I wanted to write a post after two years at college about everything I had learned. I didn’t, firstly because I didn’t make it a priority, and secondly because trying to write about everything I’ve learned at MIT over any nontrivial length of time is the kind of poorly scoped endeavor that I could never complete to my own satisfaction.
Two years came and went, and now it’s been two more years and I’ve learned even more things, not to mention, actually graduated. Jeez. I tried to self-impose a deadline for the big post, but it didn’t work out. There were still too many higher priorities, most of which were also natural consequences of graduating. I also couldn’t bring myself to cut anything, because unlike most of the stuff I haphazardly throw onto this blog, I can actually imagine an audience for just about everything I wanted to write about.
Finally I decided that I would break it into lots of small posts on specific topics. This way, at least the perfectionism can’t bleed between posts too much. The first topic I wanted to write about is simple, mundane, and also fairly limited in scope itself: how to choose your MIT username.
To be clear, this post is not about how to pick an arbitrary username. I am satisfied with my standard online username, but not more than satisfied, and have fairly limited experience choosing new ones; but my process basically involves combining words in various languages, names of people/characters I like, or syllables that just sound cool. For ideas, you can put “name generator” into your favorite search engine. Then, to check uniqueness, you can just search for it in quotes or use a site like knowem.com. In some sense, the topic of how to pick an arbitrary username is much more complex, because there are so many possibilities and so few constraints. But I’d actually argue those same reasons make the topic much simpler. There’s not much to optimize for and not many difficulties you might run into. Just make up a username you like that’s available while not being too offensive, and maybe don’t include all the answers to your security questions in it.
Choosing a username for your college email or account, though, is a bit more constrained. Of course, I can only speak to MIT’s process and considerations, so some of this post might be very MIT-specific — I know some other colleges don’t give you choice of username at all — but some of it might generalize.
When you enroll in MIT, you get to choose a username for your MIT email and Athena account. It has to be 3 to 8 characters; it can only include letters, digits, or underscores; and of course, it can’t have been taken by anybody else. There have been many posts on the MIT Admissions blogs through the years on how to do this. I agree with everything they say, but I don’t think they cover enough ground. In particular, I think there’s a serious failure to address the case when none of the usernames generated by the usual templates for you are still available (or fit in the character limit).
First, though, what are the usual templates for usernames? I would say they’d be your first initial or first name and your last initial or last name, in either order. Even more explicitly, there are eight such templates:
- First initial + last name
- First name
- First name + last initial
- First name + last name
- Last initial + first name
- Last name
- Last name + first initial
- Last name + first name
If any of these usernames are available for you (and don’t exceed 8 characters), I’d suggest taking one of them. If you have a middle initial, you can add them to just about any of the templates, sometimes in more than one place; in that case, your chances of having at least one available username are quite good. The details are left to the reader as an exercise.
But maybe you’re like me, with a common Chinese last name and no middle name, and none of these usernames are available.1 Then what?
In my case, after much deliberation, I went with first-initial sort-of-pretend-middle-initial2 last-name, a choice that mostly optimized for surface-level professionalism, and am quite happy about how it turned out. I think this strategy is actually much more common than one might expect and would recommend it. If you don’t like that strategy either, a more generalized template to consider is any prefix of your first name plus any prefix of your last name (which contains many common suggestions as special cases, but also many more; some weirder names this scheme might generate for a hypothetical Alyssa Hacker include
alyshack, etc.) Less professional but more creative options include either reversing or Spoonerizing one of these templates. I have seen all of these cases happen.
I am not one for excessive formalities, but I do think that the choice of username is a decision where one should err towards professionalism. You will be sharing your username with friends and professors, writing it on tests and official forms, using it to interface with whatever computer system your classes are using that week — suffice it to say, your username gets a lot of exposure, in contexts with all levels of seriousness. Furthermore, it cannot be changed; even if you continue or return to MIT for graduate studies or as a professor yourself, you’ll keep using the same username.3 Plus, if you want a less formal or less constrained email address for other purposes, you can always make a mailing list at MIT with just yourself on it and send from the list (which is how I have my handle at mit.edu).
On the other hand, if you really, really like a particular username that’s not directly based on your real name and want to Make It A Thing, college is probably one of the best opportunities you’ll get, since your username will come up so often, it coincides with a clean break in social circles, and the vise of professionalism will probably only tighten in the future. You also have the same escape hatch mentioned above in reverse — you can make a mailing list with a professional name to use for, say, job applications; you’ll also be able to fit your name or names into that mailing list’s name if it didn’t fit in the 8-character limit. Still, since you can’t change your username, be absolutely sure that this is what you want before doing it. Be sure that you’re willing to own your username for the next few years, potentially a lifetime if you end up continuing studies at MIT, in all the contexts it might come up in. This is the kind of choice I would not make unless I still wanted to do it after thinking it over and talking to friends for a solid week. Tread carefully. But if it’s been a week and you’re still sure, don’t let the spectre of professionalism get in your way.
What if you’re OK with a standard-template username, but your name is very long? I think brevity is good, but only slightly. I wouldn’t recommend taking random prefixes of your names if the full version would have fit in the 8-character limit and been available, but if you’re forced to cut things off, at least take solace in the fact that you’ll need to type, spell, or pronounce that many fewer characters every time it comes up. It doesn’t come up often enough to make brevity more than slightly good, but it’s something. Since people do say usernames out loud, if you’re truncating your name to fit in your username, I recommend doing it at a syllable boundary instead of just at the 8-character limit; it also looks more natural.4 But wherever you cut it, make sure you like how your username looks and sounds.
I also agree that numbers and underscores should really be considered a last resort. Not only are underscores the hardest of the possible username characters to type, I still hear stories about systems at MIT not handling underscores in usernames correctly from time to time.5 As for numbers, I hope that tacking on an arbitrary digit to make your username unique is self-evidently inelegant. However, there are more plausible motivations for including a number that I would still like to argue against.
- Adding your class year may seem like a safe choice, but there are more reasons than you might expect that you might not graduate in exactly four years. It’s possible that you might just miss a requirement at an inopportune time, but you also might decide to take a gap year (or more), take an extra semester (or more) for other reasons such as grad school applications, graduate with a second degree later, or even graduate early. That’s why I can’t advise cementing your class year in your username.
- You might also think of including your birth year, which won’t change, but I think that’s the kind of personal information that you don’t want to be forced to reveal whenever you need to give somebody your username.
If you really do want to use a number, you could consider putting it in the middle of your username to
assert dominance demonstrate that you really thought about the number and aren’t including it just for the sake of finding something that works. I think three-character usernames that consist of a letter, a digit, and another letter are pretty classy. Several of those6 made it onto my shortlist of usernames when I was weighing my options.
Finally, some of the posts mentioned a few times how some groups will call you by your username. I think it’s worth adding that this is fairly unevenly distributed over the possible groups you might be part of. Some MIT students will experience this much more often than others. So you should try to make sure you’d be happy almost never being called by your username as well as almost always being called by your username.
That’s everything I learned on the topic. Hopefully, this post can help you or somebody you know choose a good username. Let me know via comment, email, courier dragon, or any other medium you like if you have any additional or countervailing suggestions.7
Actually, checking against MIT’s records now and looking back on four years ago, I am not sure if I checked the last initial + first name combination; it currently looks free. But I also don’t know if I would have preferred to have been [email protected] So you have my permission to pretend last initial + first name doesn’t exist if it’s the only combination that’s available for you. Meh.↩
More specifically, the “official” explanation for my pretend middle initial, the one I would give if asked about it for some bureaucratic procedure that tolerates no humor, is that it came from the Wade–Giles romanization of my Chinese given name. The word “official” is in quotes partly because I don’t like the Wade–Giles romanization system for wasting several perfectly good consonants, among them “b”, while also eliding meaningful distinctions. According to Wikipedia, Wade–Giles keeps “b” and friends free for other Chinese varieties with true voiced consonants. I assume this is important for some people, but I just don’t think it makes the optimal tradeoffs among romanization systems.
There are many less official explanations. One is that it stands for “professional”. An entirely retroactive explanation is that it stands for “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney™”. The least unofficial explanation, one that I have actually delivered to a roomful of people before, is that it stands for “whatever you want it to, such as ‘Alfred’”.
All this is not to say that your pretend middle initial must be the initial of your romanized given name — you might not even have one. Come up with a pretend middle initial any way you like, maybe even using some of the tricks I mentioned in the paragraph about generating an arbitrary username. The beauty of this approach is that with 26 possible letters, you have a lot of freedom, and have pretty good chances of finding an available username with a middle initial that you like and can somehow justify. You can also put your pretend initial before your first initial.↩
Okay, this is not technically true. In rare cases and with really good reasons, usernames have been changed. One comment on one of the blog posts mentions that you can change your username if you marry somebody, because, I assume, this might cause you to change your legal name. In my personal experience I have seen username changes happen a handful of times. All of them involved somebody who was gender-transitioning, also changed their legal name, and no longer wished to be associated with their former name, which is a very good reason in my book. Despite this, I believe it’s still a hassle for everyone involved, and I don’t think that “I chose a weird username as an undergrad” is anywhere as good a reason.↩
A slight risk of a natural-sounding truncation is that some people might not check and just assume that your truncated first or last name is your real first or last name. This is also something that really happened to somebody I know. I don’t think this is a common issue though.↩
One of the easiest wrong assumptions to make about a tech school like MIT is that it must have good technology infrastructure.↩
Actually, all of them were on my shortlist, which had
b[0-9]cat the bottom as a catch-all (followed by
b[anything]c. But the two usernames I was explicitly considering were b4c and b6c. To get a feel of the shenanigans going on in this shortlist, Here is the entirety of the section analyzing
- as short as possible
- full of fascinating puzzly and numerological meanings
- B4C also happens to be boron carbide which looks like a pretty cool material!
- rebus: B, my initial, is the letter that comes B4 C in the alphabet (or on the periodic table, oh snaaaap)
- I can say 4 is my middle name (a la Jennifer 8. Lee) and/or that it is short for foreknowledge or fortitude or lots of things; the possibilities are endless
- 4 is a power of 2
- the number doesn’t look extremely professional
- I’m not actually into chemistry — quite the opposite, to be honest. Maybe leave this for the next person with my initials who is?
- 4 has negative connotations in Chinese (4 is homophonous with death; many buildings or hotels, especially hospitals, skip the floor number or room number)
- It will be clunky to use as a verbal nickname
- I guess I wouldn’t mind if I told people to read it “tetrabor”. In any case that sounds far cooler than (ahem) “brick”. Although I don’t know if that is trademarked because I just found it on Wikipedia without any context
- chinese superstition = nbd
The only thing I wrote for b6c is:
(nb. #006 = Charizard)
Wow. I really do want feedback because my experience with using a username as my own at MIT is ultimately limited to one, but I still can’t ask for feedback at the end of a post like this with a straight face. “There we go, pretending an audience for this blog exists again.”
Still, I have managed to restrain myself enough to relegate the self-referential snark to a footnote. Maybe if I do this enough times it’ll start feeling natural.↩