustrating and opaque, and you usually have no one but yourself to blame, as you were the one who accidentally put the bug there in the first place. But when the bug is resolved and the code is clean and correct, you feel like you are unstoppable! The more experience you develop debugging codes, the easier the next bug becomes to fix. That’s how the last four years of grad school have gone for me. At first, my problems always stopped me in my tracks, and I was easily depressed. Now I know that I have surpassed every previous obstacle, so when I run into an issue, I know that I will overcome this obstacle as well. Now, you would never waste your time debugging a useless code. The same goes for grad school: why would you push through the hard times if you didn’t really want or need the degree? So find your motivation, and learn how to rely on this overarching purpose to get through the good, the bad, and the ugly of grad school.
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