This article is published in the January 2010 issue.

Are We Fully Training Our Graduates?

For our own students hitting the market, we all spend time honing their research skills, helping them craft their job talk, and providing advice on how to get through the rounds of interviews with senior faculty if they are headed onto the academic market, or with professional recruiters if they are headed to industry. Many of us think of those research skills as critical, and separately we hope that the job talk will be polished enough to give a hiring institution some confidence that our student will develop into a solid teacher.

While we often send our students out with great research credentials, what we don’t do as well, however, is to provide training and experiential opportunities for developing the “softer” skills: leadership, interpersonal mediation, teamwork, prioritizing and managing multiple time demands, and communication skills. Of course, some of our best students have these skills: natural teachers, leaders, and facilitators. But perhaps one of the reasons there are so few computer scientists as CEOs of major companies or presidents of universities (there are exceptions of course!) is because we as educators don’t sufficiently refine or encourage the non-technical skills that are essential to success in leadership roles. And while not every newly hired faculty member will aspire to academic leadership, even average young faculty members can benefit from skills that will improve their ability to run their group, teach their students, and communicate their ideas.

This is not to imply that our community fails to pay attention to this issue.  Many institutions have tackled the problem, providing seminars on developing these skills or leading discussion groups with graduating students on ways to manage research groups. But I suspect that more attention to this topic would enhance the ability of our graduates to lead future institutions.

Two examples from my own institution illustrate possible approaches, though of course there are many other options and many other institutions also have developed solutions. Like many institutions, we regularly survey our alumni and alumnae, seeking insights into what skills have served them well in their careers and how well we helped develop those skills. Several years ago, we found that communication was deemed essential by our alumni/alumnae, but we were not doing a particularly good job in instilling those skills. In response, we changed our requirements for all of our undergraduates, installing a set of communications-intensive courses that all students must take, at least one per year.

Many departments opted to augment existing courses, for example, by providing instruction and feedback on report writing in laboratory- or project-intensive courses. We opted, however, for a different perspective—we created a course explicitly about communication, tackling topics such as:  how does one form a model of the audience and use that to guide oral communication; how does one send email without annoying the recipient; how does one create and deliver an elevator pitch; how does one respond to challenging questions; how does one conduct a negotiation; and so on. More formally, the outcomes of the course state that upon completion students will have learned how to: critically evaluate technical presentations; architect technical presentations; present technical material to different audiences at different levels of detail; give and receive constructive feedback; and communicate more effectively in a professional setting.

While students in initial versions of the course questioned its value, claiming that such “soft skills” were of little value, current students get the point—they see the impact of these skills in lining up summer internships or jobs upon graduation, and in fostering professional growth.

While communication skills can always benefit from refinement, there are other soft skills that are equally important, especially for young faculty members or industrial researchers. Examples of issues that confront a young faculty member include: “What do you do when confronted with an apparently unmotivated student? How do you deal with interpersonal conflicts that could jeopardize your research? How does your modus operandi help or limit you in different situations? How would you communicate successfully with that key donor who thinks very differently from you?” (Quoted from the MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vol. XVIII No. 5, May/June 2006.)  To address these challenges, one of my colleagues created a course to provide training for junior faculty—a course that has helped many to better run their groups, communicate with their peers, and train their students to refine their own leadership skills.

The point of these examples (and of course many other institutions have incorporated similar efforts) is to illustrate a broader issue. As research institutions, we understandably focus on training our students to succeed within what we perceive to be the constraints of a research career. But we should not ignore the non-scientific and non-technical, but equally important, aspects of a research leader—someone who can communicate with a wide range of audiences, mediate conflicts, and manage groups, as well as articulating and executing exciting new research directions. And if we do this, perhaps in a few years we will no longer lament the lack of corporate and policy leadership with a sound computational background.

Eric Grimson is the Bernard Gordon Professor of Medical Engineering and head of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at MIT.


Are We Fully Training Our Graduates?