Feb 18, 2011
Preparing for the real world
Posted in: Miscellaneous
Hey folks, TGIF! I got an email from Tanya '10 earlier this week, who said that she wanted to write up a little entry about how GEL prepared her for life outside of the MIT bubble. I love hearing other students' take on this program because it's one of those "you get what you give" sort of experiences, so different people take away different messages. Matt '11, another GEL, was featured in the winter 2011 issue of MIT's Spectrum newsletter that goes out to "friends and supporters" of MIT. I agree that the hands-on approach helps this program stand out from all my lecture-based classes!
Anyway, Tanya's text begins below. Enjoy!
It could have been any number of early mornings my freshman year at MIT. There I was, slaving over a 18.02 or 8.012 pset at 3AM, being really no closer to finishing than I was a few hours earlier. On his way through the lounge, one of the upperclassmen in my dorm stopped by to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said, “After this, the real world will be easy.”
I heard that sentiment echoed many times during my years at MIT from anyone from second-term freshmen to recent alums returning to regale us with tales of life after graduation. For most of my time at the Institute, I fully believed them, using their optimism and encouragement to convince myself to pull through just one more all-nighter. The problem is, being a recent graduate myself, I’m not entirely convinced they were right.
The problem with psets and labs are that they are confined, defined problems with a predetermined solution. You know when you have reached the “right answer,” and the problems are intentionally designed to be solved by one or two people, ideally of the same background and skill set. Ask anyone from the “real world” how realistic that situation is and chances are you’ll be greeted with a mixture of laughter and sympathetic looks.
MIT does the best job in the world for preparing you for the technical challenges you will face in industry, and if your future job involves sitting in a cubicle solving well-defined problems fed to you by a benevolent manager, then you’re in luck because the “real world” will probably seem pretty easy compared to your time at MIT.
However, for the vast majority of you who will work in teams made of people with diverse backgrounds on problems that are both ill-defined and complex, you may find that MIT only gave you a few pieces of the puzzle.
That’s why it’s so great that programs like GEL are becoming part of the MIT curriculum. GEL very much fills a hole left by traditional coursework, and that’s how to deal with all the parts of your job that aren’t solitary technical problem-solving. To highlight this gap, I’ll give an example from my own post-MIT experience.
When I started grad school, my first (and still ongoing) project was part of an industry collaboration with my lab and involved running a coordinated study across four countries, all of whom would have their own quasi-independent operating teams. One of those countries is China, and there have been a lot of unanticipated complications arising both from the language barrier and cultural differences.
Each of the teams also wanted to pull the project in a certain direction, and we had to make sure that the teams were given enough independence while still ensuring that their data would contribute to the overall project. Furthermore, our main industry contacts (and therefore the people to whom we had to report) were PR and marketing professionals who understood very little about academic research.
It has been a separate challenge to try to run a legitimate research project while also fitting into the timescale and budget imposed by our industry collaborators, all while justifying our decisions to people whose background and knowledge of the field is completely different.
I might have been in over my head, but luckily some of the core skills of the GEL program taught me how to work with people from diverse backgrounds and internationally.
Many GEL ELLs taught me effective communication skills so I could effectively share my ideas with someone of a non-technical background and, similarly, understand their point of view and goals.
My GEL InternshipPlus took me to England, where I learned to work with people from a different culture and in a different work environment. Finally, my contacts in the GEL program are a vital and consistent support network for me: I have reached out to the GEL staff for help with my current project even though I have graduated, and their assistance has been invaluable.
I can’t really say that any of my academic classes at MIT prepared me for many the challenges I’ve faced since graduating, and with the dynamics of both industry and academia changing rapidly, it’s reasonable to say that you too might be surprised by the things required of you once you leave the relative safety being evaluated based purely on coursework.
The value of the GEL program is in preparing you to face those challenges. Not only will you know more what to expect, but you will be prepared and will therefore excel in ways that you never knew you could.
I am grateful every day that I had GEL to teach me the things I never would have learned at MIT otherwise, and I know that I will apply many of the lessons I learned in the program throughout my career. I highly encourage all of you to take advantage of one of the best opportunities MIT has to offer. You won’t regret it.