Grad Life: The Best $75 I’ve Ever Spent

by Shelby Doyle, Biological Engineering PhD candidate on October 11, 2016 · 11 comments

in Campus Culture, Grad Life, Student Life


Shelby Doyle receives her MIT acceptance letter.

I almost didn’t apply to MIT because I thought it was a waste of money.

I thought to myself, “If I send this application in, I’d be like paying $75 for someone to print it out and throw it away.”

Now, I know I’m not the first MIT graduate student to experience some degree of self-doubt, but this early onset pessimism was a bit extreme. However, you have to understand, that as I looked at my application, I couldn’t see the valuable research experience, history of community involvement, and great GPA. I saw research done at an aquaculture research facility in the rural south. I saw a list of minimum wage jobs I worked on the side. I saw the “State University” in the name of the alma mater. And though studying at MIT would by an amazing opportunity—a chance to pivot into biotechnology, hone my skills, and catalyze my career—I was convinced that I was already disqualified. Lucky for me, in the last 24 hours prior to the deadline, my mother convinced me that it was worth trying, and, I have to say, she is usually right.

I was so shocked that I was invited to interview at MIT that I literally couldn’t speak. As I sat on the Red Line somewhere between Boston Logan and the Kendall Hotel at the start of interview weekend, my excitement was transitioning back to doubt. I felt a growing dread that somehow my invitation was not a Godsend, but was, in fact, a clerical error. I was sure that these people would try to prove me wanting, but, luckily, yet again, I was wrong.

One of my first interviews of the trip was with a fresh new hire I’d never heard of, working in a field I’d never been exposed to before. She didn’t examine me at the white board. Instead, she listened to me as we discussed the professional and personal aspects of my school selection. She shared with me her story and her choice to come to MIT. She talked about her passion for pursing projects impactful to real people. She spoke to me as a collaborator, perhaps even a friend.

At an interviewee poster session, I stood apprehensive by my work, anticipating a barrage of pointed questions and judgmental head tilts. Instead, I encountered a community of people who wanted to get to know me, hear about what I was working on, and get a feel for how I was framing and tackling research problems.

After small talk died down around the lunch table on the last day, the department head opened the conversational floor to the few of us remaining. In a moment of boldness, I asked the question I was dying to ask, “As a tenured faculty at MIT leading your department and your field, do you feel like you’ve made it? Do you feel that you’ve finally arrived?” He smiled broadly as he considered my question, tilting his head and his gaze slightly upward. I can’t remember the exact words he used to give his response, a response that was both human and hopeful, but I do remember that he took me seriously and answered me honestly. He treated me as a colleague.

From where I stand now, I can’t imagine how I could have achieved a greater ROI on $75 than to take my chance to be at MIT. I am now two years into my training here and I’ve been able to pivot into the fields of chemical biology and cancer research. I’ve gained more skills at the desktop and the bench-top than I even thought to desire. And to top it off, I’ve done well enough to be invited by the department faculty to speak at our annual retreat this fall.

Of course I struggled at times, as, I, too, did my best to drink from the firehouse. I nodded and smiled at first, while furiously Googling acronyms. I barely passed some classes, especially when I took too many at once. I planned out eight-hour experiments that took 14 hours and amounted to an extra mass of waste in the burn box.*

But more importantly, I grew in that pressure because I was invited to do so. I was invited here as an equal, and encouraged not to prove my worth, but to capitalize on the opportunity.

*I have yet to get this protocol down to the 8-hours it should take, but the results wind up in the trash a lot less these days.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students twice a month on Slice of MIT. 

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Arenson October 11, 2016 at 10:09 am

What a wonderful story. Thank you. You are very articulate, and I am thrilled to hear that MIT is/was so welcoming. I especially loved your concluding lines: “I grew in that pressure because I was invited to do so. I was invited here as an equal, and encouraged not to prove my worth, but to capitalize on the opportunity.” Good luck with your research and your career.
All the best,


Joseph Kozikowski, Course VI, '56 October 11, 2016 at 11:48 am

I too never thought I’d be accepted at MIT when I sent in the application. I also applied to Penn (accepted) and Cornell (rejected). Then I received the invitation to be interviewed in Philadelphia and I was IN! I was the first in my high school to go to MIT. The first year was tough, but somehow I struggled through. After graduation I worked on the space program (Gemini, Jupiter, Apollo) for 8 years, got my PhD at Penn, and taught at Villanova U for 45 years. I have wonderful memories, including the Cats basketball championships in 1985 and 2016,


Anu Sood October 11, 2016 at 12:59 pm

I actually applied to MIT grad school without the application fee (I believe it was $50 at the time). I told them I would pay the fee from my stipend if admitted. I was offered admission at the last minute and I’m pretty sure that I then paid the fee.


Eliot Pearlman October 12, 2016 at 5:26 am

Great and touching story. Thanks for sharing it with us.
While being admitted to MIT is a great take away, a better one is that you have a great Mom.
Enjoy Tech, after all “Tech is Hell! At least, it was supposed to be in the early ’50s


Brian Hoenig October 12, 2016 at 11:57 am

Shelby, it is so easy to doubt yourself and so hard to believe that you have what it takes. You have proven to everyone that you do have what it takes. I can certainly understand the dilemma you faced about spending the $75 for the application but as you said the ROI is so well worth it. I am praying that you find the cure for cancer for me and everyone else that suffers from this horrible disease. It doesn’t matter to me if it takes 8 hours or 8 years as long as the cure is found. We are so proud of you and cannot wait to see all of the wonderful things you are going to do in this world.


Joseph Kozikowski, Course VI, '56 October 12, 2016 at 3:00 pm

A clarification on my reply of 10/11: I was accepted at Penn State for undergraduate studies. Years later, I did my graduate work at Penn (U of PA). But it was MIT that opened a lot of doors for me.


Judy Peck October 12, 2016 at 6:19 pm

You surely can write well. And you were mad at me about that B in English! Look where you are now. I’d give this post an A, and you are still one of my favorites!


Adrian Walter-Ginzburg October 24, 2016 at 12:46 pm

This reminds me of something that happened a few years after I graduated. Someone said to me, wow, you went to MIT, wasn’t it hard to get in there? I answered, actually, getting in was NOTHING compared to GETTING OUT!!!

It sounds like you’re making the most of this opportunity. Kudos!!


Roger Chang November 19, 2016 at 7:17 pm


Great story! We strive to make a difference.

Our MIT degrees and education do give us responsibilities and recognition. Perhaps you will help find a cure for cancer.

In some small way, I was tasked with answering the Nation’s Key Intelligence Question on Soviet Nuclear Weapons in 1973 that helped lead to our strategic arms limitation, after realizing that there might not be a world left in a nuclear exchange. Getting the correct answer is very important.


Hotel December 12, 2016 at 2:54 am

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.


Karen December 22, 2016 at 11:09 pm

how inspirational!! Thank you for your article. I have these same doubts more times that I will like to admit. Yet, I keep on trying year after year. It’s good to know that I am not the only one.

Way to go.


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