Celebrating my academic advisor, Professor Leslie Kaelbling

Summary: Academic advisors exist for a reason that goes beyond approving your registration for the semester. Every relationship is defined by what you make of it, so think critically about what you are looking for.

Also, it’s important to speak up if you think that something is not working for you. If you don’t seek help, you will never experience better. BUT, speak up with respect and appreciate good effort; do not focus solely on the negatives.

Professor Leslie Kaelbling. One of the best academic advisors in the EECS department.

I did not have a great experience with my first Course 6 advisor. Whenever I visited their office, I could sense the pressure to finish quickly and leave. It’s not that they were rude or mean to me. No, never. But they just had this air about them that made me want to hurry so that they could move on to the next thing. Sometimes I had to suppress my questions or concerns so that they could run off to their next meeting. That was not what I was looking for in an academic advisor. I hadn’t come to MIT with a well-thought-out plan for every class I wanted to take so I needed guidance in exploring my interests. I needed someone who had time to discuss my options and not someone that made me feel like I was standing in their way.

The first time we had to choose advisors, I did some research but I honestly didn’t know enough to choose someone. So when I went to Anne Hunter’s office to request a change of advisor, I made sure that I did my due diligence. I asked as many people as I could, read almost every post on the Course 6.AcAd piazza, and looked at subject evals as well as the HKN Underground guide. Based on her thoughtful responses on Piazza, her rate of response, and the extensive positive feedback I garnered, I requested Prof Kaelbling as an academic advisor.

Prof Kaelbling is incredibly brilliant and yet one of the few professors I have met who is slow to speak. Before she makes a call or jumps to a conclusion, she will patiently wait for your input and ask clarifying questions where necessary. She will then pause and reflect, all the while giving you time to also reflect on what you have said. She has this peace and calm around her that makes you feel at home in her office.

Every time I showed up for registration, her first question (before looking at my grades from the previous semester or the classes I had pre-registered for) would be : “How did last semester go? How did you feel about your classes? Which ones did you enjoy and why? Did you have time to pursue other interests? ” Then, based on my response, we would evaluate the classes I had selected for the upcoming semester.

Sometimes Prof Kaelbling agreed with my choice of classes, but other times she would push back: “I think you should try to take Class X at this point because it is critical for every engineer to know this material and it will serve you well later.” She understood that her students had different goals so when I told her that I wanted to take at least one project-based class every semester because I learned by doing, she allowed me to.

I called Leslie “Prof Kaelbling” for a very long time although she signed off all her emails with “Leslie”. So one day, after our meeting, I said to her “I have noticed that you sign off your emails with ‘Leslie’. Are you okay with me calling you Prof Kaelbling?” She had this heart-warming smile that she broke into whenever something amused her. Then she said: “Mm, I prefer Leslie. Whenever people say ‘Prof Kaelbling’ I look over my shoulder and wonder who they are referring to…” We both laughed, and I decided to go with ‘Leslie’ moving forward.

Leslie was more than an “academic” advisor. Halfway through my Course 6 journey, I had a “mid-Course 6” crisis. 😂 I emailed Leslie because I wasn’t sure what made the most sense to do post-MIT : should I pursue an MEng? should I go to grad school? should I apply for fellowships?

I know that I tend to exaggerate but you need to believe me on this one — Leslie’s response rate is a little under 5 minutes regardless of time of day. She responded and scheduled time to chat about my goals and how things aligned. Even at her distinguished position, she was not afraid to acknowledge what she didn’t know: “I’m not really the best person to give you advice about this because I did Y instead. But I know someone who did this and I can put you in touch with them.” During our conversation, she gave candid advice and offered to leverage her network to support me where possible.

In spite of her phenomenal research, Leslie makes time for her advisees and her students. Given that she is an incredible advisor, I should have known that she would make an even more exceptional teacher and I deeply regret waiting this long to take 6.036 (the one semester that she didn’t teach it 😭).

I loved watching her 6.036 lectures.

She had “study questions” during the lecture that made you stop and think about what you were learning: What happens if epsilon is 0? Does our theory still hold? What if it goes to infinity? Does it still make sense?

She also equipped students with an intuition —
Think about the discount factor when calculating the expected value for infinite horizon this way: rewards that happen sooner are worth more than rewards that happen far in the future.
The intuition for dropout is that everyday you might miss a few team members at random, so you need to train your system in order to cover for one another when this happens.

Becoming one of Prof Kaelbling’s advisees was one of the best decisions I made at MIT. My experience with her made me appreciate the impact of good mentorship and support. I know many people have different opinions on this topic but I believe that academic advisors exist for a reason and it certainly goes way beyond approving your registration for the semester. Every relationship is defined by what you make of it, so think critically about what you are looking for.

#YouCanDoItOnlyYouCanDoItYouCantDoItAlone

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