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.