Feeling under pressure recently?

Chancellor sponsors forum to discuss student stress at the Institute

How can MIT students change expectations so they don’t compete against each other? Should undergraduates feel like underachievers if they are taking only four classes? Can a grad student work a 9–5 schedule without feeling like they are slacking? Are certain majors “less hardcore” than others? Where does the faculty fit into the picture of student stress?

Questions like these and many more arose during last week’s discussion forum on student stress, called “Under Pressure.” The discussion, which was co-hosted by the chancellor’s office and The Tech, was held in 1-390 on Tuesday at 5 p.m. About 50 students attended.

Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80 set the stage for the forum by bringing up many of the issues that face students at MIT today. Grimson spoke of the “Imposter Syndrome” — how a student can feel like they don’t belong at MIT or were admitted by accident. He admitted that during grad school he felt like he spent most of his time feeling like someone was about to tap him on the shoulder, apologize, and tell him they accidentally put his application in the wrong pile. Grimson brought up that while pressure is a fundamental part of MIT — it can drive many students to perform better — it can also be extreme.

While students at any university face pressure from balancing academics, extracurriculars, and other stressors, the chancellor touched on how these challenges fit in at MIT. The “I’m so hosed” game, in which students constantly attempt to one-up each other in how much work they have, helps contribute to the sometimes negative competitive attitude that pervades MIT.

Expanding on how the game can create a “culture of perceived inferiority,” was The Tech’s former editor in chief, Jessica J. Pourian ’13. Pourian spoke about The Tech’s pressure survey from last fall, in which over 3,000 students were polled about their feelings of stress and competition at MIT.

“Students at MIT feel like they work less than their peers,” Pourian said, pointing to the data from the survey about how MIT students perceive themselves as less competent than their classmates. According to the survey, MIT students feel like they put in less effort, do less homework, take fewer units, and sleep more than their peers — even though the data shows that this is a categorically false perception.

In addition to statistics from the survey (which can be found online at, Pourian shared a number of comments from the survey, ending with “Don’t let learning get in the way of living.”

Following Pourian was Sam Allen, the chair of the faculty. He spoke about how faculty could help relieve some student stress, elaborating on some rules that faculty must adhere to (such as how it is illegal for a class to grade on a curve), and how students can interface with faculty to make their lives easier. Try to get close to professors you like, he advised, go to their office hours (“I get lonely in my office during office hours,” he admitted). Many faculty members love teaching, and mentoring students is often the favorite part of their job, he said. The faculty is there for students to interact with.

“They aren’t malicious, just clueless,” he laughed.


The central part of the forum, of course, was the discussion. After dinner from Bertucci’s, the students in the room were invited to share their thoughts. In addition to Grimson and Allen, there were several administrators and deans. In attendance were David Randall, head of S3; Chris Colombo, dean for student life; Christine Ortiz, dean for graduate education; Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate students; and a representative from Medical Health, among other administrators.

Most of the students present seemed to be upperclassmen, and there were many faces from the Undergraduate Association and the Graduate Student Council.

Students brought up a variety of issues. Many spoke of the competition at MIT — how it is easy to feel incompetent when you compare yourself to other students. This was particularly salient for graduate students who have to spend a lot of time in lab.

If one labmate works on Sunday, said a graduate student, everyone else in the lab feels obligated to go in as well. Grimson said he wished he could just ask faculty to declare “lab holidays” to avoid issues like this, but expressed that something like that would likely be impossible.

Battles over who takes move units was another issue raised. Students often judge themselves by how many units they are taking — but even this isn’t a good measure, one undergraduate pointed out.

“A 6-unit class for someone might be 20 units for somebody else,” one student said. Just because something is a certain amount of units doesn’t mean it will take a student that amount of time.

Grimson (and many students) pointed out a number of classes that don’t actually reflect the time they take. “We forgot to add a zero to [the units for] some of these classes,” joked Grimson. 2.009, 6.005, 6.006, and a number of classes were accused of being guilty of this phenomenon.

“All of Course 4!” shouted one student when class numbers were being thrown around.

The discussion continued past 7 p.m. as students and faculty brainstormed ways to alleviate student stress at MIT.

Students who have more to contribute to the discussion should contact the chancellor.