Erik Reinertsen     Blog     Research     Tech     Teaching     Talks

Culture makes institutions great

I am asked this question on countless fellowship applications:

What are the considerations involved in your choice of graduate school?

As I reflect, I noticed my framework for choosing a graduate school evolved over time. Every year, I gain a clearer view of dynamics governing myself, people, and institutions. Here I discuss not only my considerations of how I chose graduate school, but how and why my perspective changed.

When I applied to MD/PhD programs in 2011, I looked for institutions offering outstanding training in both medicine and engineering. My initial metric was the U.S. News and World Report (how unsophisticated). I noticed UCLA’s Bioengineering program was not ranked among the top 10. This surprised me because we boasted a tight-knit, supportive community. Our faculty produced top scholarly work. Our students have the highest incoming GPAs and test scores, and more of us enter competitive graduate and professional programs than other majors. Mentors taught me that program rankings can distinguish general tiers of quality, but use arbitrary metrics or subjective opinions. It would be imperative to explore other aspects that make graduate programs great.

At my interviews, I spoke with students and read a lot of blog posts. This input guided me to choose faculty activity as a metric for program quality. I looked at the number of faculty working on interesting problems. I searched for how many papers they published in top journals - something I now know to be a proxy of true impact. I narrowed my search to rock stars working in fields of interest - at the time, nanotechnology for neuro-oncology, and signal processing of neural data.

In medical school, I learned about human disease and interacted with many faculty and students. After learning about the many challenges preventing the translation of technology from the lab to the clinic, my interests broadened. I started to value fields outside of engineering, such as law, entrepreneurship, and anthropology. My new metric for evaluating a graduate program became its level of intellectual diversity, combined with its focus on building real solutions to healthcare problems.

When I began graduate school and found my (amazing) PhD advisor, I realized the importance of faculty members’ approachability and engagement with students. An appreciation of interactions further expanded my view to include other people too - in addition to graduate students and faculty. A graduate program is a community comprised of undergraduates, staff, visiting scholars, and more. But a department is not just people. It is what they do, and this is part of culture. Now I think culture is the most important feature to consider when choosing a graduate program.

Culture is not made great by vast research funding, prestigious papers, or fancy buildings. But great culture is both a byproduct and a contributor to those things. I think “great culture” is how you describe a place where people help each other achieve excellence. Great culture is when mentors happily write letters of recommendations even with a sudden deadline, staff take extra steps to help with paperwork, and colleagues challenge your views of the world’s greatest problems. UCLA Bioengineering had this sort of culture.

Startups and larger tech companies make a conscious effort to build great culture1. Academia is widely understood to not do a great job at this, especially in medicine. I fear for the future of both scientific research and medicine. Most of my friends and colleagues are devoting their lives to those fields. Most importantly, patients’ lives depend on the performance of clinicians working in teams. I challenge everyone, no matter what level of training, to a) learn about culture, team performance, and organizational leadership, and b) implement positive improvements, even if in small ways.

  1. I recommend How Google Works, a book full of insights on management, vision, and culture. Think how you can improve your department, organization, or company culture.