Four furry robots sitting around a wooden table inset with a tablet. From left to right, a red dragonbot, a blue dragonbot, a teddy bear robot, and a green dragonbot.

Why I Went to Graduate School

If learning isn't fun, you're doing it wrong.

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.

(Read: Why I Left Full-Time Academic Work and What I Do Instead)

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Look, we match!


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.

(Read: It's Just Fencing: On Approaching Life With Playfulness and Sincerity, Not Seriousness)

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.

(Read: Kids Can't Be Taught, But They Love to Learn)

Pursuing fun

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?

(Read: Book Review: Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans)

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.

Like this post? You'll find even more detailed advice about managing grad school and life in my new book, Grad School Life: Surviving and Thriving Beyond Coursework and Research. Order it today!

the glassy water of the spokane river winds through banks of rounded river rocks, pine trees standing tall on the far side of the river and in the distance around the river bend

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We're Jacqueline and Randy, a blogging duo with backgrounds in tech, robots, art, and writing, now raising our family in northern Idaho.

Our goal is to encourage deliberate choices, individual responsibility, and lifelong curiosity by sharing stories about our adventures in living, loving, and learning.

Learn more about us.


Start here

Curious about our life and journey? Here are some good places to start reading:

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