This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2014, and was written by Louis Pushelberg | Featuring Stefan Milosevic, Rebecca Ford, Sasha Goldstein, & Mitchell Sturm
“So you’re an MIT student, what do you do with that?” The infamous unanswered question that shadows so many MIT undergrads, particularly during their final years in the program. I know the feeling. I’ve been in your shoes, trying to keep my head above water as a sea of papers and exams continues to swell. Amongst this typhoon of schoolwork, it can be easy to lose sight of what you’re learning in university, and how it will be valuable after graduation.
Having graduated from MIT almost a year ago, I can confidently tell you that you’re in a good position. Life post-MIT is an exciting and opportunistic time. To confirm this statement, I spoke with four recent MIT graduates. Judging by the conversations we had, I’m happy to share that they feel exactly the same way. Their experiences speak for themselves.
MIT students are excelling in many areas thanks to the holistic and interdisciplinary education they’ve been provided. The MIT graduates interviewed here share their wisdom and reflect on the role their MIT education played as they embarked on their career journeys. It’s my hope that through these candid conversations, I will affirm the amazing opportunities out there for MIT students- let’s see how it goes!
The first graduate I spoke with was Stefan Milosevic. Stefan had the opportunity to intern for Sid Lee after graduating from his final year in MIT. Sid Lee uses an integrated approach to shape brands and create experiences through marketing, advertising, architecture, online brand development, interior, industrial and graphic design and any other medium that helps communicate a brand’s identity.
After applying to an inaugural program, Stefan was invited to a kick-off party, then a follow-up interview, which landed him the internship. Stefan worked in Sid Lee’s strategy department, researching core insights to guide the action of brand campaigns. He analyzed “cultural, psychological, technological, economical [and] political trends [and matched] them with the consuming trends for the industry.” Ring any bells? Stefan writes, “this is where my MIT muscles came in huge.” As MIT students, we study similar trends or cultural behaviours in practically every class. Stefan writes that Sid Lee “values [an understanding of] cultural theory,” as evidenced by the cultural theory books from MIT 2200 which were “on practically every strategist’s desk.”
Stefan’s advice for those pursuing internships? “The harder you work, the luckier you get. Hard work never goes unnoticed – luck will find you.” When interviewing for an entry level position in advertising, Stefan stresses that it’s key to demonstrate “you’re passionately curious about advertising above all, and that [you] are thinking about what it means and what it does.” The key word here is demonstrate. As MIT students, we’ve had continual exposure to critical thinking about what advertising means and what it does, given that a large part of the MIT curriculum is focused on challenging how we think about media and its meaning. As an MIT student you have lots of experience thinking in this way – the important part is to demonstrate it.
Stefan also suggests not being overly concerned about the amount of experience you bring to the table. When hiring an intern, businesses typically aren’t looking for years of experience – that’s why you’re an intern. Instead, they want to know that you have a desire to learn and that you fit in with their culture. “They know they’re taking a chance on you, you just have to prove to them you’re worth the chance,” writes Stefan. Again, ‘demonstration’ is the key to success – proving how you will be of value to them, and why they should take a chance on hiring you.
Stefan sums up his internship as an amazing “opportunity to work with some of the industry’s brightest minds.” Stefan is currently enrolled in the Master of Professional Communications program at Ryerson University. You can follow Stefan and Sid Lee on Twitter @stefanmilo and @SidLee.
Next, a few valuable career insights from MIT graduate, Rebecca Ford. Through a visual resume coupled with a keen interest in video games, Rebecca landed an internship at Digital Extremes during her 3rd year. Digital Extremes, or DE for short, specializes in triple ‘A’ games, which are equivalent to the likes of Hollywood blockbusters in the gaming industry. Headquartered in our very own London, Ontario, DE has received numerous awards for developing spectacular games and for being one of Canada’s top employers.
After a successful internship, DE offered Rebecca a full time job as Community Manager on completion of her MIT degree. Rebecca is now managing an online community of hundreds of thousands of gamers on DE’s official forums. Since launching their latest game, Warframe, DE’s community of gamers continues to grow with Rebecca at the helm. She spearheads the community team at events like E3 in Los Angeles, California, Gamescom in Cologne, Germany and other international gaming events. She also hosts a bi-weekly video series featuring core game updates and has even done some voice acting for a major game character.
Reflecting on how MIT helped her succeed at Digital Extremes, Rebecca writes: “MIT as a faculty is very aware of how quickly things change in media and technology.” She explains that “theoretical knowledge and way of thought is used daily” in many aspects of the “video game world [which] require fast and critical thinking. When people all over the world are playing and thinking about your game, you need to try to understand all the perspectives and adapt accordingly.” Rebecca’s piece of advice to budding MIT students – be open to establishing new relationships, “every interaction…is an opportunity…whether it’s a TA, professor, or a library desk partner, never overlook the power of just getting to know people around you, finding common ground and starting an interesting discussion.”
Follow Rebecca @rebbford and check out DE’s latest game at www.warframe.com or on twitter and Facebook @PlayWarframe and facebook.com/PlayWarframe.
The third MIT graduate, Sasha Goldstein, works as a part-time Art Director for the jewellery brand Vitality. He designs the packaging, manages the website and shapes the general aesthetic and lifestyle direction of the brand. Sasha also writes freelance for Snowboard Canada, does word-of-mouth photography assignments, graphic design and web development for a small group of clients.
During his undergrad, Sasha worked as a nightlife and live music photographer as well as a freelance graphic designer and web developer. He also had a brief stint working for Red Bull as a brand rep. “My job was to throw parties, promote events and get people hooked on Red Bull. That was fun.”
Reflecting on his 4 years at Western, Sasha notes that “more than anything else, the value of the MIT program is in the complexity of thought and information processing that grows from trying to untangle theorists like Theodore Adorno, and unravel the myth of the American Dream on a daily basis.” He explains that the theoretical component is invaluable because it challenges you intellectually. “While I could never have predicted it”, he writes, “in hindsight I appreciated the theoretical direction. Over the course of four years, I acquired practical skills, particularly in writing, and experience in a wide breadth of media and technology related subjects in other faculties (music, computer sciences, design etc). Meanwhile, MIT forced me to expand my research skills, critical thinking, and certainly my work ethic.” Sasha notes that while most of his opportunities have come from side-projects or interests outside MIT, it is unlikely he would have been as successful without developing his critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.
Sasha’s top-of-mind recommendation to MIT students? “Explore as much about MIT as you can during your time at university.” Theoretical study and critical thought will help you develop and use your ideas in a wide variety of disciplines (or in whatever endeavour you find yourself in). “Find ways to incorporate the MIT practices you’re learning into other courses, faculties, and the rest of your life,” Sasha says.
Check out Sasha’s website http://www.sashagoldste.in and find him on Twitter @sashagoldstein.
The fourth graduate, who has some interesting input, is Mitchell Sturm. Since graduating from MIT, Mitchell started a small creative consulting and social media agency – Three Chairs – with a fellow MIT Alumni. Three Chairs helps small to medium-size companies build their online presence through identity and web design, as well as the production of original video and social media content. Currently, Mitchell is continuing his studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in the MFA Film and Television Production program.
In thinking about the relation of his MIT experience to his current business and studies, Mitchell believes the strongest perspective he’s derived from MIT comes down to a simple reminder: “Stop, and really critique the content you create before creating it. In all the various stages of the production process, I’m constantly filtering and examining my opinions to ensure my ‘inner MIT student’ would approve.”
Mitchell elaborates, noting that having an artistic eye or natural talent isn’t enough. “Critical thinking skills are the biggest asset to have when approaching filmmaking” or any discipline you choose after graduation, “it’s through this critical engagement process that you can see the holes in existing media.” In the area of filmmaking, Mitchell treats those holes “as opportunities for more interesting stories.”
For MIT students who are beginning to make decisions about life after graduation, Mitchell explains that “the jobs you might be perfect for don’t yet exist. We started Three Chairs because we didn’t have the autonomy, influence or creative authority we wanted right out of the gate. Unless it’s your dream job, steer clear of being that guy in the office who can use Photoshop. Go directly for a job or company that you really want. Sometimes that means making it up yourself.” How do you go about this? “Do the research. Call people you admire and who are doing what you’d like to do. Pester them over and over to get lunch and find an opportunity to pick their brain.” Mitchell explains that Three Chairs acquired most of their clients through connections with people, not by tossing their resume into an inconsequential pile. Getting better opportunities is all about connecting with the people who are doing the kind of things you’d like to do.
Mitchell’s bottom line? “Follow the cliché – do what you actually love and don’t be afraid to take the time to try new and interesting things.” Find Mitchell and his work at Vimeo.com/mitchellsturm and Three Chairs at www.threechairs.ca/.
What can be learned from the unique experiences of these 4 students? While they share different examples, the common thread that emerges is to actively seek ways to apply our university knowledge. These examples suggest that it goes beyond simply learning media theory, beyond excelling academically. Instead, it is the tacit, inherent learning we acquire at university – how to learn, how to think, and how to communicate- that are the invaluable skills we exit with.
Why are these principles so valuable? Understanding how to learn and teach ourselves is a powerful tool. Take Stefan’s experience at Sid Lee for example. He was forced to learn independently and on-the-fly. At times, things were “difficult because [he] had absolutely no direction.” As a result, Stefan had to become opinionated about what needed to be done, and Sid Lee trusted him to make the right choices; a process which he recalls as a “blessing in disguise.” Settling in, Stefan developed the “confidence to tackle larger problems” by listening to, and working with Sid Lee’s extremely bright people. Had Stefan not acquired the capacity to learn quickly and independently, his ability to adapt at Sid Lee would have been challenging. Fortunately for us as MIT students, this is the implicit value of the MIT program – it’s an essential by-product of the countless readings, research papers, exams, and repeated scrutinizing over our responses, which in turn helps us to prosper.
Rebecca, Sasha and Mitchell’s experiences also reinforce learning agility and ability. Rebecca touched on the value of “fast and critical thinking” while Mitchell and Sasha were challenged to build supplementary skills outside of the theoretical curriculum. Sasha writes that you must supplement knowledge gained in MIT with additional skills and “find ways to incorporate the practices you use in MIT into other aspects of your life”. So the criteria for our future success is as much about these ‘practices,’ and the work ethic we are developing as it is about pure technical capability.
Throughout university, we come to realize that the whole institution is designed to teach us how to learn, versus teaching us solely about media or technology. And how do we learn? Through repetition, or as Sasha apty puts it: “practice.” These basic principles are at the core of teaching methods. This is why we spend four devoted years focused intently on one subject, listening to professors repeat the material until we understand. We write papers and exams over and over until eventually we become pretty good at it. Developing an understanding of how we learn and how to effectively teach ourselves is an ability we are indirectly exposed to at university and is a skill to hold onto for the rest of our lives, as these grads can attest to.
Secondly, university teaches us how to think. MIT helps us understand that the culture and world around us was constructed and is not an isolated box we live in, but something we control and shape. It allows us to think critically and independently. That is the power of education, and MIT does an unquestionably excellent job in exposing us to these ways of thinking.
How does this wisdom and insight play into a career and a life after graduation? Professor Keith Tomasek explains that companies are looking to ‘hire smart.’ MIT students “learn to think critically about media technology and its implication in society – an approach which can be challenging to students, but [also] the reason they graduate with the smarts that leading organizations want and expect.” Professor Tomasek’s perspective is closely aligned with Mitchell’s advice – that “critical thinking skills are [your] biggest assets” and can be used for creating new opportunities. Sasha’s experiences also reinforce this notion – he attributes much of his success to the ability to think and solve problems critically.
Lastly, MIT teaches you how to communicate. Through repeated exposure to essay writing, researching, presenting, debating, contemplating and mulling over concepts, you learn to better articulate ideas and produce a convincing argument. These skills, in combination with the learning and analytical thinking skills you’ve gained, make all the difference when interacting with employers. Whether it’s face-to-face or in an online format, communication skills are crucial. Stefan was given his opportunity because of the connections he built at Sid Lee’s internship networking event. Rebecca was offered a full time job because of the good relationships she built during her internship reminding us that “every interaction…is an opportunity.”
So start building relationships with your professors. Get to know them and “don’t limit your interactions to in-class knowledge exchange,” Professor Tomasek recommends. To put things into perspective, think of it this way: You spend 4 months in a class, and during these 4 months you are passing through a field your professor has studied for years, possibly a lifetime. There is no richer opportunity to reach out to those professors and to make an effort to understand their world, their experiences and their expertise. In the next 4 months, you have the opportunity to interact with some of the most intelligent and forward-thinking people you’ll come across in your life, so take advantage of it. Your relationships and the mentorship received from these professors will last long after your university days.
It is my hope that these insights and tips will help you anticipate and prepare for imminent career opportunities. While MIT focuses on media, information and technology, it really is designed to give you the skills that lead to success after graduation. While university can’t establish your career path or get you hired, you will graduate with longevous knowledge which is more powerful than any purely vocational skills. You will leave with the ability of knowing how to learn, how to think and how to communicate – invaluable gifts for your career and for your life. May these gifts open a whole range of possibilities for your future success.