MIT is no rest, no mercy, no matter what

Prepare for a soul-crushing four years

I know you, for I have seen you dozens of times before. You think you want to be a scientist or an engineer. But be realistic — what do you, a teenager, know of science and engineering? You have applied to this institution, not out of any sophisticated understanding of the choices you are making, but because society has sold you a lifestyle brand. You want to be able to call yourself a scientist for the same reasons trendy youths want to buy clothes with swooshes or cigarettes with cowboy mascots. You crave, as any human does, the respect and admiration of your peers. You see the status that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have achieved, and hope that a career in technology will be your salvation. But you will find none here.

Let me explain: In the 1970s, Bruce Alexander ran an experiment. He was unsatisfied with studies that put rats in tiny cages and offered them a button to press that would deliver morphine — of course, the rats pressed the button like addicts. It was only rational to numb oneself to the plight those rats had been placed in. Alexander decided to challenge the conventional models of drug addiction by creating a “rat park,” a massive complex that more closely mimicked the actual living environs of rats, with plenty of space and resources for living, eating, mating, and so on.

The results of the experiments were shocking. No matter how hard Alexander tried, he could not get his rats addicted to morphine. Rats who were “addicted” to morphine beforehand gave up their habit upon being introduced into the park, and none of its denizens — even if bribed to take morphine — would use it to an extent that impaired their abilities. They lived their lives happily and free of dependence.

Your brain, when it learns a new concept, releases a neurotransmitter and gives you a bit of pleasure to reward you for your work. It is enjoyable, but by itself is not addicting. For it to take control of your life and erode your will, you must be put in a situation that is exceedingly stressful. Hence, MIT.

You have been selected because of your Type A personalities, your competitive drive and ambition. This place feeds on that. It will twist your natural inclination to push yourself into something darker. It will invite you to demand of yourself more than any rational person would give, and in doing so, you will lose your identity, your self-confidence, and your God-given free will. At the start, you will complete the work you are given out of a determination to win. By the end you will complete it because you know of no other source of happiness in life.

Forget “mens et manus” — the real motto of this place is “no rest, no mercy, no matter what.” The Institute has no motivation to give you any respite — by oppressing you, by keeping you without sleep, warmth, comfort, or recreation, you will become a more receptive medium for their dark designs. No one would knowingly choose a career in science. Anyone with your intelligence could slack off throughout college and end up paid just as well as a consultant or financial analyst. These are meant to be your best years. You should be exploring the world, finding love, drinking deeply of life — not spending your nights hunched over books.

Why does MIT do this? Why does it try to beat you down until the only chemical pleasure your brain can experience is a fleeting release of some neurotransmitter? The reason is that MIT is a fiefdom of petty, egotistical warlords. The professors care nothing for you — they see you as a pawn in their quest for prestige, a lowly helot in their squabbles over rank and status. Research is the end goal of MIT, not education, and certainly not the development of students into full-fledged human beings. Take a cautionary tale from those that we call “postdocs.” They are pathetic creatures, existing in a gray area between slave and indentured servant. Underpaid and overworked, never before have people of such intelligence been placed in stations with such lowly prospects.

This is what this place wishes to make you: a human sacrifice to be offered atop the altar of science, like the Aztecs, but worse — the Aztecs had the decency to make it quick and cut out your heart. Here they bind you, still living, to their machine of suffering and extract your soul from you over the course of years. And no one is in control of the system — like any good dystopia it simply exists, locked into a pattern of behavior that cannot be escaped. The professors are conditioned to compete for meaningless recognition, the post-docs are too beaten to escape, and the students stumbled upon this infernal pit out of ignorance — it is an endless circle of pain.

Just look at the undergrads that MIT is asking you to join. They put on a good face for the cameras, of course. This is the nature of cognitive dissonance — they have rationalized their poor life decision by convincing themselves that they like it here. But if you peer deeply into their eyes, you will feel their despair. Like dogs unable to escape their beatings, students here develop a sort of learned helplessness. They cease to question what purpose their day-long psetting sessions serve; they surrender themselves to the course laid down for them. The system has convinced them that they are imposters, well behind their peers in intelligence. They have lost the self-esteem that would push them to escape MIT’s vampiric grasp.

“What of it?” you might ask. Even if science is hellish on the scientists, isn’t it important for society?

Perhaps. But likely not. Science merely offers power — the use of that power for good or evil is out of the hands of scientists. And as it stands, we have the power to do great things, like cure malaria or end world hunger. In a final sense, we simply choose not to. Becoming a scientist will not give you control over how your technology is used — if anything, it is an abdication from the responsibility to better society. Just ask Oppenheimer.

Or better yet, ask Orwell. You want a picture of an MIT undergraduate education? Imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for four years.

Keith Yost is currently pursuing his fourth degree at MIT.

Keith Yost almost 12 years ago

The original title/subhead for this piece was "Run. Save Yourselves. There is no hope for you here in this blasted hellscape." It was an over-the-top lede, and deliberately so, for it was intended to suggest the article was unserious. For the record, my (lengthy) time at MIT has been the most enjoyable of my life. It's a hard place to hack, sure, but the juice is worth the squeeze, and though I do find fault with MIT's emphasis of research over education, professors here do not fit the cruel dictator mold that I have described. To the extent that they are interested in competing with their peers, they are much less interested in seeing how many papers they can get published in Nature, and more interested in winning the major debates in their field. To that end, they are more oriented toward building relationships, networking, and intellectual discussion-- none of these aims benefit from flogging half-dead research drones. There are empires, yes, and the squabbles between those empires can be petty, but more often than not the empires themselves are built upon a sort of ideology, not personal ego. And the students who elect to join these empires are not usually lackeys and slaves, but fellow travelers-- they sign on because they agree that manned space flight is important/a waste of money, or that toroidal confinement methods of plasma containment deserve more/less funding than newer ideas, or that their field should be more/less quantitative in its methods, et cetera et cetera. If you do research at MIT, your advisors are likely to be your favorite professors-- and why not? You get to volunteer with whatever outfit you like-- if not by design, then by accident you will gravitate toward those who care about the same issues that you do and approach them with the same mindset.

Maybe this is tangential-- after all, the basic premise of the article is that science will lead you into an unhappy and somehow abridged life. MIT might be the friendliest place in the world, but that won't make Schrodinger's equation any more fun to untangle. I consider myself happy, but MIT has a lot of tired, unhappy students who would provide contrary anecdotes, and how do I know that the life I didn't live wasn't sweeter?

All I know is this: MIT is a place with massive resources and an army of intelligent people, many of whom are eager to work on the problems you are interested in. If, in your heart, you are an MIT student, then nothing else needs to be said.

Tim Grejtak almost 12 years ago

This inflammatory opinion piece, its strategic publication during one of MIT's most public weekends, and the author's immediate "apology" in the comments section (likely unseen by impressionable prefrosh visiting MIT) have confirmed what I have long suspected; Keith Yost is a classic internet troll eager to draw out an equally-pointed response from his readers. Yes, I am aware I fell for his ruse with a barbed ad hominem, but this is not some knee-jerk reaction to a singular post I happen to disagree with; it is born out of careful reading of Yost's posts during my time here at MIT and a desire to "call it as I see it," as they say. I've never been a fan of purposely confrontational journalism (this response aside), and it is my belief is that the average MIT student isn't either. My message to Yost is, "Grow up."

Kuang almost 12 years ago

Indeed, grow up.

Justin almost 12 years ago

Don't worry Keith. Haters gonna hate. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

As an undergrad at another little school across the country, named Caltech, I find this equally applicable. Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

I've gotta say, compared to med school MIT wasn't so bad. Stop being so dramatic.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

6 then you didn't go to the same MIT I went to; you probably took the easiest classes you could and got decent grades. If you went to the MIT I did, there's no way you could escape those nights at 4 AM where you look up from your paper and realized over the past 5 hours you got 1 problem done. And I can pretty much guarantee that I go to a school with a more intense curriculum than you.

There's a grain of truth in this obviously overstated piece.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

If your MIT experience is that terrible, you don't belong here. If you're still here after 3 degrees, then you're either a masochist or a drama queen.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

Re 7: Once you realize how much time the average MIT student wastes and aim to minimize it, those 4AM nights become a thing of the past. Turns out once you stop playing video games from 3-9pm and start doing your psets early you don't need to stay up all night. Who knew?

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

I agree with #6. Yes, problem sets took a very long time at MIT, but at least there was a logical solution.Just try memorizing 150 pages of anatomy and all the enzymes in 100 pages of biochemistry steps at 2 AM. If you get out of your room long enough to enjoy the things MIT offers besides problem sets, you'll see it's a very unique place.

Alex almost 12 years ago

When I came to MIT I needed to be taken down a few pegs-- and MIT delivered. I am a much better person for it.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

I don't know why people are so upset. It is an opinion column- you either agree, or disagree. This is a beautiful and successful piece of writing. And also, most of the things he said is true. But do I hate MIT? No. I'm enjoying everything about this place, including the lack of mercy.

This is my favorite article of all time.

Anonymous almost 12 years ago

Good job Yost.

You have done an awesome job scaring the mindless minions away and kept those of us who truly belong.

To the haters, grow up.

John almost 12 years ago

Okay, Yost your post is ...a post. You expressed your point of view clearly. Nonetheless, I hope you'll not mind I extract part of your post to express a point as well. Ok here is my portion of concern (ref: 8th paragraph, last sentence):

"The professors are conditioned to compete for meaningless recognition, the post-docs are too beaten to escape, and the students stumbled upon this infernal pit out of ignorance it is an endless circle of pain."

MIT's mercy is very subjective. Yeah, subjective. Let me explain my use of "subjective" with the aid of a question: Why do you think some have great times schooling while some (as you imply) curse the day they ever entered those schools? Using your answer as reference consider this point as well: Schooling is what you make it to be. At MIT, as well as in any other institution in the world, you'll find a myriad of personalities, warm, happy, and of course SAD, amongst other qualities. The last group of people ought to Blame Only Themselves, and not redirect/curve the blame to other sources eg Staff.

I do not know all teachers in the world, be sure of that, but I know something almost all share in common: you(their student) cannot go over to a him/her(the member of staff) for a serious question (a genuine-sincere-not aimed at raising a challenge-, question which demonstrates a grasp of the lectures and provided notes, but lacked a required sequence of reasoning) and he/she just (as you say) "ignores" you.

That excerpt I extracted lacked something I need to remind you of: You did not give "room for truancies" in your words.

What do I call "Room for truancies"?

This (according to me) refers to part of a speech or a document, geared at allowing a congruence for point of views not directly in line with yours.

Illustration: "John you never come for work early!" vs "John sometimes you do not come for work early." In society, sentence 1 can grant you your ticket into your grave without any detour. When you say things like that part I extracted, you should be ready to welcome all sorts of repercussions. Here they can just say "Grow up" and you may laugh... other kinds of repercussions will lead you directly out of the world of the living before you have a chance to "apologize".

Please, Please, do not be so categorical in life, in case it is the situation. Please "give room for truancies" in your subsequent writings... please.