Massachusetts Institute of Technology: The challenges and triumphs of the graduate experience

For many graduate students, the first time they enter MIT’s campus as a student is a momentous occasion. Standing among the pillars and domes for the first time as an MIT student elicited a moment of quiet reflection for recent graduate Hilary Johnson SM ’18, PhD ’22.

“It was this moment of awe and kind of reverence for the temple of learning that the architecture suggests,” Johnson says. “I paused in silence for a moment to absorb the aura of reverence for the task that we’re each pursuing: the discovery of new scientific knowledge and the invention of things that ultimately help improve the world in which we live.”

Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22 had a similar experience.

“You grow up wanting to be on the inside of those pillars, so the first time I walked into Building 7 I just took it all in. It was sort of the end of a lifelong journey to get until that point, but at the same time it was the start of a new one,” adds Jayaprakash.

That journey is one that can be incredibly challenging, both academically and personally, for doctoral students.

“Graduate school is a time of intense intellectual and personal growth, where our students gain all kinds of skill sets, new experiences, and academic and professional strengths at the very time they’re forming the foundations for their adult lives,” says Betar Gallant ’08, SM ’10, PhD ’13, associate professor of mechanical engineering. “It’s by definition a transitory time, which can feel unsettling.”

The mechanical engineering faculty and staff at MIT aim to help students through this transition by offering support and encouragement as they tackle challenges and grow as researchers. As faculty ambassador to graduate students, Gallant fosters dialogue between students and the broader faculty and emphasizes the need for empathy in both directions.

Students also have the support of the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Graduate Office to help them tackle challenges.

“The graduate student experience is unique and multifaceted for each student. At the MechE Graduate Office, our team approaches each student holistically trying to pave the way so that there are less bumps along the way,” says Saana McDaniel, academic administrator for the mechanical engineering graduate program. McDaniel and her team help solve problems to ensure each student can achieve their full potential.

While some challenges are inherent in completing advanced studies and contributing a significant piece of original research, there are other challenges graduate students face that can and should be addressed.

Over the past few years, the mechanical engineering department leadership have committed considerable time and resources to learning about the problems graduate students face and developing initiatives to improve their experience.

“An important first step is understanding the challenges faced by our graduate students,” says Evelyn Wang, Ford Professor of Engineering and mechanical engineering department head.

During Visit Weekend, after being admitted to the advanced degree program, graduate students face the first big challenge of graduate school: finding an advisor.

Navigating the advising relationship

“I think it’s one of the hardest processes at MIT that no one really talks about,” says Jayaprakash. “During Visit Weekend, everyone stresses how important it is to find an advisor and to do it quickly.”

Some students liken the process of finding an advisor to speed dating. They connect with a number of faculty members during their Visit Weekend to find one that fits.

For alum Cynthia Hajal SM ’18, PhD ’21, the process was seamless. After a 15-minute meeting with Professor Roger Kamm, she knew instantly that she wanted to work in Kamm’s Mechanobiology Lab.

“The advisor-and-student relationship is very important, maybe even more important than the type of research done in the lab, because the advisor is really the person that’s going to vouch for the student during qualifying exams and during committee meetings” says Hajal.

“My meetings with Cynthia, nearly from the beginning, were a wonderful experience in which she would show me what she had done, we could actively exchange ideas, and then come up with a plan,” adds Kamm.

According to Kamm, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to advising. He adjusts the level of supervision needed for doctoral students depending on the individual. He also gives his students freedom to further develop their strengths, and resources to address any weaknesses.

“I listen a lot, and try to avoid telling the student what to do. To develop into a successful researcher, they’ll need to be able to identify problems as they arise, and take the necessary actions to solve them,” says Kamm. “Problem-solving abilities are critical whether entering industry or academia.”

While Hajal was able to easily find an advisor who helped support her growth as a researcher, the advisor-and-advisee relationship can sometimes be a difficult one to navigate.

“Part of the big problem is knowing what the expectations are of you, and what expectations you can reasonably have of your advisor,” adds Jayaprakash. “Everyone wants to see you succeed, and you need to know what that means. You need to know what success is, and I was blessed to have an advisor as caring as Professor Kripa Varanasi, who worked with me to define that.”

Faculty advisors aim to assist students in achieving this success and supporting them through the various challenges they face in their graduate journey. To help advisors better understand these challenges, the department recently launched a revised advising form to be completed each year. This form was designed to foster dialogue about any challenges or obstacles students face, particularly with regards to more effective communication between their advisor and themselves.

“Our students asked for a form that that would help structure better conversations with advisors and build stronger mentorship relationships,” says Gallant. “Students did most of the hard work to propose the updated content, and we worked together to get it voted in by the faculty this spring, which we’re all very enthusiastic about.”

Over the past few years, the department has held workshops and trainings to help improve the advising relationship and address issues related to lab communities, including a pilot workshop called “Building Inclusive Lab Cultures.”

“We have been offering trainings and support for our faculty and graduate students to enhance awareness and empathy. We’ve gotten faculty, staff, and students in lab groups together to recognize different perspectives and different forms of power, as well as to develop intervention strategies,” adds Wang.

The PhD qualifying exam

Another challenge doctoral students face is the PhD qualifying exam — or “quals.” Typically taken at the end of a student’s second or third year of graduate school, quals consists of three subject exams and one oral research exam.

“Quals is a rite of passage, and like most rites of passage, it’s challenging and it changes who you are and how you see yourself,” says Johnson.

The months leading up to quals are among the most challenging in a student’s academic career. Students often form study groups, which prove particularly helpful in preparing for the oral component of the exam.

“Looking back at it, quals was the most challenging part of my PhD by far. What allowed me to go through it is having study groups with fellow MechE grad students who were also going through the same thing,” adds Hajal.

For Johnson, quals was a hurdle in her academic career. The first time she took them, she failed the subject exams. A conversation with Amos Winter, associate professor of mechanical engineering, who reminded her that she belonged in MechE, buoyed her spirits. She leaned in to her “growth mindset” as she built on her subject preparation.

Johnson passed her second attempt.

“I came out of quals feeling confident about my ability to justify first-principles thinking, present and share my research, and be interrogated. It was a really challenging and gritty process, but also ultimately very worthwhile,” says Johnson. “After I passed, there was definitely a sense of ‘All right. I’m a badass engineer.’”

Championing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues

After the death of George Floyd in 2020, Jayaprakash felt he reached a tipping point.

“When the tragic murder of George Floyd happened, I really questioned our commitment to DEI, and I questioned our commitment to dismantling racial inequalities that exist within the department, but also inequalities that are detrimental to people’s success,” recalls Jayaprakash.

Jayaprakash approached leaders in MechE with his frustrations about the inequities and bias he saw within the department.

“The first thing that you would expect is for department leaders to be defensive, but what we saw was an acknowledgement of error and then a commitment to work on that,” he recalls.

Part of that commitment was the launch of the MechE DEI Task Force, a team of students, faculty, and staff led by Associate Professor Asegun Henry that Jayaprakash served on. He and his fellow task force members dedicated thousands of hours into understanding issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion that exist within the graduate program and the broader department. The mechanical engineering leadership provided resources to support this work, including access to a number of experts and consultants.

“Vishnu was a huge contributor on the task force,” says Henry. “He had awesome ideas to contribute and I learned a lot about how grad students think and feel about many issues today through him.”

According to Henry, including graduate student voices and perspectives in the process was invaluable as the task force developed a strategic plan to suggest possible actions that address various challenges within the department.

“I do know for a fact that MIT MechE cares about these grievances. Having a department chair and faculty who have been in this system and understand the disparities that exist for folks of different backgrounds, that empathy has really been the big difference,” says Jayaprakash.

The plan will propose a number of actions and initiatives that strengthen the department’s commitment to DEI both within the graduate community and the department as a whole.

Training the best in the world

Johnson found herself having another quiet moment of reflection on campus. This time, it was in a hallway in Building 1. She had just defended her PhD thesis on adaptive centrifugal pump geometry for improved efficiency and operating range. Having just presented her research to a room full of faculty, friends, and family, with a Zoom audience of over 70 people watching remotely, all that was left to do was wait as faculty members deliberated behind closed doors.

For a few minutes, Johnson reflected back on her time in MechE and what leaving well means to her. Her advisor, Professor Alexander Slocum, then emerged from the room, shook Johnson’s hand, and announced she had successfully defended her thesis. She was one step closer to becoming a doctor.

“I’m thankful to be here, and for the brilliant people I’ve gotten to spend these six years with, learn from, and be inspired by — my advisor and professors, my lab mates, my sponsors, my peers, who I see at Friday coffee hour, the folks who I run into in the machine shops. It’s been an incredible, wild roller coaster of a ride,” says Johnson. “I certainly know now, after six years, that I am capable of the sort of grit and wit to take on really hard problems.”

Gallant hopes students like Johnson, Hajal, and Jayaprakash continue to run toward the hardest challenges as they join the MIT alumni community.

“Graduate school is challenging, but we are training our students to be the best in the world. I hope our students can find pride in our ethos and culture of tackling the problems that are truly important and which desperately need solving to make this a good planet and society for all,” adds Gallant.