MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXII No. 1
September / October 2009
Altering the Culture of MIT
Turmoil at Student Support Services
Communicating Across the Curriculum
Testing our Capacity to Govern, Change,
and Be True to our Values
Student Support Services: The Way Forward
MISTI Matches Students with International Work and Research Opportunities
iHouse: An International
Living-Learning Community
OpenCourseWare: Working Through
Financial Challenges
Balancing the Equities
MIT Fourth in Latest U.S. News Poll
New CUP Subcommittee to Implement
HASS Distribution Reform
New Course Catalog for 2009-2010
A Realistic Way to Deal with Global Warming
What Goes Around Comes Around: H1N1 and Extended Outage Planning Viewed Through the Lens of the Blizzard of ’78
Death of UCLA Researcher
Heightens Lab Safety Awareness
Tech Talk Ceases Publication: MIT News Office Launches New Website
UPOP Positions Students
for Professional Success
Teachng this fall? You should know . . .
Undergraduate College Rankings
Printable Version

UPOP Positions Students for Professional Success

Susann Luperfoy

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), just 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job had procured one by May. Even graduates of leading schools like MIT faced stiff competition for scarce openings. More than ever before, experience – in the form of internships – can be the determining factor in employment decisions.

MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) gives students hands-on experience to complement their MIT education. Classroom instruction and exposure to research with MIT faculty (UROPs) give students the grounding in engineering science they need to function at the highest echelons in industry, academia, and the public sector. Students graduate with unsurpassed technical knowledge, analytic skills, and the ability to teach themselves. But MIT graduates are often oblivious to the unwritten rules of organizations and get left to execute engineering decisions made by their less technical colleagues. UPOP creates in students an awareness of the “invisible forces” that exist in the world of work; UPOP faculty, staff, and industry professionals introduce them to the tools, techniques, and mentoring relationships they need to get started on mastering those forces.

UPOP is a full-year co-curricular program (open to all Institute sophomores) with an emphasis on two educational tracks: engineering effectiveness, and career ownership.

Hands-on exercises in engineering specification, project management, teamwork, and communication expose students to key success factors for applied work. Coached practice in professional networking (versus “schmoozing”), principled negotiation (versus “winning”), empathy (versus “manipulation”) and reputation-building all help students take active control of their prospective careers two years before they graduate.

UPOP also serves as the sophomore year of the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program. [See article by E. Crawley in MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XXI No. 4.] Students who complete the UPOP foundational year become eligible to continue in the Engineering Leadership Practice Opportunities Program (ELPOP) or the Gordon Engineering Leadership (GEL) program in their junior and senior years. Beginning with UPOP, the Gordon program provides a progressively challenging sequence of leadership experiences that position students for success in the job market and a career in engineering leadership.

Summer Internships: A Gateway to Employment

On-campus recruiting is the most common method of finding full-time employment at graduation. With the advent of the recession in AY 2007-08, on-campus recruiting dropped by 26 percent, and internships became the second most common method of finding work for MIT bachelor’s degree recipients [ 1, 4]. According to the NACE study, over 75 percent of employers prefer to hire new college graduates who have relevant work experience, and nearly 20 percent of employers prefer any type of work experience to none at all. Internship experience gives students a competitive edge in the job market and provides employers with early access to top talent. For many employers, summer interns comprise a primary pool from which to recruit full-time staff. In fact, employers surveyed by NACE reported that more than one-third of the new college graduates they hired in 2008 came from their internship programs. So the more on-campus recruiting declines, the more internships serve as the gateway to full-time jobs.

While UPOP is not a placement service and does not guarantee internships, the commitment to the student is “We won’t give up on you until you give up yourself.” In a typical year, 85 percent of UPOP sophomores find real hands-on engineering work in a market that seeks only juniors and graduate students. Beyond matching sophomores to internships, UPOP instills students with job acquisition and performance skills and a career-focused outlook that will serve them over the course of their careers. They learn how to identify (or create) opportunities, obtain the offer, negotiate terms, and perform with excellence on the job. 

The UPOP Community

After recruiting and internships, networking was the third most common vehicle for MIT undergraduates landing full-time employment. UPOP sophomores learn tools and techniques for networking, and practice them by making personal connections with engineering leaders who participate in UPOP. This requires a strong community of seasoned professionals, mostly MIT graduates who mentor, coach, and employ students. During IAP, students (in teams of 7-9) spend one week with an assigned mentor-instructor as part of an intensive engineering effectiveness workshop. The workshop is taught by MIT faculty and facilitated by the mentor-instructors who come from a variety of engineering disciplines and devote nine full days to the program. Many remain in contact with their students throughout the spring semester – and often long afterwards. Students benefit from the contact with seasoned professionals, and mentor-instructors enjoy re-connecting with the Institute. “It was invigorating to mentor and learn from the UPOP students,” said Rick Stadterman ’75, Head of Global R&D for Bayer Healthcare Diabetes Care. Steve Webster ’78, the VP for Research and Technology Commercialization at 3M, has volunteered twice. “Since so much of my success and opportunities have been because of MIT, [participating in the IAP Workshop] seemed like a great way to give back.”

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Success on the Job

UPOP’s emphasis on communication and teamwork resonates with employers. Angie Kelic PhD ’05, who served as a mentor-instructor in 2008 and 2009, says the program “gives students the perspective that problems are not always just technical, which is something you don’t always get in school. UPOP shows them that issues can be about communication .… Students need to understand that and be exposed to it.” The data support Kelic’s claim. According to NACE’s Job Outlook 2009, communication skills, strong work ethic, ability to work in a team, and initiative are among the qualities employers value most.

According to surveyed employers, UPOP students significantly out-perform their non-UPOP peers when functioning on multi-disciplinary teams and in making oral presentations [Charles Leiserson, Barbara Masi, Chris Resto, and Dick K.P.Yue: "Development of engineering professional abilities in a co-curricular program for engineering sophomores." Proceedings of the 2004 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition.] Additional program evaluation data show a statistically significant advantage for UPOP students in the following areas:

  • Asking for more challenging assignments
  • Managing and organizing workload
  • Addressing personal conflicts
  • Addressing team conflicts
  • Tailoring presentations to fit audiences’ interests
  • Appreciating the role of ethics in engineering

After a full year of training and a summer internship, UPOP students themselves often reflect on their significant progress. “The UPOP program taught me what's expected of me in the work place, and how I can make the most of a career in engineering through effective communication and active leadership,” said one member of the Class of 2009.

UPOP Welcomes All Students

All MIT sophomores are eligible for the instruction, coaching and summer practicum offered by UPOP. UPOP requirements are compatible with MISTI, departmental internship programs, UROP assignments and most IAP offerings. UPOP’s “open door policy” means that students are welcome in the office anytime: no appointment is necessary for résumé review, interview coaching, and negotiation support throughout the internship search and beyond. Juniors, seniors, and graduate students who have completed the program are welcome and frequently do return to the UPOP office for continued support.      

UPOP is a strong program with a vast and enthusiastic community of faculty, staff, and volunteer supporters. New members are always welcome as are suggestions for improving the curriculum design or program operations to better serve student and department needs.

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