Why I Went to Graduate School
Ten years ago, I Tetris'd my possessions into my boxy green Volvo and drove from Indiana to Boston. A neighborhood in Medford became home—a short walk and a subway ride away from MIT, where I did my PhD. I commuted to the robotics lab on campus and drove to nearby schools for field experiments. Long hours were consumed with debugging code, painstaking data preparation and analysis, re-writing rejected papers.
All in the name of fun.
My grad school admissions essay started off with the line, "I am going to grad school because it is going to be fun."
I didn't have a specific career in mind. I didn't land on grad school because I didn't know what else to do. Instead, I figured I'd learn more during a PhD than Indiana has corn fields. And learning was fun.
I was curious; I liked asking questions and thinking about weird ideas, mind-bending paradoxes, and questions that were hard to answer. I wanted to learn how people sought answers—i.e., methodology. I shared the ever-so-human desire to understand ourselves. All that, I figured, made me decent graduate school material.
Learning should be fun
If learning is not enjoyable, you're doing it wrong.
People learn best, and learn most, when they're engaged in an activity because they want to be. Because they're intrinsically motivated. Learning happens because of that engagement and interest. When there's an element of playand fun.
At the MIT Media Lab, these ideas about motivation and learning were embodied in the academic program via professor Mitch Resnick's favorite word quartet: Peers, Passion, Projects, and Play. He argued that people learn the most and are most creative during (1) projects they choose themselves; (2) when engaged with passion, doing things they want to do, that they enjoy or find interesting, intrinsically motivated; (3) with a playful spirit—it has to be fun, in flow, sincere not serious; (4) in company with peers—by working with others, collaborating, and remixing.
The Media Lab's approach to learning jibed with my own views. The flexibility and emphasis on self-driven learning—through projects, with peers—was a good fit for someone who had decided to attend grad school for the fun and challenge of it, to learn and explore and seek answers.
Pursuing play and fun isn't always the right choice. Sometimes, you have other commitments, values, and goals that take precedence.
But if you're considering a new venture—such as attending graduate school, starting a new job, starting a business, moving to a new place—consider why you're doing it. Consider your values and goals. What are you balancing? What do you want or need to accomplish? Can you follow your interests, your curiosity, and your motivation, without sacrificing your values, other commitments, and other goals?
How I made my decision
I didn't arrive at the decision to attend grad school lightly. I remember a moment of strong indecision early in my senior year of college. I stood on a wooden bridge that crossed the Casperkill, looking down at the water and brush. The bridge connected the hill of Terrace Apartments and the athletic buildings beyond with the main campus. I leaned on the railing. The kill trickled its peaceful watery tune.
Some of my friends were applying to grad schools and med schools. Some were practicing their job interview skills, and a few already had jobs lined up. Some, less ambitious, had no plans whatsoever, and seemed content with their lot. But me?
I didn't know.
I had just started my senior thesis—autonomous virtual predator and prey robots that used emotion-like signaling to communicate. Did I like working on research enough to get a PhD so I could pursue a research career? (I didn't imagine any good reasons besides a research career for getting a PhD.) Or, I supposed, I could take advantage of my CS minor and pursue a high-paying software development gig, but summer internships as a scientist of the mind among crowds of engineers nudged me away from strict tech.
A student tromped over the bridge past me and startled a nearby bird into flight. I watched it wing into the trees and made a decision. I wouldn't apply to grad school—not yet. Instead, I'd finish my thesis and enjoy my senior year. Line up something exploratory for summer and following year, no worries whether it was a dream deal. Apply next fall, maybe.
I debated all summer. More school? Really more school? But the draw of learn stuff and do research was strong.
Plus, as one of my Vassar professors put it,
Practically, unless you have a cool job lined up with good long-term prospects, why wouldn't you go to grad school in this economy? You get health care, living stipend, and, o yeah, $30,000 worth of higher education.
Which is how, exactly ten years ago, I walked into the MIT Media Lab for our two-day orientation.
Over the next six and a half years, I got to play with fluffy robots, explore interesting questions, and traipse through an academic jungle of art, robot voice acting, philosophy and ethics, psychology, child development, cognitive science, programming, electronics, statistics, and not a small amount of writing. I dabbled. I dove deeply.
And I had fun.