Ellen Stahl recently joined the Alumni Association team to pilot a career guidance program for experienced alumni who are exploring the next steps in their career paths. She answered three Slice of MIT questions about MIT alumni’s unique challenges in the workforce.
What is the MIT “smart bubble”?
Students are at the top of their game when they come to MIT. They’ve been the highest achievers in high school, and whether they like it or not, they are labeled the “the smart ones.” When they get to MIT, they quickly realize that everyone is smart—they have entered the so-called smart bubble. This carries a number of challenges. When everyone around you is equally smart, your sense of self is diluted, your confidence is challenged, and it often takes time and resilience to recalibrate.
How can the “smart bubble” hinder an MIT grad entering the workforce or trying to change careers?
Before graduating from MIT, a surprising number of soon-to-be grads don’t feel that they are worthy or hire-able. They really don’t realize how truly marketable they are. That lack of confidence is a symptom of the smart bubble that might continue further than one might expect.
I have been talking to alums 10, 20, even 30 years out, and many are still affected by it. Alums are doing great things—making impressive discoveries, publishing books, inventing new technologies—but I still think they struggle with this slight tinge of impostor syndrome created, in part, by the smart bubble.
I have seen the smart bubble reemerge when alumni are faced with networking. Alums interested in exploring a career transition from one field to another are wise to network and build relationships with those in their new area of interest. However, in their current jobs, many are the experts at what they do. The networking process can make them feel vulnerable, because for a new field, they don’t have all the answers, and this may re-ignite those smart bubble insecurities. This can be an obstacle when asking for help.
What shapes does reflection take, and how crucial is it to reflect during different points in your career path?
Everyone has their own personal code. When you figure out how to unlock yours, it gives you an enormous amount of information to determine what that ideal career is that will never feel like work.
That’s where reflection comes in. It’s an opportunity to take a pause and look back at your experiences and recall what provided fulfillment or disappointment or motivation. Working with a career counselor can help you get a clear picture of your career preferences, your innate aptitudes, and your existing skills and interests.
Reflection also gives you the permission to follow your own bliss on some level. Where do you want to make your impact? What expertise have you gained thus far that you’d like to bring to a new arena?
Donald Super, a pioneer in career development, argues in his Life-Span theory that people are constantly growing and changing, and being shaped and reshaped by their experiences. Reflection will only set you up for a higher level of satisfaction going forward in your career. In your career timeline, when you take the time to reflect, your career benefits will only grow exponentially.
Learn more about the new career guidance program. Alumni can also connect with employers through MIT’s Alumni Association LinkedIn group and Online Alumni Directory (OAD), research the employer database using MIT’s Career Bridge, sign up for a mentor with the Alumni Institute Career Assistance Network (ICAN), and gain career tips and resources from the Global Education & Career Development (GECD) website containing a series of workshops and webinars on everything from resume writing to LinkedIn.