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Six Students Tell 60 Years' Total Experience at MIT

By Rebecca Zacks

Deciding where to go for college can be a pretty daunting task. At seventeen years old, chances are you've never lived away from home for more than a few weeks at a stretch, and have less than a clear idea of what you want to do with the rest of your life.

With the cost of a few Swedish cars riding on your decision, you can seek the advice of guidance counselors and family members, dig your way through an avalanche of brochures, guide books, and U.S. News and World Report ratings, or simply throw up your hands and say, "At least it's only four years."

But for many MIT undergraduates who decide to seek graduate degrees at MIT, four years can quickly become six, 10, or even 13.

Two years ago, nearly one in six of MIT's new graduate students were former MIT undergraduates, according to the 1993-94 Report of the Registrar. With its labyrinth of underground tunnels and dialect of numbers, abbreviations, and acronyms, MIT can be a pretty strange place. So what makes so many people sign up for another walk down the Infinite Corridor?

In this article, five graduate students and one alumna explain why they initially came here, why they decided to stay on for graduate school, and what they learned in a combined total of 60 years at MIT.

Good reputation, big expectations

Many students knew MIT only by its reputation for science and technology when they first applied. For most, the expectation of a challenging academic environment was fulfilled.

Michael W. Halle G, who is about to receive his third degree from MIT, narrowed down his list of potential majors in his first two undergraduate years through "a process of getting really bad grades or failing prerequisites," he said.

First-year PhD candidate Michael H. Lim G said he learned from undergraduate biochemistry and organic chemistry classes that he didn't "have a good enough memory to be in biology."

After some trial and error, however, each found a comfortable niche within MIT. As prospective graduate students, many sought to remain in those niches.

Matthew B. Wall G, a fifth-year PhD student, joked that he didn't go to California for his master's degree because "the surf was better in Boston." But it was really the feeling of connection to the work, department, and faculty that kept him at MIT.

When it was time for Wall to choose between getting a PhD and getting a job, he knew that he "was going to do a PhD at MIT, or [he] was not going to do a PhD, period."

For Margaret D. Minsky PhD '95, MIT was "a kind of home, both intellectual and personal."

After graduation, Minsky continued work she had done as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. She ventured briefly into private sector science, but returned to MIT for a PhD.

Even while Minsky was working off-campus, she maintained close links with her colleagues at MIT, who occasionally worked as consultants in her new laboratory.

UROP a good start in research

Looking back, Minsky, among others, offered strong praise for the UROP program. Many continued their UROP work in graduate school.

While Minsky felt that MIT does not discourage students from staying on, Halle further asserted that the Media Laboratory, "out of necessity," prefers MIT undergraduates. Because the technology changes so quickly, it is difficult for admissions committees to judge outside applicants, Halle said.

But this is not true across all departments, according to Iria J. Romano, assistant to the Registrar. Out of about 300 MIT undergraduates admitted to the graduate school last year, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and the Mechanical Engineering department accepted 179 and 24 students, respectively. In contrast, only one or two were admitted to departments such as Architecture, Chemistry, Biology, and Physics

Ninth-year PhD student David J. Gerber G explained that the Biology department rarely accepts MIT undergraduates because they might have an unfair advantage getting positions in laboratories. Gerber felt he was accepted because he didn't major in Biology.

Many years, few regrets

Having collectively devoted the better part of six decades to a single institution, these six people have few regrets about the decisions that brought and kept them here. Halle said he could think of "no real inherent disadvantage [to staying at MIT] as long as you take time to fill the gaps that there are in any higher education program."

Several found that filling those gaps through involvement in outside activities greatly enriched their academic careers. Those who spent time away at jobs or other universities found the additional perspective invaluable as well.

Gerber warned that "you should be pretty set on doing science or engineering if you come to MIT."

Daniel A.Theobald G, a fifth-year mechanical engineering major who plans to stay for his PhD, was concerned that the academic and intellectual intensity of MIT can "push people in the wrong direction" away from family and relationships.

Still, each has found the necessary balance and perspective to be content here. Theobald advised his younger brother to come to MIT, and Gerber plans, after almost 13 years here, to remain on as a postdoctoral fellow.

In the end, these six veterans say, MIT is what you make of it. Each of them, in his or her own way, has made it home.