21st Grade

July 25, 2017

Posted: August 28, 2016, 5:47pm

Another year, another dollar. Okay, okay, I think the expression is actually “another day, another dollar “- that one has more of a ring to it, anyway. I recently made the joke that I was excited to enter 21st grade. My friends roared with laughter, but a few seconds later they said, “wait… really?!”

Yes, really.

I guess humor is a way to cope. Not very many do what we do. Study one subject for 5, 6, or even 7 years. I’m really satisfied with my life, though. I’m happy to be in my fifth year of PhD, knowing that I’m pursuing a dream of mine and that the sacrifices made will one day be worth it. It’s even a good life now, despite those sacrifices. I love working with my advisor and I’m really enjoying our current project of finding optimal schedules of chemotherapy for breast and lung cancer. I am hopeful it’s one of those projects that can contribute to the field and knowledge-base of cancer research.

Getting other people to understand my dreams is a different matter. Who wants to stay in school for another 5 years after you already have a degree? I even turned down a job offer to come to USC, so it truly made me choose between two options (one of which paid more — at least in the short term). At the time, I was really interested in robotics and wanted to do graduate research in that field. The job offer I turned down was at a robotics company.

Why did I do that? Was it worth it? I wanted to take a few blog posts to discuss the ups and downs of PhD life. I’ll try to sum up some lessons learned in the past 4 years.

Starting and not finishing

Honestly, half the battle for me was starting. The job offer was enticing and none of my friends were interested in pursing a PhD. My family has never known a doctoral candidate in my ancestry so it was a mystery to them where I even came up with the idea. They assumed I just really liked my college professors (which is true!) and that I just wanted to be like them (also true, hah). I don’t think my parents truly believed I would make the sacrifice to move to LA, away from family, until the day that I actually left. Embarking on an insanely long and inglorious journey such as the PhD begins with a single step, but that’s often the hardest.

When I got to campus I realized that I made the right decision almost immediately. I knew this would be a place where I was challenged to think at a new level. My classes were engaging and challenging, but I was most of all impacted by the caliber of students.

From all over the world, brilliant students flock to USC campus and create a uniquely collaborative environment that is extremely fulfilling and inspiring.

All of these feelings are still true four years later. The greatest blessing is working with smart people to accomplish a lofty goal. But it’s not all ice cream sundaes with a cherry on top. Take a look at this chart.

[data from http://www.phdcompletion.org/, plot is my own, Mechanical Engineering PhD Students]

This is the graduation rates per year of study of PhD students nationally. The chart peaks right at year 5 (yay, I’m right on track!) but the graph doesn’t sum to 100%. That’s because almost one third of all students that start on the PhD track never end up finishing.

A lot of these people are undoubtably the victims of circumstance. The years of a PhD student’s life (maybe 22 years old to 26, 27, 28ish) are the years that most people start a family, begin earning a lot of money. Maybe older family members need supported or maybe a marriage happens and one spouse follows another to a different city. Life happens.

In engineering, a Masters Degree is also very well sought after. Research in academics can be an unfulfilling destiny for some. The projects are extremely long-term (it took me 3 years before my first publication) and they are often less-defined, more vague research goals. Sometimes the research doesn’t work out. After two years, you’re sitting on a Masters Degree and it’s a good point for many to drop out and begin the working life.

Why did I stay in then? I think a lot of my expectations of grad school were realistic because I had 5 research experiences before I ever stepped foot in front of my eventual PhD advisor. I worked on Ohio State on two separate projects in agricultural engineering, then at Auburn for UAV collision avoidance, USC for socially assistive robotics and Ohio Northern University for manufacturing robotics machine vision. I knew firsthand that I loved research. That made it easier to pick a school and easier to pick an advisor.

Words of Wisdom

All this leads to some advice. Know what you’re getting into. If you’re thinking about the PhD, sit down with some fourth or fifth year students and ask them what they’d do differently. Ask them what they feel like they’ve sacrificed. The PhD is a great challenge and it’s a rewarding path, albeit filled with obstacles. If you’re still interested, go for it! Armed with advise from your predecessors you’ll be more equipped for anything life throws your way.

Published on July 25th, 2017

Last updated on August 10th, 2017