MIT Professors weigh in on what stresses them

Writing p-sets, finding funding, getting tenure — is it tougher than being a student?

Arthur Mattuck, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics (18.100A, formerly 18.01A, 18.03)

What are your biggest sources of stress?

Throughout most of my career I gave big lectures every semester, practically — 18.01, 18.02, 18.03. And there, the stress is pretty constant, because it’s like putting on an opera, where the opera goes on for three hours, but there’s an enormous army that has to be supervised. Typically, there would be 10 or 15 TAs for the course, which would have to have instructions given to them, and you have to make up problem sets each week. It was a big operation.

Do you find research or teaching more stressful?

Well, you don’t think of research as stress, exactly. Sometimes you spend long hours, and you stay up late at night, but it’s not like the stress of problem sets where you’ve got a pile of work and you’ve got to get it done. But I cannot stay up all night the way sometimes I did, and the way a lot of students seem to. I know that they will be up all night with the problem sets I give them twice a week. There are professors at MIT who I’m just amazed at — they can be on 65 committees, and manage all the work, and turn their attention instantly from one thing to another. These are people who get several hundred emails a day, and take care of them — I could spend all my time in emails and get nowhere.

Donald Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry (3.014, formerly 3.091)

Do you find teaching or research more stressful?

Teaching’s not stressful, teaching is a pleasure. It’s not a source of stress. The research itself is fun, but MIT runs on outside funding, so one of the major stressors is concern over funding. There’s a small amount of internal funding, but by and large, the faculty have to go out and raise the funding, and there’s no certainty there. You get a nice program up and running, and you’d hate to see it come to an abrupt halt because the continuation funding isn’t in place.

What has been your most stressful moment at MIT?

That would be the year I was being considered for tenure, and not knowing whether the decision was going to be favorable or not, because that’s one of those moments where you don’t get a second chance. You only come up for tenure once. I think for every faculty member, the year that he or she comes up for tenure has got to be anxiety-producing. It’s a career-defining event — I don’t know how to be complacent about that.

Do you notice students getting stressed?

When there’s a crush of assignments due, final exams approaching, you can see that people are getting anxious. And there’s certain physical requirements too — as human beings we need sleep, we need nutrition, and we can’t cut back on that. You can skip the odd meal, you can skip some sleep, but that’s not sustainable long-term — eventually the physical plant just crashes. I think that perhaps as much the secret as relieving stress is to try to prevent it from recurring. You want to feel as though you’ve got a little bit of control.

Anette Hosoi, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering (2.001, among others)

What has been your most stressful moment at MIT?

I think probably the worst is when there’s just too much to do. Somebody in AeroAstro gave me this phrase: “Shooting the wolves closest to the wagon.” That’s what we’re all constantly doing. It would be nice to be able to step back, and say, okay, those wolves are under control, now we can think long-term about getting rid of the wolves. But usually I’m not a super stressed-out person. I’m tenured now, so when you’re tenured you can get away with a lot. When you’re junior faculty, things can be very stressful, just because your future is uncertain. And any time your future is uncertain, that can be stressful.

What do you do to relieve stress?

I bike. That’s the best thing. Sometimes you just have to step back and get organized. When you’re shooting the wolves closest to the wagon, sometimes you have to get everybody organized so you’re firing in the right direction. But if it’s really stressful, I just get on my bike.

Do you notice your students being very stressed out?

Yes. A lot of times, they just tell me. That’s the easiest way to find out. We are not mind readers. Some of us are very good at intuiting what’s going on, but for the most part, you have to tell us when things are going on. Other than that, sometimes, there will be anomalous behavior, like someone who’s been very good will suddenly stop turning in homework, will suddenly stop coming to class, and then you will notice that and go ask them what’s going on. But the best way is for students to tell us.

Agustín Rayo Associate Professor of Philosophy and Housemaster at Senior House

What stresses you out the most?

The most stressful stage in my career was trying to get a job, but tenure was certainly a close second. Just being in graduate school was stressful too, partly because there was just so much uncertainty. I worried that I would just end up back in my mom’s apartment, which seemed like a horrifying thought.

As housemaster, what kinds of stress do students come to you with?

Often, by the time the issue gets to me, it’s pretty bad. We get the cases that are very, very complicated. It’s not like giving the person a pat on the shoulder is going to solve the problem. Difficult cases are often cases where there are many problems at once. So it’s not that so-and-so isn’t doing well in school, it’s that they’re not doing well in school, and there’s a big issue at home, and maybe they’ve lost some measure of support from their parents, and maybe there’s a drug issue — all of that together is what can’t be dealt with.

So what can you do to help them?

For complicated cases like those, I just don’t have the expertise, but I do think that the resources MIT has are really amazing, so we would refer people. One thing that helps me refer people is that MIT Mental Health basically saved my own life and certainly my career, because when I was in graduate school here, it was rough for me. I think that being able to see someone at Mental Health made a huge difference. It kept me on track and made it possible for me to make a career out of philosophy. The main thing I say to our students when they come in stressed is that I urge them to see that there is no reason why they have to face these issues alone.

Do you think the stressful experiences are worth it?

Getting a job in my field was very, very hard for me. And in the end, it worked, I love my department, and there’s no other place I’d rather be, because now I’m married to the woman I love, and I have the perfect job, and I have security. But that did involve many, many years of my life being very lonely and very stressed, and it felt like there was room for little else in my life besides work. Looking back, now, I feel like I was lucky, and that big sacrifice was worth it. But I think there’s a nearby possible universe in which one makes that sacrifice and it doesn’t work. I don’t know what I would recommend to myself if I had that opportunity, because I know that if you rolled the dice again you might get a different result. I think that for many MIT students, it definitely is worth it, because you drink from that firehose for four years, but then you have the world before you and there’s so much you can do with an MIT degree and with the kinds of tools you get at MIT. But I think for some people it’s just so stressful that they’re destroying themselves. It’s great to graduate from MIT, but it’s not that great that it’s worth destroying yourself. And I think that’s one more reason not to go about it alone, because if you’re going through a rough patch, talking to someone from the outside can let you know whether this is just the kind of pain it takes to get an MIT degree, and it’s normal, or whether it’s crossed the line and it’s really bad for you.