This post was first published on the MIT Graduate Admissions Blog in Oct, 2020
I sat in class, the professor again repeating the technique we were expected to learn but about which I was still woefully confused. I was immediately struck with self-doubt. I put my head down on the desk and started to cry.
The small upside was that at least no one could see my meltdown. Because I wasn’t actually in class but instead enrolled in online learning. And the professor wasn’t technically repeating himself; I was just rewatching the lecture video for the third time, intensely focused and absorbing nothing.
See, my graduate program is a little non-traditional. As part of the blended cohort of the Supply Chain Management master’s program, my classmates and I had to complete five online courses and pass a comprehensive exam before we could even apply to MIT. Because of this, I now consider myself a minor expert in online learning and want to share my pro tips with you!
I’ve stayed away from technical aspects of virtual learning (there’s already tons of great advice out there), and have instead focused on the emotional lessons I picked up on my journey. The five lessons below allowed me to stay positive, motivated, excited about my education, and, most importantly, sane even in the insane, isolated bubble of learning online.
Lesson 1 – Hold Tight to Your Perspective: I know that one of the reasons I lost my mind during that lecture was that I had also lost sight of what I was attempting. It was only later when my husband scoffed, “Who would have guessed that MIT would be hard?” that I remembered that grad school is supposed to be a challenge! What is apparent in physical classes but invisible online is the context of other people struggling to learn the material right along with you. Just remember what my husband reminded me of that day: This is MIT—it’s going to be hard!
Lesson 2 – The Perfection Conundrum: I can attest that Imposter Syndrome is alive and well at MIT, even off campus. When working alone behind your computer screen, it’s easy to get caught in a quest for perfection. Because I never truly felt confident in my knowledge, I would feel the panicked jump of my heart each time I encountered a challenging new concept, an incorrect answer, or a lost point on an exam. While I discourage judging yourself by others’ successes, if I had seen classmates who I knew were talented, passionate, and intelligent also “fail” to achieve perfection, I would have more easily set reasonable expectations for myself. Remember that feeling challenged isn’t a personal failing, but instead an opportunity to grow yourself and your knowledge beyond what you thought possible.
Lesson 3 – Build (Virtual) Bridges: As you might already know, virtual classes can quickly become isolating and lonely. While nothing will ever truly replace the catharsis of commiserating with a classmate over a coffee or pulling an all-nighter with a friend toiling at your side, I still recommend making connections where you can. This is going to require some effort as you will have to actively create opportunities for conversation—no organic bonding over borrowing a pen or getting lost together on the way to the first day’s lecture. Forge new connections boldly, ask strangers personal questions, be vulnerable and request help from someone with more experience, talk about your pets (everyone loves their pets). Be prepared to fight through some awkward web meetups and devastating time zone differences. Even from separate geographical locations, the friends you make in your classes will become invaluable to you. No one will ever understand your pain as much or celebrate your success quite the same way as your MIT compatriots.
Lesson 4 – Be a Little Selfish: When studying remotely, I was plagued by my divergent responsibilities. Simultaneously, I wanted to be a good full-time employee, good daughter, good friend, good wife, and good student. Working from home makes it easy to feel overwhelmed, isolated, and unmotivated. So I officially give you permission to be selfish. Even from home, it’s important that you allow yourself to focus on your education just as much as if you were physically at school. When I was preparing for my comprehensive exam, I had 5 courses (400 pages of required material, 14 handwritten notebooks, and about 1 trillion formulas) to refresh in just 4 weeks. The first thing I did was schedule myself off from work each Friday for the weeks leading up to the exam. More than just extra study hours, this time off was a clear sign to my employer and to myself that my time was going to be prioritized differently. For just that month, I focused exclusively on my own needs because I knew what I was doing was important to my future success.
Lesson 5 – Throw Some Confetti: The other side of not having classmates around to commiserate with is that you also don’t have folks around to celebrate with when you do (and you will) finally pass that exam/complete that report/get that experiment to function. Never forget that what you are doing is remarkable and impressive. Take the time to celebrate your successes and find people to celebrate with you, even if it’s a Zoom party with classmates or your best friend only pretending to be excited that your network optimization model finally works.
There is an emotional polarity to virtual learning—the highs are high, the lows are low and lonely—but there are of course also benefits to the experience. Where else could you, when feeling particularly frustrated by a subject, simply shut the professor down and stomp out of the room? Or crack a beer as you complete an exam? Virtual learning may not be the academic experience of your dreams, but I’m here to tell you there are great lessons to be learned from the experience: not just in your thesis subject, but also about yourself.