Jeff – Ph.D. Candidate in Robotics (P.2)

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.

Part 1 of Jeff's interview is available here.

11. How do you think Asians are perceived in graduate school and/or in your program?

In the engineering schools across the US, it seems like Asians (of all flavors) comprise of a large majority of the graduate student population. This is especially true in California, and because there are so many Asians at my school, I feel like we are perceived more as the norm than anything else. Pretty much every undergrad I’ve spoken with has had at least one Asian TA, and they typically describe their TA’s as being very knowledgeable. My school has had a couple of people complaining about Asians in the past, but I think they more represent a very vocal but small minority. I think generally people (faculty, staff, undergrads) understand that Asian grad students are here to stay, so they learn to live and let live.

Outside of California, there are still plenty of Asian grad students. However, it seems like if you leave the US West Coast, there are many more international Asian students (Asians from Asia) and fewer Asian Americans. I feel that Asian international grad students do get somewhat of a bad rap because of their lack of ‘western culture,’ though I feel that in many cases it is undeserved. While some Asian international grad students are just around for the degree, many of them are just looking for a better life in America (eg. my parents), and just about all of them have spent their entire life in a different country and culture, so I think it’s worth cutting them some slack when it comes to learning the culture.

12. What has been your favorite part of being in graduate school? What’s been the biggest mistake you've made? How about the most rewarding moment?

In grad school, I’ve really been able to expand my knowledge and hone my skills. Interestingly, many of the things that I’ve learned aren’t even related to robotics. In my time here, I’ve learned, among other things, how to run a crowdfunding campaign, how to write a grant, and how to manage a team. Being able to experience so many different aspects of working in a ‘robotics group’ has been my favorite part of grad school.

For mistakes, there have been many. However, the biggest mistake I’ve made was probably not doing enough prior work before starting research. Early on in my grad student career, I would skim over a few papers before diving into trying to get something new working, only to discover that it does not work at all, and that I probably would have known this already if I had just spent a little more time on the papers and associated references. At the time I discovered the utility of thoroughly reading papers, I was still getting by with trial and error, which is also a valid approach to learning and research, though perhaps not as efficient.

The second most rewarding experience I’ve had in grad school is probably attending my first big, international conference. Just being able to speak and connect with others who were excited about similar things as me was very motivating, not to mention the transfer of knowledge that happened as well. I definitely recommend grad students to attend international conferences several times in their career, both to network and to learn.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had in grad school was probably qualifying for the autonomous drone racing challenge, AlphaPilot. I sort of entered the competition on a whim, but qualifying really made me feel validated in my choice of being a robotics engineer. Additionally, entering the competition with my team was something that was purely self-motivated, which made us feel even better when we performed well.

13. How have you sought out professors/advisors/mentors?

Depending on the program, you enter the school with or without an advisor. My department assigned me a ‘faculty advisor’ as soon as I was accepted, but that was not the person I eventually ended up working with for my degree. When I approached my actual PhD advisor asking for him to be my advisor, I tried to be blunt and to the point, and I think he appreciated my candid approach. In general, if you’re a grad student, you can just email a professor/drop by their office to make an appointment and they will see you. However, once you have an appointment, I think it is important to prepare something beforehand to show that you have at least put in some effort/thought about what you hope to discuss (perhaps include some of this in the initial email). Then, once you’re in their office, respect their time, as it seems that the professor occupation is one in which time is the scarcest resource.

Finding the right mentor/advisor for you can be difficult, but it usually just boils down to looking through faculty listings online, and talking/networking with your peers. In fact, I once found one of my best mentors after speaking with a friend who I bboyed with who happened to be taking a class in the applied math department. These sort of connections are a little uncommon, but if you actively reach out to faculty and other grad students, they will eventually be able to find someone to help you or at least redirect you to someone who can.

14. What is your thesis? How did you come up with the topic?

My thesis topic is Dynamic Locomotion Development on Compliant, Underactuated, Force-Controlled Robots with Non-Conventional Design (though in reality the title is still subject to change). It’s a bit of a mouthful, but when you study something so specific, you kind of have to be. My topic came about after roughly three years of fiddling around with robots in the lab, trying to find something that ‘worked’ in the sense that it was both functional and sufficiently theoretically motivated. In my field of robotics, a really impactful PhD topic can be very generalizable in theory and practical for many applications, but a more typical topic is just someone’s development on a particular, interesting or unique robot platform, which is basically what my topic is.

Worth noting is that I didn’t come up with my topic until about 3 years into my PhD, which may seem a little crazy, even for current PhD students. However, as mentioned previously, every program is different, and in my case, I spend the first 3 years developing skills and attempting to implement past solutions, thus giving me the necessary background to then attempt something new.

15. What are your plans after graduation?

My current plan after graduating is to find a research/engineering position in the robotics industry, mostly to try and get some financial stability. In the long term, I don’t really have a very directed goal, but I wouldn’t mind becoming something like a project director at NASA, or a research professor at a university. I spent a lot of my youth consuming science/speculative fiction, and this has sort of inspired me to do my part to take humanity into the future I saw in this media. This could mean pushing the cutting edge, or even bringing up places still living in the past through humanitarian and educational efforts. As renowned science fiction author William Gibson once said, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.”

16. How do you define success as a PhD student?

For me, success as a PhD student is defined by how much I learned and developed as a scientist, engineer, and person. When I first entered my program, I honestly did not know much about robotics, and I sort of carried the attitude of just finishing as quickly as possible to get the letters by my name. However, as I went through, I began spending more time on side projects to learn about other aspects of my area, which not only taught me important skills that I can use in the future, but also provided a nice reprieve from the daily grind. As I’m approaching the end, I’m worried less about actually graduating and more about finding something fulfilling and useful that I can contribute my knowledge and skills to. I think that if you can reach this stage (and attitude) in your PhD, you have been successful.

17. What is one thing you would change about graduate school or your PhD program if you were given the power to do so?

My program has provided me with many opportunities to meet and work with great people, to travel, and importantly, to explore a field I am passionate about. Nevertheless, the robotics program at my school is still relatively young, and there are plenty of opportunities for growth. I think if I were able to change one thing, I would add a course that introduces many of the more specific and niche topics in robotics to allow students to then pursue them on their own, and hopefully develop a research topic from them. I remember after finishing the robotics track in my department, I was still fairly unsure of a direction to take for research, and I did not really begin down a particular path until after I spoke with some professors and post-docs about it. However, as with many things in engineering (and life, for that matter), I don’t think there is a single change that would suddenly perfect the program. Rather, it is several subtle, incremental/iterative changes over time that would probably provide the most benefit.

18. What advice would you give someone who is seriously considering getting a PhD? Who is on the fence? How about someone who just started a PhD program?

If you are seriously considering getting a PhD because you want to be a researcher/professor, I would say go for it. If you are on the fence, I would say get a masters first or find a job, then reassess how you feel about the PhD. If you’ve just started a PhD, you should probably finish up this interview and then go read papers (And apply to the NSF GRFP if you haven’t already)!

I think I went into pretty good detail in the previous questions about my thoughts and advice on getting a PhD. To recap some of the important points:

  • To be a research professor or ‘Principal Investigator’ (head researcher) at a lab/company, you need a PhD just to get your foot in the door.
  • Do your research when applying to programs; you’ll only be doing more of that if you are accepted.
  • Approach applying for a PhD more like a job application than a college application.
  • While you’re getting a PhD, you’ll be poor in money, but have a lot of flexibility in scheduling your time.
  • Be sure to apply for fellowships like the NSF GRFP early on in your PhD.
  • Find other people (at conferences, on forums, at different schools, for example) who are passionate about your field to stay motivated in your PhD.
  • Seek advice and mentors by networking at your school and other places.
  • Typical day to day PhD life is a slog/grind, and is only occasionally accentuated by brief moments of elation when you get a good result.
  • Read papers early and often!
  • You don’t need a PhD to be a highly qualified professional in your field; the PhD just gives you the ‘Doctor’ title as well as the credentials to teach and lead research.

19. If you could turn back time, would you still choose to go to graduate school?

Whether or not I would choose to get a PhD again (I would probably get a masters regardless of timeline) would depend on how far back I could turn back time. If I were to turn back to right after getting my masters, I would probably still get it, since I was already in a lab and felt engaged in what I was doing. If I were to turn back to right after undergrad, I would probably still get it, because it was the best option for giving myself the time and space to explore a field to which I was a relative latecomer. I think I would have to go all the way back to before I started undergrad in order for the timelines to diverge. Looking back to when I started undergrad, I was not very sure about what I wanted to do in the long term, so I worked in labs where I thought the work was interesting, even if the end research goals were not necessarily my ultimate passion. It wasn’t until my third year that I finally rekindled my love of robotics from high school (remember, robotics club) with a mechatronics class, and that was when I really started to invest time in becoming more proficient in robotics. If I could turn back time to when I was just starting undergrad, I suppose I could have tried to dip into robotics right away, and then attempted to find an industry internship to hone my skills. However, this is a fairly tricky question because you can never know the counterfactual, and at the end of the day I believe that the holistic experience gained from one particular path through life isn’t any more or less valuable than that gained from another. I guess what that means is, unless I could keep the memory of what I’ve experienced up to this point when I go back in time, I probably wouldn’t bother.

20. What are you currently reading? What book has been the most impactful on your PhD program or life?

Unfortunately, most of my daily reading involves research papers and technical reports, and I haven’t had a chance to read through a novel in quite some time (Also, to be honest, I was never a huge reader growing up). However, probably the book with the most impact on my life was the (post) cyberpunk classic, Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. The book follows Hiro Protagonist (very on the nose) and Yours Truly (the female MC) on their journey through Neal Stephenson’s awesomely dystopian (and depressingly accurate) vision of the future. With robotic pizza-delivery Lamborghinis, auto-stabilizing skateboards, nuclear powered dog railguns, and a side of Sumerian mythology, computer science, and the crushing oppression of a corporate autocracy, what’s not to love!

21. Anything else you'd like to share?

I think one should be wary about becoming overly cynical and jaded when getting a PhD. That is to say, many people I know who started off getting a PhD because they wanted to advance science are now just sort of doing whatever they can to graduate and find a job. Unfortunately, the fact is that not everyone who goes in to get a PhD can come out with a groundbreaking discovery, but that’s fine, because the journey itself can provide a lot of opportunity and growth. Furthermore, one of the main reasons for doing academic research which isn’t necessarily going to change the world now is to solve some problem early so that it can be quickly and readily implemented later.

Another thing to consider when reading through my answers is that I’m a (filthy) millennial. What I mean is that I am more into things for the experience, rather than for the actual end product. In many cases, I’ll do something not because I want to do it, but because I want to experience having done it. In the case of getting a PhD, I definitely do want the PhD after all is said and done, but I also value all the experiences I’ve had along the way. As a final closing thought, I want to mention that the narrative I’m describing is mainly for people doing STEM PhD’s. I’m not very familiar with the PhD process in the humanities fields, so take everything I say with a grain of salt (or depending on how you feel, maybe a cup of saline)!


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