What to do if nothing goes according to plan
As a military brat, growing up was often an exercise in how to exist in the in-between. Moving every two years fostered a patchwork identity that seemed too foreign for anywhere, and so I was content to introduce myself in a brief, adapted way: Hi. I’m Julia, I’ve moved around a lot, but I consider where I am now to be home.
The longer story is that I was born on an army base in California, in a fishing town filled with cheerful otters lounging in the sea and soldiers firing heavy artillery across the sand dunes. Specifically, I was born in Fort Ord (a place which no longer exists) on April 18th or 19th, 1991 (the official documentation varies). It was a year which saw Desert Storm and the end of the First Gulf War, the beginning of the NBA championship three-peat for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, and independence for my grandparents’ country for the first time since they had left what was then the Soviet Union as refugees. At that point I was an only child, and there was no such movie as Space Jam. (Both of those things would change in a few years.)
Some months afterward, we boarded a military C-130 through the cargo bay and moved, sans furniture, to another army base in Saudi Arabia. It was there that I gained a general grasp of words and their meanings, a love of outer space, and my first real memories.
In the intervening years between then and now, a number of things happened. This is a Spark Notes summary of it all: I moved eleven more times. I went to school and university and developed an eclectic collection of books that fill my apartment (yes, I need them all. I love all my children equally). When I was 14 I started working and since then I have held a lot of jobs: as a waitress (x3), a research assistant (x4), a nuclear fuels engineer, a financial fraud investigator, and most recently I worked at a refugee agency. Now I’m here, at MIT. I’m getting a master’s degree in Technology and Policy and I work in a lab in the AeroAstro department.
I still haven’t discovered a way to distill down this introduction into a few salient points, so I generally just stick with my name and – if coerced – a “fun fact”. (Fun fact: I can write with my left hand, but only backwards.) In my two years in corporate America, and probably in the “real world” generally, I learned there is an intense pressure to develop a tidy elevator pitch about yourself that makes your life thus far sound like a cohesive, linear narrative. I think the expectation is that you are able to fully endorse and justify this narrative. People like to hear that you tackle life with a singular focus, an undertaking that to me sounds a bit adversarial and improbable.
In contrast, I tried to move gently through life, and to let myself be intrigued by its twists. At company happy hours when I was supposed to be networking aggressively, I’d find myself drawn into one conversation, trying to explain how, exactly, my degree in industrial engineering and operations research and previous job experiences connected to anything.
“Well…,” I would say as I perilously balanced multiple little plates of flatbread pizza (a Leaning Tower of Pizza, if you will), “I guess the common thread is that I like not always knowing the answer, and I like optimizing things. ”
Both are true, but are not actually why the events in my life were arranged the way they were. I had a number of larger ultimate goals planned, and those generally guided my work and decisions, but the actual path between such milestones was often winding and unknown to me even as I travelled it. The fact of the matter is that sometimes the thing I had really wanted to do hadn’t turned out the way I hoped. Sometimes I just desperately needed money to pay bills, or sometimes I became very interested in a new and exciting topic. In each of these circumstances, when an opportunity (or lack of an alternative) presented itself, I decided to take it.
For example: I didn’t get into MIT for undergrad. In fairness, I didn’t apply to MIT for undergrad because the thought that I might get in seemed too ludicrous to even consider. But I also didn’t get into my “dream” school for undergrad either, and so I ended up going to a large, wonderful, state school in the Midwest that challenged me and helped me grow both as a scientist and as a person. I had planned to major in biology or maybe journalism, but while there, I discovered industrial engineering, a field concerned not only with understanding physical systems, but also the human factors those systems have reciprocal relationships with. Today, I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I can say with almost 100% certainty that my life today would be very, very different had everything gone according to my original plan.
If you are reading the grad admissions blog because – like me – you have taken an irregular path to get to grad school and are wondering if there could be a place for you at MIT, don’t worry. You are in good company. If you are someone who has successfully approached every stage of life with an intense, almost singular focus, that is more than fine. But if not, I think that is fine too. Chances are, if you are even applying to grad school, it is because you have some kind of centering internal drive, and maybe even a dash or more of helpful obsessiveness. That drive is what pushes us to want to devote years of our lives, underpaid and sleep-deprived, to studying and understanding small, detailed aspects of the universe. If things don’t go according to plan when admissions decisions come out (or further along in your academic career), follow that drive along whatever winding road it takes you and don’t be deterred. Wherever you are going, you’ll get there.
(Author’s note: This blog draws inspiration from this blog, posted on the MIT undergraduate admissions blog).
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