Semester in Review: First Grad Semester Done!

So this year I started grad school at MIT. Going to grad school had been a dream for the past years and once I decided Transportation/City Planning was what I wanted to study MIT was the ultimate dream goal. To be honest I really never thought I would actually get in, it was one of those “reach” goals you have to push yourself. To this day I still sometimes look around campus and need to pinch myself to prove it’s not a dream.

One issue sometimes with dreams is that you never really think what life will be like when they come true. There is this old adage that grad school is like climbing a mountain: you spend so much time preparing, stressing and working towards the goal that once you get in(reach the top) you’re not really sure what to do next. I would agree, but also add that once you reach the top you are in wind storm, and its icy, and the last 100m of climbing are 11000x times harder that the previous kms.

Needless to say my first semester was a whirlwind and the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Not sure what I expected but I definitely underestimated how hard it would be to go back to school, switch fields of study, acclimatize to a STEM environment,  and learn how to be a substantially better researcher. I thought I would recap my ups and downs and maybe a little bit of what I learnt this past semester.

Grad school recap timeline

September

Arrived on campus and was super happy to see some familiar faces from the Open House. All four of us who had met at Open House accepted our offers, plus there was another guy from Canada and two girls already at MIT who had switched into the program. Way smaller than I imagined ( 5 complete first years, and then later 3 more in dual-degrees) but really nice to have a tight-knit group. Of the five of us first years I am the only girl and only non-engineer, am beginning to realize I am the only non-engineer virtually the whole program who is here not from the dual City Planning degree…probably should have recognized this as it is a Master of Science from the Civil Engineering school…but you know, details…

Get to see my lab space and spend time with my labmates. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of my program I am placed in an AeroAstro lab ( way outside my academic knowledge). All are totally wonderful people but also all are guys and all but one are in the PhD program, definitely feel very out of place.

Despite the fact that there are other girls in Transportation, with the way classes work I really don’t see them too much, between that and being the only girl in my lab I am definitely missing female friends. Thought I would try acupuncture to help with all my stress, instead the stress of acupuncture made me pass out… total fail.

One of the requirements of our degree is a computing course, Python is definitely way outside my comfort zone and takes me a really really long time to get comfortable with. Since this is a compressed course, time is not really in my favor. Wrote our first Python test at the end of this month and definitely definitely thought I failed. Between that, passing out earlier from acupuncture and just generally feeling very out of my depth I came home and cried on the floor…. starting to get stressed that this was all a mistake. To make matter worse I step on a plug really hard and get a giant blood blister(gross, I know!) on my foot and need to be on crutches for the first time in my life, for a full week.

BUT! September does end on a higher note, I found out I actually didn’t fail my Python test(!!) and my transportation professor took the class on an amazing walking tour where a bunch of us went out for lunch together before. Really nice to get to know my classmates more and realize I am not the only one struggling with the adjustment.

girl on crutches

October:

Wrote the second Python test and really really thought I failed this time. Also coming to grasps with leading my own research project, having a really hard time finding data.

But things are getting better! I go to a local advocacy event and talked to other women for over an hour! Also gaining back my academic confidence as I am #killingit in my economics course. A nice little jaunt back to Canada for thanksgiving gives me some much needed space from school. Nothing soothes the heart more than family and pumpkin pie ❤

But there is a harsh return to reality as my Python final ( again, compressed course) is right after break, and just hours before the exam my coffee cup opens in my backpack soaking absolutely everything. I thought my computer made it out okay as it was functioning but soon realized it was not charging at all and would run out of battery soon. Since I very much need a computer to write a programming final I run to our IT office, who bless their souls, set me up ASAP with a loaner laptop. I am very very stressed going into this final but I think it goes okay. Finish the day with pizza and lots of red wine for dinner, getting paranoid that this disaster of a day is a sign I am maybe not meant to be here.

coffee stain on notebook

Despite the fact that day sucked immensely it also meant I was done Python and has passed my first MIT class!! Took that as a total win as coding was something I had literally never done before and is very outside my realm, so if I could pass that I could handle anything (right??).

The end of October also had a lot of fun events with classmates: watched the Canadian election with some other Canadians at school, had another amazing walking tour, and found amazing pho downtown.

November:

Python is done so I started a new half semester class, Transportation Analytics. Really excited to get more into the transportation scene at MIT. Of course, because it is MIT analytics here isn’t just a stats/Excel course but means lot and lots of coding… Telling myself that I passed Python so can handle anything, I stay up all week teaching myself SQL and write over 700 lines for an assignment. My code is nowhere near perfect but it works!! Feeling pretty good about myself.

Also start playing tennis with a girl from my program, the nicest break in the middle of the day and really nice to have more social time in my week. Am feeling more and more comfortable at school, I finally get the license I need to access my data for research and start teaching myself R to manage the database.

November is my birthday month and was planning something very low-key until I was surprised by the best friends on the world from home!! Cried a lot, drank a lot, explored Boston and just generally felt all the love. Just truly had the best birthday ever and the nicest reminder of the incredible friends I have.

Later in the month I found out I didn’t do too hot in my Econ midterm, which was the one class I was super confident in. It really sucks but for once in my life I wasn’t actually upset about a mark below 80 ( actually second time, first being Python one week ago). This may sound really dumb but before getting a mark below an 80 would have felt like my life was ending, I am learning to let go a bit of my ideas of being perfect and am just trying to focus on learning what is relevant and being better than yesterday. Almost everything I am doing here I am doing for the first time, so as hard as it is not to compare it is really no longer a relevant metric for me.

Math homework

On a different note, I am becoming super comfortable talking in my transportation seminar and am starting to speak up a lot. The professor typically chooses a couple writing responses that we hand in weekly to talk about in class and mine has been chosen a couple times the past weeks. It is super nice to feel recognized, maybe I am getting the hang of this school thing?

December 

Feels like we are moving a 100miles an hour coming up to finals. Making tons of progress on my research, but realizing how much calculus I forgot since undergrad… this economics final is going to be very hard. Our final project for Transportation Analytics leads to many (many) very late nights but once I am done I have build a full Shiny, interactive transportation dashboard report and again feeling pretty incredible. The performance of my code is utter shit but it works! It’s interactive! It looks fricking cool!

My boyfriend and I host a Christmakkah party and it’s super nice to have an apartment full of the new friends we have made in Boston, while the social scene at MIT ( and grad school in general) is a little different I am starting to feel more at home in our new city.

And then WHEW! We are done! I have survived my first semester in grad school! My first semester in a Master of Science program at an engineering school as a decidedly not STEM-y person. My first semester learning about transportation as someone who had no experience and only passion for the topic beforehand. While it was no 4.0 semester as maybe I dreamed about, it was definitely still a semester I could be very proud of.

MIT dome

Final thoughts:

If I could sum up this semester in a couple words it would definitely be “out of my comfort zone”. From adjusting to a new country and city,  a very different social scene, a completely new field of study and realizing that my work now falls in the realm of STEM ( as someone who was a self-professed Humanities kid) there was a whole lot of new and it took me almost the whole semester to acknowledge that. Once I realized I couldn’t compare my grades to undergrad, or compare my skillsets to my colleagues I started to let go of my imposter syndrome and own the fact that I deserve my spot here. I am really excited for the next semester, new classes, getting to see my new friends again, and hopefully some big progress with my research.

So cheers to a 2019 that taught me a lot and here’s to a (hopefully less dramatic) 2020!

2 thoughts on “Semester in Review: First Grad Semester Done!

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