The Millenials@MIT: Discussions on the Generational Changes in the Graduate Student Population
Over the past two years, we have had extensive discussions with graduate students at monthly “Dinners and Dialogue,” a number of focus groups, panels and many one-on-one meetings. Recently, we held a round table discussion with a cross section of seven MIT graduate students representing all five Schools, a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, nationalities, departments, research and extracurricular interests, family status, and lengths of study at MIT (see Acknowledgements). The aim was to focus on a single topic in depth: the generational changes of the MIT graduate population − the majority of which (85%) include “The Millenials” (birth years 1980 to present, see the figure, below) − and how these changes were reflected in and impacting their educational experience.
We also discussed how MIT could evolve to better support this generation of graduate students in order that they may more efficiently and easily find their path and passion, engage strategically in the innumerable educational opportunities MIT has to offer, unlock their imagination and creativity, realize their unique strengths and potential and achieve all of their academic, personal, and professional goals. A number of themes emerged from this fascinating discussion (see box below) which were often heard in our previous outreach and are supplemented by supporting data when available, following. The goal of this article is to provide faculty with a snapshot into the educational experience of this generation of graduate students, to serve as impetus for continued dialogue and exploration of new areas for improving the quality of graduate education at MIT.
Taking Action to Have a Positive Impact in the World
This generation of MIT graduate students are community and global minded and, hence, interest in “grand challenge” research areas is flourishing (e.g., energy, environment, health, poverty, water, etc.), as well as non-traditional learning, public service, entrepreneurship, leadership, international projects, and educational outreach. Approximately 440 graduate students were involved in the MIT Global Ideas Challenge and 12 of the 14 winning teams in 2012 were led by graduate students. Approximately 2000 graduate student "seats" were taken in 36 Entrepreneurship subjects and about 1000 graduate student "seats" were taken in 18 “Innovation” subjects (Committee for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education, Sub-Committee Report, 2012). Many graduate students also engage in the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition and the MIT Entrepreneurs Club. Participation in graduate student governance continues to thrive with close to 600 students volunteering and graduate student representatives serving on more than 30 Institute-level committees. Graduate students also engage in international engagements through individual faculty-driven research collaborations and Institute-supported global research teams (e.g., The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology or SMART), internships (The MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives or MISTI) and globally-oriented curricula (e.g., MIT Sloan Action Learning Labs).
On a Journey of Self-Discovery and Willing to Take Risks
Today’s MIT graduate students are not only immersed in a diverse array of academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular opportunities (“drinking from the firehose”) but in addition must manage 24/7 access to information, hyper-communication, national and global uncertainty and increasing expectations for productivity. Within this turbulent maelstrom of choice and interactivity, they are searching for purpose and meaning in life and seeking to explore and define their own educational and life path.
The graduate student participants expressed a desire for a guided, supported, more flexible and personalized education, e.g., greater ease to study boundary-crossing and non-traditional research areas, increased access to interdisciplinary and extra-departmental interactions and holistic mentoring beyond the primary thesis advisor, including peer advising, for educational mapping and navigation.
An evolution for graduate education was proposed; a core of academically rigorous foundational, discipline-specific training integrated with long-term transferable professional skills development and personal growth, in particular, critical thinking and the ability to produce creative solutions to broad complex problems, manage failure, self-reflect, and develop self-confidence. All of the student participants in the round table felt that they had in some way taken educational “risks” during their time at MIT, for example: switching fields to pursue a deeper passion, choosing a non-conventional interdisciplinary research topic, creating a start-up company with scholars outside of the current field of study, going abroad with programs like the MIT Sloan Action Labs, and engaging in leadership and student government; they felt it would be highly beneficial to reduce the “invisible” barriers to such activities.
Increasingly Diverse and Inclusive
Compared to previous generations, our graduate population is increasingly diverse (approximately 38% international, 12% domestic underrepresented minority, 32% women), which is reflective of recruitment efforts at all levels of the Institute, national demographic shifts, and the increasing globalization of higher education. Diversity is a core value of MIT and deep-rooted inclusivity is an aspiration for MIT. The Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE) has adopted a vision to foster an environment which embraces the potential of all its members, where all feel intellectually and socially engaged, valued, interacting, and connected to the MIT community. This philosophy is a component of the recently launched “MITogether” campaign. The participating students in the round table cited the benefit and prevalence of over 450 interest groups along many dimensions − from faith and cultural groups to arts and athletic communities − as core support structures that often enable students to go out and engage more confidently in the broader MIT community. Cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural interactions are also facilitated by the large residential graduate community that houses approximately 38% of graduate students on campus and related programming such as Sidney Pacific Cultural InterExchange or SPICE.
Exhibiting the Paradox of Simultaneous Optimism and Pessimism
The participating students in the round table expressed a paradox of outwardly facing optimism and confidence simultaneously with inward pessimism and self-doubt (the “imposter syndrome”). When they look from MIT out into the world, they were optimistic about tackling the world's challenges, but when they look within the bubble of MIT at their educational journey, they are sometimes pessimistic about being able to make it through. The students commented that this may be due in part to the high quality and accomplishments of their peers, the lack of experience with failure and learned coping mechanisms, the large number of choices and decisions, the increasing expectations of productivity, and the drive to achieve an artificial vision of perfectionism.
In the worse-case scenario, these contributing factors can lead to isolation and factor into depression and mental health issues; in fact, the volume and complexity of personal support needed and requested by graduate students has increased dramatically in recent years and 42% of graduate students cite academic and/or social isolation as a barrier to their academic progress (2011 Enrolled Graduate Student Survey).
Graduate education and its supporting infrastructure at MIT can serve to proactively prevent and mitigate such issues, to build self-confidence so that an equilibrium can be achieved between these two diverging facets of their character. A Quality of Life Survey for the entire MIT student population spearheaded by the Chancellor’s office is planned for the spring of 2013 to better understand such issues and guide future programming.
Natives of the Digital World
This generation of graduate students uses technology and diverse and personal media ubiquitously and simultaneously for communication, classwork, and research. They are infiltrated by technological tools that affect their educational experience in a myriad of ways: social interactions, communication with their thesis advisor, remote online instrumentation training and experimentation, scholarly conferences, online disciplinary discussion groups, virtual international collaboration, nearly instantaneous literature alerts, etc. The research of Professor Sherry Turkle (MIT Program in Science, Technology, and Society) reveals how the use of technological devices causes the periodic mental and emotional removal from face-to-face interactions, the sacrifice of deep and meaningful conversations and a reduced capacity for self-reflection and solitude, ultimately increasing vulnerability to loneliness and isolation. As deep intellectual discourse is the currency of collaboration, research innovation, and knowledge generation central to graduate education, Professor Turkle’s comments on the creation of sacred times and spaces for deep thought, active listening, and face-to-face interactions warrant consideration as we consider the evolution of the twenty-first century residential research university: for example, curriculum, MITx, the physical plant and teaching, learning, collaboration and community spaces, co-curricular activities and transferable skills development, and in mentoring and advising.
Striving for Work-Life Integration
The Millenial generation is evolving the concept of work-life balance to a more flexible work-life integration. Many aspects of graduate education enable the capability to work whenever and wherever is most productive. Faculty, who serve as role models for our graduate students, report increased satisfaction with the ability to integrate work and personal/family life from 40% in 2008 to 64% in 2012 (Faculty Quality of Life Survey). Many of our graduate students have families; 49% report having a spouse or partner and 9% report having one or more children (2011 Enrolled Graduate Student Survey). For graduate student families, the dual role of parenting and being a graduate student is challenging, with regards to finances, childcare, and scheduling. It requires prioritizing, time management, and coming up with creative solutions.
Simultaneously, there is great opportunity for families of graduate students sharing the MIT culture and lifestyle to build a continuous integrated experience. MIT increasingly plays a role as a resource for education, creativity, and inspiration for graduate student families.
The ODGE Strategic Plan (odge.mit.edu/about/strategy/)sets forth a future vision for graduate education which considers the generational changes of our graduate students − expanding upon its foundation of the creation and dissemination of original knowledge at the frontiers of a field, to include also the recognition of what the new knowledge generated means in a broad context, and the development of a metacurricular skillset and the character to act on this new knowledge for the benefit of humanity. ODGE strategic initiatives on facilitating cross-cutting interdisciplinary intellectual networks, diversity and inclusion, personal support and professional development were all areas raised in the round table and in many other discussion forums. New ideas were raised as well within these general themes and provide opportunities, as we continue to dialogue on how we may best advance the quality of graduate education at MIT. It is clear that as higher education is undergoing disruptive change, it is taking our students along with it; our creativity and collaboration will allow us to direct this wave of change.
We would like to thank the following graduate students who participated in the round table discussion: Adekunle Adeyemo, Department of Chemical Engineering; André Du Pin Calmon, Operations Research Center and the Sloan School of Management; Aalap Dighe, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Russell Jensen, Department of Chemistry; Mareena Robinson, Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering; and