Not Just a Grad Student

Not Just a Grad Student

Not Just a Grad Student

Overcoming impostor syndrome at MIT

March 2, 2017 | Alicia E.

From the day I moved to MIT, I worried about whether I belonged here.

Was I smart enough? Would I be able to handle the intense, rigorous workload? Would I be able to balance my work with my life, and take care of my physical, mental, and emotional health? Why did my department’s admissions committee accept me, of all people, anyway?

It wasn’t until I became an MIT Communication Lab fellow in my department that I began to turn these worries around. But let’s start at what gave rise to all of those initial doubts in the first place.

My department, Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), is multidisciplinary at its core. My undergraduate background is in materials science and engineering, and I had no training in nuclear science and engineering prior to MIT. In my class year, I am one of five students specializing in Nuclear Materials, and one of 21 students  total.

In the first weeks at MIT, we all worked together on our psets for the core courses in our PhD qualifying exam process (ominously referred to as “The Quals”). These courses give an intense crash course to nuclear engineering through six half-semester classes called “modules.”

Every day, we studied and studied and studied together for the modules. In our off time, when we decided to break for lunch or dinner, our discussions were fascinating yet highly technical, with topics very specific to our field of nuclear engineering.These discussions sparked two conflicting feelings for me.

Being surrounded by people who enjoyed discussing technical problems in our field on a level that challenged me was incredible, as was simply being around people like me.

But as a materials scientist, I didn’t know the specifics of these topics: thermal hydraulics, neutronics of proposed next-generation reactors, the history of all of the nuclear plants in the United States. Why hadn’t I memorized the history of all of the nuclear plants in the US for fun?! If my work wasn’t my greatest passion and my sole hobby, why was I here?

Drinking from the Firehose
The undergrads have an expression for getting bogged down during the semester. You would say that you’re “hosed,” a reference to the popular quote from MIT’s former president Jerome Weisner, who said, “Getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose.”

This applies at the graduate level as well, but in NSE, instead of three exams in three days, you have your first final exams in the modules (2 of them), worth 75% of your grade (which are also your first exams at MIT, for many of us).

Plus you have research to do if you have an advisor at this point (or if  you don’t, it feels like you have to find one ASAP).

Plus you’re sick from the seasons changing, and you’re sleep deprived because there aren’t enough hours in a day to do the research and also get the psets submitted with correct solutions and ALSO study for the exams.

And then you’re required to do Basic Tasks for Humans to Function (like feeding yourself), and have enough time for banging your head against the wall wondering why you chose to inflict this hell upon yourself given that you already have a degree, wondering what your friends from undergrad with cushy high salary jobs are doing since it’s Friday night at 11pm and they are done with their workweek, etc..

In my first semester, I was hosed constantly. I got my first failing test grade of my life in my specialization class. I was not the smartest person in the room anymore. My friends would talk about things I’d never even thought about, and since I lived in a social bubble with only people from NSE, I wasn’t talking to anyone about the things that I knew the nitty gritty details of.

I felt like I wasn’t even smart enough to be in the same room with these brilliant people.

Taking Things to Heart
I took these things to heart. With every subpar grade I got, every conversation I didn’t understand, and every pset I didn’t know how to start, it became impossible for me not to feel that these were evaluations on my worthiness, my ability to be a successful grad student here.

The traits I had previously defined myself by — my quick ability to learn, my knowledge of topics in my field, my problem solving skills — were being attacked in every interaction I had.

What I didn’t realize until just recently, a year and a half into my time at MIT, is that I never talk to people in my specialization about what I do, and to discuss topics of which I know the specific intricacies. I didn’t have any outlet to reassure me that I do know my field, that I have something to contribute, and that I do belong  here.

During my first IAP (Intermediate Activities Period, our winter session), I realized that I needed to find, or create, a niche for myself here: a place where I could contribute my technical skills to feel useful or a place where I could feel like I was part of something, to help make things better in some capacity.

I first thought that would be my research project. I didn’t have a project my first  semester, but when I eventually got one and started working on it over IAP, it wasn’t a good fit  for me. I struggled a lot, and this project never came to feel like my niche.

My second semester began in a whirlwind of new psets, new content to learn, and new research to work on. I lost my sense of purpose as I struggled through many topics I didn’t know about, many conversations where I felt lost, many research difficulties.

As I lost that, I began to feel, once again, that I didn’t belong. By the middle of my second semester, I had resolved to myself that I would not take The Quals, because obviously I wouldn’t pass because I just didn’t belong here. I was going to get my Master’s degree in June 2017 and move as far from Cambridge as I possibly could.

I just didn’t belong at MIT. I didn’t belong in grad school at all.

Finding a Niche
But then, something happened. I received an email from the NSE Communication Lab, soliciting applications for new Communication Fellows. This sounded like someting I could do. This sounded like the kind of niche I had been looking for. So I applied (and got accepted).

As an undergrad I took an interest in communication and professional development. I worked as an ePortfolio Consultant, developing tools for using a specialized online media platform (Digication ePortfolio) to showcase professional skills, classwork, and projects. It’s a sort of “living resume” online.

I taught workshops and helped faculty and students learn how to best communicate and showcase their work. I was also a teaching assistant (TA) for three semesters, where I used my technical skillset and my knowledge of effective communication to help students improve their technical writing and presentation skills.

Serving as an ePortfolio consultant and as a TA were some of the most rewarding experiences in my undergrad career. I was able to take a skillset I had, continually refine it, and use it to help others. These experiences provided me with something that I can offer, a skillset that is unique, even at MIT.

In a similar way, the NSE Communication Lab (Comm Lab) has allowed me to offer my knowledge base from these unique experiences in technical communication, and to continue working on this skillset that is critical to research success.

I am trained to coach my peers on effective scientific communication through writing, speech, and visual presentation. I get to do something I’m passionate about, helping my colleagues tell the world all about their science, and help them do it well.

Being at the Comm Lab helped me see that I have something to offer here. I may not be the best at quantum mechanics or vector calculus, but I care deeply about whether or not I can engage a general audience with  the problems in my field and work being done towards solving them.

I strive to make connections in my work so that I can explain it to a group of high school students, who have not yet taken 4 years of calculus and physics, or to those who do not have a graduate or undergraduate degree in a STEM field.

To engage a group of non-scientists and share with them why I think nuclear science research is important (and that I do not just sit at my computer all day trying to solve the unsolvable), motivates me. I want them to understand how these efforts are aimed at large-scale issues in the world such as clean energy.

In short, I found my niche. And more than that, I truly believe that my work at the Communication Lab is the only reason I am still a grad student at MIT today.

More than a Grad Student
When I’m struggling to feel like I can succeed here, I try to keep the sentiment behind this quote on impostor syndrome from writer Ashley Ford in  mind:

“I had to accept that when I’m in a group of people I think of as above me, better than me, or smarter than me, I’m still in the damn room. There’s nothing to do now but rise to the occasion. I must have done something right to end up there. I should probably be doing more of whatever that is.”

With that in the back of my mind, the reality that I’m a graduate student here feels less and less like a mistake. I’m here, so “I must have done something right” to be where I am right now.

Moreover, as an undergraduate, I always made sure to get involved in nonacademic activities that I enjoyed like yoga, running, and sailing. I’ve started doing that again, in addition to working for the Comm Lab, to keep myself grounded through grad school.

When classes are rough, or research isn’t going well, and I feel like I’m not making any  progress at all at MIT, I focus on these other things and try my best to give myself credit for consistency. Two steps forward and three steps back is still five steps total.

I try my best to ensure that I don’t let any one facet of me dominate my life. I am not just my grades or my research results. I am a yogi and a runner and an artist  and a hiker and a sailor, as well as an MIT grad student and a Comm Lab Fellow and a materials scientist.

And I wouldn’t want to be anything less than the multifaceted person I am today.

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