Category Archives: Grad School

Meet the MITEI External Advisory Board

With my advisor Vladimir and former U.S. Secretary of State/Treasury/Everything George Shultz

With my advisor Vladimir and former U.S. Secretary of State/Treasury/everything George Shultz

I gave a talk last week that made me a bit nervous.

The audience? The External Advisory Board of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI). The EAB deeply influences MIT’s energy research direction and represents a large fraction of research funding on campus. It also happens to have on it some of the more distinguished people and fancy titles in the world of energy and climate, including former members of Congress, ex-Secretaries of State/Energy/etc., heads of national organizations, VCs, oil and gas executives, and a couple Nobel laureates for good measure.

Yep. I was a bit nervous.

This was an unusual opportunity. I was invited to give a 15-minute talk on solar photovoltaic technology as a member of the MIT Future of Solar Energy Study panel. The Solar Study is the latest of a series of MITEI-sponsored “Future of ____” reports meant to inform the public and guide policymakers in D.C. on the current status and future trajectory of leading energy technologies. The report won’t be ready until the end of the year (fingers crossed), but naturally the EAB wanted to hear all the juicy details firsthand.

Given the audience, I was expecting to be regularly interrupted and thoroughly questioned, especially by our friends from Shell and Saudi Aramco. I was mistaken. My talk went smoothly, no one interrupted, only a couple people fell asleep, and several questions during the panel sparked interesting conversations. No sweat.

That evening, the EAB and all of the speakers ended up at President Reif’s house for dinner. A few highlights: (1) Kerry Emanuel gave a talk about the science of climate change. (2) My advisor Vladimir introduced me to George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State (during the Reagan administration) and current Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford—93 years old and still going strong. (3) Dinner was delicious.

What a day.

***After the panel, I was chatting with one of the board members, Frances Beinecke (NRDC president), and found out that she marched in the People’s Climate March! Awesome.

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Googling grad students

I googled “grad student” along with a number of different search terms. Here are the results, scientifically speaking:

Google grad student

The lesson here isn’t that you shouldn’t go to grad school… Just make sure you always use a log scale.

Edit (20130903): This plot was featured on PhD Comics!

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Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I think grad school works the same way.

E.L. Doctorow on writing a novel

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12 Burnout Prevention Tips from MIT

The MIT Engineers. How creative.

I ran across these “MIT Burnout Prevention and Recovery Tips” the other day:

1) STOP DENYING. Listen to the wisdom of your body. Begin to freely admit the stresses and pressures which have manifested physically, mentally, or emotionally.
  • MIT VIEW: Work until the physical pain forces you into unconsciousness.

2) AVOID ISOLATION. Don’t do everything alone! Develop or renew intimacies with friends and loved ones. Closeness not only brings new insights, but also is anathema to agitation and depression.

  • MIT VIEW: Shut your office door and lock it from the inside so no one will distract you. They’re just trying to hurt your productivity.

3) CHANGE YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES. If your job, your relationship, a situation, or a person is dragging you under, try to alter your circumstance, or if necessary, leave.

  • MIT VIEW: If you feel something is dragging you down, suppress these thoughts. This is a weakness. Drink more coffee.

4) DIMINISH INTENSITY IN YOUR LIFE. Pinpoint those areas or aspects which summon up the most concentrated intensity and work toward alleviating that pressure.

  • MIT VIEW: Increase intensity. Maximum intensity = maximum productivity. If you find yourself relaxed and with your mind wandering, you are probably having a detrimental effect on the recovery rate.

5) STOP OVERNURTURING. If you routinely take on other people’s problems and responsibilities, learn to gracefully disengage. Try to get some nurturing for yourself.

  • MIT VIEW: Always attempt to do everything. You ARE responsible for it all. Perhaps you haven’t thoroughly read your job description.

6) LEARN TO SAY “NO”. You’ll help diminish intensity by speaking up for yourself. This means refusing additional requests or demands on your time or emotions.

  • MIT VIEW: Never say no to anything. It shows weakness, and lowers the research volume. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do at midnight.

7) BEGIN TO BACK OFF AND DETACH. Learn to delegate, not only at work, but also at home and with friends. In this case, detachment means rescuing yourself for yourself.

  • MIT VIEW: Delegating is a sign of weakness. If you want it done right, do it yourself (see #5).

8) REASSESS YOUR VALUES. Try to sort out the meaningful values from the temporary and fleeting, the essential from the nonessential. You’ll conserve energy and time, and begin to feel more centered.

  • MIT VIEW: Stop thinking about your own problems. This is selfish. If your values change, we will make an announcement at the Corporation meeting. Until then, if someone calls you and questions your priorities, tell them that you are unable to comment on this and give them the number for Community and Government Relations. It will be taken care of.

9) LEARN TO PACE YOURSELF. Try to take life in moderation. You only have so much energy available. Ascertain what is wanted and needed in your life, then begin to balance work with love, pleasure, and relaxation.

  • MIT VIEW: A balanced life is a myth perpetuated by liberal arts schools. Don’t be a fool: the only thing that matters is work and productivity.

10) TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY. Don’t skip meals, abuse yourself with rigid diets, disregard your need for sleep, or break the doctor appointments. Take care of yourself nutritionally.

  • MIT VIEW: Your body serves your mind, your mind serves the Institute. Push the mind and the body will follow. Drink Mountain Dew.

11) DIMINISH WORRY AND ANXIETY. Try to keep superstitious worrying to a minimum – it changes nothing. You’ll have a better grip on your situation if you spend less time worrying and more time taking care of your real needs.

  • MIT VIEW: If you’re not worrying about work, you must not be very committed to it. We’ll find someone who is.

12) KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. Begin to bring job and happy moments into your life. Very few people suffer burnout when they’re having fun.

  • MIT VIEW: So you think your work is funny? We’ll discuss this with your director on Friday, at 7:00PM!

***Also… wow.

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Who cares about science?

Too bad.

One of the most self-damning flaws of scientific research is that, except in the rarest of cases, you don’t get to see the true impact of your current work until much, much later in life. Still. How awesome would it be to be Tim Berners-Lee right now? “I invented the Internet.” Or Thomas Edison: “I invented the light bulb.” Or Freud: “I invented sexy thoughts.”

Take Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web. Back in 1989, computers were clunky, command-line interfaces that couldn’t talk to each other, at least not in any significant way. Sir Tim Berners-Lee changed that. As a young scientist at CERN, he saw an opportunity to combine existing computer networking protocols—the Internet—with the newfangled concept of hypertext, and out popped the World Wide Web—the “Internet.” Now, at age 56, Berners-Lee gets industry awards, a knighthood, honorary doctorates left and right—but not enough to inspire the masses. Those who lack in age rarely recognize their deficiency, and the promise of unlimited speaking engagements at universities and conferences 20 years down the line won’t push today’s teenagers from TVs to test tubes. Maybe the prospect of being knighted will do the trick. But I doubt it. If professions were subject to natural selection, researchers would be extinct, for an ironic lack of reproducibility.

Other technical people are generally a bit quicker than the public to catch on to the significance of a scientific breakthrough—surprise—but even so, it’s only within the scientific community—a tiny fraction of it at that—that any such recognition resonates. Maybe that’s why relatively few young Americans today are excited about research. They don’t care about recognition from the scientific community—why should they? From the outside looking in, the community is small, quirky, and rarely produces a viral YouTube video or Top 10 hit.

While science only brings forever-delayed gratification, working at Apple, Google, or Intel lets you to point to an iPhone or new search feature or computer and say “I created that”—sure, with 100 other people, but what of it? Siri’s still pretty damn cool. Our current Internet-dominated era has that advantage, twofold: Anyone can learn to program and create an iPhone app or website—low barrier to creation—and anyone can find their work going viral via YouTube or Reddit—low barrier to recognition. It’s a simple feedback cycle—create, be recognized for creation—and few can resist its temptations. It’s hard to overstate how good it feels to be able to say “I created that”—for many people, it makes all the hard work worth it. That’s what drives them to work late nights and weekends. That’s what makes them say, “I love my job!” and truly mean it.

But imagine going to Google to work on Android, then finding out after a year on the job that it won’t be released for 20 more years, and even then with only 10% probability. You’ll have to wait two decades before anyone knows what the hell you’re talking about: “Hold on… You make androids? Is that ethical?” Until then, it’s all blank stares and polite smiles and changed subjects. I mean, it sure does look promising, but can I get it on Amazon?

Read any popular science article: “Scientists warned, ‘This is an extremely promising breakthrough, but it’s at least 5-10 years away from commercial deployment'” (see ScienceDaily or MIT’s Technology Review for more egregious real-world examples). And while it may be honest science journalism, Teenage Me hears that and thinks, “10 years—that’s half my life! Where did I put that Google offer letter?” That’s the burden of the scientific profession, the psychological barrier to entry that pushes many away from research careers, perhaps after a first unfulfilling undergrad research experience where feedback was lacking and progress was uncertain.

So what can we do about it?

Universities can encourage faculty and graduate students to take extended leave from their home institutions to work in the private sector, to start companies, to get involved in public policy. Research institutions can raise salaries for research scientists and other technical staff. Researchers can eradicate the academic superiority complex.

Government can fund more research, more education, more graduate and postdoctoral fellowships. Forward-thinking politicians can create more research jobs that don’t require a PhD.

The rest of us can learn some science—not Alka-Seltzer volcanoes and Coke-and-Mentos science, but real-world stuff: climate change, battery technology, the power grid, the Internet, DNA, neuroscience, medical imaging, computer hardware, energy conversion, programming, electric cars, wireless communications. We can figure out how the world around us works. It’s not magic, and when more than just technology creators understand how stuff works—when technology users get it too—innovative ideas emerge organically.

Science seems to be content with enabling, not creating, future technology. And that’s OK—the future is built on scientific progress. But the engineer in me can’t accept that. As a researcher in semiconductor devices, I straddle physics and chemistry and materials science and electrical engineering, and I can’t possibly divorce the science from the applications and still stay motivated enough to keep working on it. The thought of spending my life working on something that will never see the light of day—literally—terrifies me, and not a single day passes in which I don’t think about how I can best contribute—not just to my field, as is the nominal goal of the PhD, but to our daily lives.

Although the ivy has receded, particularly at startup-friendly institutions like Stanford and Berkeley and MIT, there’s still an unacceptably large divide between academic research and industry, between basic science and applied technology. We need researchers who are as comfortable talking to politicians and electricians and farmers as to colleagues and science reporters and the ever vague and ill-defined “general public.” We need researchers who can and will bring to market the incredible world-changing potential that every journal paper promises. And we need non-researchers—entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians—who innovate like researchers: logically, relentlessly, radically.

That could be you.

When you think about who you want to be when you grow up, imagine telling your kids in 30 years: “I made you AND the world you live in.” Take that, Freud.

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Letter to Congress

Take a second to sign this letter to Congress in support of continued funding for scientific research. It’s worth it.



To: The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

Dear Member:

America’s science and engineering graduate students need your help. Our country is on the precipice: with US finances in a desperate position, upcoming decisions will determine the shape of our nation for decades to come. We urge you to seek common ground in Congress to preserve the indispensable investments in science and engineering research that will drive our nation’s prosperity for generations. We urge you to avoid any cuts in federally funded research.

We could reiterate that scientific progress and technological innovation have kept the US at the head of the global economy for over half a century. We could remind you that rapid changes in health technology, information security, globalization, communications, artificial intelligence, and advanced materials make scientific and technological progress more critical than ever. We could warn you that our global competitors are ramping up investments in research and development, inspired by our own rise to economic superpower. But all this is well established[1][2][3][4][5][6]. Instead, we’d like to discuss a crucial element of research funding that is often overlooked: human capital.

Over half a million graduate students and postdoctoral associates study science and engineering in the US[7]. These researchers form the bedrock labor force of the world’s best university R&D community. The value of these graduate students is not limited to the experiments they run and the papers they publish. Researchers in science and engineering learn to develop and implement long-term strategies, monitor progress, adapt to unexpected findings, evaluate their work and others’, collaborate across disciplines, acquire new skills, and communicate to a wide audience. Scientists and engineers don’t just get good jobs; they create good jobs, enabling their employers to produce the innovative products and services that drive our economic growth. Every science and engineering graduate represents a high-return investment in human capital, one impossible without federal support.

Federal research funding is essential to graduate education because research is our education. Over 60% of university research is federally funded; private industry, although it dominates the development stage, accounts for only 6% of university research[8]. America must remain competitive in the global economy, and we cannot hope to do that by paying the lowest wages. We will never win a race to the bottom. Instead, we must innovate, and train the next generation of innovators. Innovation drives 60% of US growth[9]. Economists estimate that if our economy grew just half a percent faster than forecast for 20 years, the country would face half the deficit cutting it faces today[10].

Does federal research funding promote innovative technology and groundbreaking scientific progress? Absolutely. It also provides our economy with the most versatile, skilled, motivated, and creative workers in the world. We graduate students understand the severity of the fiscal crisis facing our country. Our sleeves are rolled up; we’re ready to be part of the solution. But we need your help. Congress’s goal in controlling our deficit is to protect America’s future prosperity; healthy federal research funding is essential to that prosperity. In the difficult months ahead, we ask you to look to the future and protect our crucial investments in R&D.


America’s Science and Engineering Graduate Students

[1] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm

[2] National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5

[3] National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

[4] American Association for the Advancement of Science: The US Research and Development Investment

[5] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010

[6] American Association for the Advancement of Science et al.: Letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction

[7] National Science Foundation: Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering.

[8] National Science Foundation: Science and Engineering Indicators: 2010, page 5-14

[9] Robert M. Solow (Prof. of Economics, MIT), Growth Theory, An Exposition (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, Oxford, 2nd edition 2000), pp. ix-xxvi (Nobel Prize Lecture, Dec. 8, 1987)

[10] David Leonhardt, “One Way to Trim the Debt, Cultivate Growth”, NY Times, Nov. 10, 2010 (see also work by economists Alan Auerbach and William Gale)

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Quora: Going to grad school in engineering

I was asked to answer a question on Quora about grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—presumably because I’m going to grad school and preparing for a career in photovoltaics and device engineering—and I thought the question and answer might be helpful for those considering going to grad school in engineering.

Here’s the question and context:

How do I choose a graduate program and prepare for a career in solid-state device engineering?

I have a B. Sc. in Electrical Engineering and I would like to work with photovoltaics / solid state device physics. My undergraduate degree is not quite enough to let me work in that field outright. So I’m looking to do a graduate degree.

I applied for a 2-year M. Sc. in Physics program and I was assessed for 2 years’ worth of bridging subjects, for a total of 4 years of study. I think that 4 years is quite a long time. The good thing is that I’ve been talking to a professor who does condensed matter physics and photovoltaics and he’s willing to let me join his group.

On the other hand, I have an option to do a 2-year M. Sc. in EE in the field of Microelectronics or Power Electronics. Which one will be a good way to bridge into photovoltaics?

At this university, the Physics department is the more prolific publisher of research output, both locally and internationally. Not that I’m super rich (or else I wouldn’t be asking this question), let’s take the issue of finances out of the equation. Let’s focus on the time investment (I’m 25) and academic learning benefits.

Time-wise, I’m inclined towards EE; but personally, Physics is more appealing to me. Short term, I’d like to know (with an M. Sc. in Physics) if I can compete with microelectronics engineers for solid state device engineering jobs. Long term, I’d like to do a PhD (for which I’ll need publications to get into a program) in photovoltaics. My professional outlook right after finishing my M. Sc. is that I’ll need to work for a while first before I can proceed to do my PhD. An industry job is preferable since it usually pays more. On the subject of publications, I will have achieved that during my stint in the M. Sc. program.

Conversely, I think that doing the Microelectronics track would let me focus with just the necessary training for solid state device physics and do away with the unnecessary physics topics. I would also have a wider range of career choices, not just in photovoltaics.

What are your thought processes when faced with a dilemma like this? What other factors do you consider?

And here’s my answer:

Simple answer: Go with EE.

Let me explain.

Consider these questions:

“Do I want to go to grad school?”

For you, the answer is clearly “Yes.” But if it’s not 100% clear, stop now and think hard.

“Masters or PhD?”

It sounds like you want to pursue a masters degree now and a PhD eventually. Keep that in mind.

“Do I want to go into industry or academia?”

When you’re deciding whether and where to go to grad school, pondering the industry vs. academia fork in the road will guide your decision and give you a lot of insight into your own ambitions. If you want to go the academic route, I strongly suggest pursuing a PhD as soon as possible—jointly with or immediately after your MSc. But from your question, it sounds like you’re preparing for an industry career in device engineering rather than academic research.

“Where do I want to be in 10 years?”

Suppose in a decade from now you want to be doing innovative engineering work in the photovoltaics or microelectronics industry.

How do I get there?”

Work backwards.

  • How many years of industry experience do I need before I can reach my goal? As many as possible. It can take the better part of a year to get acclimated and truly integrated in a new work environment, be it company or school, and it’s hard to innovate before you know the existing system and the current state of the art.
  • What academic background do I need? At least a couple terms of related engineering coursework beyond the BSc level. Preferably the experience with cutting-edge research that accompanies PhD-level work in any science or engineering discipline.
  • How long will it take to get a PhD? Around four years (after the MSc).
  • How long will it take to get a MSc? Two to four years, in your case.

Simple math gives you 10 – 4 – (2 to 4) = AMAP (as many as possible).

Simple math tells you to choose the 2-year masters program in EE.

“Am I committed to getting a PhD?”

If there’s a chance that you might stop after the masters and forgo a PhD—and that’s quite likely if you enter a 4-year MS-only program—go for a masters in engineering, not physics. A masters degree alone in physics is often considered to be impractical at best and useless at worst. Although physical intuition is extremely valuable, you’ll end up taking a lot of required classes that would be useful for academic research but not-so-useful for engineering in industry. The key realization is that if your ultimate goal is to work in engineering, you should work in engineering environments (e.g.,, academic or industry research labs) as much as possible. Sure, classes are invaluable preparation, but extra classes often yield diminishing returns while extra engineering experience yields increasing returns, at least at these time scales. Given a fixed amount of time in grad school, then, minimize the length of your MSc program in favor of the PhD.

This line of reasoning suggests that if you’re committed to following through with the PhD, it might be logical to pursue a MSc in physics first. But in your case, however committed you may be, that still may not be true. Those two extra years of “bridging subjects”—and tuition payments—are a deal-breaker.

***Caveat: If you can stretch that MSc in physics into a PhD with the same group (i.e., overlap the 4 years of MSc classes with the ~4 extra years for the PhD, for a total of ~6-7 years)—AND you’re committed to working in photovoltaics—go for it and don’t look back.

“Did I choose the right field?”

If you’re going to do research and work in photovoltaics eventually anyway, does it matter? The only difference this makes in a grad student’s life is where you turn in your forms and where you get your free food. And in practice, there’s very little difference between solid-state physics and EE semiconductor device physics. In either case, you can and will take classes in quantum physics, statistical mechanics, and solid-state, and as long as you find a research advisor working in photovoltaics or a related area, you’ll get the experience you need to be successful in the field. Research groups in solid-state devices are often highly interdisciplinary anyway: My group in the MIT EECS department has students and researchers from EE, physics, materials science, chemical engineering, chemistry, and mechanical engineering.

“Which area will best prepare me for a career in photovoltaics: Microelectronics or Power Electronics?”

Microelectronics. Like photovoltaics, micro/nanoelectronics is deeply rooted in semiconductor device physics, and you’ll find that many processing technologies and techniques are shared between the two fields. That said, if you want to work on developing utility-scale photovoltaic systems, taking some power electronics classes would be very useful.

***Here are a couple other things to keep in mind as you decide your future:

1) I don’t believe that you need to work in industry after your MSc before you can start on your PhD.

  • I went straight into a MS/PhD program in EE immediately after graduating from undergrad. Many grad programs in EE and other engineering disciplines have combined MSc/PhD programs—less so in physics—so pursuing both at once would save you a round of applications and up to a year of total time to graduation. But if getting admitted to PhD programs directly is a concern, consider applying to a MSc program that offers the possibility of continuing on for the PhD (e.g., by taking qualifying exams or petitioning). At many schools, it’s easier to stay in than to get in.
  • If you don’t apply to grad school while you’re still in school, it will be difficult to get the required recommendation letters from professors—note that letters from professors are the most important part of your application and carry much more weight than letters from engineers or managers in industry. Besides, you can often do internships if you want industry experience.
  • Many engineers in industry have told me that it’s very difficult to go back to school (for a PhD) after working for a while—you get used to a certain lifestyle (e.g., predictable work schedule, weekends off, no classes, a solid paycheck) that you won’t be able to maintain as a grad student. And once you get married and have a kid or two running around the house, it will become even more difficult to go back to school.

2) I think it’s incredibly valuable for anyone involved in science and engineering—both in industry and in academia—to be exposed to the microelectronics industry and Moore’s Law (the self-fulfilling prophecy driving transistor density in integrated circuits to double every two years). The former touches nearly every aspect of our lives today, and the latter represents a historical upper limit on the time derivative of innovation—pure exponential growth for 4 decades. And although very few (if any) other sectors have growth potential anywhere near that afforded by transistor scaling, I can think of no industry that would not benefit from the relentless driving force of a Moore-esque imperative.

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