CMU's self-defeating work culture

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I recently had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine who graduated last spring. He and I used to run the Independent Musicians Organization on campus, and we had aspirations for creating an active music scene at Carnegie Mellon. However, we were not able to do it, and it’s not hard to figure out why. As he laid out his very astute observations, I realized a lot of it involved discourse about our university work culture that is hard for many current students to articulate.

Part of the problem we faced as an organization was that most students just did not have the energy or time to commit to the organization. It makes sense. Most of us spend at least 50 - 60 hours per week, often more, on academics. So naturally, it is hard to make legitimate efforts to pursue our passions because it is hard to balance self-fulfillment and academic fulfillment simultaneously. Ultimately, academic fulfillment is the one that provides more noticeably practical benefits, such as employment prospects, so we sacrifice our self-fulfillment for it.

Unfortunately, without self-fulfillment, our academic fulfillment and relative success in life are less meaningful. For all the talk about putting your heart in the work at Carnegie Mellon, the ability to actually do that here is incredibly difficult. I know I signed up for a tough and rigorous place for my degree. But we are also told very often that college will be the “best four years of our lives.” If that is the case, then I am dreading the rest of my life.

With our current internet age, any one of us can learn anything on the internet. Notes for any class or any topic you can think of are available online to be viewed at any time. You can find problem sets, case studies, and papers for free or at a low cost. Realistically speaking, we don’t come to college to learn. We come here for the degree and the people, which brings us connections, clout, and a higher starting salary. The more known a university is for its name, the higher your starting salary.

There are certainly some universities that have the brand recognition that are known to not be as rigorous. But then there are places like Carnegie Mellon where it is the complete opposite. The workload is diabolical, and it makes it hard to have an actual life here. There are definitely a lot of professors who do not realize this, as evidenced by the number of them who set homework due dates on university-sanctioned break days or assign an unrealistic amount of work for one person to do in a week. I have luckily never had to deal with this because the majority of my professors are quite accommodating, but many of my friends are not as lucky.

There is also this competition between departments about who is the most rigorous, and it is something perpetuated by everyone from the students to the faculty to the administration. The effect is insidious. Imposter syndrome is a major problem amongst students, and there are constant contests about who sleeps less, which only fuels that imposter syndrome crisis. It is also often hard to maintain friendships with people outside of your own major or department. Students form their own little bubbles on campus to the point where it does not end up feeling like a real campus except for whenever Carnival happens.

The main ways for students across majors to interact is through extracurricular activities, both in classes or through student organizations. Unfortunately, students not only lack time to properly commit as I said earlier, but many students tend to be really bad at communicating if they are unable to commit. It causes unnecessary stress for everyone involved, and it is also just really rude. There is nothing wrong with dropping an activity because you need to take care of yourself. In fact, you should absolutely do that. However, students need to have some accountability because there is no excuse for letting your stress cause someone else to be stressed. It just makes being part of an organization less fun.

In addition, the university is really disconnected from Pittsburgh. Students live in their own bubbles already, and those bubbles are within a larger bubble that is Carnegie Mellon. Its lack of integration in Pittsburgh makes it very difficult to actually explore the city, which makes students’ lack of social lives feel even worse. Many students disparage Pittsburgh for having nothing to do, of which I get some of the criticisms. But many of these students haven’t gotten a chance to actually find things to do.

It all ends up worsening everyone’s mental health at the end of the day. The weekly 60-hour workload starts turning into 80 hours as students’ mental health declines and they are not able to be as productive. It is sad and soul-crushing. Though we can communicate with professors or advisors, we are ultimately at the mercy of wildly variant generosity. As I said earlier, I am lucky that my professors are really accommodating, but there are many others who are not as fortunate. That variance also prevents students from wanting to communicate because they feel intimidated or overwhelmed. The onus is on the students to be able to do that, but it requires faculty and staff to be cognizant that students are still learning to be confident in themselves. One of the points of college is to be able to develop that.

A lot of these reasons are why my friend and I could not achieve our aspirations of establishing a music scene. Music majors are already busy enough with their own music or, in some cases, do not want to do music with non-music majors. Non-music majors are busy enough with their own work. My friend and I had a lot of work, and as a result, we also did not have time to reach out to musicians in Pittsburgh. My own mental health was in shambles so I could not commit much time to run the organization efficiently. What makes this more frustrating is when we consider that there are famous artists who are from Carnegie Mellon, such as Yaeji. We have a strong base of musicians and yet no scene, and it is pretty much because it is impossible to do that here.

Ultimately, I think the administration is pretty self-aware of our campus culture’s shortcomings, which is a good start for them. They established the Tartan Community Day during my junior fall because it is bad that the only real campus-wide social tradition we have is Carnival and then nothing else. But throwing money and activities at the problem does not solve it. The work culture issue can only be solved by giving us a more reasonable and flexible amount of work. We have lives. We want to fulfill ourselves. We actually want our college years to be great and memorable. This is my fourth year here and my time is nearly up. So, I plead to the administration on behalf of those who still have a lot of time left: let the students live a life.