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2012 November 2

Meltdown at MIT

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:50
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There is a very moving blog post by Lydia K., an MIT junior doing a double major in math (course 18) and computer science and molecular biology (course 6-7): Meltdown | MIT Admissions.

She expresses a fairly common feeling for students: “I got very lonely and I started to wonder if I’ll ever retain enough information about the world contribute to our understanding of it.”

She puts it even better later in the post:

I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.

There’s something to giving everything and always falling short. Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering. But right now, IHTFP. Sometimes it feels like MIT drags your self-esteem over a jagged, gravely rockface and stretches your happiness, your mental health, and the passion and energy that brought you here like an old rubber band.

The comments on the posts from students around the country show that this is not just an MIT problem—many students are stressed by their college experiences, and students at elite schools often find themselves particularly stressed.  Most of them have gone from being the best students around to being worse than average or only a little better than average.  That is a very difficult transition to make.

I went to a mediocre undergraduate institution, which had a small group of very good students.  Because we were a small group, we could compete with and challenge each other, while still retaining a strong (perhaps too strong) sense of self-worth by comparing ourselves to the other students around us, who were mainly beer-swilling jocks (going to breakfast on Sunday mornings took a strong stomach, because the dorm hallways, stairwells, and elevators were liberally coated with vomit).

When I went to grad school (at Stanford), I finally encountered substantial numbers of people obviously smarter than me, though I was still close enough to the top that I didn’t suffer from “imposter syndrome”—instead I had the feeling of finally finding a place where I belonged.  I had fellowships that let me stay a grad student at Stanford for eight years.  Only the last year of that was spent on my thesis project (when I was told I had only one more year of funding I had to find an adviser and a project fast).

I participated in many different research projects at Stanford, including several of my own choosing. Although my first published paper has never been cited, and probably was of interest to only two people (the person who made the conjecture that I proved and me), one of my other research projects has had considerable impact (307 citations and 35,000 mentions found by Google).

I enjoyed my time at Stanford immensely—I had good friends, enjoyed challenging courses and projects, and learned a lot.

Only in the past few years, after many fairly successful years as a college professor have I started having the feelings of insecurity that Lydia expresses so well. I don’t have any funding, in a small department that has the highest per-faculty funding on campus.  I can’t bring myself to write grant proposals—there were too many rejections in a row, and after putting three months work into a proposal, finding out that no one is interested in seeing the work done makes it hard for me to continue doing the research, much less rework the proposal to get it rejected again.

For the past couple of years, I haven’t even been able to find enough enthusiasm to write up work that I finished years ago.

I thought that my sabbatical last year would help me clear my backlog of old papers, get me started on new research directions and collaborations, renew my enthusiasm, and get me writing papers again.  It did not accomplish all of that, only some parts.  I did get enthusiastic about a couple of new research questions and I worked on 2 or 3 collaborations, getting a lot of programming done, but I didn’t get out any papers as first author, and I certainly didn’t get any grant proposals started.

I have ideas for new directions, and some code written that gets me preliminary results that I could use in a grant proposal.  But I don’t want to write the proposal, because getting it rejected would kill my enthusiasm for doing the work.  I’d rather do the work by myself in my spare time on my ancient computer than take the chance on getting funding for students and new machines, when there is an 80% or better chance that all the work I would put into the grant would just be rejected, and I would have nothing at all to show for the effort but a bruised ego.  (I’m becoming more and more cynical about federal funding of research—it seems designed to turn the best researchers into incompetent administrators, thus slowing research rather than speeding it.)

I did spend some time on my sabbatical learning things: like filling in the calculus-based physics that I had never taken as a math major, and learning to design printed-circuit boards. I still greatly enjoy learning new skills—I think I would still love being a grad student on a fellowship.

I also spent a lot of my sabbatical time thinking about (and reading about) teaching and pedagogy.  One possible path I’ve been giving more and more serious thought to is becoming primarily a teaching professor, stepping off the grant-writing treadmill and doing research just as a collaborator or as unfunded work by myself.  (The other common path for people who tire of grant-grubbing is to become an administrator, but I would be a terrible manager—my people skills are much weaker than the average academic’s, and most of them make poor managers.)

As my sabbatical ended, I decided to increase my teaching load this year and to tackle one of the major curricular problems of the bioengineering major: that the EE circuits course they were required to take was turning them all off to electronics, rather than enticing a third of them into bioelectronics.  Hence I spent two solid months designing a new course for them.  (The bigger problem of their having to take 6 chemistry courses when there is only really room for 3 in the curriculum remains beyond my skill to fix.)

I’ve enjoyed designing labs for the circuits class and learning (sometimes by making dumb mistakes) enough  practical circuits skills to teach the class.  I’ve been very frustrated, though, with the politics that have gone into trying to get the course offered (did I mention that I lack the people skills to be a good manager?).  The course is on for next quarter, but it has been a stressful time for me, dealing with the on-again, off-again roller coaster ride (and it still doesn’t have permanent approval, just the go-ahead for a prototype run this year).

My students often express appreciation for quick responses to their questions about the homework assignments—they don’t expect answers at 4 in the morning.  I’ve not told them that the reason I’m up at that hour is not because I’m a diligent workaholic, but because I’m so stressed I can’t sleep much most nights.

So, although I’m not an MIT undergrad and haven’t been an undergrad anywhere since 1974, Lydia’s post resonated with me.



  1. The human brain evolved and adapted to very different conditions from what modern society offers. Small communities and interpersonal relationships had been the norm. Remove those and the ‘old’ parts of the brain, responsible with emotion, will revolt. Hence, the “mental illness epidemic”. The assault of the deluge of information and stimuli certainly does not help, but at least we have managed to satisfy some basic needs (
    Both highs and lows in career, etc. are important lessons. [Given enough time, everything reverts to the mean.] The academia is a challenging world, but it is important to keep doing what you enjoy. Change is painful, but inevitable (
    I agree that most PIs in the field become almost full-time grant writers. I guess it is the price you pay for advancing in your career, but it certainly is dreadful. Academic freedom does have a price, after all.

    Comment by Anon Ymous — 2012 November 3 @ 07:49 | Reply

    • I’m not sure I see what academic freedom has to do with grant writing. I suppose one could claim the right to write grant proposals that have no chance of being funded, but I see no point to doing so. If anything, the grant-proposal funding mechanism restricts academic freedom, if academics feel that they can’t do research unless someone in government or industry is willing to fund it. Perhaps you are arguing that the price of academic freedom is not getting funding, in which case I might agree with you.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 November 3 @ 08:24 | Reply

  2. Thanks for posting this. I felt the way Lydia describes in my undergrad program at the University of Michigan. It made me think I wasn’t good at math, and didn’t particularly like it. When I needed a master’s degree to teach community college full-time (I was loving my part-time gigs), I purposely went to a no-name school (Eastern Michigan U, just down the road from U of M), and found out they had fabulous teachers. I have to admit, it also felt good to be back at the top of the class. It was great to re-discover my love of math. When I started a PhD program, I knew that I would quit if I couldn’t retain the joy. I would have quit after 1 month, but stayed a year to stay in my housing.

    I am very happy teaching community college. Trying to figure out how to help more people enjoy math is a lovely problem to sink my teeth into.

    Comment by Sue VanHattum — 2012 November 3 @ 08:51 | Reply

  3. Thanks for the link and for this post. My big meltdown came when I started TT and was faced for the first time with the reality of incessant grant writing. I got tenure and have been successful by objective accounts, but my enjoyment of my field has essentially died. I am now mostly just irritated and bored by my own science and everyone else’s science. But I keep plowing along because there is no better job than this one — secure, well-paid, I am the boss. And I seem to be doing well on auto-pilot. I just wish I could find joy in it again.

    I have been thinking what it is that would like to do if I had the time now. The first thing is redesign my group’s website that’s outdated (2004) and perhaps learn some CSS and HTML5. Then I would like to be able to spend a few months to learn more about two new (for me) topics that I think are really cool. To learn something for real, do all the problems sets, code up sample problems, ah — that sounds heavenly.
    Unfortunately, all I get to do is (1) review tons of other people’s papers, (2) edit my own students’ papers, (3) teach undergrads (they are cute, but I can teach that class half-asleep), (4) teach new grad students (for the umpteenth time) the very basics of our field and do so for 2-3 years for each of them until they start to emerge with something resembling competence, (5) participate in numerous committees, (6) and last but not least, constantly hunt around for funding berries, contorting my interests into whatever the solicitations want and cramming feverishly about topics that I don’t know enough about only to be able to sort of write a coherent proposal, and doing this way too often in order to keep all these students funded…

    I have been working robot-like for years now, and have not found a way to get the joy back into my work. I don’t think it’s ever coming back.
    Part of it is that I feel I will never be as good as some superstars and I can’t seem to make peace with that, I can’t fully admit defeat, so I think going numb is one way to make myself keep going, for keep going I must.

    Comment by GMP — 2012 November 3 @ 20:28 | Reply

    • To keep going as an academic for 30 or 40 years, it is essential to keep learning. If you want to spend a few weeks learning CSS and HTML5 and redesigning your group’s website, then do it. Something else will have to give, of course, since there is only so much time. Take whatever is least rewarding and cut it. In my case, I decided to cut the grant writing, and increase the teaching and learning, but you may find a different balance point.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 November 3 @ 21:01 | Reply

  4. This was a very interesting read. A lot of it sounds familiar. This is, in some ways, the place I have gotten to with my teaching. I certainly don’t have the “shame” that Lydia describes, but I can relate to the rest of it — especially your comment about how the lack of shared interest makes it hard to continue doing something. Do you think the “bruised ego” experience is about feeling disappointed in your own skills, or about feeling disappointed that so few others share your values? As I continue to get more honest with myself and my students do too, I am fully facing how few value precise thinking, self-discipline, and doing what you say you will do. The more sure I get that this is what I’m supposed to be teaching them, the less energy I have.

    Comment by Mylène — 2012 November 4 @ 21:30 | Reply

  5. Why on earth don’t you get involved in educational research?? There is a strong community of people who are working on better ways to teach STEM. And there is oodles of grant money available. Although sometimes it can still be frustrating (I just had a panel proposal rejected for a good conference, on teaching courses that integrate bioinformatics or medical informatics with computer science). You seem to have a lot to say, so come on over and join the gang.

    Comment by Bonnie — 2012 November 5 @ 05:35 | Reply

    • There are several reasons I’ve not gotten into educational research:
      1) The few papers I’ve read in the field have irritated the hell out of me for the strongly stated conclusions from inadequate data. There is no way that I could read enough in the field to sound like an educational researcher to other educational researchers—my tolerance for the papers is not high enough.
      2) Faddism in educational research seems to be even stronger than in other fields, so grant funding is probably even more governed by group-think. I’m a late adopter of most technology (I still don’t have a car or a cellphone), so not temperamentally suited to a field which runs in fads.
      3) Dealing with institutional review boards just do the research seems like another big hassle.
      4) I’m more interested in designing good courses and teaching them than in designing experiments that might have some relevance to teaching. While good pedagogy is important, it has to start from the content, so all my “experiments” would be tied to very specific courses, and generally ones that don’t have huge numbers of instances, so the experiments I’d be interested in would not be ones that generalize well.
      5) I prefer teaching smallish classes (15—30 students), but the variation from instance to instance of such classes is generally far larger than any measurable effect from interventions (one of my objections to a lot of educational research). I don’t want to teach monster classes in order to do educational research, but only huge sample sizes show meaningful effects in a robust enough way to be worth calling research.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2012 November 5 @ 06:10 | Reply

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