“Work, friends, sleep: pick two.” MIT students have traditionally adopted this mantra during their undergraduate years, and for many students, these choices remain a reality for survival at the Institute. MIT students too often sacrifice sleep, exercise, social activity, and other forms of personal care in order to enhance their educational experience. The consequences of this lifestyle imbalance can be far-reaching. Sleep deprivation can endanger students’ physical health. Furthermore, stress resulting from being overworked and under-rested, combined with limited social interactions, can seriously compromise students’ mental health. When individuals focus on their work and lose perspective of those around them, they are also less likely to identify fellow members of the MIT community that may be susceptible to problems such as depression. Losing touch with non-academic facets of life can induce even more academic stress, contributing to the vicious cycle of imbalance. Finally, an imbalanced lifestyle can sometimes breed one-dimensional personalities; when too much emphasis is placed on a narrow set of academic tasks, students fail to develop life skills. MIT graduates will first need to lead balanced personal lives before they can reap the rewards of professional success.
To develop solutions that promote work/life balance, we must first consider the sources that promote imbalance. The MIT “fire hose” places substantial academic pressure on students. While rigorous academics promote technical competence and a strong work ethic, students often struggle just to keep up with the pace and the pressure. In order to complete what can be a daunting plate of assignments, students stay up late into the night and skip numerous athletic and social opportunities. While choices must be made and tradeoffs exist, students can only be “hosed” so much before the detrimental effects outweigh the benefits. But the MIT “fire hose” is not the only source of pressure. The hardworking MIT culture can, at times, border on masochism. Many students compete to outwork each other, as the difficulty of a person’s course load is often worn as a badge of honor. While a healthy dose of competition with fellow students provides a challenge and an incentive that promotes achievement, MIT’s culture promotes a peer pressure driven academic “arms race” on many. Students feel the need to constantly work harder, even at the expense of personal well-being. It can, however, be difficult to separate MIT’s culture from its people. Since the people help create the culture, one cannot ignore the fact that MIT’s students tend to be internally driven and place academic achievement at the top of their priorities.
MIT students do not believe, however, that enforced limitations on their academic choices are an appropriate solution to this lifestyle imbalance. While credit restrictions at other institutions attempt to promote lifestyle balance, MIT students enjoy having the opportunity to push themselves to their respective limits. However, some students feel that the academic environment forces them involuntarily into an imbalanced lifestyle. Professors and academic deans need to ensure that unnecessary academic pressure from unreasonable workloads or harsh testing is reduced. In addition, the Institute should help students preserve the entities that allow them to develop perspective and work/life balance. These entities include the intimate living groups that allow many students to maintain sanity and balance in their lives.
Engineering curricula have a reputation for producing technical competence but sociopolitical ignorance. MIT’s mission is to promote the fields of science, engineering, the arts, and their application to the world. While MIT continues to graduate successful scientists and engineers, our competitive edge over peer institutions evaporates in areas of global citizenship. To be fair, many MIT students are politically active – recent Cambridge City Council election candidates have even included several MIT graduates. However, the MIT campus is generally viewed as politically apathetic and socially inactive. While many students do become involved in the world and the local community, these students are too often the exception rather than the rule. Politics often becomes a private hobby rather than an interest for students to share, discuss, and upon which to act.
The reasons for the general political apathy include the academic focus, lack of personal balance, and the system of peer rewards. For most MIT students, the sciences and engineering dominate their academic experience. While all students take an occasional social science or humanities course that explores global or social issues, a vast majority of their time is spent on developing competence in a single scientific area. In effect, they put on “academic blinders” and fail to gain appreciation for a variety of non-scientific disciplines. Also, when students work too hard on their problems sets or research projects, they lose the free time they could otherwise use to explore other areas – students socialize less, attend fewer guest lectures, and neglect to read newspapers, all of which compound their social ignorance and further entrench them in the MIT “bubble.” Finally, the MIT culture does not generally promote global citizenship. The system of peer rewards is firmly connected to achievement in scientific and engineering endeavors; it is generally considered less “prestigious” to work for the Peace Corps than to work for Microsoft. In addition, the social sciences are viewed as a necessary hurdle rather than as an intrinsic area for exploration and application.
The resulting lack of exposure to broader issues produces many students who are politically unaware and unprepared for global citizenship. Too often, MIT graduates dominate technical positions while graduates of other institutions gain the upper hand in positions involving people and policies. Graduates lacking a global perspective will be less likely to fulfill MIT’s goal of applying innovations to society.
Student-parents are a unique and oftentimes ignored segment of the graduate population. For the approximately 7% of the graduate population that fits within this category, the great challenge is to find a way to meet and balance four fundamental obligations: research/teaching, spouse, children, and self.
Maintaining passion and dedication to each of these four elements is not easy for student-parents. This group recognizes that the time demands for each of these commitments guarantees that something always ends up being sacrificed. The financial responsibility of supporting a family on a student stipend contributes to the burden shouldered by student-parents, and the atmosphere of academia at MIT can seem unfriendly to families. Some students openly critique professors for taking time to be with their families and expound that being married, let alone with children, significantly compromises one’s academic career. When professors choose to spend the weekend in the lab rather than watching their kid’s soccer games, they send a strong message to many students: academics and families don’t mix. It is not surprising that many student-parents leave graduate school convinced never to return to academics and that many also face very high levels of stress during their time at MIT.
Many family experts argue that in some ways, graduate school is a great time to be a parent. Students have some of the greatest schedule flexibility in the working world and kids can help keep the stress of graduate school failures and successes in perspective. By augmenting programs such as the MIT Childcare Scholarship Program MIT can play a constructive role in ensuring that students-parents can both pursue their studies while living up to tremendous parental responsibilities. Indeed, childcare opportunities are scarce and often unaffordable for graduate students, preventing qualified candidates, both women as well as men with working or student wives, from even attending the Institute. Finally, graduate students could benefit from increased awareness of the under-utilized emergency discretionary funds, which offer critical short-term support for families who need it.