A new way to prepare graduate students to lead in tech
Before coming to MIT, Benjamin Lienhard focused most of his energy exploring fragile quantum states, dwelling in the world of nanotechnology and filling in gaps in the research to help steer and stabilize new technologies. Now that he’s a fifth-year graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, he’s still investigating tiny quantum bits, looking for novel ways to support enormous breakthroughs in quantum computing.
But for all his advanced technical knowledge and forward-thinking momentum, Lienhard found himself suddenly in a tenuous state in 2017. Asked to coordinate a conference, he realized developing leadership skills was an aspect of his work that he’d overlooked through all those years investigating quantum states at exceptionally small scales.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Lienhard accepted the conference role and other leadership roles like it, and each time he agreed to step in to lead, he arrived at the same uneasy conclusion. “I really noticed the only way to improve yourself and learn [leadership] is by actually experiencing it, executing it yourself and seeing how the people around you react to your leadership style,” Lienhard says. A background in theoretical leadership skills could’ve made that transition smoother, recognizing new situations on the job to adjust at a faster pace.
Since then, Lienhard has joined the Graduate Student Advisory Group (GradSAGE) in the School of Engineering, a group established by Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to hear from students and bolster initiatives. Through GradSAGE, Lienhard is positioned to help other MIT students. On the GradSAGE Leadership Sub-Committee with engineering graduate students Vamsi Mangena, Laureen Meroueh, Lucio Milanese, Clinton Wang, and Elise Wilcox, he’s provided input that has helped pave the way for a new MIT offering this spring, designed to make those transitions from lab research into leadership roles less of a shock to the system for MIT graduate students.
Becoming a leader is nearly inevitable for engineering students, says Milanese, a fourth-year nuclear science and engineering graduate student. Even for those planning to remain in academia. “In most cases, MIT graduate students will be leading,” Milanese says. “If you become a professor, the first thing you do is set up your lab. You hire a couple graduate students, you hire a couple postdocs, and you are already, early in your 30s, essentially a manager of a small research enterprise.”
Meroueh, a fifth-year mechanical engineering graduate student and entrepreneur, puts it another way: “It’s not just our technical skills we need to make a change in the real world.” She became interested in thinking beyond the tech after co-founding a startup company called MetaStorage during her master’s program. She plans to launch a new startup after graduating, and advancing her leadership skills is part of that plan.
Recognizing how many engineering graduate students were lacking a leadership program that catered to their future goals, GradSAGE Leadership Sub-Committee approached the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL). This led to the creation of a new interim MIT Graduate Certificate in Technical Leadership, which will launch in a permanent form this fall. Completing the certificate requires that students complete a course called Leading Creative Teams and an additional 12 units of graduate leadership courses, plus attendance of four workshops. It’s designed to deliver both leadership theory and practical experience to engineering students by providing technical leadership-focused courses alongside hands-on workshops required to complete the certificate.
For engineering students, the GEL courses cover how to conduct multi-stakeholder negotiations, influence others, and provide leadership in the age of artificial intelligence — with coursework all contextualized within tech companies. The program also offers custom paths for graduate students in any program to create a leadership certificate that suits different career goals, with the only required course GEL’s Leading Creative Teams. It’s taught by David Niño, who has been piloting Leading Creative Teams for the past three years. For the GradSAGE students enrolled, taking Niño’s course served as inspiration for building the certificate, and forms its essential core. To complete the additional units, students from any program can choose from dozens of graduate courses from across MIT to build their own certificate, including subjects in building successful careers and organizations; advanced leadership communications; and science, technology, and public policy. “We envision it as being for everybody,” Milanese says of the certificate in technical leadership.
This spring, there are six workshops available, scheduled at different dates and times to accommodate a range of student schedules. Workshops will cover topics like how to deliver objectives in technical organizations, leadership paths in technical organizations, what to do during your first 90 days in a new professional role, and what happens when technical leaders fail to stand up to unrealistic or unethical pressures.
“If you want to improve your leadership skills, you need to exercise them in practice,” Lienhard says, adding that the workshops are not simply extensions of these courses, but immersive experiences of their own.
In addition to delivering educational value, another goal of the workshops is to build a community among graduate students interested in technical leadership. Meroueh says the workshops present an opportunity to meet students with different engineering backgrounds. “We wanted to create a sense of community,” she says. Their plan seems to be working (or perhaps it’s the free pizza). Earlier this month, Meroueh and Wilcox both attended the first workshop on technical leadership and finance, led by Olivier L. de Weck, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems, and faculty co-director of GEL. The workshop drew twice as many attendees as the GradSAGE sub-committee had predicted.
Wilcox, a fifth-year graduate student in medical engineering and medical physics, says she left de Weck’s workshop with a fresh perspective on approaching the job market, taking away actionable advice like how to check a company’s financial health before agreeing to come onboard. She also learned how companies make decisions based on finances, a way of thinking she says will help her better pitch her ideas. Citing a need for female leadership in engineering, Meroueh adds that participating in leadership programs can help women navigate to the top in a male-dominated field.
To earn the certificate, students must complete four out of six workshops, attendance of which can be spread out over different semesters. The workshops take two hours to complete, with registration required and food and drinks provided to attendees.
Although half of engineering graduate students that GradSAGE sub-committee surveyed indicated an interest in a leadership certificate like GEL’s new initiative, two-thirds of respondents were concerned they wouldn’t have time to hone leadership skills during their graduate degree program. Lienhard says for doctoral programs that require minors, the leadership certificate’s courses can be simultaneously used to meet that requirement, which provides the further benefit of acquiring leaderships skills while working closely with an advisor.
This spring, an Interim Certificate in Technical Leadership will be available through the Graduate Program in Engineering Leadership. Any eligible courses completed can be retroactively applied once the certificate debuts next fall. For Lienhard, this bundling of tailored courses combined with practical workshops gives MIT graduate students a “less painful” and more productive adjustment period on the path to specific ambitions, so somebody who is gunning to be chief technology officer doesn’t waste time learning insights more appropriate for tomorrow’s next top CEO.
Milanese says the first thing the GradSAGE subcommittee did when they met was land on their own definition of leadership, which serves as a simple summation of the wide array of ambitions being pursued by aspiring tech leaders at MIT. According to Milanese, GradSAGE hopes the new certificate instills in graduate students interested in developing leadership skills “the ability to work with others to create great things.”