I was actually feeling a lot of imposter syndrome from day 1 at MIT. I was a waitlist admit, so I kind of came in with that feeling that I had to prove myself more than anyone else here. I spent my first year kind of struggling to catch up with some of my friends. I’d never taken a physics class before, so that was something that was particularly difficult for me.
And at the end of my first year, I was starting to feel like I had more of a handle on MIT. I was feeling a little bit more confident. And then my sophomore fall, I took my Introductory Neural Computation class, which was something that’s a core major, a core part of my major. And it’s also a class that was very important to me because I wanted to be a computational neuroscientist.
And for the first bit of that class, I was doing pretty well. I was scoring well on my problem sets. I felt like I understood what was going on in class. Apparently I did not. I took the first exam and got the seventh lowest score in the entire class because the distribution was granular enough for me to see that. Then those other six people either put the class on listener or dropped it. So I was left with the official lowest score in the class, which was a rather big bummer for me. I started questioning whether I should still be a neuroscientist, whether this was the path for me, whether computational neuroscience was something I could do, if I had a good judgment of what I was capable of. If I had felt good in that class and done so poorly on the exam, what other things was I misjudging myself of being capable of doing?
Luckily, before I got to MIT, I had kind of created a failure plan for myself. I knew that MIT was an incredibly difficult place, especially coming from my high school. I went to a rather large public high school. I knew that my classes here would be much, much harder.
So however much I wanted to start immediately emailing the professor, putting together a ridiculous study plan that had me up 28 hours a day, I decided to take a deep breath, walk down to Harvard Square, go to LA Burdick, get myself a nice hot chocolate, and take a couple hours to enjoy being off campus, enjoy having some time with myself, and not think about it at all, get outside, get some fresh air. And because that was something I had planned for in advance and I knew would be part of responding to any failure that I encountered here, it was something that I didn’t feel stressed about doing because I had already factored that into my timeline. And the walk back was actually really lovely.
I got a little bit lost so I ended up on Commonwealth Avenue. And this was just at the right point in the year where they were starting to put up the Christmas lights on the trees. So I walked back. It was colder than I’d ever experienced before because I’m from San Diego. I could see my own breath, which was still completely novel at that time. And it was a nice reminder that there is life outside of campus, that everything kept moving, and that I still had a place outside of campus, on campus, and I could take a second and come back to it.
And by the time I got back, I was feeling much better, much more centered. I was able to write a calm email to my professor asking to meet with him, talk about what I’d gotten wrong on the exam, what I could understand better next time. I started going to all of the office hours. And it turns out that, while I was getting the problems right on the problem sets, I didn’t actually understand why I was getting them right. I just realized like, oh, my code runs, but I wasn’t understanding the deeper principles that I needed to.
I started putting more time into learning the math that we needed for that class. It required some differential equations in linear algebra that I hadn’t encountered before. And I’d been using the examples from the book to study from, which turns out is not a great study technique if you need to be able to use those techniques on new problems.
So over the course of that semester, I started in not just putting in more time, putting in better time, trying to figure out what I wanted to gain from this class exactly, what skills I needed to get there, talk to the professors and TAs about what specific parts of the material I wanted to brush up on, what kinds of problems I could do to practice. I learned how to study better. And taking that time to sit back and relax and think about what I wanted from my education was absolutely integral to that.
This is actually– this is a repeated experience. This has happened in maybe five classes over the time– of my time at MIT, where I will love a class, completely bomb the first exam, go talk to the professors and TAs, get my life together, and do well in the end. So it’s not like this was a one-time experience, where I failed the one time and then I never did ever again because I learned my lesson. No, I continuously do this.
I’ll get like a C on my first paper in a class, get like a 50 on my first exam in a class, sit back, re-evaluate what I want from this class, how I might be approaching it wrong. You’d think I’d learn to do this at the beginning of the semester, but apparently it takes doing quite badly at something. Maybe I’ll learn someday. But this is an experience I’ve had over and over.
And I think most students at MIT have had this experience at some point. Yeah, so I’m now a computational neuroscientist. I love it. It’s the only thing I’d like to be doing on this planet, and yeah.