My first semester at MIPT felt like military training for me. Every hour of my day revolved around studying, worrying and stressing about failing and getting sent back home. I developed dermatitis and acid reflux because of stress. Everyone was on the same boat. In the end, the dropout rate after the first year was at about fifty percent.
Photo by Александр Голодков (Alexander Golodkov). Follow him @agolodkov.
Words can't describe the relief I felt after passing my first exam, walking through the campus back to my dorm, now suddenly everything seemed brighter and prettier. I now had an official confirmation that I wasn't a complete failure and maybe I did actually deserve to be here. Memories are a bit blurry after that, but the beginning of second semester was bliss. The best way to describe my feeling is the way you see in movies that people experience their first days of university. Walking through the halls, meeting new people, curious to discover what this new life away from home has in store for you. Discovering new experiences, being genuinely curious about your subjects, not just studying them like a machine because you have to. I didn't get to experience that the first semester because I was too worried about not being kicked out.
This didn't last long, though. Half way through, the quarantine kicked in, we suddenly had to figure out how to study the material almost on our own, while managing at the same time the uncertainty of a global pandemic and trying not to go crazy from being locked in the same room all day. Oh, and don't get me started on the homemade diy labs that our dear general physics department treated us with... Nevertheless, not all was gloomy thanks to what happened during my first winter at phystech.
Winter of Contemplation and Choosing my Department or Кафедра
The most important decision for a bachelor student at MIPT is the choice of your кафедра, or department. You can attend the classes provided by multiple departments during the first and second year, to get to know the professors and get a feel for what you'll be studying there. Then, you make a decision by the end of the 3rd semester.
I spent the winter holidays researching all my options, and giving it a lot of thought. This is where I have to thank my boyfriend, Santiago, because all I wanted to do at the time was lay in bed and watch Netflix after a draining semester. However, he insisted that if I didn't devote the time for choosing now, I would spend the rest of my time here doing something I didn't like. So I went through all the options and the one seemed like a best fit was the "Department of Condensed Matter and Living Systems Computational Physics." You can watch a cool information video about the program made for newcomers.
The first day I walked in the classroom and saw everyone with their laptops coding in Linux :) and discussing physics. During the first 5 seconds, I had already decided this is where I wanted to be. It was the atmosphere that I fell in love with.
Everyone was working on the admission project: writing your own molecular dynamics simulation, under the supervision of the department head, Norman Henry Edgarovich. An exemplary professor, he pushed us hard and motivated us to get work done :) It's interesting that the head of department was the one giving the course for us, newbies, instead of spending that time on more advanced master's or PhD students. This reflects on the value he places on his new students and the importance of guidance and mentoring at the beginning of our paths.
I have not once regretted my choice.
Summer of Recalculating Direction
Fast forwarding a bit, the summer after the second semester, Santiago and I didn't get a chance to go home visit our families because of covid. This gave us plenty of time to reflect about where we were headed, something that had been impossible during our chaotic existence as first year PhysTech students. In summary, this is what came out of it:
Okay, we got this far, but university won't give us a path for our future careers. It gives you the foundation, but it is on you to build that path. This drastically changed our view on university, which takes me to my second point.
Grades don't define you nor your future. What's more, living under high levels of stress in order to keep up good grades was no sustainable way to live. It also didn't leave any mental space or free time for personal projects, which, in my opinion, say way more about who you are and what you are capable of than a number on a piece of paper.
The 3rd semester was the time to test our new mindset. The most valuable thing I took from this experiment was learning not to tie my self-esteem to my grades. It was somewhat obvious, but nontrivial, revelation that if got called to the board and didn't know how to solve the problem, or if I didn't score high on a test, I was still the same person. My worth as a person didn't change because it was never about that. This took a heavy weight off my shoulders.
Besides, I also built some cool habits and made progress in other areas of my life:
- Devoted more time to personal projects and figuring out what I wanted to pursue.
Went from drinking coffee several times a day to once a week or even once a month. I was anxious and stressed enough and coffee wasn't helping. So, I replaced my coffee dependency with more hours of sleep and enough tea to ease the craving of sipping on something hot throughout the day.
Took up yoga, which helped me manage stress and my posture.
Started calling my family more often.
Why the Mindset of Not Caring About Grades Doesn't Work
In the end, that new mentality of not caring much about grades took me on a path of personal growth, but at the same time it came with a much unexpected cost:
The subjects that once sparked curiosity and enjoyment in me had become a chore. Since I saw no point in trying too hard, I entered the vicious cycle of doing mediocre work and receiving mediocre results. This left me with no motivation to keep going. I understood that this strategy wasn't working.
In the end, I came to the conclusion that I needed to find a balance, where I could devote enough time to my studies but also leave energy to actually enjoy life.
I recently read the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Psychologist by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I simply fell in love with. This phrase quote from his book sums how I would describe my new philosophy:
The key to flow is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings.
--- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Whether it was catching up with homework, doing some really cool coding project, or typing up a lab report (ugh, I've never liked labs...), it turns out that the activity becomes more enjoyable if I approach it with curiosity and for its own sake, devoting enough time to actually appreciate it, instead of trying to just get it done as fast as possible. This approach might take up more time, but instead of draining my energy, it refills it, so I am more motivated to take on other tasks. Another lesson I learned is that our most precious resource in the pursuit of our goals is usually not time, but energy, both mental and physical.
On Why I love MIPT
Second year comes around, and that's when I started working on my CFD (computational fluid dynamics) filtration research project under the supervision of Vasily Vyacheslavovich Pisarev. We would meet every week for a few hours. Sometimes we discussed the physics, other time the peculiarities of the Julia programming language, and on some days there was no other option but to debug and rewrite nasty parts of code from scratch. This has been one of the most enjoyable learning experiences in MIPT, which is why I love this university. PhysTech doesn't just give you a strong preparation in the core subjects, but it also provides you with opportunities to dive deeper on topics that strike passion in you.
When I got the email confirming that my report got accepted for the 64th International MIPT Scientific Conference.
The highlight of the fourth semester was a post in Reddit where I asked about job perspectives in Germany in the field of CFD, being contacted by the team lead of a firm and almost getting a summer internship. I went through the whole process, interview and all. I got so excited, that I was reading papers on their methods and trying to remember my German, instead of studying for classes. In the end it didn't work out since the two months of summer break weren't enough time for me to give back to the company after the training period.
This fifth semester I had the opportunity to take part in my first scientific conference and present my work on filtration! Since I am not yet finished with the project, the conference was more like a checkpoint. It was cool seeing what others were working on and getting feedback on my own progress.
Some Closing Thoughts and Next Steps
In conclusion, during my time at PhysTech I have experienced burn out and anxiety, especially, but not only, during exams. I have also had moments of great gratification and breakthroughs, both personal and academic.
My goal this semester was to avoid falling in the 'pit of despair' both during the semester and during exams. I am writing this a week before exams, and so far I can say that these new strategies have helped me stay clear of that dreaded state of burn out. Though the real test is about to start, so we'll see what happens :) I am optimistic.
It's hard to get caught up in the flow of everyday life, but sometimes it's necessary to take the time to reflect before moving forward. After thinking hard about where I see myself in a few years, I've decided that my goal for the incoming semester is to aim for a summer internship. This will be a big challenge, since they usually take people doing their master's, but I am hopeful my hard work pays off.
I hope that by writing about my journey I could help someone who is in a similar situation and maybe share a new perspective to those walking down completely different paths. This was a very personal post for me, so I am very curious to hear what were your thoughts while reading!