Campus Life

MIT: a personal Pandora’s box

Overcoming grad school depression

I came to MIT as a grad student in August of 2001 after completing my undergraduate studies in India. Like most grad students, I came with an almost impeccable academic record, I had topped the entrance exam for the leading engineering institutions of India (IITs), and I was almost constantly a class topper in college.

I eagerly looked forward to my life at MIT, excited about the cultural discovery and surprises. These surprises started early. On the British Airways flight from Mumbai to Boston, I was served an Asian vegetarian meal (as requested) that included a salad and coffee. In India, we usually eat salad with salt and pepper, and I did the same. The meal included a creamy mix in a sealed cup. I mixed that in my coffee — and though it tasted a little off, I assumed this was the kind of coffee they drank. A few minutes later, the flight attendant asked me if I needed cream. Only then did I realize that I had actually mixed salad dressing in my coffee. Clearly, I was excited and decidedly very open about impending cultural and academic differences while exploring at MIT.

For someone coming from a narrow academic focus, MIT was an opening into the real world. The rich student diversity, the emphasis on a culturally more rounded education, and the sheer breadth of activities on campus was mind-boggling. Grad school wasn’t just about competing with other students as I was used to, and a person wasn’t to be judged by the single metric of GPA. My social skills weren’t strong — my confidence had come from purely academic performance, and that took a nosedive.

I had always been a strongly self-critical person. If I did less than stellar in a certain subject or test or evaluation, I would be embarrassed to face even my classmates. I assumed external judgement if I did not match my internal expectations. This made me adopt a very closed and unapproachable persona, perhaps because I believed it made me appear intensely academically focused — and thus prevented criticisms about lack of focus or effort. Even at MIT, I was more inclined to preserve this persona than I was to evolve. Unwilling to break my mold in real life, I discovered and started spending time in online chatrooms where I could be free.  

The time I spent distracting myself made me feel guilty. I began to lag academically. Embarrassment made me avoid working in my lab — I spent time in Athena clusters where I felt I could be hidden — until I forced a work blitz that would put me back on track. I couldn’t focus on work there, either. Guilt distracted me. The deeper I dug myself, the harder it became to return to level ground. Depression and my escape from it had me spending unproductive weeks away from labs. I was stuck in a depressingly addictive downward spiral.

My advisor, department, housing warden, deans, friends, and MIT Medical tried their best to help, but I resisted seeing, meeting, or reporting to them. My mother visited all the way from India twice to sort me out. But my pride was too strong — I still believed only I could help myself out. Depression and arrogance is not a good mix. I was practically directionless, and worst of all, I avoided anyone who tried to help me.

I took a withdrawal from MIT in 2004 and came back to India. The first few months were tough — I tried to keep myself busy, reading and writing a bit, but I would often lapse into regret about the opportunity I had lost, the learning I would have had, and the friends I would have made.

I took up a couple of internships. The first was through MIT France followed by Google India. These internships help me start afresh — I was free from the pending backlogs yet back in the workforce. I converted my second internship into a full time role.

In parallel, I tried to break my social constraints, push myself into social spaces, and get over my fear of being judged. In France, I took up backpacking and learned French as an interest — and made friends doing a language exchange practice. Back in India, I took up theater, dance workshops, and more. Being surrounded by people who didn’t know me made me lose my own prior asocial expectations. I began to enjoy being with people.

Once in a while, thoughts of my lost opportunity still come when talking to old MIT classmates or friends, reading news, or seeing movies based in Boston or MIT (most recently, when I stumbled across Good Will Hunting). When I try to focus long and hard on a work problem, my mind sometimes wanders off to these regretful thoughts. However, I have learned to take a complex work problem and think through or discuss the most immediate next steps, and I break out of the distressing thoughts by working on the clear next steps. This keeps my mind constructively engaged instead of getting stuck and letting self-doubt set back in.

My MIT experience, which involved facing and then overcoming my depression, humbled me. I became less judgemental, more understanding, and more forgiving to others — and most importantly, I became less critical and more forgiving to myself. I learned to not take myself too seriously. Getting over this low phase was much more difficult than most complex academic assignments, but so worth it.