A Reflection on Graduate School I

I’m tempted to romanticize these first few months of my PhD program, since it hasn’t been terrible and mostly has been highlighted by exciting, new experiences. However, I’d also like to be candid and also express the more tedious, muddled, and difficult experiences.

I mentioned the sequester in one of my first posts, which was a hot topic when I was admitted into UCSB. Every professor I met with during my visit weekend tactfully avoided the topic of funding, skirting around any concrete answer to my request for a position in his or her lab. Many faculty members enthusiastically welcomed me into their group – if I had my own funding. I had applied to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) but was denied. Because of this, along with the professors’ collective funding uncertainty, I wanted to move to Santa Barbara before the start of the fall quarter.

I felt pressured to join a lab quickly, but I think I created this weight on myself. Most PhD students take about 5 years to complete their doctorate work. I have heard other graduate students discuss how they felt lost until about their 3rd year, when they finally started a project and everything started to click. I have a friend who said he had no specific direction until December of his 2nd year. One of my labmates said he was in “undergraduate mode”, where he was staying at home and studying for most of his first year, instead of working in the lab. If I had known these experiences beforehand, I might have not have felt so burdened.

My urgency to find a lab was unnecessarily brought on by my fear of being the only graduate student without a lab and losing funding after my first quarter. I learned that one of my classmates did not have an advisor after the first quarter. Another classmate found an advisor but couldn’t secure funding for the first two quarters. I am happy with the group I have joined, so I don’t think I would have wanted to take more time to sample what other groups had to offer, but I would have been more comfortable without the stress of financial uncertainty.

Still, my stress was not vastly detrimental, and I attest that it was beneficial since I became more proactive. For example, the professor I currently work for approached my interest in joining his group with trepidation. He was out of the country when I visited UCSB so I had not met him. Instead, we exchanged multiple emails and had a conversation over Skype six months before I came to UCSB. In some of the emails, I discussed jointly working with other professors so they could split my funding. I solicited these other professors as well and began dialogue with them. When I arrived in August, he was happy to meet with me in person after speaking with my multiple times. He let me begin work in his lab, but I also had back-up plans ready.

During that first week, I attended a few meetings with my advisor, other graduate students, and the entire group. I learned about interests in a new project and began reading literature. Perusing journal articles is not an exciting task. After reading one 5-page paper, you feel like you know a lot about very little. You have to read stacks of papers to learn anything, and the more you learn, the more you have to learn to learn more. To clarify, it is very easy gain information from what are called “review articles”, which describe broad topics. However, once you read one review article on a single topic, you don’t gain as much from reading another. You have to start looking for publications with more depth. Still, reading literature isn’t just a rite-of-passage; it is a necessary task for any researcher to stay relevant at any level. Besides reading, I was told there was not much I could do on the project since we didn’t have all of our supplies yet. Some of the materials we needed are used in methamphetamine production, and we underwent a lengthy bureaucratic process just to purchase them. A 5th year graduate student advised me to just explore Santa Barbara and enjoy my time before classes start. I did just that, occasionally stopping in lab for meetings and intermittently reading journal articles.

It could be argued that I could have pursued other research topics in that month and learned more about lab equipment. I could have come into the offices every day, discussed research topics with graduate students, and started training on relevant instrumentation. That’s very clear to me now, but I don’t think it was when I first started. I wouldn’t advise anyone against getting a head start, but I don’t regret my first month in Santa Barbara and would recommend a similar first experience. I had a lot of fun on the beach, exploring my neighborhood, and discovering the city. Plus, once classes started, I didn’t have as much time for such frivolous endeavors, but I also was not as tempted to stray from my coursework since I had already experienced so much.

I took three courses during my first quarter, which is not atypical nor an easy schedule. My background is in chemistry, but I’m in the materials department at UCSB. Materials science is considered a topic of engineering, so most of my courses have been more related to engineering than chemistry. Because of this, I am often learning relevant background material while simultaneously learning the current course material. For most of the fall quarter, I would arrive to my office at 9 AM and would spend the entire day attending classes or studying for them. I would get home at 6 or 7 PM and often still have homework to do. I was also worried about funding and applied to four different fellowships (DoD SMART, DoD NDSEG, NSF GRFP, and Hertz). These fellowships are highly coveted and competitive, without only about 5-15% of well-qualified applicants receiving awards. They would give me financial freedom and the ability to pursue my own projects though (rather than only projects my professor has received funding for). There wasn’t much time for me to spend in lab, but I think I was also getting re-accustomed to schoolwork. I had about 9 months from when I graduated and when I started graduate school, so it took me some time to rediscover good study habits and organizational skills.

I ended up being substantially busier my second quarter, but I finally felt in sync. I began to spend more time in lab, taking an entire week of the winter break to learn how to make solar cells. I also started teaching my first class, which ended up being a time vampire. I had to teach discussion for an engineering course. I took exactly zero engineering courses during my undergraduate studies, and so I was learning just as much as I was teaching. I would have rather taught chemistry, but the chemistry department requires teaching assistants to attend training sessions at the beginning of the year. The materials department has no such requirement and instead throws fresh, raw graduate students to ravenous undergraduates.

Teaching at this level is my career goal, though, so I resolved absolutely that I would not be eaten alive. I prepared well. I would work through the homework sets and ask the other TAs questions that I thought my students might ask. More than once, I spent Sunday afternoons that turned into evenings that turned into late nights struggling to learn the material, and then I would astonish myself by teaching it successfully the very next day. There is an old adage that says, “Those who can’t do, teach”. It’s intended to be a slap-in-the-face to teachers, claiming that teachers are just lazy and can’t apply what they’ve learned. Of course, I disagree with this, but I embrace the saying. If I can’t do something naturally, I have to struggle through it. Only by struggling through the material can I be a successful teacher. I can better relate to every student, especially those who are struggling. Most importantly, I strived to never misinform my students. There is a problem with experts, or people who are put in a position where they are made look like experts (the latter is more related my experience as a TA). It is often difficult for experts to say, “I don’t know”, but I was not hesitant to say it. If there was something I was unsure about, I would write it on a piece of paper, find out the answer, and email everyone after class. I was rewarded for my hard work; students graciously thanked me for my help, and I really felt like I made an impact.

As the quarter came to a close, I had to determine how I was going to be funded for the spring. I was willing to TA again, but I also wanted to spend more time in lab making devices. I spoke with my advisor and found out we had just received funding for a different project. The contents of the project are protected under a nondisclosure agreement, but it involves understanding organic electronics (“organic”, meaning containing carbon, like plastics). I had to transition from organic solar cells to organic field effect transistors in the past two weeks. I have already learned a lot about this field and am excited to get started.

Organic electronics could be used to make flexible displays!

Organic electronics could be used to make flexible displays!

The project is being funded by an outside company, and they just had a few researchers visit UCSB to check the status of the project. I was lucky to have just started on the project because I was able to enjoy the perks of hosting visiting researchers (free lunches and dinners) without having to do any work (present at meetings). In one of the meetings I attended, the other attendees were the three esteemed visiting researchers, my advisor, a professor who has done seminal work on polymer physics, and a Nobel Prize winning physicist. I was star-struck to be in such incredibly well-regarded company. It completely rounded out this quarter, where I saw first-hand how gratifying teaching is and how enthralling research can be.

Finally, one of the most interesting insights came as the quarter ended. Just today, I had a meeting with my professor and another professor. I am supposed to begin working on this project next quarter, but I need to be trained on transistor fabrication and characterization. The other professor’s lab has the capabilities for these tasks, but he requested I meet with him and the post-doctoral researcher that would be training me. I expected this to be a character interview of sorts; the professor did not want to waste his time on someone without motivation to pursue this project. As it turned out, I was actually walking right into a debate. It was a clash of heavyweights: my advisor and this professor argued over the merits of having me trained on his instrumentation. How would each group benefit? Would I infringe upon his research? Could I help his researchers?

I didn’t expect this, but it was very entertaining albeit somewhat disappointing. The debate was contentious but civil, which is a great testament to the composure of the two professors. It was also a great insight into the motivations of each group. My group typically makes materials and the other group tests them. My professor wants me to help characterize the materials, provide preliminary tests, and investigate properties that aren’t deemed interesting to the other group. The other group does not want me to monopolize the materials though, giving them nothing to perform experiments on. In addition, the post-doctoral researcher has every right to be concerned. He developed a novel method for fabricating the transistors that significantly improved the performance. The results were published earlier than he desired, due to pressure from collaborators, and now he has trouble publishing his other experiments since reviewers claim he is not adding any new information to the field.

These motivations produce an undesirable and unseen hindrance on research. Most participants in academia will claim that collaboration enhances and facilitates research. Highly competitive research environments are well-known but frowned upon in more recent years. Anecdotes claim that research groups would ensure that labs were locked so rivals would not sneak in and contaminate experiments. This story is always told disappointingly since such a hostile environment would be incredibly immoral.   However, it was obvious that collaboration is sometimes just a glamorized ideal. There are other incentives that need to be considered, and each side must play the game. In the end, the two sides reached a compromise but it provided a new perspective to academia that I had not seen or even considered.

I came into graduate school with high expectations, and I don’t feel let down. There are times of despair, when the workload seems unsurmountable (like having to prepare discussion, create an original problem set, turn in homework, and study for a midterm in one day). But more often, the experience is exciting – I am paid to learn something new every day, and I can see the potential to positively impact others with my work. Hopefully, my experience won’t substantially change in future years.

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One thought on “A Reflection on Graduate School I

  1. one of my favorites saying is not about teachers…. but about experts….. “def: someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about absolutely nothing” That’s a goal worth shooting for!

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