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Fostering forward momentum

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Fostering forward momentum

The road to commencement is a long one, especially for graduate students whose degree programs may take upwards of six years. There are many moments when focus may be lost and excitement may dwindle. Faculty mentors can play a key role in helping students persevere.
Professors Thomas Kochan, Julie Shah, and Evelyn Wang have been honored by their graduate students as “Committed to Caring” (C2C) for their uncanny ability to keep things moving along, even when the going gets tough. They accomplish this by encouraging their students to pursue passions, to communicate, and to collaborate.
Tom Kochan: modeling mentorship
In a C2C nomination letter, one student cites Kochan as “a model for the type of scholar, teacher, and mentor I would like to someday be.”
Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management, a professor of work and employment research, and the co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His research focuses on updating America’s work and employment policies, institutions, and practices to keep up with a changing workforce and economy. His work calls attention to the challenges facing working families in meeting their responsibilities at work, at home, and in their communities.
Students say that they feel relieved after talking through their research problems with Kochan, who demonstrates active listening (a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the C2C program). “When you talk, Tom listens,” says one nominator. “Not only did he help me work out a plan to address the struggles I was having with my work, but he also let me know that I was not in it alone.”
Students say that Kochan helps them to work through research problems “without being judged negatively for mistakes.” Instead, he focuses on what is going well in the research. “He always sees the good — the best, the positive — in all of us.”
Working together and learning from peers is one important step in this process. Kochan has worked hard to build a cohesive community of scholars at the Institute for Work and Employment Research who help each other to develop and then lead the field in new directions.
Kochan remarks that building and sustaining a collaborative community of students, faculty, and alumni is the most important part of his job. “Nothing is more satisfying than to see how members of our community go on to do great research, lead our field in new directions, and work together.”
Julie Shah: communicating and collaborating
Professor Julie Shah is a stabilizing force for her graduate students, starting from the first day of their program and continuing well after graduation. “Somehow, after one of the most trying weeks in my graduate career,” one student recalls, “I came out of a conversation with Julie with a new excitement about research and about grad school.”
Shah is an associate professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, where she develops innovative computational models and algorithms expanding the use of human cognitive models for artificial intelligence. Her research has produced novel forms of human-machine teaming in manufacturing assembly lines, health care applications, transportation, and defense.
Dedicating time to meet with her students weekly is a priority for Shah. “The time I spend advising is some of the most important time I spend,” Shah says. “It allows my students and [me] to connect on the things that matter most, so that together we can recharge to tackle challenges.” Although weekly meetings seemed daunting at first, one student remarks that having that time is extremely beneficial for her workflow. “The time can be spent however I want, whether it’s for debugging code, brainstorming ideas, sharing a nugget of new information, talking through a life stressor, or just running her through my progress so far.” Shah encourages and facilitates collaboration, and regular, open communication is an important first step.
One student nominator recalls the words Shah said in their very first advisor/advisee meeting: “Now that you’re in my lab, I am forever your advocate. I will always be on your team, and you never have to prove yourself to me.” This sentiment proved to be true, the student says. “Julie keeps her word.”
Evelyn Wang: wholehearted engagement
Evelyn Wang encourages her students to pursue their passions outside of work as an important part of maintaining good mental health in graduate school. One student recalls Wang encouraging them to continue practicing piano, and even attended their recitals. This is an example of encouraging work/life balance, a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the C2C program.
Wang is the Gail E. Kendall Professor and department head in the Department of Mechanical Engineering as well as the director of the Device Research Laboratory at MIT. Her research interests include fundamental studies of micro/nanoscale heat and mass transport and the development of efficient thermal management, solar thermal energy conversion, and water harvesting systems.
Being present for her advisees — even in a crunch — is a strength of Wang’s. One nominator recalls that Wang supported their decision to apply for a conference on the day of the deadline after their experiment had only just yielded results that afternoon. “After I showed Prof. Wang my results and expressed that I wanted to go for it, she decided to stay late to help me revise the abstract.” The next day, Wang gave the student positive and encouraging feedback. “One conference paper probably doesn’t matter too much to her, but she knew what it meant for me and so helped me realize this goal.”
According to her students, Evelyn Wang “makes it a priority to connect with the members of her group” and thereby promotes their professional development and maintains a friendly and encouraging work environment. Wang says, “I treat my group as a family, and we all do our best to support each other through successes and failures.”
More on Committed to Caring (C2C)
The Committed to Caring (C2C) 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 believe to be outstanding mentors. Selection criteria for the honor include the scope and reach of advisor impact on graduate students’ experience, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion.
By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage excellent advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus. More information about these and other C2C honorees and their advising practices may be found on the Committed to Caring pages.

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