Leadership includes not only skills to be taught but a lifestyle to be embraced through experience. While this is recognized in some aspects of the MIT community, there are further opportunities to develop and expand practical leadership development programs. A more formalized, holistic process, linking leadership opportunities in community life and academics, might benefit not only MIT’s students, but the community at large.
There exists the old adage that MIT graduates work under Harvard and Yale graduates. Whether or not this adage holds true, the reputation that MIT does not create leaders in industry or politics or academia is troublesome. In fact, some formal leadership development opportunities do exist. On the undergraduate level, students can participate in the Freshman Leadership Program, which is a pre-orientation experience, and LeaderShape, which occurs once a year over IAP. Graduate students in the Sloan school are able to become engaged in the Sloan Leadership Center activities, conferences, and so forth. Students who are able to participate in both the graduate and undergraduate programs speak highly of their experiences. Yet the opportunities remain very limited, and are insufficient to meet the need.
The majority of students develop their leadership skills primarily through their roles in living groups, student groups, and student government. The contributions of these extra-curricular activities to students’ professional development must not be overlooked. At the same time, there is a desire among many students for more formalized methods of developing oneself as a leader that can go beyond the opportunities offered by extra-curricular activities. Perhaps it is time for the Institute to embrace as one of its central values the notion of creating leaders, not only in academia and research, but in all aspects of life.
Many students, graduate and undergraduate alike, do not believe they are provided sufficient opportunity to learn the “soft skills” they believe are critical to their future success, such as communication and presentation skills or research ethics.
Undergraduate communication requirements have been established across the curriculum, but they do not seem to be accomplishing their goal. While students recognize on a conceptual level the need to develop their communication skills, few are able to establish the practical relevance of their required communications classes to their line of technical study. In addition, the teaching of non-technical skills, such as effective communication, must be done throughout the educational process rather than only within one specific course. This requires a system of feedback from not only course professors, but also peers and, particularly for graduate students, research advisors.
Many graduate students feel that there is an insufficient focus on career advising for non-academic pursuits, and some believe that the faculty overall do not respect such pursuits. While there are some formal resources available through the MIT Careers Office, there is a lack of consistency across individual departments in this area. There exists a need for more formal programs that encourage one-on-one career advising, with links to alumni, and a greater willingness to nurture students with non tenure-track aspirations.
MIT alumni represent a major untapped resource for career advising, mentoring, and job opportunities. Some MIT schools have been successful in engaging alumni, while others lack a real connection with even their most recent graduates. Many alumni are willing and able to offer support but do not do so because effective channels of communication with the Institute do not exist. To fill this gap, the Institute as a whole and individual departments need to create more effective mechanisms and facilitate more opportunities for communicating with their alumni base.
Such engagements can occur both through formal departmental or lab initiatives – for instance, the role alumni play in the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP)2– but can also occur through extracurricular activities – for instance, the student-run MIT $50K Entrepreneurship Competition3 has a long-running Mentorship program and collaborates with the MIT Alumni Association’s Enterprise Forum on intensive presentation workshops.
2 UPOP -- http://web.mit.edu/engineering/upop/ -- engages students in industry internship programs and draws upon alumni volunteers -- http://web.mit.edu/engineering/upop/alumni_info.html -- as mentors, coaches, advisors, and speakers.