The nonlinear degree path
From MIT dropout to Class of 2022
“I’m sorry, but I think your only option is to withdraw from MIT.”
I was no stranger to rejection. In elementary school, I held back tears as one of the students proudly announced how everyone, except me, was invited to her party. When social cliques formed in middle school, I found myself on the outside, running from group to group, trying to convince someone to let me into their tightly guarded circle. In high school, I watched the boy I wanted to go to prom with choose to go alone rather than take me. But there was one place that was always welcoming — the classroom. No matter how confusing the social mechanics of school were, I could always count on the rhythm of academics, the clear-cut algorithm of studying hard and earning a top grade. My whole life, education gave me a place to belong. Until now.
Now, I was being told that I had to leave.
In the past, school just clicked with me. It started in kindergarten, when I finished a long list of tasks a week early, despite being out sick with chickenpox. Throughout high school, I maintained a spot in the top ten percent of my class. If I had trouble understanding a topic, I took comfort knowing that the other students were probably struggling too. As an undergraduate, I continued to perform well, and my professors happily wrote recommendation letters for graduate school. When graduate school emails started coming in, I opened the one from MIT. With complete shock, I read that I had been accepted into the PhD program. I had finally reached my long shot dream of being able to attend a top tier university — the inner circle of academia. After graduating from undergrad with highest honors, I headed to Boston, ready to start my next chapter.
But when I got to MIT, everything changed. I would walk out of classes completely baffled, sometimes lost from slide one. The other students seemed to follow along with ease, asking such intelligent and insightful questions. When I received an exam back with one of the lowest scores in the class, my safe haven of academia started to crumble. With every poor grade that followed, my haven continued to break, bit by bit, until one day when it entirely collapsed.
I had not made significant progress with research, and my advisor began expressing doubts that I would even finish my master’s degree. After discussing it with the dean, it became clear that my only option was to leave MIT. The same university that had offered me a spot at the highest level of academia two years prior was now letting me go. Broken, with no degree and no job, I had nowhere else to go but home.
Sometimes when a dream crawls back inside you and shatters — all you can do is lay very still and hope that the broken edges don’t cut you. I spent four months laying in bed keeping the shards from moving.
I had no idea where to go next. For the first time, I had dropped off the linear path that education provided. I started submitting resumes to job postings online, all turning into dead ends. I decided to try a career fair. I walked from booth to booth, each time offering a backstory for my incomplete degree. I saw my fellow classmates in their company branded polo shirts on the other side of the table. With puzzled looks, they asked me why I was here instead of at MIT. Failure can sometimes get this romantic notion attached to it, that struggles and setbacks are all a part of attempting great things. But, as I walked around the basketball gym, trying to convince both the recruiters and myself that I wasn’t worthless, I didn’t feel like this was part of some grand narrative. I just felt ashamed.
After handing out what felt like a hundred resumes, I received an email, which turned into an interview, and then finally a full-time job offer. Originally, I thought this job was just a waypoint on my journey back to MIT. But as I watched one year turned into two and then three, my chances of returning to graduate school became smaller and smaller. Despite the low odds, I still thought about going back almost every day. I took math classes at night to improve my background. I bought a car with four-wheel drive to handle the snowy roads in Boston.
During that time, my goal of returning to MIT remained the same, but I watched my dream change. I began working on real world problems, ones that didn’t have an answer key. I found myself taking concepts from textbooks and teaching myself how to apply them. I was no longer motivated by gold stars or GPAs. I started to enjoy learning just for the joy of discovering new, interesting things. Rather than only going back to complete a degree, I wanted to return to graduate school to receive training in a field that I had come to enjoy all on its own.
After working for three years, I started seriously looking for a way to return to MIT. The process was slow, at most points seeming like it would never actually happen. I reached out to multiple professors, finding only one who was taking on students. Despite my transcript and failed research experience, this professor took a chance on me, and in the fall of 2020, I re-enrolled at MIT.
After being away for five and a half years, my test taking skills had atrophied. I struggled to keep up with the other students, and once again found myself in the bottom half of the class. But this time, I just kept going. My goal was not to get an A+ but to better understand concepts that I could take back with me to my full-time job. Once again, my grades at MIT were less than I had hoped. But each day, I worked and got closer and closer to my goal of completing my masters thesis.
Then, on an August day a year later, my advisor extended his hand and congratulated me on completing my degree.
It has been 10 years since I first started graduate school, and my timeline has not been the typical one. But despite leaving with an incomplete degree, dealing with unemployment, and being away for half a decade, I am finally here, ready to walk across the stage and receive my master’s degree. I learned that it’s not about finishing perfectly, with straight As and at the top of the class. The most important thing is to just finish.