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ILP Institute Insider

May 18, 2015

Making an IMPACT on Postdoctoral Careers

A pilot program helps early-career scholars find and communicate the real-world value of their research and forge high-impact career paths.

Eric Bender

Walk into any laboratory around MIT and the creativity and dedication of the more than 1,500 MIT postdoctoral researchers is evident. They are key contributors to the life of the lab, often manage more than one project and have learned a range of new skills and techniques that complement their doctoral training. But they, like faculty and other research staff, face the challenge of effectively communicating the real-world value of their ideas and leveraging that value toward meaningful and impactful careers.

Martha Gray
Professor of Medical & Electrical Engineering
IMPACT Program Director
IMPACT is MIT’s pilot program to overcome these barriers by providing postdocs with coaching from MIT experts as well as professional mentors from outside the Institute, whose industrial experience gives them a unique window into how ideas are translated into impact in corporate and other settings.

“Most people come to MIT to make an impact on society, but there are some gaps when it comes to training people to do that,” says Martha Gray, director of the IMPACT program and professor of medical and electrical engineering. “For their work to have an effect in the world, they often need to master more than its technical aspects.”

Three Essentials Missing from the Post-doc Experience
IMPACT, she says, addresses three specific gaps in the traditional postdoctoral experience.

The first gap is the need to focus on the value of what researchers do. “Making something better doesn’t necessarily make it valuable to society or the economy,” she points out.

Second comes improved communication. “To make an impact on the world, you have to make your work understood by and valuable to a diverse audience of professionals and nonprofessionals,” she says. “That’s an unusual experience for somebody at the postdoctoral level but essential whatever career path you follow.”

A third piece that may need strengthening “is actually taking ownership for your career,” Gray says. “We make an assumption that if you come here and are trained, that the next steps will be obvious. Well, they’re not! What happens if you want to do something outside the academic field? It’s hugely valuable to talk to people who live those careers and whose experiences link their academic expertise to careers in innovation outside academia.”

Postdocs from all five MIT schools have the chance to join the IMPACT program and study opportunities in their research field, design and pursue a plan for moving one opportunity towards real-world impact, get feedback on their plan, and outline steps to take the project forward. The program includes a weekly meeting with a professionally diverse group of mentors plus roughly bimonthly one-on-one meetings with experienced advisors from within MIT and outside.

Finding the Right Focus
“Many students start at a very high level with a complex idea,” says Arthur Hiller, a life sciences executive and consultant who acts as a mentor for IMPACT. “We try to bring it down to a level of simplicity that will resonate with users, investors and customers, or even just with other interested parties.”

“Students often get hung up — they start explaining their idea, they keep going and going, they totally lose their audience and they don’t realize it,” Hiller says. “We try to work with them in refining the focus and relevancy of their research and in improving their communication skills and messaging in a manner that more effectively brings their listeners into the mix.”

Another common problem is describing an idea’s applications too broadly. “Very often they have a widget or something they call a platform technology, and they will say, ‘This will solve everything,’” says Gray. “That obscures the message. If it will have value, what’s the first thing you’ll test it on to prove the value?”

“We also try to drive home that they can’t simply sit in a lab and hope to understand what’s going on,” Hiller says. “Understanding the perspective of stakeholders is key, regardless of whether the target is peer-to-peer presentation or positioning for a potential customer that will benefit from the problem their research is solving. They need to look at all aspects of the puzzle surrounding their research, talk with people, and ask questions, so they can better understand the needs of their audience, as well as the scope and impact of the problem that they’re trying to address.”

Broadening the Audience to Engage More Stakeholders
IMPACT offers a straightforward appeal to many postdocs who want to polish their skills in honing and presenting their ideas and moving them toward real impact.

“I was interested in the IMPACT program for the experience in redefining the way I give my talks,” says Tracy Centanni, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

“As a PhD student and as a postdoc, we get a lot of experience giving data-driven talks to a very specific audience,” she says. “It’s typically a very difficult transition to ‘sell’ your research to a broader audience. In IMPACT, we get to present our work to physicists, chemists, people in industry, and physicians. For me, it’s really a chance to test my presentation and convince a broad audience of the impact my work could have on society as a whole.”

The program also appeals to the mentors and advisors drawn from outside MIT, who often remark that they’ve forgotten how much fun it is to talk to people just launching their careers, Gray comments.

This interaction “can have a tremendous influence on somebody who’s thinking about their career or simply thinking about the relevance of their research, which makes the effort very rewarding and meaningful,” agrees Hiller. “These young researchers are extraordinarily bright, but they don’t necessarily have the knowledge base that grounds them in the practical side of business experience. We get opportunities to share some of that knowledge base.”

“On the flip side, we learn from them as well,” he emphasizes. “Students are dabbling in spaces in the Internet or with new technologies that are so far out ahead of what’s happening in industry that we would never be exposed to them at this stage of their evolution.”

Structuring the Steps of Accelerating Ideas to Impact
IMPACT is one of the earliest elements of MIT’s Innovation Initiative (led by Fiona Murray, associate dean of innovation at the Sloan School of Management and Vladimir Bulovic, associate dean of innovation at the School of Engineering) and is consistent with its mission to work with the MIT community across all schools to enhance the skills needed to bring ideas to impact.

The pilot program builds on two earlier programs aimed to strengthen real-world skills for young health researchers.

The IDEA-squared program linked up graduate students with outside experts, with some strikingly positive results. For instance, one student planned to do research on improved coatings for heart stents, before she talked with clinicians and a stent supplier. “They told her that the real problem with stents is that they break, which completely changed the direction she was heading,” Gray says.

“IDEA-squared was incredibly valuable to the participants, but we learned that a more structured experience would help them to internalize the advice to better decide and articulate what they do,” she notes.

A more structured approach evolved in a second program, the MIT/Madrid M+Visión Consortium. In this program, run jointly with the Community of Madrid in Spain, early-career researchers present a health problem they want to solve, and must convince consortium experts that the problem is important and solvable. Once successful, the researchers may receive funding to take a first step for their project.

“We created a method of helping them think through those stages of adding value so that then they could apply for the resources,” Gray says. “Many people who have participated feel changed by the experience.”

To date, the consortium has launched 17 highly diverse health research projects. The young researchers have successfully attracted collaborators and gathered additional grants. Moreover, most of their projects have already entered human studies, “which is extraordinary for projects that began with a research mission only a year or two before,” Gray points out.

“Equally significant are the reports from participants who say the experience has profoundly influenced and expanded their appreciation for different career trajectories,” she adds. “Our hope is that the IMPACT program has the same positive influence on the career perspectives for these very talented postdocs.”