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Stress at MIT
December 10, 2012 7:22 PM   Subscribe


 
IHTFP.
posted by maryr at 7:32 PM on December 10, 2012 [12 favorites]


That original blog post is pretty killer.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:35 PM on December 10, 2012


Well, I would've been an utter failure at MIT.
posted by oddman at 7:36 PM on December 10, 2012


Too bad that they did such a poor job sampling. Asking students to take a survey about stress versus a ransom sample of students is next to pointless.
posted by k8t at 7:37 PM on December 10, 2012


But students tend to be MORE stressed when you kidnap them and mail cut-out notes to their parents, k8t!

sorry, I couldn't resist
posted by gusandrews at 7:40 PM on December 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


I would really love to know what Course 11 on this page is. Highest stress, highest incidence of all-nighters, most hours of homework a week, abysmal self-image ratings, but lots of time spent relaxing, a good number of close friends, far and away the highest concentration of extroverts, and tied for highest rating of happiness.
posted by 3FLryan at 7:43 PM on December 10, 2012


Course 11 is Urban Planning and may actually be a bit of a sample bias - it's a fairly small major. It also crosses over quite a bit with course 4, architecture, if that helps explain the mindset any.
posted by maryr at 7:45 PM on December 10, 2012


Inner health, timely finals post.
posted by persona at 7:46 PM on December 10, 2012


Oh.

Then I would really love to see N-sizes on these!
posted by 3FLryan at 7:46 PM on December 10, 2012


oddman, yeah, I mean I had a lot of similar feelings at my ultimately not-at-all-like-MIT institution, so I'm pretty sure MIT would have utterly destroyed me - yet even knowing that, as I'm reading this, I mostly feel nostalgia and envy. The pressure cooker aspect is real, I think - several of the grad students I know who had been MIT undergrads are not only brilliant but also have unbelievable skill in deferring gratification. I envy them for that, but kind of in the way you might fantasize about being a Marine (and then go eat a donut and do no exercise).
posted by en forme de poire at 7:51 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, while I'm at it...
Course 1 Civil and Environmental Engineering
Course 2 Mechanical Engineering
Course 3 Materials Science and Engineering
Course 4 Architecture
Course 5 Chemistry
Course 6 Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Course 7 Biology
Course 8 Physics
Course 9 Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Course 10 Chemical Engineering
Course 11 Urban Studies and Planning
Course 12 Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Course 13 Ocean Engineering
Course 14 Economics
Course 15 Management
Course 16 Aeronautics and Astronautics
Course 17 Political Science
Course 20 Biological Engineering
Course 21 Humanities (Anthropology, Foreign Languages and Literatures, History, Literature, Music and Theater Arts, Writing and Humanistic Studies)
Course 22 Nuclear Engineering
Course 24 Linguistics and Philosophy
posted by maryr at 7:52 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW, if you don't feel like a failure at some point as an MIT undergraduate, you're probably doing it wrong.
posted by maryr at 7:53 PM on December 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


And sorry, my comment sounded like I was totally missing the point - I of course realize that the main problem is that this is not necessarily such a healthy standard to hold yourself up to, particularly if you haven't been given the tools to get there and/or if you have other real obstacles in your way, but I think that it's pulling me in and I didn't even go there speaks to the power and seductiveness of that ideal. At least among a certain nerdy type prone to self-flagellation.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:58 PM on December 10, 2012


IHTFP.

It Hit The Front Page.
posted by eriko at 8:03 PM on December 10, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'm sure MIT students can be under a fair bit of stress, however, first world problems and all that.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:06 PM on December 10, 2012


Mmmmm, techical undergrad. I probably shaved decades off my life what with all the all-nighters, plus working twenty hours as a commuter student. (note to high school kids: go away to school. Even if the hometown wannabe-Ivy gives you more money. Trust me.)

So, slightly off-topic: Remember high school guidance counselors, and college freshman orientation, where they told you that the friends you made in college would be with you the rest of your life, even as you scattered to the corners of the earth after graduation? Was that utter bullshit, or is it just bullshit for my N=1?
posted by notsnot at 8:10 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Might have been just you. Most of my friends are still college friends, and the number of people I know from college who I am in regular touch with actually keeps on growing.
posted by breath at 8:14 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's bullshit for me so far, but it would be an obvious platitude even if I kept in more regular touch with my college acquaintances.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:17 PM on December 10, 2012


I wasn't very sociable in college. I'm in semi-regular touch with 1.5 people.
posted by Nomyte at 8:20 PM on December 10, 2012


If MIT's architecture program is anything like mine was (and in my experience studio is just about equally insane anywhere), it makes sense that it's the most high-stress but also most 'friendly' concentration. The reason being that those four-day all-nighters are spent in a room with some of your closet friends doing creative work and actually making stuff, as opposed to sitting in your dorm room alone staring at a computer screen. Shared misery makes great friends! Also, good parties.
posted by sonmi at 8:22 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


Shoot. Previously.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:29 PM on December 10, 2012


I don't want to freak out the undergrads of MeFi, but the life of a hard-core STEM major at an elite university is... well... just not that stressful, compared to what comes later.
posted by escabeche at 8:29 PM on December 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


Man, the gender breakdown in the self-image section sure is depressing.
posted by sonmi at 8:30 PM on December 10, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's a different stress, escabeche. In some cases, at least. There's the undergraduate stress of being absolutely overwhelmed with the sheer volume of material to learn and then there's the later stress of being absolutely overwhelmed with the number of problems to solve. Also, grants.
posted by maryr at 8:31 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]




Yeah. Also, grants.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:45 PM on December 10, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oops, that was already linked to in the [more inside].
posted by fragmede at 8:47 PM on December 10, 2012


The reason being that those four-day all-nighters are spent in a room with some of your closet friends doing creative work and actually making stuff, as opposed to sitting in your dorm room alone staring at a computer screen.

I have fond memories of four-day all-nighters in a room with some of my closest friends doing creative work and actually making stuff. Mostly Scheme interpreters, if I recall correctly.

Walking from the computer lab to the dorm (or vice versa) at 5 in the morning, I'd pass by the architecture building, and there were always a few students hard at work at their drafting tables. We'd usually exchange a knowing wave through the window. Yes, I see you. Yes, you can do it. Yes, just one more line.


It's a different stress, escabeche. In some cases, at least.

Not really, no.
posted by erniepan at 8:58 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lately I have to try really hard not to scoff at everyone else's problems. These people really *are* stressed and deserve a bit of relief and a bit of commiseration. Sure, the stresses of college aren't huge compared to some of the other things that come later in life. Parenthood is harder. Unemployment can be harder. But these are things that the average undergrad hasn't had to deal with. We're talking about young, generally inexperienced people here and this is their first real experience with a really stressful situation. Sure, lots of us older people have experienced harder situations. My wife was recently diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. She's 32. We have a 15-month-old daughter. Like I said, I have to try really hard not to scoff at other people's problems lately. They're maybe not the same problems I have, but they're legitimate problems, especially if you're only 19 and you're just getting used to taking care of yourself.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:17 PM on December 10, 2012 [16 favorites]


Work hard in junior high and high school to get good grades and take high level courses? Check.

Get into one of the top schools in the country, maybe the world? Check.

Find that the courses in the school are challenging and require a lot of work? Check.

Discover that these courses might push you beyond the bounds of what you've previously experienced in your education so far? Check.

View my shocked shocked face when you say that this all makes you feel a bit stressed out? Check.

I'm really not sure what there is to be learned here. Even my shocked shocked face shouldn't be all THAT surprising.
posted by hippybear at 10:14 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find the idea of higher education structured (intentionally or not) as an implicit boot-camp to be variously unscientific, negligent, and barbaric. Not only do these students deserve better, but if they are to be enlightened and well-rounded leaders for the future, we all deserve better.
posted by polymodus at 10:15 PM on December 10, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was a graduate student at MIT, and a 'resident advisor' in a fraternity house full of (mostly course 6) undergraduates. I have a lot of experience dealing with MIT student stress.

MIT is...different from other schools, and a very different experience from my own undergraduate days at a state university. MIT is best described as a crucible - it's either a transformative experience, or you burn up. ("Drinking from the fire hose" is the other analogy you hear.)

A big part of this is the 'problem set'. In almost every class, there is a weekly set of questions/problems. These problems are often incredibly challenging, to the point of seeming near impossible. Ask yourself a hard question - when given a problem that seems impossible, do you crash against it over and over until it finally is resolved, or do you throw your hands up in defeat early? If it's the former, you'll do fine at MIT, if it's the latter, you'll burn up. Both cases are stressful to the extreme. Now imagine repeating that experience over and over again, week after week, for four years.

On the (very large) plus side, it's a system that breeds people who are used to being given 'impossible' problems with very short deadlines, and manage to solve them. on the (very large) negative side, people crash and burn, sometimes with tragic consequences. Add family pressure (a stress factor NOT covered in the survey) into the mix, and it gets even more volatile.

I had this role when a student set herself on fire in her dorm room, and I can tell you that I worried a lot about the guys I had responsibility for. Almost all of them have done incredibly well in life (more than a handful of tech company CEOs, at least one of which you've heard of), and only one or two have had problems. One courageous soul burned out and left, only to return and slog through finishing his degree. That takes more fortitude than many people appreciate.
posted by grajohnt at 11:07 PM on December 10, 2012 [16 favorites]


Ahem.
Course 18 Mathematics
posted by aneel at 11:11 PM on December 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


Sure, the stresses of college aren't huge compared to some of the other things that come later in life.

At orientation for Harvey Mudd, which is often compared to a much smaller MIT, at least in terms of workload, we were told it would likely be the hardest thing we ever did.

I graduated over 10 years ago, and I've gone though a lot since then. I am not complaining even a a little bit when I say that I think it was accurate. I've never worked that hard since. I've never been that stressed since. I don't think that's a bad thing.

There are much more stressful things, obviously. Some of my life since SHOULD have been more stressful. But it wasn't.
posted by flaterik at 11:41 PM on December 10, 2012 [7 favorites]


I'm really not sure what there is to be learned here.

If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

But you get partial credit hippybear for showing your work.
posted by three blind mice at 1:47 AM on December 11, 2012


When I say she 'set herself on fire', I note that the legal settlement states that this could have been a 'tragic accident'. That wasn't the narrative at the time, and my thoughts then were in regards to how to prevent similar things from happening in my house. The subsequent investigation could have revealed a different situation.

It is also worth noting that there are big differences when the survey is broken down by residence - MIT living arrangements are a world in and of themselves, with each residence and residence type having very different personalities. You don't 'end up' somewhere, you carefully select it to live with like-minded (or at least what you think are like-minded) people. In the end, you shape it somewhat yourself, but it may shape you more. It's fairly easy to predict who will be tops in all-nighters or extroversion just from the known characteristics of the residence. (East Campus is tops in all-nighters? Shocking. It's a hall full of night-owls.)
posted by grajohnt at 3:27 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


The statistics are fascinating, especially for someone who knows the parlance and the geography (Course 6 vs. Course 15, the difference between Simmons and Random, etc), but for me the best part of the whole article is the comments section:

In their own voices: MIT students talk pressure

If you ever want to know what it was like to study at MIT, this is it. As an alum, I can say I was nodding along with a lot of the statements in these comments, both the positive and the negative, like:

I don’t feel good when I’m over-committed and over-worked, but I don’t feel good about myself if I’m not like that.

I still believe it’s true that at MIT, students generally compete more against themselves than against each other.
posted by whatzit at 3:41 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


Computer science at one of the top five undergrad CS programs fucking broke me. I'm not going to say it was harder than anything else in my life to date, but it broke me worse than anything else, and it felt like a different kind of hard.

And mostly I just wish I'd realized a lot sooner that it was okay to walk away and do something else before I actually had a razorblade at my wrists. Or to have asked someone for help before I got that broken. But I didn't, because I was the kind of relentless perfectionist who winds up in that situation to begin with, and it took an utter crash and burn to get over that. It's not how I'd recommend anyone else learn that you can be imperfect and not die from it.

I'm glad this is being talked about. I truly thought it was just me at the time. It might have helped to know it wasn't.
posted by Stacey at 4:46 AM on December 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Donning a Mask: Suicide at Harvard -- the first of a three part article series about the other well-known university in Cambridge, MA.
posted by AwkwardPause at 5:00 AM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


I did grad school at CMU which has a pretty similar commitment to completely overloading its students with work and knew a few students who totally buckled under it. They think nothing of giving you 30 hours of work a week for a 3 credit class and if you complain they just laugh and say, "hey this is CMU, what did you expect?" My project mate disappeared for a week and was finally tracked down by the department admin who talked into coming back to finish. We had half expected to find the poor kid in the river.
posted by octothorpe at 5:15 AM on December 11, 2012


IHTFP.
posted by maryr at 7:32 PM on December 10 [9 favorites +] [!]



I thought USAFA had a monopoly on that acronym.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:37 AM on December 11, 2012


where they told you that the friends you made in college would be with you the rest of your life, even as you scattered to the corners of the earth after graduation?

Its what they HOPE because the networking effect is part of what makes a college valuable. With books like "The Secret", books like Propaganda and Neuro-Linquistic Programming existing - there is a 'body of evidence' that if people are told X or repeat X it becomes believeable.

Skull and bones, Yale/Harvard and all that as examples of college networks helping later in life.
posted by rough ashlar at 6:34 AM on December 11, 2012


MIT has a serious suicide problem. Some folks above have scoffed at the "first world problems" of college students, which strikes me as cruelly dismissive. I know other folks affected by the undergraduate suicide grajohnt mentioned, one of my grad school colleagues committed suicide, and I know of several other suicides via some personal connection. MIT is often an unhealthy place.

I experienced MIT from a weird perspective, as a graduate student in the little enclave of the Media Lab. But what I saw of the undergraduates was a bunch of brilliant students who were terribly miserable. I've known a lot of students in a lot of places and griping about workload, questioning your own worth in the world, etc is par for the course; these are late adolescents afterall. But MIT undergrads seemed a whole level above of unhappy and maladjusted. I think it's a combination of the intensely packed curriculum, the self-competitive nature of many of its students, and the lack of any balancing perspective outside of coursework. This stress survey doesn't do a great job at getting to the real problems, but at least it's a discussion.
posted by Nelson at 6:57 AM on December 11, 2012 [6 favorites]


I worked on the suicide prevention/counseling hotline ("NEAR") at Rensselear while an undergrad - the issue of overloaded students and their consequent stress is plenty real. I don't have any students-on-fire stories but I think the dismissive comments are frighteningly out of sync with reality.

This is basically the point of the spear of capitalism - if you believe that undergrad is a meritocracy (and I'll also say that this kind of pressure is a breeding ground for cheating) then there should be some kind of graceful mechanism for downshifting kids who can't keep up. Failing at MIT shouldn't mean you're an unemployable loser.
posted by newdaddy at 7:40 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a Course 4/11 alum I'd say the survey sample size is probably just much too small to make heads or tails of. Both majors are tiny.

Having gotten through MIT, and still living on campus now in a possibly similar role described by grajohnt upthread, I'd say the Tech's work did a decent job at teasing out the underlying stress of the MIT experience. tylerkaraszewski's comment really resonated with me though, because now that I'm old enough to have gone through some Major Life Events (marriage, death, etc) I have a much greater appreciation for the real life stressors that are less "first-world problem"ish.
However, if I'd had any of those Major Life Events during college, I'd have been toast - because I was young and from a chaotic disadvantaged household, I had no sense of healthy habits, coping mechanisms, and all that - so 100% of my energy just gets burned up merely getting through college. I feel very lucky. Should it be that way? I can't say.. but it's the only way I know.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 8:00 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


My MIT Course 6 undergrad experience almost broke me. For one thing, I think I was just barely smart enough to be there. Toward the end of the semesters, I remember drawing charts, hour by hour, 24 hours a day for the upcoming week to see if I could finish the projects, problem sets, papers, and studying I had due. ("If I stay up all night tonight, I should be able to get 4 hours of sleep tomorrow...") I wanted so badly to be out of there, and into "the real world", where I could come home at 5 and do what I wanted.

Nearly 20 years later, I still have dreams about being back there. But they're good dreams. I've always tended to mostly remember the good times, and forget the pain... but those were simultaneously the most difficult, exhausting, and fantastic years of my life. Walking through the halls at night, passing endless rooms full of god-knows-what...

If I could push a button and do all 4 years over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Every project, every test, every minute. And I'd probably hate it all over again.
posted by enkd at 8:15 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


It seems clear that the question MIT and other elite schools (and schools that want to be seen as elite) constantly ask themselves is: "Is our failure and suicide rate high enough?" After all, nothing makes a degree program look more bad-ass and elite than the platonic ideal of having every incoming student, save one, quit in shame or put a bullet through their own head. That one, lone, incredible student would then go on to win every prize and solve every problem.

I exaggerate, slightly, but if these institutions really gave a shit about the well-being of their students THEY WOULD FUCKING BACK OFF A LITTLE BIT. It's not just MIT, of course, go google something like "i hate graduate school" and see the damage being done to people. Schools jack up the pressure to get a sufficiently high failure rate to make themselves look good while keeping the suicides just low enough that there isn't mass condemnation.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can educate people without torturing them. Graduating doesn't have to feel like winning a multi-year battle with people who want to hurt you.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 8:20 AM on December 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


If I could push a button and do all 4 years over again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Every project, every test, every minute. And I'd probably hate it all over again.

A lot of my peers share this sentiment (though I don't). It seems awfully Stockholm-syndromey to me.. but I guess that's a different discussion altogether.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 8:26 AM on December 11, 2012


St. Alia of the Bunnies: the juniormost service academy definitely does not have a monopoly on that.

I have the suspicion that the people up-thread who are dismissive of the stresses experienced by students at MIT and schools like it are not graduates of these "crucible" type schools. The stresses I experienced at my school prepared me for and have yet to be matched by the stresses experienced in life after it - and other graduates say the same.

"It's a great place to be from."
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:31 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


I look at it as I loved MIT, but I hated The Institvte.
posted by maryr at 8:33 AM on December 11, 2012


I have the suspicion that the people up-thread who are dismissive of the stresses experienced by students at MIT and schools like it are not graduates of these "crucible" type schools

My undergraduate studies at Pitt and Penn State were hard but didn't even come close to preparing me for what the load was like at CMU. I actually tried to quit about a month into my program and my adviser told me to quit whining and get back to work.
posted by octothorpe at 8:57 AM on December 11, 2012


I don't think the solution for a place like MIT is to make it easier or "let up a little" on the students. The students pay for, and want, the most rigorous and demanding education. The solution is to give them some perspective, some counselling, some outlet for the stress that kind of crucible creates. Because left on their own, driven students sometimes eat themselves alive. People needs something else to do other than live in their brains and obsess on whether they're smart enough be at MIT. Sports, religion, cooking, partying, there's all sorts of outlets adults use to give balance to their work lives. Most of those things are underrepresented at MIT (or in the case of partying, sometimes fatally overrepresented). The place is too much about life of the mind, not enough about life of the soul.

Does MIT still not offer psychological counselling to its students? In the late 90s the policy then was that they'd offer psychiatric help ("take some pills and call me if you don't feel better") but no talking therapy from trained professionals. Stupidly short sighted money saving policy.
posted by Nelson at 9:03 AM on December 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


@Nelson: MIT has had talky therapy since at least the mid-00's.

The Harvard article AwkwardPause linked upthread makes me so sad. :( This comment particularly floored me:
Growing up, I was abused by my dad. When I came to Harvard, I struggled with these feelings of shame and confusion so deeply that I decided to approach mental health to try and really get to the bottom of these issues and then resolve them once and for all.

My first UHS appointment was the first time I had ever tried discussing my history with my dad with anyone. The clinician impatiently took off her glasses and said to me "Look we only have half an hour. Here at Harvard Mental Health there are so many students that need our help that we really don't have time to do that kind of 'family back-story' therapy for each kid. Our mission is to focus on the here-and-now, prescribe meds where useful, and get you back out there functioning in class."

I was devastated. I couldn't believe that she was so up-front with me like that. But that's basically the UHS attitude in a nutshell. Quickly "fix" you and get you out of their way. And it's truly devastating.

posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 9:10 AM on December 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


MIT Medical had some counseling when I was there at the turn of the century. They were sued by the parents of a girl who committed suicide (a different incident than grajohnt mentioned) and the lawsuit was supposed to result in even more availability - that would have been kicking in about when I graduated, so I don't have any first hand experience to how effective the increase was.
posted by maryr at 9:38 AM on December 11, 2012


I don't think the solution for a place like MIT is to make it easier or "let up a little" on the students. The students pay for, and want, the most rigorous and demanding education. The solution is to give them some perspective, some counselling, some outlet for the stress that kind of crucible creates.

We're probably going to just agree to disagree, but I think it's entirely possible to build an institution in which people are able to learn just as much, just as rapidly, without wanting to eat a bullet. Historically, a 4-yr MIT undergrad appears to have about a 1 in 1200 chance of death by suicide (if I've done my sums correctly). That figure seems unacceptably high to me and I don't think that counseling people to feel better about only sleeping 2 hr/night to keep up with the workload is going to help very much. An ethical institution that actually cared about student welfare wouldn't be doing the academic equivalent of giving an 18 year old kid a fast car and all the beer they can drink.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Here's what MIT offered in 2000.
posted by maryr at 9:41 AM on December 11, 2012


Oh, and how could I forget to mention Nightline? DEF-TUV-TUV-OPER-OPER.
posted by maryr at 9:42 AM on December 11, 2012


I was at CMU too. (I don't know why I even try to be stealthy here, I'm sure I've said this before and my profile says I'm in Pittsburgh so what the hell.)

When things got really, really, really bad my advisor finally scooped part of me up off the floor and more or less convinced me that my value was not tied up in my grades or my major, and psychological services got the rest of me into just enough short-term counseling to pull me through finals until I could get back home to my parents and some serious therapy and medication. And I never did manage to make the call to psych services, a very good friend did that for me and walked me to the door and stayed with me until she knew I'd walked through the door of the counselor's office.

But for a solid two years I was sinking, failing things right and left, and since I didn't bother to set up advisor appointments (because: depression) I slipped through the safety nets and no one ever put together the individual pieces of me flaming out, to realize it was more than one bad test or one bad class or one student group I bailed on.

Advisors and counselors are great, if you can get there or someone makes you go there. But it is easier than you'd think to be at a very good school, doing very badly personally and academically, and to have no one notice until it's almost too late. It would be nice if the solution were for the surrounding culture to maybe not drive you to that point to begin with.
posted by Stacey at 10:31 AM on December 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


As much as MeFi mentions the Dunning-Kruger effect, I surely thought someone would have alluded to the impostor syndrome here. Along the same lines, there's a bit of pluralistic ignorance. But enough armchair psychology, that place sounds like a soul-crushingly stressful environment in and of itself. The answer in a lot of these cases seems to be to just pay more attention to the undergraduates (Who Studies the Students?), which looks to be an admirable first step for this report. Ironically, statistics don't seem to do as much as a warm hug and kind words. You know, to remind them of their humanity and whatnot.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 11:22 AM on December 11, 2012


Two notes for LastOfHisKind:

Historically, a 4-yr MIT undergrad appears to have about a 1 in 1200 chance of death by suicide (if I've done my sums correctly).

Huh? 1/1200 chance of death by suicide over what time frame? Sorry, could you explain that stat to me?

An ethical institution that actually cared about student welfare wouldn't be doing the academic equivalent of giving an 18 year old kid a fast car and all the beer they can drink.

Therein lies part of the problem MIT has - it isn't so much a hall of learning as it is a research institution. I'm not saying that they don't care about student welfare... but no professor is there because they love to teach. The school is very much willing to give students enough rope to metaphorically hang themselves on - for example, very very few prerequisites are enforced. You are permitted to sign up for courses with scheduling conflicts. Almost no classes require or check attendance. You can enroll in as many classes as you'd like.

I don't think the fast car analogy is far off. But the solution isn't to give a kid a bicycle and all the beer they can drink. Or a fast car and a single six pack. You can still get in trouble with only half the equation there. A giant step toward avoiding a crash is simply checking in on the 18 year old.
posted by maryr at 11:26 AM on December 11, 2012


I can pretty much understand what the pressure is like at these places, i was in the us on exchange for a bit and the pressure from without and within was really something. I guess you would have to go to one of these places to understand why people commit suicide under such pressure - I could see pretty clearly why after a few weeks.

I think it was sort of useful in a way, you'd see people working hard and then doing stuff like making christmas tree decorations by hand at the end of the day.

I remember doing 12 hour dishwashing shifts years ago that were harder as well though, so I kind of resented attaching the "work" label to it all, I think there's possibly a bit of guilt attached to the high fees sometimes as well which drives that kind of terminology.

Drama school was great for mandatory warm ups and relaxation techniques......they knew how to get people working in a collegiate fashion as well - something i've never seen replicated at art or design school or masters course and which really quite baffles me to this day.

I think doing a wee semester at ass kicking design school in the us helped me later when we had a kid, had to get a terrible part time job cleaning bars and complete a masters in the same year - it just seemed like stepping up to christmas tree making level for a bit.

Bit of a mixed comment there, but hey ho.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:09 PM on December 11, 2012


but no professor is there because they love to teach. The school is very much willing to give students enough rope to metaphorically hang themselves on - for example, very very few prerequisites are enforced. You are permitted to sign up for courses with scheduling conflicts. Almost no classes require or check attendance. You can enroll in as many classes as you'd like.

Wow. All of those seem like... very bad things. And none of them were true of my undergrad experience.

One of the reasons I chose to go there was because it's undergrad only, and you don't have all of the downsides to there being a research institution sitting there being more important than your education. I'm feeling again like that was a very good choice.

Very very difficult coursework is one thing. But letting people sign up for All The Classes? People got irritated by the fact that you needed an exemption to take more than a certain number of classes, but the reasons for it always made sense to me, and I assumed that was the norm. It sure seems like it ought to be.
posted by flaterik at 2:44 PM on December 11, 2012


Wow. All of those seem like... very bad things.

They are only bad things if you let them be bad things. It's about knowing your limits, or alternatively, knowing how far beyond your known limits you want to push yourself. A lot of it comes back to the comment I picked out in the quotes The Tech published:

I still believe it’s true that at MIT, students generally compete more against themselves than against each other.

Yes, it's too bad that some people haven't found their limits (until they do). No, that does not mean you should prevent the rest of the cohort from testing themselves and their environment.
posted by whatzit at 4:21 PM on December 11, 2012


Even with some limits in place (which were, mostly, someone going "are you suuuureeee?" and making sure you had actually thought about what you were doing), it was an environment that was quite capable of testing pretty much everyone's limits. Leaving rakes like that around for people to step on doesn't seem like it's all that helpful.

Though it may be as much the different between a very small crucible and a quite large one. There were few enough students that most of the administration and faculty was bound to actually know you by name, and have a good sense of who you were. I doubt that's true of MIT.
posted by flaterik at 4:28 PM on December 11, 2012


They aren't necessarily great things, flaterik, but they represent some of the school's strengths as well. For example, that faculty not there to teach? They are there to do world-class research and it's pretty easy to get a position in their labs. The school puts a good amount of funding into student research - you don't make as much money as in an industry internship, but you make enough to afford to live in the dorms over the summer. The world-class research the faculty does brings worldwide recognition to the school which not only provides funding, but attracts students from all over the world, so you learn about all sorts of things you wouldn't have growing up in, say, New Hampshire or Missouri.

As far as the overburdening your schedule goes, freshmen are NOT allowed to do that - they are additionally on Pass/No Record their first semester (it was your whole freshman year when I was there!) to give some of the less prepared high achievers a break. It also conveniently provides a hook for getting freshmen involved in social activities - "Ah, come on, you don't need to study, you're on Pass/No Record! Now come and eat some liquid nitrogen ice cream." A common note on freshmen cheat-sheets (which actually many of our classes have because the tests tend to be problem based instead of memorization) is A=B=C=P.

In short, MIT is a land of contrasts.
posted by maryr at 9:28 PM on December 11, 2012 [2 favorites]


We had the Pass/Fail first semester, too.

It definitely helped lessen the impact of getting the first 40 I'd ever gotten on a test! (and that being pass. hard test!)
posted by flaterik at 2:45 AM on December 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I take issue with the whole "faculty at research schools are uninterested in teaching" trope. I was an MIT undergrad and I came back for grad school and apathetic faculty is pretty much the only compliant that I don't have about the 'tvte. It's true that MIT faculty spend more time on research than they do teaching, MIT has enough resources to ensure that they don't feel like teaching is taking away from their research. The faculty/grad student/undergrad ratios are such that courses are never understaffed and professors only teach one course at a time, which definitely helps. And the professors and TAs bring their research into the classroom, which is great. I took a crypto class with Ron Rivest and the lecture on hashing algorithms included stories about the process of designing MD5.
The real problem at MIT and its peer schools is with the administration. They're the ones who see research and fundraising as a priority and current undergraduates as a resource drain and liability. Every time I read an op-ed in the Tech or get get a mass email from the higher up administrators about MIT's latest attempts at "improving student support" or anything related to "student-life," I get the feeling that they are waiting for us all to graduate and become wealthy alumni and get out of their hair and just start writing big checks every year.
On the topic of the actual articles, I think the write-up of the survey results was pretty lacking. First, the Tech does one or two of these big surveys every year and they always do huge breakdowns by dorms and majors but they always leave out the number of responses they got in each category. Case in point, course 11, which people were discussing upthread. Course 11 undergraduates are definitely not the most overworked people at MIT. I knew a lot of them in undergrad and they loved their department and loved the fact that they didn't feel obliged to stay up all night working. As others have said, it's a small department and I doubt many of them filled out the survey so a few unhappy students could have skewed the results pretty badly. Also, while the survey questions hinted at it, the write-ups missed what was one of the biggest contributors to my stress as an undergrad, which was the culture of "sleep is for the weak." There's this conception among students that if you have time to sleep and take a shower every day then you're not trying hard enough. This put students into a catch-22 where they're either stressed because they don't have time to sleep and take care of themselves or they're stressed because they feel like they're not as accomplished as the students who aren't sleeping and taking care of themselves. There's no way to win at this game but I think it would take a pretty big culture shift to get MIT students to stop playing it.
I know I'm late to this thread, but it's the last week of classes and I just handed in my thesis proposal
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:26 AM on December 12, 2012


congrats, martinX!
posted by maryr at 8:02 PM on December 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:26 AM on December 13, 2012


I was holding off on posting about this until I was sure the news was somewhere out there on the internet already. But since I see there's an article in the campus paper online about it, I guess I feel okay about posting this now.

In odd timing for this discussion, a CMU student died last weekend in a fall from his dorm window. I'm not aware of any official statements about accident vs. suicide.

But this editorial assumes suicide and discusses the writer's own experiences with stress and the undergrad workload and the lack of support. And there's a 72-comment-strong-and-still-rolling comment thread that may be of interest for people wanting to hear about these issues from the viewpoints of the students living them right now, instead of reminiscing about them.

Of course it's also full of people saying horrid things too, so enter at your own risk.
posted by Stacey at 6:00 PM on December 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


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