Achieving advisory equilibrium

Professors Paola Cappellaro, Warren Seering, and Lily Tsai honored as “Committed to Caring.”

This article was written by Ellie Immerman for MIT News. The complete article is available online with the introductory paragraph followed by excerpts on Professor Lily Tsai below. 

Converting raw potential into a dissertation is no easy feat. Dependable mentorship can play a profound role in cultivating engaged, capable, and resilient scholars. Professors Paola Cappellaro, Warren Seering, and Lily Tsai have been honored by their graduate students as “Committed to Caring” for their adaptability and stable guidance as advisors, helping their students weather setbacks and continue to find delight in discovery, even in the midst of a pandemic.


Lily Tsai: Solidarity and resilience

A “wise and perceptive mentor,” Lily Tsai attends closely to her advisees’ well-being and intellectual growth, according to student nominators.

Lily Tsai is the Ford Professor of Political Science. Tsai is also the founder and faculty director of the MIT Governance Lab, a group of political scientists working collaboratively with practitioners on research and innovation in citizen engagement and government accountability. Her research focuses on Asia and East Africa.

Exceptionally generous with her time, Lily Tsai is available for students whether it is the week or weekend, and even when she is on leave. Notably, though, she explicitly does not set the same standard for her students. Writes one nominator, “she encourages us to take weekends off and to take vacations, and respects these times by not emailing or making demands on us.”

When students are facing hardship, be it academic or personal, Tsai is a reliable support. One student mentions Tsai’s enduring encouragement as their dissertation proved harder to complete than anticipated: she “signaled that she believe[d] in me as a scholar — which is really important when facing self-doubts.” Another student recalls being invited to spend Christmas with Tsai and her family when in the midst of a distressing life shift.

Bolstering diversity in concrete ways matters to Tsai. She attends student-faculty meetings and brainstorming sessions exploring gender and diversity within the department, and serves on a diversity committee. Tsai talks openly with her students, providing “invaluable advice,” in the words of one student nominator, on navigating the balance between family, life, and work as a female academic.

Tsai admires scholars who are good at “talking to, understanding, and translating across a range of people from different families, cultures … [and] communication styles” because they can “synthesize different streams of data and ideas.” She works to build these skills as part of a toolkit for her mentees. Such dedication to fostering a friendly and inclusive work environment is a mentoring guidepost.

Exploring the dynamic tensions between flexibility and certainty bodes well for navigating a pandemic, in Tsai’s view. She notes, managing amid unpredictability is “hard because people naturally want structure and certainty — and that decreases with diversity.” Varied backgrounds and communication styles can lead to miscommunication and tension. “But as we’re finding … being able to live with and adjust to high levels of uncertainty can be a huge strength.”

The Committed to Caring program is an initiative of the Office of Graduate Education and contributes to its mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.”…

Photo by Joseph Lee.