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Think Big Diversity: Advice for Aspiring #STEM Ph.D. Graduate Students, Postdocs, and Junior Faculty

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This past weekend, I was honored and humbled to speak to around 180 aspiring #STEM professors at Maryland’s National Science Foundation funded PROMISE AGEP #ThinkBigDiversity Summer Success Institute workshop, led by Dr. Renetta Tull.  It was so encouraging and heartening to see so many African American, Latino/Latina, and Native American STEM graduate students, postdocs and faculty.  As a former Spelman College faculty member and department chair, I was especially delighted to learn about #teamgetitdone, a.k.a. the Sisters in Dissertation House.  Speaking to this group was a little nostalgic because in the late 90’s, I had attended an NSF Engineering Education Scholars Program that was led by Denice Denton at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before she left to become an engineering Dean at the University of Washington.  This program helped me gain insight into the process of getting a Ph.D., starting a research program, and being a productive faculty member.

As part of the week’s activities, Dr. Tull invented the hashtag, #ThinkBigDiversity, for participants to promote the Summer Success Institute and to “hack” ideas to solve the problems that underrepresented graduate students, post-docs, and faculty face.  In my talk on “Changing the Face of STEM and Robotics”, I spoke about my own personal academic journey and reflected on some of the lessons learned.  (I also demoed our humanoid health coach, Rosie, as she led the group in a short exercise routine). I decided to carry on the theme, Think Big Diversity, and shared thoughts and tips along the lines of:

  • Hope Big
  • Dream Big
  • Think Big
  • Care Big

This blog post is a brief synopsis on the topic, “Think Big – the Process of the Ph.D.”  During this time I spoke about the 3 “R’s”, Meteor Man, Nobel Laureates and the Arts, and the Twelve Commandments of the Ph.D.  Here are the Twelve Commandments of the Ph.D.:

  1. Don’t climb the mountain of getting a Ph.D. just because it’s there.
  2. Choose an advisor and university that offers the most support.
  3. Decide what your life priorities will be during your Ph.D. pursuit.
  4. Don’t necessarily put your life or family on hold for a Ph.D.
  5. Take a “sabbath” once a week.
  6. Cultivate your artistic and spiritual self daily or as often as you can.
  7. Remember to keep your advisor happy.
  8. Realize that no one else is going to do it for you.
  9. Keep building on your successes.
  10. Choose a topic that you will love to dive deeply into whether or not you get tenure.
  11. Keep a journal of things that inspire you, your struggles, your triumphs, and your dreams.
  12. If you are perfectionist, remember the 95% rule.

(1) Don’t climb the mountain of getting a Ph.D. just because it’s there.

When I was exploring and praying about whether or not I should pursue my Ph.D., I spoke with one of my former instructors who was a faculty member in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas.  He asked me why I wanted to pursue getting a Ph.D.  He said, “Don’t just climb the mountain because it’s there”.  It forced me to think about what was my purpose for getting a Ph.D. and how it fit into what I was passionate about.  A book that helped me with this was, “What Color is Your Parachute” by Dick Bolles.  I had discovered the book while visiting the Harvard University book store and especially liked the section on Finding Your Life Mission.  I also appreciated how it helped me decide what was important in my life and what was the best career path I should choose.  Of course, as a believer in Jesus, I spent a lot of time thinking and praying about my life purpose as well as asking others who had their Ph.D., why they got their Ph.D.’s and what tips they could give about the journey.

(2) Choose an advisor and university that offers the most support.

Without a question, a STEM Ph.D. student should not have to pay for any of her or his graduate studies but that’s not the only support that a university or potential Ph.D. advisor can offer.  Make sure that there is strong support system for you socially, psychologically, and spiritually.  As Dr. Brian Burt, Iowa State University, said when referring to his own research at the SSI conference, especially for black men, “Anticipate an isolated journal in a system and legacy not created with you in mind”.

So it’s a given that the University should be able to fund your work and provide enough money, if managed wisely, for you to live on.  I was working at GE Medical Systems, when I started to think about getting a Ph.D.  When I started to discuss going to school to get a Ph.D., my managers and directors told me I should consider going to Stanford or Berkeley.  I was married and had one child and we were expecting another.  My wife said, if we were going to be poor graduate students, she wanted us to move back to the Kansas City area where her family lived.  When I went to visit KU to see if I would pursue my Ph.D. there, the associate dean, Tom Mulinazzi, asked me what I would need in order to come back.  I told him the dollar amount and he said, “You got it, what else do you need?”.  Of course, that blew me away and made me wonder if I should have asked for more.  I knew who I wanted to be my advisor because I had worked with him before when I began my master’s degree and knew that he wanted to see me succeed.  So I advise students to find an advisor that wants to see you succeed, maybe even more than you do.  I was also glad that KU had joined the GEM Consortium because I was able to apply for the fellowship and receive the Ph.D. fellowship with GE as my corporate sponsor.

By the way, one faculty member and personal friend at a big research university, told me that I would never work at a Big 10 research University having graduated from the University of Kansas.  But having decided that my own personal support system and the support system I provided for my family was most important, I chose KU.  Because my family and I were happier being in an environment where we were supported, I was able to thrive and succeed.  I ended up having five out of five university job offers (one wanted me to start an Internet company) and turned down a few more interviews.  My first academic position was with a Big Ten research University, the University of Iowa, something that more than one person said I would never be able to do (corollary: don’t listen to what others say is possible of you to do or be).

(3) Decide what your life priorities will be before you pursue your Ph.D and (4) Don’t necessarily put your life on hold for a Ph.D. and (10) Choose a topic that you will love to dive deeply into whether or not you get tenure.

Getting your Ph.D. should not be the most important thing in your life.  Because if for some reason you fail to complete your Ph.D. due to sickness, family reasons, or politics or some other reason, you may feel devastated to have spent so much more time and energy and not received one.  If for some reason you put off pursuing a deep friendship, love, marriage, having children, or just the simple pleasures of life while pursuing your Ph.D. only to realize that you’ve missed out on something that was more important than you realized at the time, you will have to live with the pain of that regret.  I decided that my relationship with God, my relationship with my family, my personal mission, and then my Ph.D. pursuit were going to be my priorities, in that order.  For instance, I’d rather have my family relationships with my wife and children intact and not get my Ph.D. than to get my Ph.D. and lose my family.  Of course there were sacrifices and a lot of discipline required but I knew what was most important in my life.

When I was in graduate school, one of my Ph.D. committee members told me of one of his friends that worked as an assistant professor in an area of research that he really didn’t like.  He ended up not getting tenure so he felt like he had wasted several years of his life.  Instead, one should decide to dive into an area during their Ph.D. pursuit and subsequently during their tenure pursuit that they would LOVE learning more about and becoming the world’s leading expert.  In the back of my mind I also wanted to choose a topic that would make me marketable and more skilled if I ever decided not work in academia.  Having had worked at GE, I had observed that the skills I would learn in the process of earning my Ph.D. would prepare me for leadership positions in other areas (e.g. think Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, who earned a Ph.D. In chemical engineering).

(6) Cultivate your artistic and spiritual self daily or as often as you can and (5) Take a “sabbath” once a week and (11) Keep a journal of things that inspire you, your struggles, your triumphs, and your dreams.

If you think of your life as being like a plant, you need to be watered often and make sure your roots are deep into a ground that’s going to keep you stable, filled with nutrients, and provided sunlight.  As a “plant” you are going to face a lot of wind, storms, insects and other things that will try to keep you from growing and producing fruit. Whatever you find and discover to help you keep watered and nourished spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and socially, cultivate that every day or as often as you can.  Doing things to maintain your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health is vital for your success, not just for your Ph.D. but for everything you do in life.  Since I was an undergraduate, I decided I would take a “sabbath” every week from about 6 p.m. Saturday night to 6 p.m. Sunday night.  During this time I would not do any school or research related work at all.  I would use that time to socialize, go to a place of worship, take naps, and just relax.   At the time I was married and we had small children, so I would use part of that time to have a date night with my wife every week (I am still happily married after 23 years). Even to this day I follow this principle so that I can relax and rejuvenate.

One way I cultivate my spiritual self is to spend time reflecting by writing in a personal journal daily.  This is not a research journal and this is not a public blog post, nor a Facebook or Twitter post.  These are very deep, personal thoughts, memories, questions, struggles, triumph’s and dreams that only God knows about.  I usually like to read something inspirational, write down a key thought, and then describe how it relates to what I’m going through.  During this time, I quiet myself enough to listen to thoughts and ideas on how to proceed in my life and what I should do next.  I’m able to focus on very positive, uplifting words and thoughts during this time.  I’ve even used this time to write songs and play them on my guitar, something I share with very few people in my life.  Taking time to cultivate your artistic self is something very important because it helps jump start creativity in your life which can spill over to our research or anything else in your life.

If you’ve never started journaling, buy a small notebook, put the day’s date at the topic and begin by writing down the word “Yesterday…”.  Then start writing for only one page.  You will find that these personal reflections will help you in your journey and also give you something (and potentially your children one day) to look back on how you’ve triumphed and to encourage you to see how you’ve overcame obstacles or problems. A by product of this activity is that you will improve your writing and communication skills, learn to reflect and think deeply, and also, if you are using a pen or pencil, I believe it can help trigger creative, right brain thinking because you are doing a form of drawing when you use handwriting as opposed to typing it into a computer (this is my own personal theory).

(7) Remember to keep your advisor happy and (8) Realize that no one else is going to do it for you and (12) If you are perfectionist, remember the 95% rule.

I was blessed to have a family member that had completed a Ph.D. in electrical engineering before I did.  He gave me the advice in (7) and (8).  He reminded me that my advisor was responsible for helping to guide me so that I could satisfy the requirements for my Ph.D. given by the university, department, and committee but that he wasn’t going to write it for me.  It was my responsibility.  He also said to make sure that my advisor had the clout in the department to help settle any disagreements on whether or not what I had written was sufficient to earn a Ph.D.  So be careful to be respectful and reliable with your advisor, realizing that no advisor is perfect.  At a particular time when I was questioning the timing of when I might receive my Ph.D. or wondering when I might finish, my advisor told me that he wasn’t putting any timetable on when I completed my Ph.D.  He said that when I put that dissertation on his desk and it was sufficient, I would be done.  So remember to keep your advisor happy and realize that it’s up to you to do the work and get it done, not her or his responsibility.

At that NSF EESP, Denice Denton gave what I call the 95% rule. She said that sometimes when you are working on a paper, project, or even your dissertation, that the amount of time to get your work from 95% the way you want it to be versus to 99%, is not necessarily worth the trade off of time, energy and work.  I knew ever since I was an undergraduate student that I was a perfectionist, and I have found this particular advice to be extremely helpful.  I’ve learned as a corollary, that by doing this, you will be able to iteratively improve your work by getting feedback from reviewers, your advisor, and Ph.D. committee.  It’s better to get feedback at the 95% point rather than waiting to the get to the 99% point and seeing that major changes need to be done.

(9) Keep building on your successes.

Learn to build on your successes, no matter how small (Corollary: learn from your failures and use it to succeed the next time).  I’ll call this the “research snowball” effect. When my kids used to make snow men or women, they would start with a little snow and keep packing it into a small snowball. They would then roll it in the snow until more snow stuck and grew that tiny ball into a large round ball of snow that could be stacked with other large snow balls to build their final snow person. When I was in graduate school, I enjoyed a mixture of taking breadth and depth courses in my area.  I would use the projects in those classes to test ideas I had about my own research. Then I would build on those successes and started synthesizing those isolated successes into integrated methods and approaches which eventually laid the foundation for my dissertation.  I would take time to reflect on “out of the box” solutions as well and do some pie in the sky “dreaming” (which I will write about in a future “Dream Big” post).

When I was a junior faculty member (i.e. assistant professor), I applied for “small” internal grants within the University and for “small” grants from outside agencies, and use that to build on my ideas even further, fund students, and turn my work into a publication.  I specifically remember the slow process of how a $10K grant turned into a large NIH grant that I became the principal investigator on a few years later.

Summary: “Success is never final, failure is seldom fatal, but it’s courage that counts.”

After reading and adhering to these twelve “commandments” remember this quote from Winston Churchill that became my personal motto and the motto I instilled in my SpelBots and other students since.  “Success is never final, failure is seldom fatal, but it’s courage that counts!”.  We will never reach a point where we can coast and say I’m a success once and for all. Success is something that is a journey that will end the day our lives on earth pass away.  Since failure is seldom fatal, don’t let the fear of failure paralyze you from trying something new or outside your comfort zone. I write more about this in my book, “Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives”.

It’s courage to continue in spite of failures, obstacles, hardships or pain that really counts.  I recall reading that in one of Churchill’s talks, he stood up to the podium during bleak days in World War II and said these words, “Never give up.  Never give up! Never, never, never give up!” and then he sat down.  That’s my advice to you as well.

© 2015 Andrew B. Williams, Ph.D.


About the Author
Dr. Andrew B. Williams, is a Professor and John P. Raynor, S.J. Distinguished Chair in Electrical & Computer Engineering at Marquette Engineering where he directs the Humanoid Engineering & Intelligent Robotics (HEIR) Lab.  He is the author of Out of the Box: Building Robots, Transforming Lives.  He provides talent and technology consulting and motivational speaking as Chief Creative Officer of AppRobo LLC.
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5 thoughts on “Think Big Diversity: Advice for Aspiring #STEM Ph.D. Graduate Students, Postdocs, and Junior Faculty

  1. Now that I am recently finished, I can attest…this is the truth!!! Every single point resonates with me. The only one I haven’t done is journal and I have been thinking about trying it out for a while but now I think I’m inspired to definitely try. Thank for putting on paper (albeit electronic) the words many of us need to read.

    Liked by 1 person

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