An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Grad Life: Graduate Women Explore a Path to Professorship

  • Bianca Datta SM ’16
  • 1

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Every November, I join a planning team of graduate students, postdocs, and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education to offer a two-day workshop called Path of Professorship (PoP) for MIT’s graduate and postdoctoral women considering careers in academia. PoP is the culmination of over six months of planning and passion for the work and the opportunity to support the community.

Held since 2006, PoP allows attendees to enjoy talks and valuable one-on-one conversations with faculty and peers, transferring knowledge and fostering supportive academic networks. Throughout the process, I get to interact with amazing people—some 30 dynamic and generous faculty members and 70 accomplished and engaging graduate and postdoctoral women. Working with Dean Blanche Staton and administrative assistant Patty Glidden is enough to inspire anyone: Blanche embodies a combination of professionalism, grace, wisdom, and genuine concern for each individual. Each year, it’s a pleasure to watch Blanche proudly introduce former students on stage.

PoP 2016 attendees and speakers.

Before PoP each year, the thought of working in academia seems so distant. I consider working at places like Google, or IDEO, or a boutique research and design firm. In the summer, we collect our roster and at first they seem like impossibly successful science rockstars. But then, for two days in November, I get to meet these rockstars. They dedicate their time to empowering us, exposing vulnerabilities, and laughing about shared truths. Many of our team members go on to become rockstars themselves on the podium—reminding the audience that just a few years ago they, too, were overwhelmed grad students wrestling with imposter syndrome.

This year, we heard former MIT president Susan Hockfield urge us to focus and persist. We heard professors share that they never expected to become academics, but were open to possibilities the entire way. Their stories make me reflect on the brilliant women who have helped me succeed in graduate school—the people who run my department, the senior students who helped assuage my fears, the dedicated graduate student I worked with as an undergraduate who taught me everything I know about conducting research and staying curious.

For me the experience is enlightening and empowering; for those who find themselves as the only woman in their research groups and one of only a few in their department, the experience is invaluable–providing access to role models and arming them with both the practical knowledge and confidence needed to succeed.

The Media Lab can feel unstructured and open-ended, proudly full of free spirits. The idea of running my own group and participating in the ultra-competitive academic market seems daunting when I struggle to define my own department. PoP reminds me that being “in between” fields can be a strength.

Now when I stand at a podium, I channel my inner Blanche, staying poised, being a calming presence and finding personal connections. When planning my PhD, I think of Angela DePace’s words about considering the holistic picture and prioritizing wellbeing. When preparing for big presentations, I remember Radhika Nagpal ’94, SM ’94, PhD ’01, mentioning that everyone feels like an imposter occasionally. And when asked for just one more favor, I think of Polina Anikeeva’s PhD ’09 important message about saying no so you can prioritize things that really matter to you.

Ultimately, even if I don't go into academia, being a part of PoP reminds me of the strength of our community, the struggles that lie ahead and that we have overcome, and the importance of supporting those who will come after us.

Grad Life blog posts offer insights from current MIT graduate students on Slice of MIT.

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Silvia Liberata Ullo

Wed, 05/10/2017 4:01pm

Wonderful example of collaboration!
I would dream to be part of your PoP meetings sometimes!
Silvia (SM '92)