Unlearning what I thought I knew about PhDs and MIT

January 17, 2021 | Viraat G.

“Wait up for me!” I shouted after my father as I scrambled to keep up with him. At 6 years old, I didn’t really fit in with the college students dotting the quad under the hot summer sun, but I also didn’t really care. My dad, a professor of economics, was letting me tag along as he went about his day, and I was elated to be able to join him. Though I didn’t know what a “PhD” entailed or what a “university” really was, I knew that my dad had the coolest job in the world and I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.

Fast-forward a dozen years and my perspective had decidedly changed as I left the comfort of high school and headed off for undergrad. My respect for professors and the wonders of research hadn’t dimmed; however, I was more cognizant of the difficult road to academia and didn’t feel that I was cut out for it. Despite having the privilege to participate in and enjoy research experiences as I progressed through undergrad, my conception of the mountain I would have to climb to get a PhD only deepened. Lacking confidence in my affinity for a PhD, I applied and committed myself to an early acceptance medical school program shortly after my sophomore year.

Despite the assuredness of medical study following undergrad, I found myself returning to academic research time and time again, torn between the path that lay straight ahead and the path leading to where I knew my interests truly lay. Many of the academics I sought advice from about my dilemma unfortunately did little to inspire confidence; a mentor told me that he would have taken the MD over a PhD in a heartbeat, while an esteemed professor scoffed at the value of PhDs. Coupling moments of negative feedback like these with the prevailing view that PhDs can be isolating and depressing created an internal divide, preventing me from reconciling my love for research with my view that research would not be a viable career path.

As my senior year dawned and grad apps loomed, I decided that I would regret it if I didn’t take a leap of faith and apply. I was plagued by a nagging doubt that I hadn’t done things “the right way” as I filled out my PhD applications. Unlike many of my friends applying to PhD programs with me, I hadn’t found a consistent and engaging lab experience on campus and had no publications to my name; instead, my research background relied on summer experiences or non-traditional extracurriculars that I had convinced myself were valuable. Nevertheless, I submitted my applications and decided that I would let grad schools cast their judgements.

In the shortlist of programs that I was considering, I hesitantly included MIT. In my mind, MIT represented the extreme of all of the fears I had built in my mind about grad school – high-stress, hypercompetitive, difficult, and isolating. How could a simple Midwest boy with doubts about his aptitude for a PhD survive in one of the most elite institutions in the world? Begrudgingly recognizing the quality of the MIT program and its fit to my research interests, I applied, expecting a swift rejection and quietly resolving “it’s not like I would fit in there anyway.”

To my surprise, admissions offered me an interview. My visit to MIT, arriving at the onset of my spring break, was the last interview weekend on my graduate school admissions schedule. Carrying the weight of my preconceptions, I arrived at my interview regarding it as an obligatory last lap before having to wrestle between my other opportunities.

My opinion changed as I spent the weekend unlearning what I thought I knew about MIT and my ability to pursue a PhD. The graduate student mentors ferrying us across campus and candidly chatting with us over meals exuded a sense of happiness and relatability; I still vividly remember the homemade potluck they welcomed us with and the ease with which they mingled with one another. The professors were just like normal professors anywhere else – jovial, friendly, and easy to talk to. And the graduate community, powerful and equipped with more resources than I could wrap my head around, felt far-removed from the isolation I expected to find. Above all, the visit stressed the importance of belonging. Interviewees for the program came from all walks of life, a celebration of a diversity of experience bound by a shared thread – a love for research and the mysteries it can uncover. Regardless of the experiences we did (or didn’t) have up to that point, there was a sense of confidence in each and everybody’s ability to succeed with the support of the department, community, and Institute behind them. As I returned home to ponder where I wanted the future to take me, I did so with much greater confidence in my ability to find a home wherever a PhD took me. I had taken the leap and I had landed.

Now as an MIT PhD student looking back on my interview, the lessons I learned there still hold true. I was not the perfect PhD applicant, nor did I need to be. All I needed was an inquisitive mind and a love for research that could drive me towards the pursuit of a PhD. A PhD sculpts and teaches you to become the researcher and thinker you strive to be. You also don’t have to face its challenges alone; support networks and communities – not just at MIT but at a myriad of graduate programs, each with its own flavor and quirks – guide you along the way. I realize now that I spent so much time worrying about whether or not I had taken the “right path” to a PhD that I never stopped to consider that I was already on it. The myriad of paths people take to graduate study all resonate with the sound of “you belong,” and if you listen closely, I believe you’ll hear them too.

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