I have had two almae matres so far; let’s say the first one brought only a limited amount of change in terms of exposure. The second, University of Moratuwa, had been influencing my choices and deflecting the path I had taken in my life. The first year of my undergraduate life, convinced me to stay in Sri Lanka albeit winning the Roy Marshal scholarship at University of Hull, and the rest kept proving I made the right choice; only to let me question after four years! Currently I am a PhD student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working with DDMG (Data-driven Medicine Group), where I am planning to follow data-mining and machine learning on semantic web to develop Personal Physician System.
MIT, the leading technical university in the world, having been continuously ranked first in various fields of engineering and technology, contrasts with its Sri Lankan counterpart in every single area, albeit the fundamentals being the same. The institute is famed for its passion for numbers, pranks and standing out from the crowd. From naming the buildings with numbers to calling the courses by decimals to the design of buildings, it chooses to be different, unique and relevant. The conspicuous element out of all is the design of stata center.
The building has been planned so as to foster interactions not just within a department but also between departments, under the assumption that “scientists are not just cogs in a research machine, but highly creative – and highly social – thinkers”. The center invites people to mix in every possible way. — (more)
The most noticeable is the focus on objectives and flexibility surrounding the non-essentials. For instance, MIT’s undergraduate curriculum involves the hardest coursework, to be referred as “drinking from a fire hose“, yet freshman year is not graded and sophomore year only records passes. The curriculum requires an extensive list of courses, physical education, and interestingly swim test.
You can get a perfect GPA and lead every extracurricular activity on campus, but if you don’t pass a swim test and complete 8 Physical Education (P.E.) “points,” then you won’t receive an MIT diploma. Harsh, eh? That’s right, MIT requires you to graduate with a strong mind and body, while ensuring that you will not drown if your get knocked into the ocean while taking measurements of toxic algae concentrations while you’re on a boat in the Pacific (for example…) — (MIT Admissions)
The graduate course, different in expectations, focuses more in research and discoveries. (MIT receives its capital by endowments, operational support through federal and other grants, and generates one of the largest research revenues in the United States.) Although there is a system of course requirements you could literally petition for anything and choose to take any course as you wish.
TQE requires four, H level courses (advanced graduate courses). It is not uncommon to see significant amount of undergraduates taking H level courses in senior years. The method of teaching comprises of two, one-and-half-hour long weekly lectures and recitations conducted by teaching assistants (TA) for one hour. Coursework generally comprises of Problem Sets (pSets), mid-term examinations, projects and final examinations. Both professor and TAs hold office hours every week, and usually well attended. How hard is to drink from fire hose? Generally mid-term examinations and finals are open-book, after all the life provides you all you require and expect you to solve your problems on your own, and why not MIT’s grad course? Collaboration is usually encouraged in pSets, nonetheless they are individually attempted and solutions are discussed in groups. The pSets are generally tough, often newly created set of problems for which sometimes professor wouldn’t know the answer even, weekly or biweekly posted, superficially discussed in lecture hours, personally worked by the professor well before the deadline, and occasionally graded only for submission in which case it would have been discussed extensively during TA office hours.
There is no silly question! People here are trained to live independently and question everything they hear and see. I believe Buddhism also teaches the same, yet I was able to witness it in practice here. Any lecture wouldn’t go without at least ten questions asked, and initially I, as a student, used to get annoyed by such interruptions, while it is encouraged and well received by the professors. There is no silly question (purposefully repeated)! However simple a question is, it is not uncommon to be referred by “that was a great question, let me explain this way”. I just remembered, how I was told not to ask more in my second alma mater! I wasn’t the Oliver Twist, and it wasn’t the London orphanage feeding under poor law.
Further it is very common for a student to disagree with a professor, and sometimes professor, himself would volunteer and ask whether anyone disagreeing, and continue by telling where someone could have disagreed and why his statement remains valid. Such conducive environment is what makes impossible things possible, not when ideas are stifled and nipped in the bud.
The research work, demands intellectual findings and hard work, and generally hacking and smart engineering are discouraged. The importance is given to research in graduate courses. Number of publications, nominations and awards measure the success, recognition and respect are gained by hard work and significant achievement. I have to stress on publications. MIT is well known for entrepreneurial activities (100k is one of the most popular initiatives), the institute, city of Cambridge, and New England as a whole provide the best atmosphere for any such initiatives; many – both graduate and undergraduate students – go on starting their own ventures immediately after graduation, in the areas ranging from food trucks to advertisement agencies to high-techs; yet publication is what get you through your graduate career.
I was told to call my supervisor, John Guttag, by his first name from the first VOIP conversation I had with him. Well, it took me a while to stop conferring him the knighthood which I was trained to in both my almae matres. Oddly he does not fail to apologize when he gets late for a weekly scheduled meeting, which is quite opposite to what I used to be, waiting for hours for someone to show up at their office. The conversations are highly informal, often taking interest in personal matters. For instance, he would ask how I am settling in (indeed with a question mark), and I would ask about his house that is being rebuilt.
The carrot and stick theory is long gone! I was used to read that only in Organizational Management text books till now. No one asks you to do anything! No one is obliged to do anything, except for iPhone owners, well they are bound with AT&T for two years. I have seen, and been to competitions and events with as few people as four, and struggled to get into fully packed auditoriums. Organizers understand their duties and they do enough publicity, and provide adequate incentives – the main and most common are free food (lunch, snack, refreshments or dinner), gifts, raffle draws, etc. There hasn’t been a single event without free food and drink. Motivation theory is well understood and well practiced by everyone, starting from a hair dresser, to waitress, to organizers to professors. The exams always carry 2 points only for writing your name and registration number on the question paper; and they never berate you for not attending some boring meeting, instead would focus on making it more appealing.
Rules and laws are there to guide not to control. The best thing about MIT and especially the system in USA is, there is no red-tape. Anything and everything is petition-able, and adaptable. It is very common for people to switch their degrees, do both MD, and PhD (need not be in biology), and basically do things outside the rules. The system bends as far as it serves the objective and best interests of the individual and the institute, which contrasts a lot with where I came from – where the law bends to serve the best interests of the fittest of all, or remains inflexible. Here, often deals are made; compromises are very common, and result is an improvement over whatever status quo it was. For instance, as per PhD requirements, one is expected to take two minors – graduate level courses outside the research area – and foreign language courses are often not allowed, as they are often of beginners level and hardly offer any significant benefit. Had this red-tape been enforced as in Sri Lanka, would there be someone who did take beginners level course in Mandarin and went on to do Chinese literature, or someone who fell in love with a Chinese girl and mastered the language through his minor requirement. For someone who was prevented from doing CS courses in his undergraduate and faced with difficulties in applying for transcript this must be welcoming.
It might sound as litany of complaints, but again it requires a paradigm shift to view them as observations based on direct comparisons flavored with little satire. The life is not necessarily the happiest here. After all, people here work hard, and play hard. I have seen people only watching tech shows in TV and only listen to iTunes U in iPod. I sometimes wonder whether they live. The path is always decided by efficiency and often harnessed by the objectives; and every second is measured in terms of productivity. Unlike what you see in TV series and movies, they do go to work, and don’t wait to finish their cappuccino in the coffee house.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009 at 8:15 am
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