Thursday, July 18, 2013

How to Survive as an Engineering PhD Student: Tips to Finish your Degree

The life of a PhD student is very difficult and taxing at times. You are asked to put a lot of effort into your research (i.e., work), and the pay is often very low compared to what engineers in industry are paid. You're also very busy doing research, studying, and writing papers. The rewards, however, are potentially great. For me, that's why I go through with all of this and refuse to give up. I believe that there will be many opportunities available to me after I graduate, as I will be recognized as an expert in my field. In this post, I want to share with you a few tips on getting through your engineering PhD program, so you can get through it and earn your prestigious degree.

Tip # 1: Pass your qualifying exam!

I can't stress how important it is for you to pass your qualifying exam. If you fail it too many times, all of your efforts will be for nothing because you will be kicked out of your PhD program. Many advisors do not put much time and effort into students who have not passed their quals yet, as those students have not proven themselves capable of performing quality engineering research. Once you pass your quals, however, advisors tend to be more willing to invest in you as a PhD candidate. I've written posts with tips on passing your qualifying exam in the past. If you are preparing for your quals, I highly suggest that you read them here and here.

Tip #2: Read, read read!

There are several stages in performing research, and you will follow through all of these steps as a PhD student. The first step that you must take is to read as many papers and books related to your research as you possibly can. Your advisor is a good resource for information when you begin your PhD, as he/she can suggest introductory books related to your engineering research. However, this is a step that you'll actually repeat over and over in your engineering research. You will get to a point where your advisor is either unable or unwilling to tell you what you should read. What do you do then?

My advice to you is to think like a researcher. Do searches on Google Scholar for general information. However, I've found Google Scholar to be too general at times. Hence, I tend to search under the professional group most related to my field of engineering research. In my case, I use IEEE Xplore because I am an Electrical and Computer Engineer, and IEEE has conference and transaction papers most related to my research field. Your search engine of choice may be different. If you don't know which professional group published papers most related to your research field, ask your advisor. Your advisor will steer you in the correct direction.

Reading papers and books has several advantages:

  1. You become more knowledgable in your field of engineering research.
  2. You learn what others have already done and what problems have not been solved.
  3. You pick up on general paper writing techniques, as you become very familiar how authors frame their papers.
  4. You quickly learn what research you would be interested in, as you read the interesting articles with more attention.
  5. Your mind begins asking scientific questions: What assumptions did the authors make? Why did they choose complicated XYZ approach over the simple ABC approach? Why did they not include method EFG which has been shown to be effective? And so forth...
The more papers and books you read, the better you will become at filtering out the good reads from the bad reads. You'll also begin to recognize which authors are authorities in your research field and read their publications in order to advance your own personal knowledge related to your research.

Tip # 3: Schedule weekly meetings with your PhD advisor

Your PhD advisor is a very busy person. Chances are that your PhD advisor has several other PhD students as well as his/her own research projects. If your advisor is tenure track and has not achieved tenure, he will be under a lot of pressure to publish and to get external funding. As such, you may not always be your advisor's number one priority. However, you are still a high priority, as your PhD advisor wants to see you succeed and finish your PhD. For this reason, it's important that you schedule weekly meetings with your advisor, so you can keep him/her updated on your research, and your advisor can give you meaningful guidance.

When you have your weekly meetings, you should create a one page PowerPoint slide with a few bullet points. Each bullet point expresses a topic that you wish to discuss with your PhD advisor. Your slidedeck can be have than one slide. However, the rule is to keep the discussion topics limited to the first slide. If you create additional slides, save them for more detailed information related to your discussion topics. I sometimes include one or two additional slides showing test result graphs, or I might include a slide that has an outline for a potential paper. I only add the additional slides when needed, as I do not want to overload my PhD advisor with too much information. Remember KISS (Keep it Short and Simple), and you will cover the most important and current topics related to your research.

Tip # 4: Make friends and discuss your research with other PhD students

Humans tend to be social creatures. Granted, some people are better at socializing than others, and engineers can be introverts. However, it is very important that you make friends and discuss your research (and life) with them. Not only will your classmates be your peers after you graduate, they will help you survive your engineering PhD program. My friends helped me study for and pass my qualifying exam. I also got good engineering tips from them, and they gave me advice on dealing with various professors. In addition, I can complain to my friends when I feel unhappy with the PhD program for whatever reason, and they give me advice that helps me cope and get through the tough times. Furthermore, I can share the good times with them too, and I find that to be great because I love sharing my successes with my friends because they encourage me to keep succeeding.

Whatever stage of your engineering PhD program you are in, remember that you can finish your degree. Although a PhD degree is very difficult, earning your PhD degree is not impossible. After all, your PhD advisor(s) and all of your professors got through their PhD programs. They may not show it now, but I can guarantee you that they had just as difficult a time earning their degrees back then as you are now. If it was impossible for them to earn their PhD degrees, they would certainly not be professors.


Jonathan Becker
ECE PhD Candidate
Carnegie Mellon University

Students from around the world pursue PhD degrees. They all have difficult
times with their degrees, so you are not alone!