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The perpetual student

CAMERON MARLOW, 27, is in his fifth year of a doctoral program in media arts and sciences at MIT. He grew up in Pebble Beach, Calif., and received a bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of Chicago. One of his areas of expertise is weblogs.

''I came to the Media Lab because it's a very unique place in terms of academic freedom and finding any type of project you want to do. I started in California, went to school in Chicago, and have been moving progressively eastward.

''There are 150,000 undergraduates here, plus graduate students. My social world only extends from Harvard to here, maybe a mile and a half. You'd expect in an area with this many students there'd be a ridiculous amount of interaction between students, but there's not.

''The workload is manageable, depending on your department and your work ethic. I have a weblog, which takes a considerable amount of time. It keeps me connected to all these people outside of Boston. I'm studying the social implications of weblogs and how they're changing our personal communications.

''I live in an apartment in Central Square. I live alone and pay $875 a month for a one bedroom, which is the best deal I've seen. Still, I have to take out loans to pay for it. I paid half of that for an apartment in Chicago. My graduate program provides me with a stipend, which covers most of my living expenses, and they pay for my full tuition. Because of the high cost of living, though, I do take out student loans.

''I'd say that about half my friends are grad students in a similar place to me, roughly four to six years into their PhD. A couple did undergrad at MIT and have been here for 10 years total, and a few are past their eighth year of graduate school. The longer you're here, the more you feel like you need change. It's a strange dichotomy, between complete comfort and freedom and an itching nag to be somewhere else.

''Being in a PhD program is a very tenuous place. After graduating from your undergraduate school, or moving out of the corporate world, you see your friends moving forward, starting families, and so on, while you have no idea when you'll move or where you'll be when that happens. I think the psychology of most graduate students is to focus on the short term and not think about the momentous task of finishing until you're actually at that point. We all take solace in our shared experience, namely all feeling a bit aimless and stuck. At the same time, there's motivation in the fact that people are constantly graduating, or leaving for other ventures.

''I was drawn to academia for the prospect of doing research and being part of an intellectual job with the freedom to pursue your own interests. I've always been interested in the Internet and social relationships, but finding a personal place in that research is what solidified my interest, basically knowing I could add something back to the field.

''I'm actually done with my classes now, so I'm coming in to work on my thesis proposal. It's called 'The Structural Determinants of Media Contagion.' I usually spend till 7 or 8 at night, pretty much in this windowless, lightless area. I'm in here six days a week.

''I've got a pretty cohesive group of friends. Some of us are DJs, and we spin records, usually at The River Gods in Central Square. Most of my friends are from MIT; a few are from Harvard. . . . As an undergraduate, I felt I knew a wider range of people. Now, I don't have as many random encounters. The general social atmosphere here is very closed. Most of the people I meet through parties, or here at the lab.

''I used to have a car, but I found it was too expensive. My first three weeks in Cambridge, I got towed five times. I kept the car three years. I probably got 20 to 30 parking tickets. It finally broke down, and I threw it away.

''I probably won't stay here when I'm through with school. If I could, I'd choose Berkeley or the University of Washington, some large research institution. A large place where there are lots of different kinds of people."

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