Regressing instead of progressing?
“The MD-PhD program doesn’t fit everyone’s research interests, but don’t let the difficult application process be the reason you don’t apply.” A few weeks ago, I asked my UROP mentor for graduate school advice, with one of my questions being why he chose the PhD route instead of MD-PhD. I never planned to be premed because MD-PhD programs seemed even more stressful and competitive than PhD programs, but I was curious nonetheless. What I remember most isn’t his insightful answer about the differences between MD-PhD and PhD medical research, but rather his straightforwardness. It’s a quality I am thankful he had. He gave me advice I wish I’d known from the start of the spring semester, that I shouldn’t set such low standards for myself.
As I walked back to my dorm, I thought about what he had said to me about not setting low standards. What he had said was plain and uncomplicated, yet it carried so much weight. Before the conversation, I had been growing internally frustrated at my diminishing ambition. I didn’t even journal about these problems, let alone talk about them with anyone. If I brought up the issue with my classmates, they would sympathize and say they were also hosed and burnt out, but that didn’t make me feel much better.
I knew that the striking difference between my high school and college self when it came to motivation was troublesome, but I tried my best to ignore this feeling. After all, if some of my peers also experienced similar changes coming to college, then why should I worry? It wasn’t until my UROP mentor remarked on taking risks that I realized I had to face what I was feeling. The fact that someone besides me noticed a problem with my attitude made the whole thing even more explicit.
In high school, I expected that coming to college would make me become a better version of myself: someone with better time management, stronger study habits, and more diverse interests. I imagined following in the footsteps of star college students from the college advice books I read, but this wasn’t what happened. Over time, I became conscious of the fact that while I envisioned going forward with who I am as a person, instead I am going backward.
How I went from being a determined high school student to a lazy college student in a year puzzles me. I know I am being hard on myself by using the word “lazy,” but this is honestly how I feel. While spring semester of my high school senior year was more relaxed, I refused to let senioritis take over. I still taught chemistry to high school students, competed in science tournaments, and wrote essays for scholarships. Now, I don’t even have the energy to apply for scholarships or summer programs. I struggle to force myself to study for a midterm even though I worry about the result. My procrastination has increased, not lessened. Although I am active in certain clubs, my enthusiasm for taking on major leadership roles has waned. I am going backward.
My psychologist told me that the content in college classes is a lot more difficult, which is why I don’t have as much time to devote to other things, such as researching scholarships or summer activities. What she said regarding the differences between high school and college was reassuring, but the following sentence worried me. “It seems like you might be experiencing burnout.” This was the last thing I wanted to hear. If my situation sounded like burnout, what did that mean for my next three years at MIT?
Perhaps the underlying reason I’m not as driven as before has to do with the fact that I am done with college applications. Arriving at this possibility disturbs me because it brings up something I don’t want to admit to myself — that I am more complacent than before. If it weren’t for college applications, would I have studied so hard for science competitions? Probably not. Even though I do intend to apply to graduate school, the process is more straightforward and predictable than college admissions. I wonder if the reason I put in so much effort in high school was more about wanting to get into a prestigious college than pure self-motivation. Thinking about my obsession with prestige in high school irritates me even more. I viewed acceptance from a top college as validation for my intellect and a confidence booster. After coming here, however, I have realized that it doesn’t change anything. I still experience a lot of impostor syndrome and wonder how I got accepted in the first place.
I don’t want to become the type of person who is satisfied with just going to MIT, because getting into a selective college shouldn’t be the end goal. I don’t want to just do well in school, get a nice internship, and go to an excellent graduate school. I want to go beyond that and leave an impact on my school community. I want to live up to my potential. But the problem is that I don’t have the motivation to achieve these basic goals I’ve defined for myself. My current mindset evokes the old phrase of “all talk and no action.” It seems like as the weeks pass by, the more work I want to avoid. The chemistry side of me equates this situation with following the path requiring the lowest activation energy. The fear of struggling in computer science classes made me discard the idea of minoring in course 6 or majoring in course 6-7. I modified my four-year plan by removing extra classes I don’t need to meet the minimum degree requirements.
However, the more I write, the more I notice how counterintuitive it is to think that something is fundamentally wrong with me. Instead of constantly trying to pinpoint my problems, I should be kinder to myself and think back to what my psychologist told me. If I take fewer units and reduce my outside commitments to focus on others that are more important to me, then maybe I will feel more motivated to learn. I need to keep reminding myself that although the ideal chart of one’s progress in life is linear, progress in reality is full of ups and downs. There are days when I feel like I am stuck in the same position, but I can get out of this pit if I try hard enough. As depressing as it may sound, I want to try harder because my main source of dissatisfaction in life stems from not being the best version of myself. I want to escape this vicious cycle of thoughts for the sake of my happiness.