How MIT makes work-life balance impossible
As a graduate student, I’ve often had to sacrifice my health for my work
Each morning during the first January of graduate school, I woke up at 7 a.m. and left for the library with my heart pounding. The pounding remained in my stomach, throat, and head throughout the day. My appetite disappeared. I cried each evening after studying. Exhausted and demoralized, I thought of how I was letting my parents down. I was letting myself down. I fell asleep at 3 a.m., wholly spent. I got less and less sleep, and nothing I did calmed my anxiety. This continued every day for three weeks.
There was no way to win. I needed to prepare for the physics department’s written qualifying exams, but attaining passing scores didn’t seem possible with full-time research. I knew I was expected to complete fifty hours of lab training per week, but that would leave no time to study. Eventually, I stopped working in lab against the wishes of my group, and I prayed that passing the exams would be enough to keep me in the program.
Every physics graduate student at MIT must pass four written qualifying exams (or the equivalent class with a B+ or higher) to stay in the program after the first year and a half. If a student does not pass all the exams in this period, they go before a committee that typically forces them to “master out” of the PhD program (i.e. they are kicked out). The four exam topics are quantum mechanics, classical mechanics, statistical mechanics, and electricity and magnetism. While I happily received the coveted B+ in my quantum class, by the end of my first semester, I still had three written qualifying exams ahead of me.
When January of my first year rolled around, my advisor expressed concern that I hadn’t passed all the exams. Research really started in the second year, he emphasized. He warned me against taking on extracurriculars that could prevent me from spending more time in the lab. In that meeting, I decided I would do anything to pass the final qualifying exams at the end of January to “prove myself,” even if it meant stepping away from research.
My advisor’s concern haunted me. The older students around me were working 60+ hours per week solely on research. I often thought to myself: Maybe I should be able to work in the lab full-time and study full-time simultaneously. Maybe I would be kicked out of MIT for not being enough. Maybe the pressure to do more would never disappear. The criteria for success while juggling classes, qualifying exams, and research were not clear, and I was led to believe I would fail if I didn’t perform well in all of my commitments.
My first year at MIT was terrible. But terrible, for MIT students, has become normalized.
At the time, I regretted not choosing Harvard over MIT. While my MIT classmates and I were worried about getting kicked out during our first year (roughly one in five MIT physicists do not graduate), my Harvard friends were in a much healthier environment. They were focused on rotating through research groups and studying advanced coursework to prepare them for research. The Harvard Physics Department does not expect their students to begin working for a lab during their first year and does not have written qualifying exams at all. And yet, their students are still world-class scientists when they graduate.
Graduate school at MIT lacks structure and clear expectations. There is no formalized relationship between students and their advisors, nor is there a requirement or expectation that advisors act as mentors. There is no contract or memorandum of understanding that standardizes work hours. This ambiguity benefits MIT and hurts its students. Without clear expectations, I cannot know what is damning enough to warrant my displacement. I cannot balance responsibilities or invest in my sanity because I have to give everything all the time. The alternative is to fail.
I paid a heavy mental and emotional price to pass my qualifying exams. Unfortunately, the effect on my body did not magically evaporate after passing. That February, I sought mental health care for the first time in my life. MIT Medical referred me to a psychiatrist 30 minutes off campus, as my MIT student insurance does not cover closer therapists. When so much of my anxiety is a result of not having enough time, getting help should not mean losing precious hours.
Does taking four exams while doing full-time lab work really make us better scientists? Or are we forced through exam after exam and ambiguous working conditions because our professors went through similar training 30 years ago? There is a deeply-held belief at MIT that you can only be successful if you have nothing in life but research. This is a recipe for burnout, anxiety, and depression and is an outdated test of commitment. Many who designed this system went to graduate school in an era when their stay-at-home spouses made it possible to solely do research. This was an era when many pursuing academia had family wealth and rent control to fall back on. Today, the graduate student body largely does not fall into this privileged category. If we want to prove our commitment, there is little room to be human.
Graduate working conditions at MIT have a long way to go. However, the Institute can immediately make changes to its operation that will prevent other graduate students from having experiences like mine. When graduate student worth is defined by unhealthy working hours under minimal guidance, it’s no surprise that mental health suffers. Laying out a framework for clear work and mentorship expectations between students and PIs and enforcing already established RA- and TA-ship hour limits are simple actions that MIT must take. I will continue to share my own experiences with my fellow graduate students. I implore MIT to recognize the real health implications of taking graduate student work — the foundation of MIT’s world-class research — for granted.
Alyssa Rudelis is a second year PhD student in the physics department and a member of Graduate Students for a Healthy MIT, a mental health advocacy group.