Many students in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program return to the workplace to tackle complex operational problems. But sometimes their research sparks a lot of scientific interest and they bring their LGO toolkit to an academic career instead.
Such was the case with Jimmy Smith SM ’18, MBA ’18, who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Computational Mathematics at Stanford University. He specializes in machine learning models for sequence data.
Ready to accelerate his career as a drilling engineer at BP Exploration Alaska, Smith enrolled in the LGO program to gain technical management experience. There he worked with Goodyear to develop machine learning algorithms to automate a tire inspection process. He knew he wanted to delve deeper into machine learning. Instead of polishing his resume, he began preparing applications for PhD programs, all with support from MIT mentors.
“LGO opened up the world to me. Being exposed to so many students and faculty with different interests helped me better understand what I wanted from my career,” he says.
Smith’s adviser, mechanical engineering professor David Hardt, praises LGO’s natural connection between industry and academia. After working closely with Smith on his manufacturing statistics course and praising his curiosity, he wrote Smith an enthusiastic letter of recommendation for Stanford.
With LGO, “you get a holistic perspective,” says Hardt. “While LGO students aren’t research students—they’re professionals undertaking a project in an industry that ends up being a thesis—Jimmy asked the probing questions one would want in a graduate student.”
While the LGO program isn’t a traditional training ground for graduate students, Smith says it’s very useful. The work he initially pursued for professional reasons eventually developed into an intellectual passion.
“LGO exposed me to machine learning, AI-like things that I’m now interested in. The master’s thesis component gave me the opportunity to do meaningful research, and working with faculty advisors at MIT gave me a better sense of what it would be like to do full-time research as a graduate student,” he explains. “I realized it was something I was really interested and excited about.”
Smith’s insightful experience is not uncommon for LGO students, says MIT-LGO executive director Thomas Roemer.
“Students come to us because they want a change of direction in their lives. And some discover during their studies at MIT how much they love to learn and how much they love to be at a university. Maybe they get inspired by professors and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that: become a professor myself,'” he says.
Like Smith, Audrey Bazerghi SM ’20, MBA ’20, a former management consultant, came to MIT with no desire to pursue a PhD. Prior to enrolling, she worked for Oliver Wyman, focusing on the manufacturing, transportation and energy sectors. She was at a professional crossroads and wanted to hone her math and modeling skills. She graduated with a newfound passion for research.
“I focused much of my graduate work at MIT on supply chain and sourcing or logistics issues that I encountered during my time as a consultant. Through my LGO internship and the theses, I realized that I really enjoy research,” she recalls. “LGO made me discover I enjoyed it enough to do it full-time.”
She is now a second-year graduate student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, focusing on operations management. Bazerghi hopes to educate graduate business students and, ideally, help them apply cutting-edge business knowledge to their respective industries. It’s a logical extension of the hands-on training she received at MIT.
“That’s what LGO is really about: how do we organize the work so that it serves its purpose? And I think it’s more important than ever that people understand that,” says Deishin Lee ’90, SM ’92.
To that end, she is now Associate Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability at Ivey Business School in London, Ontario. The LGO program—then called Leaders for Manufacturing—instilled an appreciation for the connection between academia and practice that she now shares with her students. In fact, Lee worked at Motorola for seven years before earning her PhD. It was a useful strategy. The hands-on experience she has gained at work helps her convey organizational pain points from a lived perspective.
“The problem is that sometimes students cannot assess the problems of organizations. It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of different solutions if you don’t understand the problem – that comes from understanding how organizations work,” she says. “LGO was tremendously helpful because we got to know so many different organizations and so many managers came to talk to us.”
While the vast majority of LGO alumni are re-entering the workforce, Roemer hopes prospective students will enter MIT with an open mind.
“[The LGO program] is a life-changing opportunity that will really have a big impact on their future life, not so much in terms of careers – of course they will have great careers – but in terms of how they see the world,” he says. “And that transition can go in all sorts of directions in those two years.”