As an American working in Engineering in the UK, I am often asked if I was a student at MIT. Although I attended some very good engineering institutions in the US, I was never registered at MIT. It was a childhood dream of mine (geek confession, I had an MIT sweatshirt aged 10 and I thought my life plan was set) but it never happened formally. However, when I was in the last months of finishing my PhD, through a collaboration I had a chance to spend 11 days at MIT. In visiting Singapore, I have found that my life boils down to two, maybe three, degrees of MIT. Not six degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Eleven days does not sound like much in terms of building a career. But I have found that, when I attend conferences of the sort that I am at now, in Singapore, the people with whom I hang out are people that I met during those eleven days at MIT. Or, at very worst, people who I met through one person that I met during that time. I can sort my entire professional life into either two or three degrees of separation from MIT.
Clearly those who attend MIT are more likely to exist in my world of research, compared with those people I know from my own undergraduate or graduate days at Big-10 schools in the midwest. I could guess this based simply on the number of my MN high school facebook friends who are still in Minnesota, compared with my work friends who are from everywhere. My MIT friends are from all over the world and have been willing to travel all over the world for employment, which is similar to my own circumstance.
But, I have to admit, I never thought those eleven days at MIT would play such a strong role in my life over five years later. In the end, the collaboration for which I was there did not even yield a publication (critical in my world of science), but just a Master’s thesis. I now enter into collaborations with other universities more aware of the potential results of the long-term benefits from having been associated with each other, although I honestly think MIT is an island unto itself and not following any pattern or mould associated with other engineering institutions.
I have one more very full day of work to do before I leave on the near-midnight flight back to the UK tomorrow. I’ve enjoyed this Singapore trip more than my previous two, if only because I’ve had so many interesting meals with interesting people (all who I know through my MIT connections). I’ve talked on this blog before about professional friends , and the longer I am in my job, the more convinced I am by the need to attend out-of-town events either with someone from my own group or in serious meeting-up-with-professional-friends mode. I’ve had a great time this trip, because I had three different friends (who did not necessarily know each other, despite the MIT connections) to have food and drinks and conversations with. So I leave Singapore knowing that this trip was worth it, and that the worth was mostly in the connections I’ve strengthened through our common interests in science and in which we might all have just managed to mentioned MIT in passing. I have no degrees from MIT, but I do have a strange connection. And I adore my “professional friends” in their second and third degrees of separation from a marvelous institution.