In their own voices: MIT students talk pressure

At the end of the survey, respondents were asked to share any stories or thoughts they had about pressure at MIT. A few of the 500+ comments we received are published below. Thank you to everyone for sharing stories of your darkest moments, your pain, fears, and anxieties. Many of the stories were extremely personal and truly touching, and it was very difficult to select the excerpts you see here. We chose the ones that exemplified the diversity of voices on this issue.

What was most salient about the comments was the common experience between MIT students — there were dozens of hundreds about not fitting in, insecurities about grades, parents, relationships, sleep. Worries about research, quals, childcare and advisor troubles. But tying together the dozens of stories about how MIT can be hell was the thread of hope; MIT is a shared experience — we are all in this together. Many comments emphasized the importance of picking yourself back up again, and the importance of “chilling out.” You might have a love-hate relationship with the Institute, but you are not alone.

It gets better.

As a freshman, after pulling my first ever all-nighter, I clumsily almost lost balance in Cafe Four. Another student whom I didn’t know helped me catch myself and helped me make my first of many more cups coffees. That unexpected hand from a friendly student was so sweet and is a reminder that I am never alone here.

I don’t feel good when I’m over-committed and over-worked, but I don’t feel good about myself if I’m not like that.

This place can destroy you if you’re not careful, the trick is to make sure to pick yourself back up.

Even though a lot of the feelings I have and others have about inadequacy are unfounded, depression and self-doubt are real and the only way I have found to get out of cycles of self-hatred is by getting out of bed (where all the anxiety hides), going to campus, and talking to professors, mentors, advisors, and anyone I think can help me until I feel like I’ve gotten the answers I needed to carry on for at least one more day.

One thing is certain about MIT: people earn respect through working themselves into the ground.

It seems like everyone here has a passion, a reason that they were accepted to MIT, but I can’t find that same reason in myself.

I don’t feel like I’m learning anymore. Instead, I feel like I’m living from p-set to p-set.

Stress is in most cases created by ourselves. A peaceful mind is critical to break the stress creation mechanism.

I was talking to a recent MIT graduate, and he told me as an undergrad he took eight classes one semester. Eight! He told me it was a terrible idea, and that I shouldn’t do it. But now I feel like I’ll never do anything as hard (or hardcore) as he did, like the bar’s been raised.

There is no support for someone like me who studies like crazy and still miserably fails every test. I feel like I haven’t ever gotten above a C on any test in my major and there’s not much I can do about it.

I think that people here worry too much. Most people think they are below average, I feel, and that obviously can’t be true. The reason could be because we are surrounded by so many intelligent peers who always seem to hold together better, and know more, that we feel like we don’t measure up. But seriously. You’re at MIT with people who are literally some of the most intelligent in the world. And you’re here. With them. I know I forget that. I’m sure other people forget that too.

It worries me that many people over-commit themselves here because they have unnecessary expectations to meet.

This semester has been especially rough and I hit the point where I was just crying practically every night because I felt that I just couldn’t handle the workload anymore.

I used to be hardcore, but I realized I was happier foregoing work and grades to hang with friends, follow my personal goals. I love my life now.

In freshman year, one night near the end of the semester I was feeling stressed and very inadequate. I called my mom and had a minor meltdown, describing how I kept looking around and wondering how I could possibly compare to the other students. The next day I encountered one of the fill-in-the-blank prompts on the blackboards in Stata. The prompt was “I can’t believe...” I glanced at the answers people had written and practically gasped - many of the replies were, “I can’t believe I go to MIT,” “I can’t believe how awesome everyone is,” “I can’t believe I’m so privileged to go to this school,” etc. It was exactly how I had been feeling the night before. I felt such a glow knowing I wasn’t alone and that I do go to such an amazing school!

My first semester at MIT was the worst time of my life. I typically pulled two or three all nighters per week and my professor would constantly tear apart my projects. I felt like they made a mistake accepting me and I was very depressed all semester. Now I realize that not every semester and class is like that and it does get better!

“I feel pressure to do better based on myself” should have been a question as well. As a senior, I have gone through the all-nighters, the (almost) all-weekers, and the punting. We can bitch all we want, but we inflict it upon ourselves. MIT has done a wonderful job of discouraging competition among peers, but has not done anything about competition with one’s self. I think most feelings of inadequacy are rooted in oneself (even if others may perpetuate them). This year is the first time I have gotten enough sleep at MIT and it’s made me realize a few things: it is possible to live a sustainable lifestyle at MIT (many choose not to), there are amazing one-off events (lectures, concerts, tours) that are not full-fledged extra-curriculars, there is a world outside of MIT. “Hardcore” shouldn’t be about how you get something done, it should be about the quality of what gets done.

There’s just so much opportunity here and the expectations are mile high. It’s so hard to know what to pick and I constantly feel like I’m failing because I’m giving up things that I want to do in order to do other things that I want to do - like other activities, homework, sleeping, or hanging out with friends. But then I feel guilty. Nothing ever feels like enough. I feel like I’m in the most amazing place in the world with the most amazing people in the world but all I can think about are shortcomings. I wish I knew more about how to just enjoy what’s here and say “this is enough and this is pretty freaking great.” At my best, I feel like I can miss out on something today because something amazing will come around again tomorrow but at my worst it just feels like I’ll never manage to make something out of this.

The most important thing MIT has taught me is how to quit. Quitting the things that weren’t important to me, and making time for the things that were, really changed my MIT experience for the better and has made the past semester the happiest time of my life.

I really hate this place, yet, I can’t imagine going to school anywhere else.

Graduate students often “rip” on the work of other graduate students. As a result, I am often hesitant to bring up something research-related that I am struggling with for fear of being considered a lesser graduate student and scientist.

Sometimes it feels good to be hardcore.

Being a grad student here basically amounts to feeling inadequate 24/7. I always feel behind; I’m never accomplishing enough. It’s exhausting. And yet, for some crazy reason, I love it. Mostly because the other students in my building are amazing. Without them, I would have left a month after I arrived here!

After my qualifying exam I waited until my committee left the room and then I just started crying. I couldn’t hold it in. My advisor walked over and gave me a hug.

It’s OK when classes make you cry! It happens to a lot of people!

One more thing that makes this all worse: you can’t really talk to anyone outside of MIT, because their reaction is just “But you’re at MIT! Stop bitching so much!” ... a reaction that is completely invalidating.

I naively thought I could handle an extra course ... bad decision! MIT is at a different level. There’s nothing wrong with being just being “average” here! Resist the urge to one-up people around you!

I still believe it’s true that at MIT, students generally compete more against themselves than against each other.

Steve almost 11 years ago

"One thing is certain about MIT: people earn respect through working themselves into the ground."

I don't think that is true.

And if there are some people who will only respect you if you work yourself into the ground, you don't need their respect, and they don't deserve yours.

Joseph Spracher 53 almost 11 years ago

All the above are thoughts, expressions,and feelings may be applied to me. Lots of pain and glory, and the most important four years in my life.

Tom almost 11 years ago

It is over 30 years since I graduated. I still can identify with most of the above comments. I have had several jobs where I loved working just as hard as I did back at the 'tute. I have also disliked a few where I did it for the salary rather than the joy of the work I love. Right now I'm in 7th heaven with an opportunity to build a new company from scratch. In some ways I feel like I'm back at the beginning and just as consumed as I was as an undergrad. I don't think I'll change. Neither might any of you. So at least do it for the right reasons. In my case - I'm passionate about creating new products that help all of us. You will have your reasons. Just remember there is life outside MIT or your job. Build other interests and relationships. They will be your lifeline in rough seas. MIT is only a beginning. It is what comes after that will define your life.