Learning from MIT, learning from the field

As project manager for an organization charged with improving conditions in austere and hostile environments in developing countries, Robert Rains MS ’19 has seen his share of high stakes, risky projects — responding to the Ebola outbreak in Africa, monitoring a ceasefire in South Sudan, and launching counter-poaching efforts in Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo. He’s also a former member of the U.S. military, having served time in Iraq. 

His work in the field, as a member of the military and as a civilian, has prepared him well for the difficult conditions he faces every day in international development. “In the military, we made our living by being tough and durable,” he said. 

It was his work on the Ebola response that really impressed employers and helped him to land his first project manager role. 

At that point in his career, he joined a room full of project managers with long resumes — many of them with degrees and credentials in supply chain management. 

Motivated to add these qualifications to his resume as well, Rains sought further training through the MITx MicroMasters program in supply chain management. He felt that this would give him a competitive edge in securing projects, as well as prepare him for the more challenging ones in the future. 

Importantly, the program also allowed Rains the flexibility of time and geography to continue working across Africa.

“The online program was very helpful in making sure that I could complete the bulk of that course work on my own schedule, which was very hectic,” Rains says. “Not only was I based in Africa at the time, but I moved countries almost every week. I had to study around different time zones and shifting work schedules.”

The world’s first-ever MicroMaster’s program, the supply chain management credential is a rigorously assessed online educational pathway consisting of a series of courses that culminate in a digitally-delivered credential. The credential is recognized by employers and institutions as commensurate with one semester of graduate-level coursework at MIT. Successful credential earners must complete a demanding sequence of MITx massive open online courses (MOOCs) that demonstrates their mastery of the concepts and skills necessary for a strong foundation in the supply chain management profession.

For Rains, the courses mirrored much of what he sees at work every day. When a community needed help getting proper nutrition, Rains applied the analytical and forecasting tools he learned in the courses to develop a nutrition program. 

“There’s always a supply chain component to the projects and programs we support, as much of the supplies that we bring in are not procured locally” he says. “We need to think carefully about what goes into sustaining something that we’re putting on the ground. We need to be sure that the life cycle extends beyond our putting things on the ground.”

In late 2017, Rains successfully earned his credential — and decided that he wasn’t ready to stop there. With support from his employer, he took a six-month leave of absence from work to spend time on the MIT campus as a graduate student, earning his full master’s degree in supply chain management last May. 

The in-person experience, he says, was invaluable. 

“MIT really makes the most of the time on campus,” Rains says. “I appreciated the time we had to work together in teams, which was an important complement to the independent work we did online.”

Now back at work in Africa, Rains is taking his experience in online and on-campus classrooms back to the field. 

“Pursuing this program put me in a position to advocate for solutions better,” he says. He explained that, using the systems-thinking strategies and project management tools he studied, “Now, I’m not just a field guy. I can advocate for things with a mix of my experience in the field and from a rigorous academic program.”

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