Applying to the MIT Media Lab

Over the years, I’ve had a few dozen coffee chats / phone conversations with prospective applicants wanting to learn more about my experience applying to and being a student at the MIT Media Lab.

During these chats, the same questions kept coming up time and time again. I decided to compile a list of FAQs to answer the most common questions I’ve been asked. Hopefully this will serve as a useful resource to anyone interested in applying to the MIT Media Lab. Also, with this post, I dismiss myself from ever having to do a coffee chat again about this topic because all my answers are here 😅

I bucketed the questions below into a few different categories:

  1. Questions about what the Media Lab program is
  2. Questions about the application process
  3. Questions about what it’s like to be a student there
  4. Questions about what it was like to transition out of the Media Lab and enter the “real world.”

For context, I applied to the Media Lab in 2010, was admitted as a masters student to the Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) program within the Lifelong Kindergarten Group (LLK) starting Fall 2011, entered the PhD program in Fall 2012 (so I didn’t end up getting an MAS masters), and defended my dissertation in Spring 2016. At the time I applied to the Media Lab, I was a masters student at Stanford in Mechanical Engineering focusing on Engineering Education research. The Media Lab application process can be totally different than when I applied in 2010, but I’m guessing the same general principles apply.

I applied and ended up at the Media Lab, and LLK in particular, for 3 reasons:

  1. As a grad student at Stanford, I found that design research (the research I was funded for), was missing the tool-building side of why I loved engineering. Design research focuses on studying how people design, often drawing from qualitative research methods like ethnographic observation, interviewing users, and grounded-theory analysis. I wanted to play an active role in building and designing technologies as well as study how they were used by people.
  2. I knew I was most interested in focusing on K12 engineering education, which I found difficult to do in a traditional engineering department where, if there is engineering education, much of it is focused on higher-ed (this has changed a bit since 2010). So I had a sense that a normal engineering program would not suit my goals.
  3. From my experience interning at design companies, I found that working in industry often doesn’t afford you the time to pursue deep research questions around design and education because of the product development timeline and bottom-line, business-oriented decision making.

Basically, I felt strongly that the combination of design, education, and community-oriented research at LLK was the only place I could really focus on what I was most interested in, which is why I applied to the Media Lab.

If you talk to anyone from the Media Lab, they will tell you everything is super group dependent. There are over 30 groups at the lab, each specializing in quite different types of research. They all function differently depending on the direction and vision of the PI, the current students in the group, and the group’s ongoing projects and initiatives. I’ll largely speak of my own experiences in LLK but include snippets of experiences of my former classmates.

Going to the Media Lab was definitely a net-positive experience for me, and I’m really thankful to have gone there. That being said, there are some things that make being at the Media Lab tough, and I’ll share some examples below.

What is the Media Lab?

What does Media Arts and Sciences even mean?

The name is a bit mysterious, but it represents the multidisciplinary nature of the lab, where media, arts, and sciences are combined to create new knowledge around how technology can enhance our lives. You usually don’t have to explain what the Media Lab is to people in the industry; it carries a lot of brand recognition (the lab is now over 30 years old). When people ask, you’ll probably just end up talking about what specifically you and your group work on. In other words, don’t worry so much about the name of the program.

How is the Media Lab different than attending graduate school for engineering?

Since the Media Lab is multidisciplinary, you’ll get to work on research that would be difficult to do in a traditional, more narrowly-defined engineering program.

For most engineering grad schools, you apply to a PhD program directly or to a more applied professional masters program. At the Media Lab, everyone applies as a masters student, and you’re not guaranteed admission into the PhD program upon admission.

In engineering programs, you typically have some time to take classes and think about what research you want to engage in before joining a lab. Because the groups are so specialized at the Media Lab, you pretty much need to know what area you’re going to focus on when you apply because you submit your application to specific research groups.

There are fewer course requirements for a Media Lab degree (5 courses required, from a selection of options – I finished all my course requirements within the first year). In most engineering programs, you need to take classes ever semester up to when you graduate (from the masters program).

Having less classes at the Media Lab means you have more time for research. However, if you feel that you learn the most from coursework, the Media Lab may not be the best place for that. That’s because the coursework at the Media Lab largely functions to help seed new research by introducing you to seminal papers that spark inspiration, and giving you a chance to collaborate with fellow students on research projects. To be honest, the best classes I took while at the lab were at Harvard because the lecturers were just more organized and structured. Courses at the Media Lab can often feel more student-driven than professor-driven, in my opinion, since they are based more on group discussions and student projects.

The Media Lab is generally very well funded, especially compared to many engineering programs, since most of the funding comes from corporations that pay money to access knowledge resources at the lab (i.e., your work). That extra funding can be especially helpful if you need to purchase equipment, hardware, etc. for your research.

You will likely publish less at the Media Lab than you will in a traditional engineering program because the Media Lab is very applied, and more emphasis is placed on practical applications of your work. Sometimes that means that you’re building a technology and deploying it with real users, or it could mean developing a conceptual prototype where you then brainstorm with corporate sponsors how they might build off of your idea.

Preparing demos and speaking with sponsors will take up a significant part of your time at the Media Lab, and you will grow accustomed to talking about your work with many different audiences, with or without knowledge of your field. In engineering programs, you’re mostly speaking to other experts in your field (at academic conferences, through journal publications, etc.), so there is generally less emphasis on communicating to broader audiences.

How is the Media Lab different than art school?

First, the Media Lab has some similarities to art school. The design of the lab spaces is pretty similar to having your own studio, and there are a lot of materials to be inspired by. Many Media Lab faculty have exhibited in art museums around the world, so if that’s of interest to you, there are people to talk to for advice.

Compared to technology-focused art schools, there is less coursework / direct instruction specifically focused on building technical skills. For example, if you go to NYU ITP, you can take classes that teach you how to program in Processing or program an Arduino. There aren’t really any classes that teach you those technical skills explicitly at the Media Lab — you basically do research projects and teach yourselves how to build things and work with technologies in the context of those projects.

I think technology-focused art programs tend to have terminal masters degrees, so they are super practical (helping you develop a portfolio so you can become a UX / interaction designer). If your goals are strictly professional, the Media Lab is probably not the right program. The Media Lab will be most appealing to you if you have an itch to really dive into a particular problem or research area and answer questions no one has solved, or even thought to ask. That experience is very different than gaining specific practical design skills to help you get a job as a designer. That being said, there are great opportunities to network at the Media Lab since lots of interesting companies sponsor the lab, so you will probably form industry connections that would be difficult to gain through the natural course of a more traditional art school program.

Questions about Applying

Can I apply to the Media Lab straight out of undergrad?

Most students I went to the Media Lab with either already had a graduate degree from another institution or applied to the lab after working in industry for several years. Very rarely do students get admitted straight from undergrad, but it does happen. I think it’s just difficult to have a strong portfolio of projects that show evidence of independent research as an undergrad. More importantly, though, I think you need to have a very good idea of what exactly you want to focus on during your time at the Media Lab, and most people don’t have the experience to be that self-reflective when they are 22 and just out of school.

My grades in undergrad were not that good – how much will that affect my application?

Having a good portfolio that shows a range of projects and a unique point-of-view is far more important than grades. That’s why the Media Lab doesn’t have a GRE requirement. The current director, Joi Ito, dropped out of college. Don’t be discouraged if your GPA is not high, or even if you don’t don’t have a degree, because if your work speaks for itself, you’ll be fine.

Can I attend the Media Lab if I don’t know how to code?

To be honest, I think it would be hard to be a student at the Media Lab without having at least a basic familiarity with a programming language. Even if you don’t build applications as part of your research, you may be writing scripts to run simulations, or analyzing data to build visualizations, or studying communities working with technologies. Having a passing understanding of how to write code will definitely help you express your ideas and communicate with collaborators. I came in as a mechanical engineer with limited software experience (Arduino, HTML, CSS, Javascript) but learned a lot while I was a student at the lab — there are many opportunities to become a better programmer, even if that isn’t your specialization at the time of applying.

I’m having trouble narrowing down my application to 3 groups. How do you pick 3 research groups to apply to?

If you are having trouble deciding on which 3 groups to apply to, I would suggest spending a bit more time reflecting on what’s important to you and what areas of research most excite you.

Think about it this way — every faculty at the Media Lab had to go through a rigorous process to prove that the research they are doing is unique from any existing group at the lab, and the world. Yes, there is some amount of overlap in that research groups can collaborate with one another and build off of each others’ specialization, but the faculty need to be distinct enough to warrant creating a completely new group / initiative when they’re hired. Therefore, if you as an applicant have an interest in more than 3 labs, you probably haven’t had enough time to better understand exactly what it is that attracts you to want to work in any particular group for at least 2 years.

To get a better sense of what groups are a good fit for your interests, here are some questions to ask yourself while browsing each group’s website.

  • What are the most recent projects from the group? Can you imagine yourself working on them? What types of skills are required to execute on those projects? Do you have those skills, or at the very least, are you excited enough to learn more so you could contribute to the research directly? Do you have a suggestion for how you personally can make that research project even stronger, or take it in a new direction?
  • Do the websites emphasize best paper awards? If so, the research group probably cares a lot about academic publishing, and so you can expect to be writing and submitting papers if you’re a student in that group. They may even expect you to have some publication experience already before applying.
  • Who is publishing about the work coming out of that group? Nature? Wired? Think about what type of work typically gets featured in those publications. If you care more about creating compelling demos that are shared with the world through polished videos, that will be a very different experience than submitting academic publications to Nature.
  • How many students are listed for each project on the group’s website? Are the students mostly working by themselves (single student listed for a project), or are they working together (many students listed for a project)? If you want to collaborate with others, it might be easier to do so in a group with a history of collaborative efforts. If you want to focus on independent research, you may want to find groups that support that type of research.

Of course, that assumes the group’s website is up to date, which it may not be. 😅

How can I make my portfolio stand out?

Your portfolio is your chance to show your unique background, ideally a background that’s not currently represented by any current students within the research group that you’re applying to. (This is one example of something that’s completely outside of your control in the application process because clearly you can’t control for other students currently in the group.) Anything that can display that your interests draw from multiple disciplines can only help you in applying to a multidisciplinary design program. Showing evidence of working on extended projects that are not just class projects is very important. If you’ve published your work, that is another good sign that you are capable of communicating your ideas and working on projects that are recognized by others in your field.

What happens after you submit your application?

For me, I had some Skype interviews and then was invited for a 1 day visit where I flew out from California, met multiple students in the group, and gave a short talk about my previous work and what I’d like to work on. I had to present to my top 2 groups (you apply to up to 3 programs in your application). I had a really terrible experience presenting my work to my second-choice research group (it was the end of a long day of interviewing and I had not slept on my red-eye into Boston — also I was told I was giving a presentation the day of, when I had only put together a presentation for my top choice group), but I managed to get into my top choice so it worked out. (:

Should I reach out to the professor to express my interest in the group?

It can be pretty hard to meet with a professor directly because they all get so many requests from people outside the lab. Just like any job, if you know someone who knows that professor directly and can do an introduction, that’s the best case scenario. If not, current students are sometimes amenable to answering questions as long as your questions are very specific to the group and not something where the answer can be easily found on the Media Lab website.

I was rejected last time I applied. Should I bother re-applying?

I know several students that did amazing work at the Media Lab and were not admitted the first time they applied. If your heart is set on going to the Media Lab, you shouldn’t hesitate to keep trying! That being said, there must have been a reason why your application was not accepted the first time, so you definitely shouldn’t be submitting the same, unedited application the next year.

On a personal note, I applied a year after two students were admitted to work on a major project in my research group. Because two students with software engineering backgrounds were admitted the previous year, that left some room for someone focused in a different area. I was really lucky that I applied the year I did, which is to say that a lot of the application process is very timing-based and out of your hands, so applying again in the future may be under better circumstances for you.

Can I see your personal statement?

Sure — I was able to dig it up and put it on Google Docs here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1zDZN_yNtrAlMZWDtW2-IC2iZ_jR6kXIEM4zm4Jh8Ft8/edit?usp=sharing

Questions about the Media Lab Experience

I already did a masters degree. Can I skip out of the MAS masters and just do the PhD program?

Everyone applies to the Media Lab as a masters student. When I was at the Media Lab, there was a way to “accelerate” into the PhD program after the first year of the masters program. From what I had heard, this involved two requirements: 1) you must have graduated from a 2-year masters program, and 2) you should have written a masters thesis in your previous program. I didn’t meet either of those requirements – I graduated in 5 quarters (1+ 2/3 years) at Stanford (not unusual for a masters student), and I didn’t write a masters thesis. However, I did publish multiple papers during my time as a masters student at Stanford, and I guess I ended up being convincing enough to accelerate into the PhD program after the first year.

So yes, it’s possible to skip the masters degree, but only after having at least one year in the masters program. The only downside I personally found to doing this is that there is a lot of bonding over second-year master requirements like crit-day (sharing your thesis proposal with the entire Media Lab community) and writing the thesis itself. Without that shared experience, you’re entering a new cohort of students you don’t know quite as well. But on the flip side, you end up saving a year of your life and don’t have to spend your time writing a masters thesis.

What’s it like to live on the Media Lab stipend?

When I applied in 2010, my stipend was $2200 a month, so about $26,000 annually. You may have heard that people are fighting for $15 minimum wage, which is $31,000 annually.

Luckily, landlords in Cambridge know that many people are students and adjust requirements accordingly. For example, in NYC the rule of thumb is that your monthly rent x 40=minimum annual salary — there is no such requirement in Cambridge. Otherwise, it would be hard to find an apartment for $600/month in Cambridge unless you are living in a house with lots of people. For example, currently the monthly rent in Cambridge for a 2 bedroom is $3448.

I didn’t go to the Media Lab after working in industry, so I was used to living on a stipend. Personally, I didn’t find it hard at all as a single student. You can do things like go to Market Basket in Somerville to save on groceries, and take advantage of public transportation discounts that MIT offers. You can almost always find free food on Food Cam, the Media Lab system where leftover food from events and meetings are broadcast to everyone on the mailing list. Cambridge and Boston is also very bike-friendly. There are some cool perks of being part of certain organizations on campus; for example, I was part of WMBR, the radio station, which meant I rarely paid for any concerts I went to (i.e., most of my “entertainment” expenses were non-existent). Also, health insurance is included and good and convenient (MIT medical is literally right next door to the Media Lab).

I had classmates who had families — usually they had worked in industry for at least a few years and had saved up enough to live frugally but comfortably.

Are students at the Media Lab competitive?

In LLK, it was very collaborative and I personally didn’t feel any competitiveness among students in my cohort. I can’t say that’s representative of every group in the lab, though. Some groups are more competitive than others. Generally, groups are different enough in specialization that students aren’t directly competing over the same resources, at least across groups. However, within-group, everyone may be submitting to the same conferences, and not everyone may get their papers accepted, which can certainly be stressful.

You have the opportunity to collaborate with others on research projects, so you’re often working together towards the same goal, rather than against each other. However, try to talk to students within the group you’re interested in to get a better sense.

Do you have any regrets about your experience at the Media Lab?
I think when you start focusing on your dissertation work, you can easily fall into a trap of getting fully consumed by what you’re working on. Since you’re likely not taking classes any more, it’s easy to loose touch with students from other groups.

Since I worked on projects largely by myself, I didn’t really collaborate with others directly, which meant sometimes my PhD experience was a bit isolating. However, I do feel lucky to have made a few strong, lasting friendships from my time at the lab.

Questions about post-Media Lab

If I want to go into academia, what types of departments do Media Lab graduate students end up in, since there aren’t other Media Arts and Science departments in the country?

In LLK, recent graduates have gone on to become professors in departments like Education, Information Science, and Computing.

Is what you’re doing now what you expected to do when you applied to the Media Lab?

To some extent, yes — I was interested in developing tools that enable other people to build and design things themselves. The work I’m doing now at Glitch is super-aligned with many of the ideas of LLK. That being said, I don’t think that the Media Lab really prepared me for UX design work directly (it’s not like I learned how to use Adobe Creative Suite or Sketch while I was at the lab), but these are other ways I do think it prepared me to be a stronger designer:

  • You are also working at demos at the Media Lab, and working on a product is kind of like building lots of little demos of features over time.
  • I worked on my own research projects at the Media Lab, and I was ultimately responsible for setting a timeline for everything I built and ensuring I had the team and resources to help me build it (i.e., undergraduate researchers to work on the projects). These project-management skills are very helpful for working as a designer.
  • As a PhD student, you have the opportunity to participate in the academic publishing review cycle, which means you write reviews of academic papers that are anonymously submitted for publication. Part of that process is learning how to read carefully, think critically, and communicate clearly why an argument or idea might be flawed. A lot of professional design work involves critique and being able to give feedback in a way that’s constructive, so I feel that being a PhD student at the Media Lab made me a better communicator and more critical designer.

I wrote more about finding design jobs as a PhD graduate of the Media Lab here: https://medium.com/@scientiffic/tiffs-highly-biased-guide-to-design-jobs-416f5c1ced5d

Some final thoughts

I’ll close by saying that I think the single-most important thing to think about when considering applying to the MIT Media Lab is whether or not the Media Lab is the absolute best place for you to pursue the research you’re excited about.

For myself and my classmates at the lab, the ability to work across disciplines and have access to the expertise and technologies of MIT and the larger Cambridge community enabled us to do work that would have been much more difficult to achieve elsewhere.

When you can clearly communicate why the Media Lab is the ideal place for you to pursue your research interests, and are able to back up your application with a strong portfolio of prior work, that’s when your application will be strongest.

That being said, there are lots of other institutions around the world with strong design programs, and you should definitely consider them — they might be a much better fit for you for many reasons. Here are some you might think about, depending on your interest:

I hope this post has been informative about the process of getting to and working at the Media Lab. Good luck with your application if you choose to apply!