What it’s like being a student in this strange place.

Jean Yang
Jean Yang
Jan 14, 2014 · 5 min read

“Are there other women there?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be done soon.”

“How much money can you make once you’re out?”

By these reactions you would think I was in jail, not doing a Ph.D. in computer science. How do I explain my strange and wondrous home of over half a decade? How do I convince people that I like this place?

Growing up, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was the only school I wanted to attend. It was the place of Serious Science. I imagined myself joining studious young men and women to study the periodic table under busts of famous scientists. I imagined myself wearing a lab coat and goggles while taking measurements from the weather balloon at the top of the Green Building.

After I was admitted to MIT for college, I discovered I was not yet ready to go there. When I visited during the spring of my senior year, I visited MIT and encountered two types of freshmen: the Greek future corporate superstars of West Campus and the non-conformist geeks of East Campus. High school friends took me around the East Campus dorm (motto: “the weak shall be eaten”). People dyed their hair blue and walked around barefoot. The bathrooms were coed. People painted murals on the walls, built loft structures for their rooms, and engineered homemade fingerprint readers for their locks. “The undergrads here are intense,” a grad student whispered to me as I wandered the halls of the Infinite Corridor. “Come back for grad school.”

Sage advice. Just seventeen and coming straight from a tiny all-girls prep school, I was not ready to commit to this nonconformity. I needed to see more of the rest of the world before I could choose who I wanted to intensely be. And so I spent the next four years at Harvard.

By the time I was choosing where to go for my Ph.D., I had almost forgotten about my early idealization of MIT. Set on moving to California after college, I showed up begrudgingly to MIT's rainy Computer Science Visit Weekend an hour late. But I fell in love with that crazy place: its energy, its whimsical architecture, and its sense of humor. During research presentations, the professors had three minutes to describe their off-the-deep-end research agendas before a gong struck to cut them off. The department chair was in charge of the gong. As I sat at lunch with three professors arguing about the future of parallel computing, I felt not unlike Alice at tea with the Mad Hatter. Here were people who had such conviction that their worlds were real. And here, these worlds could be more real. Having sufficiently found my bearings in the more conventional real world, I was ready to face this place.

I am almost finished with my Ph.D. here and I still don’t want to leave. Sure, there is the usual pressure and the usual occasional work all-nighter. But the mad landscape of MIT provides such an invigorating backdrop for it all. Every day, I go to work in a building fit to be a Doctor Seuss illustration. My officemates scavenge so many items that we once had multiple guitars, a ukelele, an organ, a keyboard, and a drum pad. Our office became such a hub for musical activity that I had to limit the number of instruments to at most two at a time during working hours. MIT is surprisingly artistic—and in surprisingly innovative ways. I have an MIT friend who DJs electronic dance parties in unexpected spaces—filling pipe-lined basements, machine rooms, and rooftop gardens with a web of LED lights and experimental beats. These parties are part of the respectfully subversive “hacking” culture, which encourages the “discovery” of innovative pranks and obscure locations. I once explored the ventilation shafts of MIT with some undergraduates who spend their free time exploring between the walls of the institution. I was impressed to discover that not only do these students know how to climb to the top of MIT’s iconic dome, they also have know precise knowledge of which pipes to avoid stepping on to avoid chemical death. This was not surprising, as I had heard that MIT students use their chemical knowledge for more than avoiding pipes. Some allegedly brew their own boutique pharmaceuticals, creating their own customized colored experiences of the world. In this place, people worship creativity. In this place, work, art, and play all blend together.

What I love most about MIT is how much fun people have doing what they want, as hard as they want to. I once had an art teacher who said, “You know the kind of person who's just kind of there, not really going for it? You don't want your art to be that person. Go for it.” This applies not just to work, but also to lifestyle. The guy down the hall is into coffee: he sometimes drinks sixteen espressos a day. Perhaps more importantly, the culture of intensity extends to play and to practical jokes. When my friends in the department play Assassins, they'll construct their own more effective Nerf weapons and camp out for hours for a kill. Graduate students in my department are so devoted to the “vultures” free food e-mail list that they have made various alarms and crawlers to more easily be the first to discover free food. For the annual “Olympics” in our department, my friends made a video “The Day After Vultures” depicting the termination of the “vultures” list as causing the end of the world. As an April Fool’s joke, our former department head once sent an “official” e-mail to the entire department about the supposed “end of vultures”—and then ordered pizza for the department in order to see everyone’s raw reactions. We play hard.

This is my MIT: intensely unconventional and intensely fun. One day I will likely have to graduate and leave. But my MIT will always be a part of me, reminding of the upside-down world-views I once knew, pushing me to go hard for that next crazy thing.

Thanks to Tiffany Kosolcharoen.

    Jean Yang

    Written by

    Jean Yang

    Building @akitasoftware to help companies get back in control of their data. Previously @Harvard (ugrad) @MIT_CSAIL (PhD) @SCSatCMU (Assistant Prof).