Friday, June 5, 2009

Distance option helps SDMers stay on career track - SDM Pulse, Summer 2009

By Kathryn O’Neill, managing editor, SDM Pulse

Anando Chowdhury
SDM ’09
In today’s fast-paced, global economy, it’s not always possible—or even desirable—for every midcareer professional to return to school full time. That’s why MIT’s System Design and Management Program offers a distance option.

Like many distance students, SDMers attend classes remotely—via high-tech videoconferencing—while continuing their careers. However, there are key differences between SDM and distance programs elsewhere, including a high level of involvement with MIT faculty and colleagues on campus.

“You have a connection to the buzz of what’s going on at MIT, but you also have instant application,” said Anando Chowdhury, SDM ’09, who works in New Jersey as a director of global science, technology, and commercialization at Merck & Co. Inc.

Applying new skills and strategies in real time is a key advantage, since SDM distance students are often
sponsored by employers. “A lot of the principles I learn I can apply back to my work right away,” said Haiying Ren, SDM ’09, a project manager at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut. “SDM builds up your thinking, so whenever you face a problem you can tackle it in a systematic way.”
Haiying Ren
SDM ’09

To ensure that SDM students establish connections within their cohort and to MIT, the distance program includes a number of on-campus components—including a full month on campus for the January Session (sometimes called “SDM boot camp”), one semester in residence at MIT (an Institute requirement), and three one-week business trips to campus per year.

“The whole concept of getting folks together for that concentrated period of time is absolutely the right thing to do. It just builds the network much stronger,” Chowdhury said.

“With a top-tier institution, you want to walk away with a feeling of connection. I think MIT absolutely hit the mark with this program,” said Mark Moran, SDM ’09, a technology architect at Deere & Company in Illinois.
Mark Moran
SDM ’09

Moran said he previously tried a more traditional distance program—downloading materials and communicating with professors by email. “That didn’t really work for me.” At SDM, he noted, “If the lecture is at 10 am, I’m sitting in front of my computer at 10 am. The really good professors will even call on us in distance land.”

During a lecture in MIT’s high-tech classroom, a screen split into nine segments shows some of the distance students attending in their various videoconference rooms. Students who want to ask questions in class press a button to ensure their remarks can be heard wherever distance students are listening. There can be slight
delays—students onscreen smile a little after a joke has passed—but comments from distance students are easy to hear, and the screen automatically zeroes in on one screen so everyone can see who’s speaking.

“A thousand miles or so melts away pretty well,” Moran said.

In addition, distance students typically team up with on- campus students—and each other—for project-based assignments. SDM thus intentionally replicates the kind of geographically dispersed teams common in today’s global workplace.

This close connection to business is a hallmark of the SDM program.

“Having distance students keeps MIT engaged in current challenges in industry,” said Pat Hale, director of the SDM Fellows Program, who noted that about a third of a typical SDM cohort uses the distance option.

Moran, for example, is making the most of his time at SDM by working with Deere to address a pressing company issue in his SDM thesis. “The way we look at it internally is that if we find the right thesis project, we can bring our resources and MIT together—which is a great value proposition.”

“The master’s thesis is an ideal way for sponsoring companies to capitalize on their SDM connection,” said
John M. Grace, SDM industry codirector. “The students take on real problems, and the companies get broad-based, systems solutions—not just Band-Aids.”

“In the distance program you feel like you’ve got your feet in two boats, and each boat is going very fast,” Chowdhury said, adding that the balancing act is worth it. “There are problems that we uncover every day in the corporate process that SDM has direct answers to. For example, the very day I attended a summary class in technology strategy, I had a meeting at work to discuss our overall vaccine strategy. I was able to directly apply what I’d learned.”

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