“What does graduate student leadership at MIT mean to you?” After nearly four years in graduate leadership positions, I’m still not sure I can answer this question. But hopefully you’ll be a bit amused as I try.
In short, graduate student leadership means ensuring good communication, working with interesting people at MIT (sometimes really interesting), and a sense of exhilaration when you accomplish something you set out to do. But sometimes things don’t go as smoothly as planned, and that means graduate student leadership also involves fighting other students’ apathy towards your cause, not to mention occasionally remembering you have academic responsibilities in addition to your leadership role(s). Still, as a graduate student leader, the ultimate goal is to make a real impact on the lives of your fellow students — maybe even in a way that they will carry with them beyond MIT.
I got started in grad student leadership when I attended a GSC subcommittee meeting because I was marginally interested in the topic of discussion and significantly interested in the free pizza. I wish someone had told me that free pizza falls from the sky in grad school. I take that back — I’m glad they didn’t tell me, because that one pizza got me into the GSC and I have never regretted that commitment.
So it was a love of pizza that kicked off a chain reaction — I started as chair of the GSC’s Off-campus Subcommittee, served as a GSC Activities Committee co-chair for two years, and am now wrapping up my tenure as the GSC vice president. I guess I owe the manager at Bertucci’s a thank-you card.
There are two parts in the term “graduate student leadership” — the first is “graduate student.” Grad students are a unique population in the community, and some are barely even students in the typical sense at all, having completed all their classes. Grad students don’t generally take on leadership positions to put those positions on their résumés, and they tend to be less interested in doing things outside their research. But grad students also tend to need little time to develop their own identities, and they know where their interests lie. This means that once you find students who are willing to work toward a cause, they are really good at it. They also have very diverse backgrounds (not just ethnically, but also in terms of work experience, marital status, etc.) and this provides a great breadth of knowledge in the community.
The second part of “graduate student leadership” is “leadership.” I think the three most important parts of leadership are honesty, determination, and communication. Putting honesty and determination together means you will get stuff done when you say you will get stuff done. People will naturally follow if you do positive things and you do them well. But I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning leaders get snagged up in communications issues, and these can severely hinder the efforts of the most honest and hard-working people. It’s always important to let others know what you’re doing and to ask them for input along the way.
The unfortunate part about being a leader, sometimes, is that you become tied to the abilities of others. Being a leader often means one becomes a manager of others, which means the leader has to coordinate other people and rely on them to get things done. I’ve sometimes wished everyone working for me could have a salary, just so I could threaten to fire some of them. This is a distinct disadvantage of being a leader in a volunteer organization — you don’t really have any way to punish people for not doing a job they said they would do, or for doing it poorly.
But along with leadership difficulties come great rewards. Here’s what I see as the single largest personal benefit of being a grad student leader: the diversity of people you work with in your positions. As a grad student in a lab, one doesn’t get exposure to all the kinds of people who run MIT. These people are the same people (or types of people) who run government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, and countries. And they’re all on campus. Additionally, all of my best friendships with classmates have been formed in grad school, not undergrad, through my leadership interactions with others.
The bottom line is that graduate student leadership is a learning experience. I’ll be the first to admit I’ve screwed up a lot in my various roles — just ask my past co-chairs, fellow officers, the GSC reps, the ODGE, and SAO. But mistakes happen and, while the work is important, it should still be understood that we are all volunteers and we are all learning from our roles.
And some of us are in it for the free pizza.
Kevin McComber is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.