Campus Life

Growing up clueless

Class from both sides of the divide

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Professor John Belcher.
Ping Xu - The Tech

Editors note: Off the Beaten Path is a series that shares stories from members of the MIT community from working-class backgrounds. Comments, questions, and submissions are welcome at​

Although I was born in Louisiana, I grew up mostly in Texas. When I was growing up, my father was a “roughneck” in the West Texas oilfields. My dad only finished up to the 7th grade. Both he and my mom came from large farming families (12 children each). I was really shy and spent most of my formative years buried in the Ector County Public Library in Odessa, Texas. 

I had no idea what I was doing when I applied to college. I applied to exactly one school: Rice University in Houston. My first term at Rice in fall of 1961 was really rough; my high school did not offer calculus, so I was competing in a freshman calculus course with students who had already had calculus. But after a lot of struggle, I ended up doing OK at Rice.

After Rice, I went off to Caltech for graduate school. After a lot of struggle at Caltech, I ended up doing OK there, too. I got a postdoctoral position at MIT and then a faculty position here. After a lot of struggle, I ended up doing OK at MIT and got tenure.

Just after I came to MIT, the Space Plasma Group wrote a proposal for a plasma instrument on the Voyager mission to the outer planets. I spent most of my research career working with data from this instrument, and I eventually became the Principal Investigator during the Neptune encounter. Presently, the two spacecraft are about three times further from the Sun than Pluto is. The Voyager 2 MIT plasma instrument is still returning data to this day, almost 40 years after launch, and will very likely be making historic measurements in the interstellar medium in the next few years. Voyager is one of the most successful unmanned space missions of all time.

So I have had a very lucky existence professionally.

I want to offer up some reflections and inevitably some advice to first generation students about how to get to where I am. Let me first emphasize the word “lucky” in the sentence above. There is so much serendipity in how I ended up a tenured MIT professor that it is hard to overstate the importance of “luck.” I can look back over my life and see so many times when I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

For example, one of the criteria for tenure is that the candidate must write a research paper that “changes the direction of the field.” I wrote a paper that was published in The Astrophysical Journal that did just that. At about the same time that my paper came out, a very similar paper was published in a European journal. If I had waited another six months to submit my paper, it would not have been accepted because it would no longer have been original. I would not have gotten credit for “changing the direction of the field,” and I probably would not have gotten tenure at MIT. 

Frequently, I made the “right” choice even though I had almost no idea of what I was doing or what the implications were for me. That does not mean that I did not work hard and do not have a modicum of talent. It simply means that those two attributes are not centrally important in terms of what I have achieved. They were necessary, but not sufficient.

The second thing I would emphasize when I look back is the importance of mentors. Good mentorship started with my mom and dad, included my junior high school and high school teachers, my professors at Rice, my thesis advisor at Caltech, and my faculty mentor at MIT.  My parents had no idea of how to set me on the path to academic success — they hardly knew what the word “academics” meant. But they did encourage me to do my best. Later on, my various teachers and mentors did know what “academic” success meant and how to achieve it, and they guided me when I did not have a clue as to what was going on or what I needed to do to succeed.

So you need to find mentors, whether it be in your fellow students, MIT staff, or MIT faculty.  Try to get close to people who you think know what is going on, even if you don’t. By and large people who have “made it” are amazingly willing to help other people do the same — but they can’t do that unless you make yourself visible.

Get to know personnel in the UAAP (Undergraduate Advising and Academic Program) if you are a freshman, as well as the departmental academic staff when you have declared a major. They know the system, they know the faculty and the faculty culture, and they are an amazing font of wisdom. To get to know faculty, go up after class and ask a question, or go to office hours, or say hello in the hall to them. Even if that makes you vulnerable to rejection, and sometimes you will be rejected, it is an important thing to do.

If you come from a first generation background, the other thing that is really important to do is to not underestimate yourself. Don’t be your own worst critic. Coming from a first generation family into MIT is first and foremost an enormous shift in class, and it can be profoundly disorienting. One of the more common reactions to that shift is “impostor syndrome” — thinking that you don’t belong here, that somebody made a mistake.

I can tell you about imposter syndrome in minute detail. For years after I got tenure at MIT, I secretly thought someone had made a mistake, and they would take tenure back when they figured out I was not as smart as I pretended to be. Seriously. After many decades with tenure, after sitting in on many tenure committees at the Institute, I have enough intellectual perspective to know exactly why I got tenure and why I deserved it. But believe me, it took me a long time to come to that knowledge. Until you come to that level of wisdom at age 50 or so, don’t succumb to the feeling of being an imposter. You are not. And eventually you will understand that, even if you do not understand that now.

A related observation about impostor syndrome is that I have seen the class divide from both sides now — I raised my children, who are now 37 and 40, in Lexington, a suburb outside of Boston. Lexington is a wealthy suburb, full of academically and professionally accomplished parents, with great schools. But there is a downside to that because of the pressures on young people there to get to what seems like an impossibly high standard of achievement. If I could go back and make the choice between being raised in Odessa and being raised in Lexington, I would frankly have a hard time deciding which one to choose. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The final word of advice I would offer, not only to first generation students but to all students, is to ask for help if you think you are in over your head. I have written about my own bout with clinical depression elsewhere, and I will not repeat those details here. But sometimes you just need to get out of your head and talk to someone you trust, whether that person is another student, a staff member, a faculty member, someone from S^3, or a mental health clinician. All students, especially first generation students, do not want to be seen as needing help — they want to be seen as in control and swimming along effortlessly. If that is not the case for you, and believe me, at one point in my life this was emphatically not the case for me, ask for help. I did, and it made all the difference in the world.

John W. Belcher is a professor in the physics department.