Ramblings of Another Confused MIT Grad Student


Anirudh Sivaraman (SK) is an alumnus of 2010 batch from the CS department. His many laurels include having been Shaastra Events Core and Newsletter vol (simultaneously). He is now pursuing a PhD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and this is his story.

SKAs I write this, I am in my fourth semester of grad school here at MIT, confused about life, like most grad students. Grad life is unique in its own ways, and MIT further adds to the oddities of grad life. The first thing they tell you when you get here : “We didn’t make a mistake in admitting you by picking the wrong application form.” A lot of professors who were formerly students here, add to this : “I kept expecting for a semester that they would send me a letter saying they made a mistake, and that I would have to pack my bags and go home”. They even have a name for this weird behaviour: apparently its called impostor syndrome.

So, then you start grad life at MIT with the weight of the world’s expectations on you. This is true for all the top grad schools, so without exception, my observations above apply to all of them. Depending on which department you are in, your department chair at MIT talks of previous students here. In EE/CS : It’s Shannon, who invented Information Theory and Digital Circuits, in Physics it’s Feynman and … well you get the drift. It is at once, both intimidating and inspiring to stand on the shoulder of such giants, and this is what drives the place forward. With that backdrop, every grad student tries to do his/her bit to make a dent in the wall that is human knowledge, and extend an astronomic body a few mm in a direction that is taken seriously by the rest of the world. This process is both humbling and satisfying: knowing that what you did was because of scores of people before you and what you did might influence several people ahead of you, and if big enough might eventually be taught to an undergrad. It is this synergy between research and teaching, in my opinion, that is the hallmark of academia.

Grand goals aside, what is life like in grad school? The grand goal is the finish line, but the grander the goal, the harder it takes to get there. On a daily basis, you are probably running experiments, repeating them over and over (wondering if a monkey could do them as well), verifying hypotheses and overall practicing the scientific method everyday. In CS, this boils down to writing code, reading, cursing and extending some one else’s code (of course, you could write code better than any code you ever see) and then rerunning experiments for days at a stretch till something gives way. Naturally, it’s a period of ups and downs that is portrayed pretty aptly by PhD comics. The scenarios depicted there are spot on, I must say. Much like what the comics portray, unlike a conventional job, no one cares how or when you work, so long as the work gets done. Grad students typically come in around the afternoon and work until the wee hours of the morning. They usually don’t bother going out to get meals because there is enough free food to scavenge within the building leftover from faculty lunches and group meetings. I have a labmate who went an entire semester eating lunch and dinner on free food. There are entire sites at MIT dedicated to maintaining current free food locations (see http://food-bot.com/calendar-date/field_university/MIT for one example). The mailing list for leftovers is quite appropriately called ‘vultures’ in the CS and AI Lab(CSAIL) here. The nerd/geek (I am not sure which one is pejorative, because as nerdy/geeky as it sounds, I have debated this as well) humor is the average form of humor here. To give you an example of a typical joke here : There are 15 people in an elevator, and the 16th guy gets in. There are 9 floors. When the 16th guy gets in, he sees that the button for his floor is already pressed and says “oh, that was statistically obvious”. For the mathematically inclined, I think you can use a balls-and-bins argument to prove this. I am not sure anywhere else I would have heard this comment, and much less that people would find it funny. Another instance, is the use of math/flowcharts to make everything clear (including an election procedure). I daresay such an approach, if applied to insti, would be met with extreme condescension. Well, embracing the inner geek in you is part of rediscovering yourself here.

So, what’s the social scene like here? Well, there are the clubs and the bars and the gentleman clubs and yes, I know everyone reading this is assuming I have done something ‘interesting’ by virtue of being in the US. Well, I’ll leave that to people who are much better suited to answering that than me. Personally, I find the mailing lists my greatest source of entertainment. This is something pretty unique and annoying to those within CSAIL alone. This mailing list is called csail-related, and there couldn’t be a more stark misnomer, since most items on it are unrelated to CSAIL anyway. Here’s a sampling of the utterly pointless (not because the discussions themselves are useless, but because nothing comes out of them eventually) discussions on topics such as :

  1. Why Ubuntu is not truly open source, because it allows you to install NVIDIA (a company)’s graphics drivers, as opposed to forcing you to use crappy open source drivers that make you scream.
  2. The Spanish Prime Minister’s capitalistic policies.
  3. What caused the financial crisis ? (Note the irony of a bunch of engineers debating this topic in a scientific way). The conclusion was , in typical researcher fashion, nobody knows.
  4. What’s the difference between compostable and non-compostable waste bins ? (This led to people suggesting the use of cats to eat the mice who would raid the dustbins looking for food morsels). The conversation eventually made it’s way to cat allergies which ruled out cats. People finally decided that Barn Owls who would prey on the rats were the optimal solution.
  5. How to pick a bicycle (in response to the numerous bicycle thefts in the area) and so on. I figured out, in the process, that using your bicycle lock to lock not just your cycle, but your cycle AND another cycle is actually a nice way of stealing a cycle.
  6. The best way of protesting against Amazon’s and Microsoft’s “non-opensource”ness (I can’t pinpoint their crime in any better way). Suggestions included :
    Make paper rockets out of Amazon’s gift certificates and defenestrate Windows.
  7. How Cloud Computing is Satan manifesting himself as a computer.

Oh, but I shouldn’t let my seemingly flippant attitude give you the wrong idea. I love this citizen culture at CSAIL, and it’s indeed great that profs, grad students, undergrads, tech support staff and everyone else can talk about things in a very open manner. Additionally, it does happen to be my daily source of comicality, and it never disappoints.

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