New parameters in graduate mentoring

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Graduate students facing obstacles in their lives turn to their academic advisors more frequently than any other on-campus resource, according to the most recent MIT Enrolled Graduate Student Survey.

In addition to the expected scholarly advice, feedback on research, and letters of recommendation, many graduate students have expressed appreciation for their advisors’ support of their overall wellbeing, as related in numerous nominations for the Committed to Caring (C2C) Award.

Since its establishment in 2014, the C2C Award has honored over 40 faculty members who are helping to set new standards for holistic graduate mentorship at MIT. Three of the most recent honorees, professors Cullen Buie, Hadley Sikes, and Justin Steil, support their students through collaborative planning, managing mental health, and promoting diversity and inclusivity.

Cullen Buie: Planning together

“I heard a quote once that ‘the best ability is availability’,” says Professor Cullen Buie of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, “and I’m constantly trying to figure out how to be more available for the people I mentor.”

Perhaps what stands out most about Buie’s advising style is his rigorous attention to planning: planning for the next step, planning for changes, and planning together. As one student nominator for the C2C award wrote: “The first thing [Buie] did after hiring me was ask me what I wanted to do with my degree, what were my end goals, what I wanted to do with my life.” This frank yet detailed conversation, the nominator writes, “set the tone for all of our future interactions … his feedback on my all of my work was tailored to my end goal.”

Buie explains that a major focus is to help advisees “think about their future long before those big life decisions have to be made.” This initial sit-down though is not the end of the planning process. After asking students very early in their training about career goals, Buie checks in twice per year to see if anything has changed.

When students are unsure of their goals, Buie encourages them to try new things and sample different career paths. Serving as a teaching assistant for a class or take a summer internship at a national laboratory may provide important exposure to different potential careers, he says.

Part of Buie’s planning program is the informal advising of his students, a mentoring guidepost identified by the C2C program. Being a well-rounded individual is vital, says Buie, for professional and personal reasons. “There is a tendency at a place like MIT to believe that the most important things are your tangible skills and your productivity,” Buie comments, but asserts that productivity may never be seen if one doesn’t communicate the work in a compelling manner. Most importantly, he adds, “years or even a lifetime of hard work can be derailed by ethical or moral failures.”

To keep student careers on track, Buie encourages them “to focus on their softer skills … including their ability to communicate verbally and in writing, and to develop their character.”

Hadley Sikes: Teaching beyond the lab

Professor Hadley D. Sikes of the Department of Chemical Engineering is more than just an academic advisor to her graduate students. She is a role model, a friend, and a sage mentor. One of her former students writes, “[Sikes] completely supported me as a person holistically, and allowed me to become the type of scientist and person that … I really wanted to become.”

Sikes is sensitive to conditions that detract from student wellness. From her decades of lab experience, Sikes identifies “overly long working hours,” “losing a sense of purpose,” and “feelings of isolation” as three of the most common contributors to poor mental health in graduate students. Her commitment to caring has driven her to develop ways fight these issues in her own lab.

“With ambitious projects, it is common to encounter difficulties, but working all the time is not the answer — nor is it sustainable,” Sikes says. To help battle such extended work hours in her lab, Sikes talks openly with her lab members and encourages them to prioritize interests and relationships outside of the lab.

When this sense of purpose fades, which Sikes often sees several years into doctoral research, she reminds her students of the impact of their work in the broader world outside of MIT. The impact of the Sikes Lab in the real-world includes improving diagnostics and therapeutic strategies for diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and cancer.

Sikes notes that doctoral research can be isolating in many ways, both personally and professionally. To guard against professional isolation, “we form sub-groups of related thesis projects and meet regularly to help one another with troubleshooting.” To fight personal isolation, Sikes supports the social outings and informal gatherings her graduate students organize to enable getting to know one another outside of the lab.

In addition, Sikes does not always wait for her students to come to her but instead may proactively offer guidance, another of the mentoring guideposts identified by the C2C program. “In many cases,” one nominator shared, “I don’t even need to ask her for advice as she herself takes the initiative and educates me about various things.”

Justin Steil: Diversity and inclusivity

Creating an inclusive and supportive work environment for his students and colleagues — another mentoring guidepost identified by the C2C program — is fundamental to Professor Justin Steil’s practice as a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP).

“I research urban inequality, racial equity, and inclusive policymaking more broadly,” he remarks. “I strive to create a collaborative learning context in which we recognize that varying perspectives and experiences are essential to effective social science research.” In his view, an inclusive and collaborative approach helps to make research fun and exciting.

His efforts to create an equitable community within DUSP do not go unnoticed by his students. In a nomination letter for the C2C Award, one student wrote, “Steil made our class into a community. This was essential for the hard work ahead, and [it] empowered us to truly work well together.”

Steil’s concern for the wellbeing of his students goes beyond the classroom. Praising Steil, one student writes, “while others might be worried about getting tenure, Justin spends his time strategizing about how to protect our international students in a time of significant threat, about how to create safer environments for all students … and providing endless feedback and support.”

Steil promotes balance and perspective broadly. When asked what advice he would give to incoming graduate students at MIT, Steil offered: “Nurture the love of learning that brought you here. At the same time, keep the inevitable disappointments of research in perspective with the joys of discovery and the richness of life outside of research.”

The sum of Steil’s efforts has led his students to success. In one nominator’s words, “He expects a lot of us — so many readings — and of himself. The bar is high, and we [rise] to it, becoming better versions of ourselves.”

Encouraging mentorship

The Committed to Caring program is an initiative of the Office of Graduate Education and contributes to its mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.”

C2C invites graduate students from across MIT’s campus to nominate professors whom they believed to be outstanding mentors. Selection criteria for the award include the scope and reach of advisor impact on the experience of graduate students, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage good advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus.