Tag Archives: Academics

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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Cardinal Numbers

Ever wonder how many Asians there really are at Stanford? Here are some numbers I threw together last year about the Farm and its people and culture. All statistics are accurate to within an order of magnitude. 🙂 Feel free to contribute your own Stanford stats!

 

The Basics

Opening day: October 1, 1891

Tuition (1891-92): $0

Tuition (2010-11): $39,000

Endowment: $14 billion

Faculty: 1100 (Student-faculty ratio: 6:1)

Student Body

Undergrads: 6,900

Grad students: 8,800

Californians: 40%

Asians: 25%

Transfer admission rate: 2% (Respect…)

From international/public/private high schools: 10/60/30%

Science & Humanities/Engineering majors: 70/30%

5-Year Graduation Rate: 92%

Student groups: 630 (Nearly one for every 10 undergrads!)

Greek: 13%

Phi Psi techie proportion: 75%

Sports

Daily gym-goers (Arrillaga): 2,000

Miles run by Stanford students each year: 1,000,000 (est.)

Average height, Men’s Crew: 6’3″

Average height, Men’s Basketball: 6’5″

Average height, Women’s Gymnastics: 5’2

Stanford Football day game record (since 2008): 6-9

Stanford Football night game record: 7-2

YouTube views of Andrew Luck’s hit against USC: 1.3 million (as of 3/11)

For Techies

Apple fanboys (i.e., Mac users): 60%

SUNet <=> external network traffic: 10TB/day = 116MB/s

RAM on Corn cluster: 32GB

Annual revenue of 3 of Stanford’s biggest start-ups (G+C+HP): $190 billion (Egypt’s GDP: $188 billion)

Continuous energy use: 22MW/11000 people living on-campus = 2000W/person

After Graduation

Average starting salary (Engineering): $70,000 (Bachelors), $84,000 (Masters)

Average starting salary (Humanities & Sciences): $51,000 (Bachelors), $66,000 (Masters)

Number of living alumni: 188,000

Weather

Average temperature: 59ºF

Warmest month: July (78ºF average)

Coldest month: December (39ºF)

Rainiest month: January (3.24″)

Avery Aquatic Centers filled up by annual rainfall (16″) on Stanford land: 1200

Around Campus

Area: 8180 acres = 12.8 square miles

Undergrad residences: 77

Undergrad residences with air conditioning: 0

When the party ends: 1AM

Square feet of cacti: 17,000 (Average Palo Alto home: 1,600 sq. ft.)

Bikes: ~13,000 (Bike parking cops: ~13,000)

Palm trees on Palm Drive: 150

Length of Campus Drive: 3.8 miles

Length of Dish loop: 3.25 miles

Dish elevation change: 500 feet

Caterpillars on campus (pre-2008, est.): 5,000,000

Dining options you’ve never explored but should: Russo Cafe (in Munger), Alumni Cafe (takes meal plan dollars), Thai Cafe (basement of Psych building), Axe & Palm (just kidding)

Distance from Stanford to…

San Jose: 20 miles (Driving: 30 min.)

San Francisco: 35 miles (45 min.)

Berkeley: 40 miles (1:00)

Santa Cruz: 40 miles (1:00)

Monterey: 80 miles (1:30)

Yosemite: 190 miles (4:00)

Lake Tahoe: 220 miles (4:15)

LA: 350 miles (6:00)

Las Vegas: 540 miles (9:00)

Beavercreek, OH: 2400 miles (38:00)

Hawaii: 2400 miles (∞)

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A Stanford Farewell

I’m officially a Stanford alumnus.

On Monday, for the first time, I left Stanford not knowing when or whether I would return. Before this final departure, I could always count on another quarter on the Farm. After my first visit on April 7, 2007. After an unforgettable freshman year in Roble. After a quarter abroad in Beijing. After Thanksgiving break in 2007. And 2008. And 2009. And 2010. After every winter, spring, and summer vacation for the last four years, I always knew I would be back. But I don’t know anymore.

Commencement Weekend left me in a state of emotional deshabille, caught off-guard by the swift rate of change, tripped up by the steep derivative of college life. I cherished Senior Dinner on the Quad on Thursday night somewhat more than I have most of the other class events scattered throughout senior year, but no more than necessary: I fully expected to see all my friends for the rest of the weekend, to meet their friends and families at graduation parties, at the Class Day Lecture, at Wacky Walk, at Commencement, at our department ceremony. That didn’t happen. I blinked, and they were gone. I managed to catch a few on Sunday night, but the vast majority of my Stanford community packed up and peaced out without a final hug or backward glance.

I suppose it’s understandable. Once we leave behind our hometowns to pursue our college dreams at the college of our dreams, we rarely see our own parents and siblings, let alone grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even more distant members of our genetic networks. And Commencement is like a wedding: Families reconvene, people meet, worlds collide. Parts of your life that you’ve always kept filed away neatly and separately—freshman-year dormmates, IHUM section-mates, classmates, roommates, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, professors, mentors, TFs, TAs, RAs—all come together in a mishmash of Cardinal-Red emotion. Your furious underwater paddling starts to splash. The Stanford Bubble pops. With every senior busy trying to keep so many balls in the air, all the while packing up 4 years of Stanford memories and charting a course for those first wobbly steps off the Farm, it really is too much to ask for a full and satisfying goodbye.

Leaving us right back where we started. Sitting in our parents’ homes around the country, around the world, clicking through commencement photos on Facebook, wondering how we—the Class of Oh-Leven—went from Stanford’s newest admits to Stanford’s newest alumni when we still remember our first hall meeting like it was yesterday. It had to end someday, but did it have to end Sunday?

Maybe it did. For four years, long while they lasted, we owned that campus. Stanford belonged to us, just as we belonged to it. But for me, and I suspect for many of my classmates as well, it’s time to let go. We set off into the world now to improve and enrich lives, both others’ and our own, and even if we never return to 94305 (or collect our mail at 94309), we will forever see life through Cardinal-tinted goggles. We will always have a little Stanford in us. So this really isn’t goodbye.

Remember how we used to sign off emails to our freshman dorm lists?

Roble Love. Stanford Love.

It never gets old.

-Joel

Proud Stanford parents.

P.S. This post sounds like the writings of a religious cult. The Cardinal Cult? I’m a proud member. So is Dean Julie. Here are her farewell remarks, too good to be abridged, from the Class of 2011 Plaque Dedication (courtesy of my friend Racquel and the SAA). Readers from the Class of Oh-Leven, be careful, this will make you cry.

“The Next Truly Great Class”
Julie Lythcott-Haims
June 10, 2011

Thank you, Mona, for that kind introduction, and I want to thank you, Molly, Pamon, and Dante for the exceptional leadership you’ve brought to the role of senior class president. A role I know well from having done it myself 22 years ago (though I was not as good at it as you have been). I hear from the staff who work with you that you are among the very best senior class presidents they’ve seen ever. You gathered Oh Leven up after the scattering that is the Junior Year, refocused them on togetherness, community, belonging, put on amazing and well-attended events, and took the class pride – class love – to a whole new frothy level as seniors. And you made those dank, bomb-diggity, off the chain, prime, wicked, absolutely badass tank tops everyone is now sporting. At the next event – Senior Class Gift – we’ll talk about other ways in which you have led the class in historic ways. For now, let’s just give Dante, Molly, Mona, and Pamon a big round of applause.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh Leven. [Oh Leven] I have done this before, as a senior class president standing with my own, great, class, right here, 22 years ago. And I’ve been lucky enough to stand here with all the classes I’ve seen graduate since being Dean. But there is something different in it for me today. Because you are one helluva class, Oh Leven. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Yeah, I know what you want me to say. To acknowledge. Just hold on. Let me get there.

When you were just juniors in high school, we decided what to call you. The class of 2010 was being admitted and after oh six, oh seven, oh eight and oh nine, our potential transition out of the “ohs” and the single digits was upon us – twenty ten? One-oh? But in the middle of those head-scratching, vexing discussions about what to call the class of 2010, a student on the NSO team, Brian Salomaki ’06 said, “I don’t know what we’ll end up calling 2010, but the next one can be Oh Leven!” “Get it,” he said? “Not ‘oh-eleven’ or even ‘eeee-leven’ but Oh Leven.” I got it. I liked it. Actually I loved it. Loved what we would call you even before we’d ever laid eyes on you. We had a full year to wait to try it on you, when we discovered to our delight that you liked it too. Most of you. Took some of you some time to warm to it. Right Doc? But you love it now. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven]

A year later, it was May 1, 2007. “Heads up,” the admissions office called us to say. “The frosh yield numbers are way up. We’re going to have 1750 freshmen. 75 over target.” I swore. I’m sure I swore. Because if you know me you know I have a mouth like a sailor at times. Part of my alternate identity. The part that loves I’m on a Boat, and the other version of Forget You. So after an appropriate expletive I laughed exasperatedly, “The next truly large class.” And then UAR began to spread the news to those who would need to find more IHUM fellows, more PWR lecturers, more beds. Don’t get me wrong, in UAR we love undergraduates. Some of my colleagues are here in the audience right now because you were their first class, or because you’ve been just so great to work with over these years. So for us, nothing is better than starting the four-year cycle again with a new class, just as today we are excited about FIF-TEEN as they start to round the bend toward Stanford. But let’s be real. Learning on May 1, 2007, how many of you had said yes to the admission offer was sort of like finding out in the ninth month of your pregnancy that you’re going to have twins. Our thoughts of “Oh Leven” quickly turned to “oh no,” “oh gosh,” and, well, worse.

Then you showed up. Move-in Day, Tuesday, September 18. When Dean Shaw spoke at Convocation, making an official handoff of the class from admissions to the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, he shouted “Oh Leven” at you. You know what you did? You applauded. Wildly, yes, but it was just applause. When he glanced over his shoulder at me somewhat bewilderedly, I whispered, “Tomorrow.” It’s somehow so poignant at this point to think back to that day when you didn’t yet know who were. Here. What to do. Or maybe you knew, but wondered if the rowdiness of class pride was appropriate within the formal construct of Opening Convocation in this sacred Inner Quad. After all, you had not yet been on Band Run, so you had not yet been inducted into the complete congruity of intellectualism and irreverence that is the hallmark of the Stanford undergraduate experience. You would come to know, love and live that intersection so well.

I got to meet you the next morning, Wednesday, September 19, the morning after your first night here, the drum beat of the Band Run still thudding in your head, the day after your loved ones made a tearful goodbye and went home to the place of your childhood. We had asked your dorm staff to choose who among them would bring you to MemAud – MemAud was built to hold only 1710 after all. On that morning, you came roaring into MemAud waving dorm flags and chanting cheers with people you had not known 24 hours before, with a rapturously excited innocence that brought tears to my eyes and took my breath away. “Look at them,” I thought to myself, taking deep breaths to calm my mounting emotion. “Listen to them.” You were well louder than should have been the case with 75 extra freshmen. Louder and prouder than any class had ever been. Spinal Tap’s “This one goes to e-leven” came to mind. It was your second day.

On that morning of your second day, I told you that “To get a real sense of your place in the Stanford family, you need to Walk the Walk – that is, go check out those bronze-covered time capsules commemorating each class that has preceded yours, located in the Inner Quad.” I suggested ways in which you might make that walk and what to think about along the way. And then I said, “And finally, although it is not yet there, stand and gaze four stones ahead to where ’11 will be.”

Welcome to the purpose of our gathering today. Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Thinking back to the first of your days on the Farm, I realize now that you had me at hello. Intellectually curious AND kindhearted. Clever. Funny. Fun-loving. Giving. Selfless. Humble. Loving. And exuberant about being here and about each other. Grateful. By the end of your first few weeks, people all over campus were buzzing about your class. “There‟s something different about them,” people said to me. “Not quite sure what. Not more humanists or more engineers or things that are easy to measure.” I asked for examples, and people said things like, “they stayed behind after a frosh event and helped us break down the tables and chairs and recycle the water bottles.” Things like that. That spoke to your character. Your spirit. How you were raised. How you show up in the world. I called Dean Shaw. “Did you do something different this year?” “Yeah,” he said, “we want smart and kind. The other kids can go somewhere else.” People ask me if I love my job… How could I not love a job where that is the objective and you are the result?

And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better came the piece of evidence that Oh Leven would be in a category of its own: Your frosh council was the first to wear the class banners as capes, Winter Quarter freshman year. With that small gesture on the part of your dorm leaders, you became superheroes to me. Superhero geeks, in paradise, with a band run. That early on, I was forced to ask myself, “Are they going to be a great class? One of those truly great classes that comes around only every, uh, 22 years?” I have never owned another class’s t-shirt. But seeing yours around campus these last few weeks, I felt yeah, it would be an honor. I know what you want me to say. Hold on. I’m getting there.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] From September 2007 to June 2011, it was your time here. And now, it is over, your time. Great class, go back with me now across the moments of which your Stanford life was made. You studied and wrote and solved — and invented and unearthed and discovered — and created and spoke and inspired — and cried and tried and achieved – and praised and preached and swore — and coped and failed and survived — and danced and sweated –and drank and sang — and yelled and cheered and my god, cheered until your heart was spent in the Red Zone, here and at the Orange Bowl — and whispered and smiled –and liked and like-liked — and hooked up and left and inexplicably hooked up again — and left, this time for good — and met and laughed — and found and loved and said it – to the person, and declared it on Facebook — and crashed and burned — and texted and tweeted and blogged — and friended and broke up, again on Facebook. And you discovered. New knowledge in your field. An empty practice room. A sandstone sculpture hidden from view. A sense of self. And you ran. The Dish. An organization. Away from other peoples’ expectations. For office. And you gave. Your time. Your effort. Your heart. Of yourselves. And sometimes it was more about Farmville than the Farm. And then you were tryna. Tryna get a drink. Tryna get with that girl or guy, yo. And you chose. A major. A mentor. To come out. To love yourself. This is some of what it looked like, felt like, to be an undergraduate here at Stanford.

Oh Leven, whatever happened here, wherever you go, whomever you are, whomever you become, whenever you actually graduate, whether you actually graduate at all, to be honest, you will forever and for always be a member of the class of 2011 at Stanford, whose time here is marked for ever more with the placement of this time capsule and the laying of this plaque which commemorates your place in the Stanford family. We are a family. And the Stanford family’s future is as much yours to write as it is anyone’s.

You know, speaking of the time capsules, rumor has it there is a piece of pizza in one of them. Ratchet, I know. What can I say? The world was far less amusing back then. No Angry Birds. No Xbox. No cell phones. No internet. No electricity. No wait. Yeah, we had that. But still, back in the twentieth century, we had to do things like put pizza in a sealed time capsule for amusement. Eighty-nine.

Forgive my trip down memory lane; to you it’s irrelevant when I went here or what I did here, I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but, this is what alumni do. And guess what? You’ll do it too. And trust me, if you reminisce near an undergrad at your 10th reunion in 2021, they’ll smile vacantly while trying not to roll their eyes thinking “like I care?” Of course they’ll have some newfangled way to diss you that even YOU will have trouble understanding. It’s just hard to relate to a different generation. This, my dear Oh Leven, is the reason we focus on the class numerals. It is our secret handshake, our password whispered through the door. It’s how we tolerate each other. Here’s what I mean. Some guy from the class of ’59 walks by me and wants to talk about when he and his buds pulled a great prank on the all-female residents of Branner. And I want to just go (in my best eighties voice), “whatever.” But instead I smile and point at his name tag and say ’59 and he beams. Get it? So it is with me and you. I can’t understand what you’re talking about most of the time, word woot whomp whatever. That’s why I’ve got you all to memorize my class year so we have something to talk about. I mean, I can figure out the abbrevs and I know when to say FML and then SMH, but when did dope become dope? And don’t get me started on ballin’ versus baller. But if you say ’89, I light up, right? And while you’re humoring me now, I’m here to tell you one day it WILL be you. You’ll be back in 2036 for your 25th, yawing about how you went steam tunneling and broke into old chem, and the seniors, the class of 2037, will be all, ee-yeah. And you’ll be all, no really, it was dope. And you’ll try to reel their youthful attention in with, “wait, wait, we had George Clooney, The Roots, and Natalie Portman on campus,” and they’ll have this look of non-comprehension that says, “who?” and you’ll be like, “What is wrong with the youth of today?” And then you’ll say, “OK. We beat USC football THREE OUT OF FOUR YEARS. And they’ll go, “USC had a football team?” as they politely turn away. But then they’ll see the ’11 on your name tag and smile, and go E-Leven [thumbs up]. And you’ll beam. And you’ll correct them – “it’s Oh Leven actually…” And you’ll start to tell a story, and they’ll glaze over. You will. They will.

And why do we beam when we hear our class year? It’s not because of the technical fact of when we went here, but because it represents all the people who walked alongside us on these pathways as we grew up here. The people who made a difference. The people we loved. Oh Leven, you were 18 together and you’re 22 together, and one day you’ll be 30, then 40, 60 and 80 together, and you’ll still look the same, at least to each other, and you’ll always be Oh Leven. And that, my friends, is what the class numerals are all about. A way to represent your love for your class, each other, this place. The class diamond symbol has been on T-shirts, decals, videos, emails, keychains, hats, sunglasses, flip-flops. Today you get to see the real live everlasting class diamond itself. When I first walked up on it today, tears sprang to my eyes. Could it be? You’re leaving us? So soon?

These bronze numerals that officially mark your time here literally protect the artifacts you chose to place beneath. It also symbolizes the memories, all of the things that can’t be put into a box and retrieved later. I was there. With those people. This is what we did. And I am different for it. Changed for the good.

This plaque goes in the ground today and commemorates those memories. Becomes the space you will always visit when you return. As a way to call up the ancestry of your Stanford experience. The faces. The places. These halls are sacred to us alumni. We come here to be flooded with the feelings, awash with appreciation, gushing with gratitude. We come here to feel tenderness, our feet at these time capsules, time and time and time again. We alumni feel tremendous love for what we cherished about our experience here. For the people. For Stanford.

You are about to be one of those alumni. You also know you’re a very special class. You’ve known since you got here. You’ve demonstrated it in every imaginable way. Shoot, at the dinner last night someone handed me one of those sick tank tops and I put it on over my black velvet dress. Never worn another class’s stuff. Symbolically, for me, I can give you no higher praise.

Oh Leven! [Oh Leven] Speaking of that incredible dinner, the man behind the office that says “We need to do that dinner. For those seniors. No matter what,” is Howard Wolf, Vice President for Alumni Affairs and President of the Stanford Alumni Association. Standing right over there, this extraordinary human, Class of 1980, is responsible for how we nurture the relationship between Stanford and her alumni. A relationship that is about mutual respect, trust, shared experience, ongoing education, fun. And yes, it is also about love. So now, just as Dean Shaw handed you over to Vice Provost Bravman at Opening Convocation in September 2007, today I don’t have to, I get to be the one from your past who hands you off to the person of your future. Howard, I present to you the Class of 2011. In my humble opinion, they have in fact earned the title of the last truly great class at Stanford.

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An Accidental Nuclear War

Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is? 

You should. Back in the 80s, when the U.S. and Russia were being all ridiculous and arms-race-y, Col. Petrov managed to save the world while hunkered down in a bunker near Moscow. Check out this article I wrote about Petrov and why the future of the world rested on his shoulders on one September day in 1983.

Time to get back to writing my final paper as a Stanford student…

-Joel

So true.

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Why TV Shows Aren’t A Complete Waste of Your Time

I used to think that watching TV shows was a complete waste of time. But I just changed my mind.

Exhibit 1: Hilarious TV show.

What changed?

I realized that watching a good TV show clears my mind.

These days, I always have at least 10 things circling like vultures around my mind at once: research ideas, problem sets, upcoming meetings, graduation, grad school, summer jobs, summer housing… It’s way too easy to get distracted by an “urgent” email while I’m working on a research problem—Mac Mail’s red email indicator kills productivity without fail—and the closer I get to graduation, the more thoughts of post-Stanford life start to pop up at inopportune times (i.e., all the time). It gets harder and harder to clear my mind and focus.

Enter the TV show.

When I’m watching a good show online—i.e., on my own schedule, with no commercials—I get lost in the characters’ world, a sense of flow not unlike what I feel when I’m reading a good book. The characters are crucial: I empathize with some, laugh at others, and the effortless endeavor to psychoanalyze—to make sense of the ridiculous antics, jokes, and drama—washes away all the other thoughts floating around in my head. And once the episode ends, I can jump right back into my work, thinking of nothing but the show. Turns out it’s a lot easier to forget a silly TV show than 10 stressful thoughts about my future, and when that’s gone, my mind is clear.

There are many other ways of achieving the same effect of flow, of total engagement, mind and body. Read a book. Meditate. Play a sport. I’ve tried them all, and they all seem to work. But few diversions have been as widely maligned as watching TV, and it’s comforting to me and surely some others to know that TV shows, correctly wielded, have a place in even the busiest of lives. Watching a good show with friends is like meditating, but more social and more hilarious.

The show that made me rethink TV was Community, a parody of student life at a community college. It fits the “good TV show” mold beautifully—clever, light-hearted, attractive—and it’s got me hooked. In a good way. I think.

-Joel

P.S. For those friends who don’t check Facebook, I’ll be starting a PhD in EE at MIT this fall! Just got my new email address (jjean@mit.edu), and the parka is on its way…

MIT in micro-bubbles (Courtesy of Manu Prakash)

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Are Stanford Students Just (Really Excellent) Sheep?

Does this sound familiar?

In our conversations I would ask the students when they got around to sleeping. One senior told me that she went to bed around two and woke up each morning at seven; she could afford that much rest because she had learned to supplement her full day of work by studying in her sleep. As she was falling asleep she would recite a math problem or a paper topic to herself; she would then sometimes dream about it, and when she woke up, the problem might be solved. I asked several students to describe their daily schedules, and their replies sounded like a session of Future Workaholics of America: crew practice at dawn, classes in the morning, resident-adviser duty, lunch, study groups, classes in the afternoon, tutoring disadvantaged kids in Trenton, a cappella practice, dinner, study, science lab, prayer session, hit the StairMaster, study a few hours more. One young man told me that he had to schedule appointment times for chatting with his friends. I mentioned this to other groups, and usually one or two people would volunteer that they did the same thing. “I just had an appointment with my best friend at seven this morning,” one woman said. “Or else you lose touch.”

Check out this 2001 David Brooks article, entitled The Organization Kid, on the life and philosophy of today’s elite college student. It has a similar tone to William Deresiewicz’s 2008 essay on The Disadvantages of an Elite Education; both give us all something to think about, whether or not we agree with them.

In other news, Deresiewicz will be speaking on campus next Tuesday, April 12, at 4:30PM in Annenberg. Find out more on the event page and on host Prof. Rob Reich’s page, and RSVP here.

-Joel

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Life: Applied.

Grad school? Nah. Let's just be astronauts.

I finally finished my grad school (for a PhD in EE) and fellowship (for money) apps! Now it’s time to relax, run, and read some books. But first, let’s reflect

A few years have gone by, but most of us still remember our senior year of high school and the ups and downs of college admissions. Forms. Long essays. Short answers. 500 words. All kinds of letters: ECs. SATs. ACTs. Rec letters. Brag sheets. College Confidential. Common App supplements (WHY?). And of course, the all-important US News & World Report rankings. Man, I’m glad all that’s behind us.

I guess the admissions people have it pretty rough too...

But there are plenty of letters in the grad school application process too: GPAs. GREs. Rec letters. Nothing but a big rat race. Right?

The main difference between applying to college and applying to grad school is what you’ve learned in the intervening years. You can equate research statements to admission essays, GREs to SATs, rec letters to rec letters, but nothing takes away the fact that you’ve lived and learned and attended college for 1461 days from one stepping stone to the next. But… so what?

When you apply to college, you don’t really have any other options. Sure, you can take a year (or even two!) off to travel or start a company or build character or do any number of interesting gap-year activities, but let’s be honest, you—you being the type of person who wants to go to, whose parents went to, Stanford or Duke or OSU or any other seat of higher learning—are going to end up in college, sooner or later. No one questions that: It’s simply, well, expected. And sure, why not? Very few people know at the age of 18 what they want to do with their lives, and everyone knows that college is the ultimate guarantor, the yellow brick road to a successful future. Seems like a no-brainer: Go to college. Apply to a few, choose one, and go.

Now fast-forward 4 years. You spent the last 3+ years pursuing what you hope is your life’s calling, or at least a step in the right direction, which it might be, but maybe not, and who really knows anyway? The real dilemma is that, for the first time in your life, you’re an adult, and you have a real choice to make. College is college, but PhD program ≠ med school ≠ software engineering job ≠ consulting job ≠ freelancing ≠ … It’s not until senior year that you finally feel the weight of all those pesky little underclass decisions. Suddenly you’re 21, your undergrad career turns into your career career, and you still don’t know if you chose the right major.

Seniors always get asked The Question—”What are you doing next year?”—which only adds to the feeling that what we choose to do immediately after graduation will define our life’s direction. Maybe it will. But honestly, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about. Just as there’s no right major, only the right motivations for choosing it (i.e., it’s interesting to me, right now), there’s probably no single right career path for anyone. As far as I can tell, pretty much nothing career-related turns out quite the way you expect it to—how many of us have changed our majors, our hopes, our dreams since freshman year?—and it takes just as much courage to pursue a possible passion as it does to pursue a true passion. How are you going to find out which is which, unless you follow through with one?

And that brings us back to the difference between applying to college and applying to grad school: As a high school senior, applying to college, I had every possible career available to me: astronaut, surgeon, chef, engineer, lawyer, anything. It didn’t matter where I went to school; East Coast or West, all those opportunities—all possible responses to “What do you want to be when you grow up?”—would remain open to me. In that sense, the college decision wasn’t all that important. But the further I got into college, the more that space of future possibility funneled down into a cone of menacing definiteness—for me, {everything} => {physics, engineering, psychology} => {engineering} => {electrical engineering} => {solid-state devices and optoelectronics}. And that’s scary. But it’s also something of a blessing.

As a Stanford senior, applying to grad school, I know much more precisely what I like and what I don’t like, which means that I can narrow my options in the direction of the former and pursue it without fear. It doesn’t matter if my aim isn’t perfect. (Who knows? Maybe I’m meant to be a coder. God forbid. :)) As long as I’m headed in the right general direction—anywhere in the mouth of that funnel of life—I’m sure I’ll end up where I want to be. Wherever that is.

And I can still be anything I want when I grow up, as long as a PhD in EE doesn’t make me overqualified.

-Joel

P.S. If you’re a college student (±5 years), I highly, highly recommend reading this essay by William Deresiewicz, “What Are You Going to Do With That?,” “That” being your college degree. I think you’ll find it instructive, inspiring, and even a little disturbing in its acuity.

P.P.S. Merry Christmas!

 

Get a room, guys.

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A Summer Planning Guide for Undergrads

Don’t know what you should be doing next summer?

Take this quiz and get a head start on the competition…

Undecided? (Painting by Luke Chueh)

1. What’s your current class standing?

Freshman – Enjoy the last pressure-free summer of your life.
Sophomore
– Go to Question 2.
Junior – Go to Question 2.
Senior – You’re screwed. 🙂

2. Do you want to go to grad school?

Yes – Do research. Go to Question 4.
No – Find an internship. Volunteer. Travel. Whatever.
Maybe – Go to Question 3.

3. Where have you worked in the past?

Research – Go to your school’s career development center. Talk to people. Find an internship.
Industry – Do research. Go to Question 4.
Both – Ask your mom. Flip a coin. Whatever. Just make a decision. Or go to Question 2.
Government – What’s left of your soul can’t be salvaged. Sorry.

4. Do you want to do research at a university or a company?

University – Go to Question 5.
Company – Ask your favorite professor for advice and contacts at industry research labs.

5. Is your school well-respected in your field?

Yes – Go to Question 6.
No – Look into research programs at other schools.
I don’t know – Ask your advisor and go to Question 5.

6. Does your department have a summer research program for undergrads?

Yes – Do it.
No – Go to Question 7.

7. Can you get funding from your school/department for an independent research project?

Yes – Do it.
No – Look into research programs at other schools.


Good luck!

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Are You Considering Grad School?

I’m back at Stanford this summer continuing my work on electron dynamics for photon-enhanced thermionic emission (PETE) and starting a research project on nanoelectromechanical (NEMS) relays, a possible low-power replacement for CMOS transistors. I’ll talk more about my own research in an upcoming post, but for now, I want to share something I came across today:

In his talk at Bell Labs, Richard Hamming (of “Hamming window” and “Hamming code” fame) offers some answers to the question, “Why do so few scientists do significant work and so many are forgotten in the long run?” It’s a unique take on how great––think Nobel Prize worthy––research gets done, and anyone considering grad school or research as a career should find it worth their time to sift through the ideas presented in the talk.

Read Hamming’s talk online here, or download it here (PDF).

-Joel

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A Week To Remember

Prerequisites for full appreciation of this post: Knowledge of US dollar to Chinese yuan exchange rate ($1 = 6.83¥ RMB, as of April 3), Love of food, An open mind and iron stomach, Fluency in Mandarin (just kidding… kind of)

After a week in Beijing, I’ve come to be a firm believer in the subjectivity of time. Every day has been so packed with new sights and sounds and people and places that I feel like I’ve been a 北京人, or Beijing resident, for a lifetime.

This story––my Beijing story––begins just one week ago, on the morning of Saturday, March 27. I rolled out of my unforgiving Peking University (北京大学, or Beida, or PKU) standard-issue bed at 6AM, just in time for our Logistics Orientation at… 10AM. Stupid jet lag. The orientation was unremarkable, but our first lunch in China was anything but. We got our first taste of Chinese cuisine and American wealth when we stopped by one of PKU’s many canteens for 包子 (baozi), steamed buns filled with meat and vegetables and occasionally soup (How do they get soup in there? Must be ancient Chinese wisdom). So delicious. And so cheap.

A delicious meal of baozi for $1

A lion’s share of 包子 costs about as much as a kiddie cone at your neighborhood McDonald’s––i.e., nothing at all, by American standards. If you managed to sneak into PKU past the 24-7 security at the gate and perhaps into the no-males-allowed female student dorms (they remind me of the spiral staircases in Harry Potter that turn into slides when a boy wizard tries to climb up into the girls’ living quarters), you could subsist indefinitely, even comfortably, on a couple US dollars a day. Our meal allowance? $10/day. Here in Beijing, we live like kings among men (and just a few women) on a daily stipend that would barely cover an Axe & Palm cheeseburger back at Stanford. And Stanford would do well to copy the meal plan system at Beida: Students get a simple debit-type meal card that has real monetary value and no minimum or maximum limit, is rechargeable with cash at any time, and is accepted everywhere on campus, from the noodle restaurant to the 包子 place to the blue-roofed 小白房 snack house to the fruit stand down the street. Compare that with Stanford Dining’s meal plan Cardinal Dollars, which have no monetary value, must be purchased but come only in fixed, arbitrary increments, expire every few months, can’t be used without a card with your nerdy picture from high school on it, and are called CARDINAL DOLLARS.

1 Cardinal Dollar ≈ $0

The next day, we survived another orientation and were rewarded with lunch (hmmm… Pavlovian tactics?) at Ho’s Restaurant, a classy Cantonese eatery right outside PKU’s Little Southwest Gate (小西南门). The assortment of traditional Chinese dishes brought me back to family vacations of yore, when Mom and Dad would somehow manage to find the one authentic Chinese restaurant in that backwards town in the middle of nowhere, and the food would invariably turn out to be delicious. We then met our language partners, PKU students whom we’re matched up with for the quarter for mutually beneficial Chinese/English language practice and singly beneficial cultural guidance. My 语伴 is a sophomore English major from Xi’an (the former capital of China) named Sherry. Her English makes my Chinese seem terribly inadequate, but I don’t feel too bad because 1) she’s an English major and 2) she speaks better English than many Americans. Together with our language partners––14 Stanford students and 14 PKU students in all––we took a trip to the Summer Palace, where the emperors and empresses procrastinated on the actual act of ruling the country. Given Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality standards (stand outside for too long and you might as well be smoking a pack a day), it was a beautiful day, with clear blue skies and the sun shining splendidly over the lake on the palatial grounds.

The Summer Palace

With my language partner Sherry

Since she goes to the gym every night, Sherry invited me to come along with her that evening. The PKU gym (one of several) is small but perfectly adequate, comparable to the gym in Tresidder, but with separate rooms for ping-pong, taekwondo, and pool. And after hearing about life as a non-international Beida student, I realized that we have it pretty good at Stanford (surprise). It’s bad enough that the regular student dorms don’t have power after 11PM––take a moment to let that sink in––but even worse, some of the dorms at PKU lack running water, which means residents have to walk outside to the public bathroom to take a shower. Sherry told me the tragic story of a Beida girl, one of her friends, who once went to take a shower during the winter and returned with a head full of frozen hair. Sherry’s all-girls dorm is a little better, but she lives in a standard one-room quad on the 6th floor (no elevator), and guys aren’t allowed in, except to make deliveries or carry things for girls. Apparently that’s all guys are good for. Seriously. The social scene at Beida is totally different from what we’re used to in the US. Since students here are super-focused on their studies, they rarely party or drink or go off-campus. The PKU-sponsored social events are “kind of lame,” according to Sherry, and the guys “aren’t very cool.” Perhaps for that reason, there’s only a bit of traditional dating at PKU, and it’s nothing at all like Stanford’s ternary dating culture (Choose one: single, hooking up, joined at the hip).

The academic quarter kicked off on Monday with a single hour of Chinese class. With a total of 3 classes on my study list, I have the easiest quarter of my life ahead of me: 1 hour of Chinese a day, Monday through Thursday; a 3-hour sociology class on Tuesday morning; and a 2-hour speaker series on Tuesday afternoon. That’s it. 🙂 Between classes and exploring Beijing though, I think I’ll have plenty on my plate (literally and figuratively) in the weeks to come.

Kind of like the trailers where we used to have classes back in elementary school, except not a trailer, but a shipping container.

After another mildly entertaining Chinese class and guest speaker on Tuesday afternoon, 7 of us Stanford kids––me, Kelsey, Adriana, Marty, Chris, Mai, and Lili––took the subway right outside PKU’s East Gate 2 stops down, to the famed Zhongguancun Shopping Center. This was my first time really leaving the campus, and it was spectacular, despite the rain and the crazy drivers. We wandered into a shopping mall and ended up at Shabu-Shabu, a hotpot restaurant that Kelsey recommended. We sat at the counter and had the hardest time ordering the food, since the menus were all in Chinese; I think the waitress thought we were all mildly deaf and entirely dumb. But after I told her that we were from America, she was quite understanding. I finally managed to order an array of raw food (beef, pork, shrimp, eggs, veggies) for everyone to share, and we each had our own personal cooking pot of boiling garlic broth. The meal was delicious and we walked out stuffed to the gills. Our by-then friendly waitress ushered us out with a fitting farewell: “慢慢走! (Walk slowly!)” As if we had any other choice.

We couldn’t have asked for a better final destination that night than Carrefour, a French supermarket chain with the biggest selection of goods I’d seen in Beijing so far. The range of prices blew my mind (e.g., electric razors cost 4 times as much as new bikes, shoes cost about 20¥), and we had a great time just wandering around, marveling at the cheap consumer goods and the ridiculous foods that Chinese people eat (duck feet in a bag or MSG, anyone?). I bought some snacks, including a few throwbacks to my childhood, like Chinese bread, cuttlefish shreds, and a huge bag of sweet rice crackers. We all got lost or separated in the crowd several times, but we managed at last to make our way out of the store, onto the subway, and all the way back to Shaoyuan 7.

How about some MSG?

Kelsey: Sorry Jonah, you've been replaced by a fossilized duck.

The next day, five of us––me, Kelsey, Chris, Beatrice, and Marty––went to the city, supposedly to see “some soccer game.” I thought we’d be seeing a local league game at some community park. Boy, was I wrong. The moment we stepped off the subway, crowds of vendors surrounded us, offering Beijing Guo’an (the game was an Asian Football Confederation Champions League game between the local Guo’an team and Seongnam Ilhwa, a Korean team) t-shirts, jerseys, scarves, and earsplitting horns. It was a 10-minute walk to the colossal Workers’ Stadium (工人体育场), where much of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was held, and since we didn’t have tickets, we had no choice but to find a scalper. I spotted a girl in a pink puffy jacket holding a half-concealed stack of tickets, so we approached her and managed to haggle the price down to 40¥ per ticket. With that settled, since we had an hour and half until the 7:30 start time, we decided to stop by the nearby Hooters Beijing to conduct some cultural fieldwork. The restaurant itself was no different from any American Hooters––except the waitresses were Chinese––and even the clientele was identical: predominantly middle-aged American businessmen.

At a family-friendly establishment in the heart of Beijing

We then crossed the street to the huge stadium, navigated through the metal detectors and legions of armed guards with riot shields, and finally made our way into the stadium. The scene was surreal, with thousands of heads of black hair in the crowd and policemen and Communist Party officials swarming all over the place. A row of official-looking men sat on the track stoically looking up at the crowd the entire game, presumably watching out for dissent or bad behavior. I don’t know if it was the lack of scoring (0-0 for most of the game) or my lack of emotional investment in either team, but I soon got bored, and with the frigid wind nipping at our faces and necks and hands, we skirted the post-game crowds and headed home in the middle of the second half, with Guo’an down by 1 on an anticlimactic free kick by Ilhwa.

A surreal scene at the Workers' (Olympic) Stadium

Me, Chris, Marty, Beatrice, and Kelsey at the soccer game. The Beijing Guo'an fan club in the background was the most synchronized group of fans I've ever seen at a professional sports event.

The surging crescendo of our first week in China came to a thundering climax on Thursday, when the entire Stanford group descended upon 王府井 (Wangfujing), the famous touristy shopping district in Beijing with a side street full of 小吃, or “little eats.” With Adriana’s language partner Felix as our trusty guide, we headed into downtown Beijing on the subway. Less than an hour later, we emerged from the subterranean train station on Wangfujing Road, blinking into the blinding sun and the bright neon lights. Being the perpetually hungry foreigners we are, we immediately made a beeline for the 小吃 street, hidden from direct view on our left as we made our way down the Main Street of Wangfujing.

The famed Wangfujing tourist district

Wangfujing's Street of Snacks: The gateway to gustatory pleasures of all shapes, sizes, and lethalities. Not for the faint of heart.

And so the madness began. The first stand on the right delivered, right on cue, an array of still-thrashing scorpions and sea horses on skewers. Kelsey and I had pledged to eat a scorpion today, so we asked the price (20¥ for 4) and watched as the vendor took a skewer of still-squirming scorpions and dunked them in boiling oil. I’d heard the deep-frying process neutralizes the poison, but I was skeptical. With onlookers watching in fascinated disgust, we took our turns posing, hesitating, then crunching down on our respective crispy scorpions. It tasted a bit like soft-shell crab, but if I’d thought any harder about what I was actually eating, the street cleaners would have had a little more work that day.

Still-squirming scorpions and sea horses on skewers (Say that three times fast)

What a cute little fellow. My first instinct definitely was not "Look, more food!"

I wonder who first decided to pick up and eat an insect with pincers and a massive poison stinger…

A little farther down the street, I found myself standing in front of a similar but significantly more hardcore food stand, offering deep-fried giant scorpion, centipede, lizard, and starfish. I couldn’t pass up the starfish. It felt like ashes and tasted like deep-fried nothing, like a piece of bread burned so badly it’s lost all its flavor. Yum. We washed the taste out of our mouths with bingtang hulu (sugar-coated haw and strawberry skewers) and watched in fascination as Troy haggled for tens of minutes with a young Chinese girl over the price of a Chinese scroll painting. After that, we got bored of the food and returned to the main Wangfujing Dajie. The whole area was super touristy, with high-end Western stores flourishing and Nike, Rolex, and other brand names maintaining American-priced storefronts on the main road. We found a giant cylindrical shopping mall and splurged on dinner at a restaurant suggestively named Spicy Grandma (辣婆婆). Quick observation: It’s amazing how quickly we’ve become accustomed to Chinese pecuniary standards; prices that we wouldn’t blink an eye at in the Bay Area (80¥ or about $12 for a fancy meat dish) now seem outrageously inflated.

It was too cute to pass up. And… yuck. I really have to stop judging things based on looks.

The whole Wangfujing/scorpion/starfish experience kicked off our Beijing adventure all too perfectly––if you can eat a scorpion, you can handle just about anything, right?––and I can’t wait to explore more of the city in the next couple months.

Send your suggestions for exciting places to go and things to do in China to: jjean@stanford.edu.

Check back in a week or so for more adventures from Stanford in Beijing!

-Joel

 

P.S. This blog post is symbolic of the way we foreigners (老外) eat food here in Beijing: Too much at once, too fast to digest, and even more substantial when you actually stop to think about it. And don’t worry, there’s always another dish to look forward to… 🙂

Stanford Greetings from Beijing!

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