Based on some work I did at DARPA, I was invited to work as a quantitative analyst at the Special Operations Command in Kabul. It was a long way from home, and there wasn’t much to do beside work, lift weights, eat, and sleep. The schedule was pretty intense as we worked seven days a week, 10-hours days with half-days supposedly on Friday and Sunday. As we used to say on Friday, “Only two more working days ’til Monday.”
Put people in a stressful position though and they’ll find ways to unwind. I would try going to sleep around midnight after a long and stressful day, and my roommate Ryan would show up for whatever reason totally wired. “Hey, let’s go to the DFAC and get midrats!” Midnight rations, or “midrats,” at the Dining Facility, of “DFAC”, is for people who have to work the night shift and usually consists of nothing but chicken fingers, pizza, fries, etc. I would be exhausted, but Ryan would usually be able to talk me into it. If you going to go all the way to Afghanistan, why not experience all it has to offer?
The best nights were the ones when a group of NAVY SEALs were sitting around. If there was some guy we knew, we’d sit down and try our best to get them telling stories, because crazy stuff always happened to them. One night, they were talking about a firefight they got into but they weren’t even sure with whom they were exchanging fire. “We couldn’t figure out if it was Chechens, smugglers, Taliban, locals or what. It was weird, but at least it broke up the day.”
A regular Army guy overheard our conversation and couldn’t help but be a little starstruck. He incredulously asked, “Are you guys SEALs?” One of them replied, “Yeah, but it’s a job like any other.” Then he surprised me by saying, “You want to know what’s really impressive? This guy got his PhD from MIT.” The Army guy asked, just as incredulously, “You went to MIT?”
I couldn’t have been more surprised because: (1) I had no idea how this SEAL knew I had gone to MIT, and (2) I didn’t get my PhD from MIT, and I had explained that to my colleagues multiple times, but still the belief persisted because with degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, and international relations, my background was such that I should have graduated from MIT, but I didn’t. These essays explain my experiences in graduate school to help provide insight into how the academy and politics work and how they might not work the way most people think. Specifically, I examine how the reputation and promise of MIT differ from what I actually experienced.