MIT

Thoughts for #MIT2015 graduates @MIT_alumni

I was asked by @MIT_alumni on Twitter if I had any words of advice for the graduates, who will be receiving their diploma at Commencement tomorrow. “Share and we’ll RT!” the message said. I was tempted to answer “beware of advice in less than 140 characters” or “never listen to advice from people you don’t know”, both making fair points, I think, but in the end I decided to give the request a longer and hopefully more thoughtful answer.

“What advice do you have for the graduates?” is a tricky question, because good advice is tailored to the case of the person who receives it, and the thousands of students – Bachelor’s, Master’s, PhD recipients – who will line up by the Commencement stage tomorrow are much too diverse for any words of advice to be equally applicable and thus meaningful to them. The best Commencement speakers share insights from their own life that will inspire listeners to pursue their own dreams with the knowledge that, if they fall, the skills they have earned in the pursuit of their degree will allow them to get up and dust themselves off. Having received my PhD from EECS only eleven years ago and being now a tenured Associate Professor at what is often referred to as a “New Ivy” school in Pennsylvania, I don’t have a tenth of the life experience and credibility that most Commencement speakers have. But I have kept in touch with many former students over the decade I have been on the other side of the student-faculty line, including nine as an academic advisor, and I have some ideas on what has made some fulfill their potential and others falter. (Sadly, I can’t include all of them in this post, but please let me know if you’d like me to write more on the topic.) So, here we go.

Life doesn’t owe you anything. It is tempting to think that, because you have a degree from one of the very best universities in the world, you have received a stamp of approval that will open door after door after door to lead you toward the career you have dreamed for yourself. (You may think that even if you’re not quite sure what career you want to pursue.) If someone from a less prestigious school gets a job or a fellowship you had applied for, you may take the news with disbelief and thoughts of unfairness. But life is more complicated than that. Your degree is a wonderful steppingstone, the sign you can successfully handle complex challenges and make a tremendous contribution to your workplace. Yet, the fact is that…

The people who succeed have good enough subject knowledge and excellent interpersonal skills. Of course we can argue for hours about the definition of success. Being of service to one’s community and raising thoughtful children matters tremendously. For this post, we will define success as success in the workforce, although I hope you’ll use your skills to solve important problems outside work too. And we can also argue about the definition of “good enough” subject knowledge. Some places hire only the best engineers, the best scientists, the best economists – no doubt about that. But among those engineers, scientists and economists who were best-in-class at the top university they graduated from, those who succeed have excellent interpersonal skills. To be honest, I’ve seen some of my doctoral students at the “New Ivy” school I teach land jobs (and subsequently thrive) that their peers at MIT would have been overjoyed with, and the undergraduate degree-holders from that same “New Ivy” school are known for their fast-ascending career trajectories at Fortune 100 companies. Why? Because of their interpersonal skills.

Coming from MIT, known for its quantitative rigor, some of you may believe that “interpersonal skills” is a code word for “schmoozing” and “office politics”. Or maybe it’s just me? I pursued an engineering degree because I liked that if I was asked a math or physics question at a test, the examiner could not use his own opinion to decide whether I was right or wrong. I didn’t have to depend on someone’s whim, the way I felt I would if I wrote essays. But as I grew older, I realized you always need other people to succeed. You need someone to put your name in for a coveted assignment or go to bat for you for promotion. You need people to try your new products. You need to understand how others perceive you and your ideas, and how to best work with them so that you can achieve your objectives and they theirs. This starts with excellent communication skills, and later extends to emotional intelligence and the ability to work with, for or lead other people. If you don’t know where to start, join Toastmasters and ask yourself of any person you interact with: “what are this person’s goals and how can I best help her achieve her objectives while I pursue mine?” But even interpersonal skills aren’t enough to guarantee success because... 

It is easy to go off-track if you don’t pay attention. My favorite life metaphor is that of the frog in hot water. If you put a frog into very warm water, it will jump right out. But if you put the frog into cold water and then progressively increase the temperature until the water boils, it will stay in the water until it is dead. That is because at every moment, the water is not that much hotter than it was a few seconds earlier. I think life is like that too. You look at very talented people stuck in dead-end jobs and wonder: why aren’t they running out of there screaming for their lives? But every day was not that much worse than the day before and so they stayed, until there was not much left to salvage from their career. So it helps if, maybe once a year or so, you picture your life as if you were an outsider observing the life of your best friend – not yours. Or imagine what an outsider would say (say, someone you strike up a conversation with, one day when you’re stuck at an airport) if you summarized your life for him. It is most helpful if you write this down in a notebook every year, so that you can compare your write-ups over several years. When you re-read your notes, you want to have the impression that…

Whatever you do, always go to your edge. You may decide to have a career in the field you earned your degree in, you may decide to use it as a steppingstone toward something else, or you may decide to completely change paths. That won’t mean your degree was time wasted: you have earned important skills, especially problem-solving skills, you can apply no matter where. But whatever you do, don’t settle for “good enough” (although it is tempting if you’re not quite sure what you want to do and are still evaluating your options). In any field, there will be people passionate about the topic and willing to do it full-out. If you are not passionate about your career path, you will find yourself beaten again and again by those competitors. That’s not why you went to MIT for, is it? Getting a degree from the ‘Tute is an enormous accomplishment, but it is only an intermediary milestone, a springboard toward better things. Some fellow graduates I thought were promised to great things have struggled or faded into oblivion. I personally owe my entire career and my Green Card to MIT. My whole life, you could say. I would not have become a professor if I hadn’t gone to MIT and met the peers and mentors I have along the way. Which brings me to my last point…

What makes MIT special is its people. You may (in fact, will probably) never find yourself again in a place where you can interact with so many talented, enthusiastic, smart people capable of changing the world. You will miss the feeling of impending intellectual discovery that is always in the air. After graduation, the lack of intense shared experiences will make it harder to strike meaningful friendships. This is a problem all college graduates the world over have, but it might be most acute here where solving a problem set late at night with a group of friends is one of the hallmark experiences of a MIT education. So try to meet as many people as you can when you still can, and keep an open mind. People change a lot after they graduate. Even the annoying kid down the hall may become the perfect best friend a few years from now. Keep in touch with as many classmates as you can – not as a way to practice shallow networking, but because these people, whether you feel you have much in common with them now or not, may inspire you like no other a few years hence.

The adventure, really, is only beginning.