Gary - Ph.D. Candidate in Aerospace Engineering

Gary is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in Aerospace Engineering.

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

I grew up in Diamond Bar which is infamous for being an Asian hub with nothing to do but plenty to eat. My childhood was probably as stereotypical American Born Chinese (ABC) as it gets: speaking English at home while parents responded in Chinese, eating Asian food in 626/909, joining all the STEM clubs in high school, and so on. Even after going to college at Berkeley, the environment was still more or less the same since the Asian population there was quite large. I’m pretty happy with the Asian American culture I grew up with and I’m definitely thankful for my immigrant parents who enabled me to live the life that I have.

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

I first knew I wanted to get a PhD when I started my undergrad at Berkeley. It’s not that I was 100% set on becoming a professor or a researcher, but I knew that getting a PhD would help me in the long run and be worth the time. I figured that the diverse skillset you get through 5-6 years of graduate training would translate well into any career path I ended up going down, whether it be research, teaching, or even management. I don’t think being Asian or having Asian parents influenced that much. My dad does have a PhD in remote sensing, but he never tried to convince me to get one. I just kind of decided by myself one day as a clueless freshman in college.

3. What did you do before your PhD program?

I went directly to start research at UCLA the week after graduating from Berkeley. My professor hooked me up with an internship-collaboration with the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab which I thought was a super lucky opportunity at the time. In hindsight, I should’ve taken a break that summer since I eventually burned out my first year of grad school.

4. What was your strategy to get into your PhD program?

When I applied to PhD programs, I knew exactly what type of research I wanted to work on: plasma rocket research and development. Since it’s such a small field, I only applied to schools that had the relevant labs. I emailed every professor of the labs I wanted to work for and specified in my applications that I only wanted to work in those labs. This definitely made my acceptance/rejection more black-and-white than applying generally, but I was only willing to commit to a 6-year thesis for something I was strongly interested in.

This approach isn’t for everyone. I had a very specific goal in a very specific field. The average PhD applicant might know generally what they want to work on, but would be satisfied just getting into a highly ranked school. In that case, it might be better to apply more broadly and keep options open at every school.

5. How did you study for the GRE?

I studied from a GRE textbook for a few weeks. I figured the GRE for aerospace engineering grad schools was more of a “sanity check” than a deciding factor so I just made sure to get a sufficiently high scores for the schools I wanted to get into.

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

I was lucky to receive a 2-year fellowship from my department and subsequently the 3-year NDSEG fellowship. These were enough to cover all my expenses and then some, but it’s obviously nothing compared to a real job.

In terms of ROI, a PhD is definitely not worth it. The real value of the PhD is in the intangibles: the independent research experience, the faculty-student relationship, the time to study a challenging problem in depth, interaction with similarly-minded colleagues, mentoring undergrads, project management, and plenty more. The type of growth you experience during a PhD is unique. As long as you survive, you’ll definitely come out stronger with a unique skillset that only a PhD can provide. However, the time investment and certain challenges can be overwhelming for some. Without a minimum degree of motivation and aptitude, I would say, “quit while you still can”.    

7. How would you describe your PhD program to someone with no idea? What’s a typical day like for you? Is there one?

A PhD is like a job where you’re paid to learn. You’re essentially working full-time (usually more than full-time) and getting paid a minimal salary, but you have the luxury to grow as a researcher and study research problems that a company might never fund you for.

8. Pursuing a PhD requires many years of commitment. What are your thoughts on how long it takes? How do you stay motivated throughout?

I think PhD programs usually take much longer than they should (coming from me starting my 6th year). Part of that is due to the fact that a PhD is unstructured, but that may be intended. Maybe every PhD student is supposed to wander around taking classes and publishing papers until they somehow graduate. I do know some students with advisors that have a defined path for graduation in 4-5 years (which is fast), but that totally depends on the advisor.

People stay motivated in different ways. Some get infatuated by the research and power through the stress and depression. Others (like me) will find external outlets like learning new hobbies (snowboarding, mountaineering) or hanging out with friends. I’d say over half of the time it feels like too much school. You just get tired of taking classes and finals and doing research even though that’s a new aspect. When that happens, trying a different project or doing an internship helps with regaining that motivation.

9. How do you maintain balance in graduate school?

You maintain balance by figuring out how bad things get when they’re unbalanced. I started out focusing on classes and research and spending very little time doing other things. The stress and depression eventually creep up on you and most people realize it’s not sustainable. I started to volunteer occasionally, teaching kids in Chinatown, and joining a social club. I stopped going eventually since research began to take over, but I did pick up new hobbies and passions.

When I had time, I went snowboarding and hiking. Something for winter, something for summer. My labmates played a big role in that. I’d say these hobbies are unrelated to my education since that was intentional. However, I did also apply to do things outside of school that were related. In 2017, I pitched an idea for TEDxUCLA and was selected to give a 9 minute talk. That was a unique experience since I’d never done public speaking in front of so many people (> 1,000), but it was on space propulsion which was basically what I worked on all the time.

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

My favorite part of grad school is the freedom to do the research you would never be allowed to do at a company. We would work on problems that have no financial purpose, but are fascinating to the scientific community.

The biggest mistake I’ve made was trying to do too much at one time. Work-life balance, or even work-and-more-work balance, is tricky in grad school since it’s easy to take on too much. When I first entered grad school, I joined STEM volunteering clubs, took a full load of classes, and dedicated remaining time to research. Weekends would be spent on homework. There was very little time to just do nothing and relax. I feel like this schedule might work for some people, but I eventually burnt out and had to take a few weeks to recover.

Having my professors tell me the work I’m doing has the potential to make an incredible impact was the most rewarding moment. Oftentimes, research can feel meaningless and the work you do day-to-day can lead nowhere for months at a time. When you finally present your research to esteemed researchers in the field and they tell you your work is impactful, that satisfaction feels incredible.

11. How do you find advisors/mentors? What has worked best for you in terms of approaching faculty?

First, I limited my list of potential advisers based on the labs that had my research topic of interest. Since my field is relatively small and most schools only had only one such lab, the choice was easy.

In terms of finding mentorship outside of your primary advisor, I found it easy to just send an email. If they’re busy, they won’t meet with you, but more likely than not, they’ll be interested in having a discussion to provide advice, research or otherwise.

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

My thesis topic is based on studying the plasma-material interactions in plasma thrusters for space travel. Plasma thrusters are devices that create plasma, an ionized gas composed of electrically charged ions and electrons, that can be accelerated to produce thrust for a spacecraft. My first year, I started out working on a random project, i.e. building some component for a diagnostic, and eventually ended up taking over most of the plasma-material interactions experiments. I did switch topics once or twice to completely different things (a long story), but I ended up brainstorming a suitable idea with my advisor for the final topic. The idea eventually comes after lots of pain and indecision.

13. What are your plans after graduation?

I plan on working in the space industry. The specific job, I have no idea. Over the many years of grad school, I realized that academia is not for me and my passion lies with commercial space exploration. 

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

That’s a funny question since “success” is a key definition for space missions. Success for a space mission could mean “landing a human on Mars and returning him/her to Earth with a sample” or it could even mean “landing a human on Mars …” and maybe not returning him/her. Personally, I define success in a PhD program as graduating with experiences that will get you where you want to be. You don’t have to publish papers in Nature or invent an anti-matter rocket to be successful. As long as you can get the job you want with the skills you’ve acquired during the PhD, I think you can call yourself a success.

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

I would change the unstructured nature of the PhD program. In general, programs have certain milestones for grad students to hit: preliminary exams, prospectus exams, and the dissertation defense. There could be years of time between each of these dates, and there’s no oversight to enforce a shorter graduation time. The end result is many students graduating after 6 years or more when it could’ve been accomplished in say 5. Some might say the PhD should be unstructured since that what research is, but I still think 10-year PhDs shouldn’t be something that’s allowed to happen.

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

To those who are considering a PhD, I would think about how much you want a PhD and why you want it. If you don’t think you want it, you probably shouldn’t get one since you’re way more likely to drop out midway. Even students that think they want a PhD can end up dropping out for various reasons. The PhD program is incredibly demanding in more ways than you can imagine; you’ll need to be passionate about the work you’re doing and have the work ethic needed to survive 4-6 years to get that piece of paper that says PhD.

If you’re on the fence, I recommend getting a job in the industry. If you work an entry-level job, this allows you to experience the type of job you would do as a bachelors. Are you bored? Are you challenged? Is getting a promotion hard because your competitors have advanced degrees? If yes, you might find that strong motivation that’ll allow you to complete a PhD program.

To someone who just started the PhD, good luck. It’s not going to be easy. You’re going to face challenges: lack of funding, bad advisors, loss in direction, depression, the list goes on. Find the support you need to get through it. Because when you do, you’ll emerge with a unique skillset that will open new doors you never had access to before. If you enrolled in the PhD for the right reasons, you’ll likely find the dream career you were looking for (eventually).

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

100%. I wouldn’t necessarily go straight from undergrad to grad school. Maybe do a gap year and work in the space industry first. However, ultimately, I think grad school is a must for me it exposed me to a creative, challenging, and open-ended environment that I would probably not get from just working right out of my undergrad. 

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

The Space Barons by Christian Davenport. It covers the big players of the modern space race: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and others. “New Space”, as we now call it, is being led by billionaire entrepreneurs that are overcoming the traditional methods of big defense juggernauts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. It’s not only bringing more excitement to the field, but also making access to space cheaper for everyone. I’d say this book is reinvigorating my excitement for space after being in a PhD program for so long. I can’t wait to graduate and participate. There’s so much to be done; going back to the moon and then to Mars!


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