Jeff – Ph.D. Candidate in Robotics (P.1)

Jeff grew up in San Jose, California and was raised by a pair of immigrant parents from mainland China. Like many young Asian Americans, he spent much of his youth playing video games, musical instruments, and The System (in order to get into the best college possible, of course). He also participated in robotics club, which he holds in high regard as one of the main factors for him pursuing a career in robotics and engineering. After a brief stint on the east coast at Johns Hopkins University for his BS in Mechanical Engineering (2014), he returned to the Best Coast for his graduate studies at UCLA. He received his MS in Mechanical Engineering/Robotics in 2016, and is currently working on his PhD. Throughout the years, he has had many hobbies including bboying, 3D printing, making online videos, and recently, flying drone freestyle.

1. What has your experience been like as an Asian in America?

In kindergarten, I remember sitting cross-legged in a circle of my young peers and being told by our teacher that: “you are all different, and that’s what makes you all special.” Of course, growing up in a minority dominated part of the US, our class was a regular United Colors ad, so these sorts of comments were probably Diversity 101 in the teachers’ handbook. Still, even though I didn’t make much of this comment at the time, it’s really stuck with me throughout my life.

When I moved to the east coast for college, I was removed from the comforts of a 60% Asian student population and was placed into a scenario where I had to decide on my own identity. It was in college that I really developed a sense of individualism which pushed me away from groups like the Chinese Student Association, Asian fraternities, or even hip-hop choreography groups. However, despite my best efforts to be a unique snowflake of an individual, I’m still pretty Chinese. Luckily, I realized that, like Spock from the planet Vulcan, I too am a child of two worlds, and it is up to me to decide what I want to take from both my Chinese heritage and American upbringing. Today, I happily live a very Western life, but I do my best to maintain many of the important Asian values that were taught to me by my parents and relatives.

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I would consider my journey of self-discovery/identification as an Asian in America to be a fairly generic one. I think that being American is more of an ideology than a particular ‘look’ (in recent decades, at least), and as long as I’m still about that freedom and democracy, it doesn’t really matter what I choose to eat, or whether or not I wear shoes inside. At the end of the day, I’m just trying to find my own path through life, and I’m glad to have had my past Asian and American experiences to help guide me.

2. Why did you decide to get a PhD? How much influence did being Asian or having Asian parents play in your decision? 

Generally, people get a PhD because they are passionate about a particular field of study and they want to try and advance its bleeding edge. This dedication to scientific discovery and academic endeavor usually results in PhD’s becoming professional researchers at companies or labs, or professors at universities. And these days, if you want one of these positions, it is often necessary to have those letters by your name. Also, the process of getting a PhD is an experience itself, and the things you learn along the way are definitely useful later in life.

Reflecting on my past motivations, my main reason for pursuing graduate studies was that I was interested in gaining more expertise in my field (robotics) before putting myself out on the job market. I had not always planned on pursuing a PhD and only really decided in my last year of undergrad. In undergrad, I did not know from the beginning that I wanted to do robotics, and so I only started taking specialized classes near the end of my Bachelors (BS) program. I really enjoyed robotics, and as graduation approached, I realized that I wanted more time and space to explore robotics. So, I weighed my options to do so. I had the option of spending an additional year in order to take more classes and graduate with a Masters (MS). However, many of my mentors (including my faculty advisors and graduate student researchers I worked for) at the time encouraged me to apply to different schools and programs to expose myself to different opportunities and expand my network.

I would say that my parents also had an impact on my decision. Chinese culture values depth of education and holds academicians in great esteem. My parents certainly hold these values, mixed with a dose of “you should do what your heart desires” that they have picked up from living in US now for 30+ years. I was considering the option of finding a job after getting an MS and putting off a PhD until after I had worked for a bit. They made the very astute point that life would only get busier the longer I went through it, so if I was going to go for a PhD at some point I may as well get it right after undergrad when I was less burdened by the responsibilities of life. Deciding to do a PhD is never an easy choice. Ultimately, it is up to you – your interest in the area, your career goals and timeline – but having others weigh in never hurts. I was very fortunate to have mentors and parents who pushed me to consider points that I hadn’t thought of myself, because you don’t know what you don’t know. Also, it is convenient that in most PhD programs, you obtain a Masters first, at which point you can decide whether to continue down the path to a PhD. Right out of undergrad, I did not necessarily have a burning desire to advance the field of robotics; I mostly was looking to gain some more skills and expand my network. However, by the time I had completed my Masters, I had become quite engrossed by many of the grand challenges in the field of robotics. Further, I felt that continuing on to get a PhD would allow me to explore many of the interesting problems that had not yet been solved, or even to try and create a new problem for the field to investigate.

3. What did you do before your PhD program?

I went into a combined MS/PhD program right after getting my BS, so before my PhD program I was still in undergrad. However, for the majority of my time in undergrad, I was usually working in some research lab or other. By the summer of my first year as a mechanical engineering student, I had still not yet locked in a particular concentration, and so I explored broadly based on available opportunities and projects that looked interesting. That summer, I worked in an underwater velocimetry lab doing fluid dynamics research. Although this work was not directly related to robotics, it was still an amazing experience because it taught me how to find solutions to engineering problems under severe constraints, such as figuring out how to fix a high-power laser with only the resources on a 150ft research vessel several miles off the coast of the continental US.

However, by the time I was in the third year of my Bachelors, I landed a spot in a robotics lab working on designing and manufacturing various components and accessories that would be assembled onto the completed systems. I eventually made a name for myself in the robotics lab space as a capable designer and fabricator, and the summer before going to grad school, I helped a professor with fabricating robot hands that would be used in his lab class the following year. By the time I was out of undergrad, I had quite a bit of experience with designing parts for university research labs, but not much experience with anything else. The field of robotics features many different engineering disciplines, but up to that point I had only really experienced the mechanical design and fabrication side of it. I wanted to delve deeper into the control, estimation, and autonomy part of the field, which is what eventually led me to graduate school.

4. What was your process for applying to a PhD program? Did you have a particular strategy?

To be honest, I think my strategy for applying to grad school was pretty simplistic and similar to the one I use when applying to colleges. It focused around: 1) Looking for good schools with highly rated programs; 2) having some normal, reach, and backup schools; 3) asking professors for recommendations early; and things of this nature. However, I think the big difference between looking for graduate and undergraduate programs is that graduate programs will be much more specialized, meaning it is crucial to find a school that has a program or professor which aligns well with what you want to study and work on. In my case, my PhD program is technically in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (that is the department my professor is a part of), but most of the classes I took were related to math, control theory, and computer science. This is in contrast to most undergraduate programs in which there is not a whole lot of variance in what is taught from school to school (for a particular choice of major), so the choice between going to one school or another may be more dependent on factors other than the major program itself. If you have access to experienced mentors (senior graduate students, post-docs, and professors), it can be useful to speak with them about their opinions and thoughts on various graduate schools and programs as well.

Importantly, remember that if you go for a PhD, you’ll be at that school for at least another 4 years, so really do try to find something that you think will interest you for that long. Additionally, I’ll mention that when filling out personal statements and statements of purpose, I think it’s useful to write them as if you’re applying for a job, rather than just another school. This is because the professors who end up reading your statements will probably be looking for past experience and qualifications, not necessarily just that you’re an interesting person with good grades (as in undergrad).

5. How did you study for the GRE? 

I studied for the GRE by reading a couple of ‘Study Guide’ books and taking the practice tests they had. I noticed that I did fine on the math portion, but not so well on the verbal portion. To boost my verbal score, I got a stack of GRE vocabulary flashcards and memorized them. This shot my score up by a significant amount, which says to me that vocab flashcards are still good post-SAT. At the end of the day, I think the GRE is just a slightly more advanced version of the SAT, so if you approach it the same way you approached the SAT you will probably have a similar result. I’ll mention that some of my friends in my engineering program did quite poorly on the verbal portion of the GRE, but aced the math portion and got in. Additionally, if you’re an international student trying to get into a US school, make sure you do well on the TOEFL, because I hear that can have a significant effect on admittance!

6. How did you choose which schools/programs to apply to and the one you are currently attending?

After attending undergrad on the east coast for four years, I wanted to come back to California. This was a big motivating factor in deciding which schools I applied to, and I basically applied to most of the big CA private schools and UC’s. In the end, my final school selection was largely motivated by the opportunity to work with a world-renown robotics professor specializing in legged robotics who had just moved there. I consider myself very fortunate to have found my advisor when I did, because just as I was in need of somewhere to work, he was looking for new grad students to fill out his lab after moving.

When I entered my program, the department had just hired several hot, new robotics faculty members, providing the unique opportunity for new graduate students to join their labs just as they were getting off the ground. Fresh robotics labs typically take a few years to develop the hardware, software, and personnel infrastructure necessary to start producing research, and my peers and I all had the pleasure (and pain) of establishing these systems and getting the lab into the swing of things. The journey of starting up a lab taught my colleagues and me to be more independent and resourceful, and I value being able to have been a part of the school’s robotics program at the ground level.

This path worked out well for what I was looking for and offered a lot of unique experiences. But here are some counterpoints to my experience to consider: 1) If you do not have strong geographic preferences or ties, apply broadly – you never know what opportunities you will find in other parts of the country (or in other countries).  2) Advantages to more established labs are institutional knowledge and infrastructure and resources, which can expedite the onboarding process.

In general, when applying to schools and programs, just try your best and do research (might as well start now, if you’re planning on doing a PhD) to find the program that fits you best. (Note that this does assume you have a decent understanding of yourself, but you can always postpone getting a PhD until later.) It definitely does not hurt to just reach out to grad students and ask about their experience, and if the school is local you can definitely just try and speak with the professor/students at the source.

7. How are you financing your education? Is the cost of an PhD justifiable in your opinion?

My graduate education has been funded in a couple of different ways. In my first year, I was supported by my parents. In my program, not being paid in the first year is pretty common, because you haven’t been able to prove your worth at that point. However, I’ll mention that getting paid is typically something that is dependent on the advisor, so if you can prove your worth to your advisor before entering the program (by having prior job experience, for example), you may have a better chance of getting paid right off the bat. After my first year, I’ve held a mix of Teaching Assistant (TA) positions as well as Graduate Student Researcher (GSR, aka Research Assistant (RA)) positions that pay tuition and provide a stipend.

I think if one has to self-support their PhD, it’s definitely not worth the investment. However, if you can get a TA/RA position within a year or two of entering grad school, you can typically keep finding more of them, and the monetary burden lessens. Alternatively, if you can find a scholarship (shout-outs to NSF GRFP), you can support some self-research for a year or so, and hopefully find a professor who is willing to help you out afterwards. I also think that it’s not really worth it to get a PhD if you already have a stable job and family unless you really want to pivot into being a researcher or professor, because all that time and money invested will likely be a burden on your family.

8. How would you describe your typical day as a PhD student? Is there one?

In reality, PhD programs vary widely based on school, department, advisor, and several other smaller factors. In all cases, getting a PhD involves a lot of sitting at a desk, reading and writing academic papers. This is unavoidable, as it is how the whole ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’ thing works. As a robotics/engineering PhD student, my other work involves mainly writing software, creating CAD models, machining parts, assembling things, soldering electronics, and a whole lot of debugging things. Additionally, our lab’s administrative management is distributed amongst graduate students in the lab, so I have the responsibility of sending group emails, organizing lab meetings, and things of this nature. This all happens in addition to the whole ‘school’ part of getting a PhD, but usually you only need to take classes for a couple of years before you are focusing only on research.

Speaking of research, to graduate with a PhD, it’s not sufficient to just complete classes and pass exams. The main outcome of a PhD is your thesis or dissertation, which should document some contribution you’ve made to the field in which you are pursuing your degree in that is accepted by a group of your peers as a valid contribution. This means that you need to find a topic to research on, do the science, and publish the results to a peer-reviewed journal or conference to see if others in the field agree with your results. This is typically the part that takes 3-4 years to do after you get a master’s degree, and is where most of the misery and despair happens.

9. Pursuing a PhD requires many years of commitment. How do you stay motivated and disciplined to see it through? Does it ever feel like too much school?

Getting a PhD takes a long time, but your experience through it all will really depend on how you approach it, and what you hope to take away from it. In my field (robotics), people say that it takes on average 5.5 years to get a PhD. This is because robotics involves hardware; you can’t just sit at a desk all day running simulations or doing math proofs, you have to make things, and get them to do what you want. I think that in the grand scheme of things, spending 5 or 6 years really refining your skills and knowledge is not the worst investment, but only if that is what you want.

Staying motivated in grad school is difficult, and is the topic of many a late night conversation with my lab mates and peers. Research can be a real roller coaster ride, with long periods of failed experiments occasionally punctuated with spurts of rapid progress. In my experience, I feel like it has been more beneficial to focus less on the end goal and more on the intermediate experiences leading up to the final product. That is, I try and learn as much as I can about my field while I’m here, and not just tunnel vision myself on the sole topic of my thesis. Of course, I feel this way because I don’t have a very specific career path in mind post-graduation; if I did, then maybe the beeline to the end would be the optimal decision.

I don’t actually feel like a PhD is too much school, because you really only partake in the ‘school’ part of doing homework and taking tests for the first couple of years. After that, the focus shifts to doing research, which, in my opinion, is where the true learning happens. I think that even though the ‘school’ stops, the learning never should, and even after graduating I still consider myself a student of life.

10. How do you maintain balance in grad school? What hobbies or activities are you involved in on or off campus?

Finding the balance in grad school can be tough. I think with discipline, one can fit a PhD into the schedule of a typical job, with a bit of overtime every now and then to hit deadlines. However, I’ve definitely had my fair share of not doing much for a couple of weeks, then crunching for the last week before a deadline. However, this sort of speaks to one of the big advantages to getting a PhD (in my opinion): time flexibility. You can choose when to crunch, when to relax, and when to take breaks, so in that sense, you have a lot of authority over how you manage your time, however limited it may be.

I have been involved in a few student organizations while working on my PhD, and have also tried to maintain some hobbies. I’ve been involved with the bboying (aka breaking/breakdancing) group on campus since I got here, and have performed in a couple of showcases. I have also volunteered in some MakerSpaces working on 3D printers and the like. Recently, I have gotten into flying freestyle drones and aerial videography. As one might imagine, 3D printing and drones are somewhat related to my research as they involve ‘tech.’ However, I like to claim that breaking is also relevant to my research, as it involves a lot of physics and dynamics.

Part 2 of Jeff's interview is available here.

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