I almost didn’t apply to MIT because I thought it was a waste of money.
I thought to myself, “If I send this application in, I’d be like paying $75 for someone to print it out and throw it away.”
Now, I know I’m not the first MIT graduate student to experience some degree of self-doubt, but this early onset pessimism was a bit extreme. However, you have to understand, that as I looked at my application, I couldn’t see the valuable research experience, history of community involvement, and great GPA. I saw research done at an aquaculture research facility in the rural south. I saw a list of minimum wage jobs I worked on the side. I saw the “State University” in the name of the alma mater. And though studying at MIT would by an amazing opportunity—a chance to pivot into biotechnology, hone my skills, and catalyze my career—I was convinced that I was already disqualified. Lucky for me, in the last 24 hours prior to the deadline, my mother convinced me that it was worth trying, and, I have to say, she is usually right.
I was so shocked that I was invited to interview at MIT that I literally couldn’t speak. As I sat on the Red Line somewhere between Boston Logan and the Kendall Hotel at the start of interview weekend, my excitement was transitioning back to doubt. I felt a growing dread that somehow my invitation was not a Godsend, but was, in fact, a clerical error. I was sure that these people would try to prove me wanting, but, luckily, yet again, I was wrong.
One of my first interviews of the trip was with a fresh new hire I’d never heard of, working in a field I’d never been exposed to before. She didn’t examine me at the white board. Instead, she listened to me as we discussed the professional and personal aspects of my school selection. She shared with me her story and her choice to come to MIT. She talked about her passion for pursing projects impactful to real people. She spoke to me as a collaborator, perhaps even a friend.
At an interviewee poster session, I stood apprehensive by my work, anticipating a barrage of pointed questions and judgmental head tilts. Instead, I encountered a community of people who wanted to get to know me, hear about what I was working on, and get a feel for how I was framing and tackling research problems.
After small talk died down around the lunch table on the last day, the department head opened the conversational floor to the few of us remaining. In a moment of boldness, I asked the question I was dying to ask, “As a tenured faculty at MIT leading your department and your field, do you feel like you’ve made it? Do you feel that you’ve finally arrived?” He smiled broadly as he considered my question, tilting his head and his gaze slightly upward. I can’t remember the exact words he used to give his response, a response that was both human and hopeful, but I do remember that he took me seriously and answered me honestly. He treated me as a colleague.
From where I stand now, I can’t imagine how I could have achieved a greater ROI on $75 than to take my chance to be at MIT. I am now two years into my training here and I’ve been able to pivot into the fields of chemical biology and cancer research. I’ve gained more skills at the desktop and the bench-top than I even thought to desire. And to top it off, I’ve done well enough to be invited by the department faculty to speak at our annual retreat this fall.
Of course I struggled at times, as, I, too, did my best to drink from the firehouse. I nodded and smiled at first, while furiously Googling acronyms. I barely passed some classes, especially when I took too many at once. I planned out eight-hour experiments that took 14 hours and amounted to an extra mass of waste in the burn box.*
But more importantly, I grew in that pressure because I was invited to do so. I was invited here as an equal, and encouraged not to prove my worth, but to capitalize on the opportunity.
*I have yet to get this protocol down to the 8-hours it should take, but the results wind up in the trash a lot less these days.
Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT.