Our prestigious MIT graduate degrees — signals of our technical prowess and nimble rationality that are so valued in this high-tech world — are misleading. There is a mismatch between the leadership skills that the world expects of us and the scientific expertise that our degrees require. To be sure, we will be able to rise to the technical demands of any complicated challenge, incise to its core variables, and deliver a well-defined solution. But we will need to learn the leadership skills, those that determine the impact and thoughtfulness of our solution and the stability of our teams, on the fly. Graduate students in science and engineering need to expand their cadre of research skills to include leadership by shifting the traditional PhD paradigm to one that includes leadership development.
Any engineering graduate, especially those from MIT, must be capable of leadership. The National Academy of Engineering stated in their report “The Engineer of 2020” that “engineers will continue to be leaders in the movement toward the use of wise, informed, and economical sustainable development.” Like it or not, we are sought out as problem solvers, and it is our civic duty to take on these shining opportunities to improve the world’s status quo.
These opportunities will not be solely technical in nature, but instead woven with elements of communication, teamwork, and accountability; in other words, elements of leadership. But leadership is simultaneously all and none of these things: leadership is not a linear combination of these individual traits; yet, it is also not an innate quality — leadership can be learned and cultivated.
Opportunities to acquire leadership skills while at MIT abound. Research projects and collaborations, managing a UROP; student groups, student government, institute committees, and more. Note that leadership is not simply enrolling in a leadership position, but executing the duties with a certain finesse that is developed only through dogged practice. As graduate students, we need to think more broadly about how our degrees can prepare us to be the leaders the world expects. Here are some suggestions to develop emotional intelligence, a foundation for leadership, through your research.
First, learn to motivate your peers. What motivates your advisor, your office mates, your thesis committee? What words do you use, and with what tone? How can you help them get excited about your goals? Be sensitive to how your peers respond to you. Try to listen to their words and body language. What are they actually trying to say?
Moreover, adapt to your environment. If you don’t like the way your peers respond to you, try a different motivational approach. Approach every challenge — a research setback, a difficult conversation with your advisor, a combative thesis committee — as an opportunity to practice patience, empathy, and appropriate compromise. Revisit past failures to understand why and how the situation went awry. Forgive yourself for your mistakes, and think about what you can do to avoid a similar conflict in the future.
There is the belief that engineers will best aid the world by focusing solely on their research. However, our modern problems cannot be solved by single-discipline solutions invented by isolated scientists. The National Academy of Engineering notes that, “with the growing interdependence between technology and the economic and social foundations of modern society, there will be an increasing number of opportunities for engineers to exercise their potential as leaders.” We must be knowledgeable beyond our field, integrate the disparate facts, and lead the way to an appropriate solution.
We know how to think big about our research — now we need to expand this to include our future careers and the emotional intelligence they will require. The concrete definition of success in graduate school — publications, conference presentations, recommendation letters — does not yet directly support the development of effective leadership. But it can, with conscientious and consistent practice.
Megan Brewster is a PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.