Tag Archives: EE

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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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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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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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 Stanford Winter

Kyle, me, and Lauren on top of a mountain

Lantana Snow Trip: Hitting up the slopes at Squaw Valley

Maybe it was the 2 weeks of mono-induced torpor and swollen lymph nodes that I barely survived early in the quarter. Maybe it was the countless hours I spent preparing for my big research presentation. Or maybe it was the endless February rain that had Stanford’s entire bike-riding population––i.e., the entire Stanford population––praying for spring to come early.

I don’t know why, but I can’t help but wonder: Where did winter go?

I woke up early––read: 8AM––this morning to go for a run and realized that spring’s already here, at least in California. It’s kind of like when you lay down on the couch for a quick afternoon nap and open your eyes to find the sun sinking below the horizon and another day gone. Except this time, it’s an entire quarter, gone. Almost. We’ve still got one more week of classes, a not-so-dead Dead Week, and finally finals, but at the rate we’ve been going, we might as well be done.

But I’m not at all stressed out. It helps that I’m taking a relatively light courseload this quarter: EE41 (Physics of EE), EE108B (Digital Systems II), EE216 (Principles and Models of Semiconductor Devices), and EE191 (Special Studies in EE). At a time in the quarter when most students feel the weight of an ambitious Week 1 course selection, I’m staying even-keeled, with the constant workload of research tempering the inevitable ups and downs of an academic term at Stanford.

And with winter’s demise comes the advent of China: I’ll be leaving for Beijing on March 25 and studying abroad at Peking University for all of spring quarter. At the end of the program, I’ll be going to the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai with my mom and brother, then possibly visiting Seoul or Taiwan or both. The visa application process turned out to be quite a pain, but the light at the end of the Chinese government’s proverbial tunnel is getting brighter.

Much more about China to come… It’s super exciting and I can’t wait, but winter quarter’s definitely not over till it’s over.

-Joel

Shanghai Skyline: It looks like something out of Star Wars... (Click on the picture and look closely)

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The Stress-Free EE

After reading a very wise blog post about avoiding unnecessary stress as a college student, I decided to take a minimalist (read: reasonable) course load this quarter. In every other quarter I’ve been at Stanford, I’ve always added class after class onto my schedule in some kind of misguided attempt to recoup some small part of my $50,000-a-year––or equivalently, 10 new palm trees a year––donation to Stanford’s dwindling coffers.

1_PalmDrive

Yes, I have a palm tree.

My average quarterly unit count, current as of 2 weeks ago, was stable right around 19 units––anywhere from 5 to 7 classes each quarter.

My unit count this quarter: 13 16 units.

It’s pretty sweet.

Of course, that does include a legendary 1-unit lab that’s a 20-hours-per-weekend rite of passage for Stanford undergrad EEs. Still.

Here’s my schedule this quarter:

EE102B: Signal Processing and Linear Systems II

EE108A: Digital Systems I

EE102E: Technical/Professional Writing for Electrical Engineers (WIM)

MSE156: Solar Cells, Fuel Cells, and Batteries: Materials for the Energy Solution

With a healthier course load, I can actually go to office hours and keep up with reading and occasionally even sleep. That’s not to say that I have any free time. That would be ridiculous. 🙂 But I’ve discovered that actually spending more than one uninterrupted hour focusing on a single subject without having to run off to yet another lecture affords me the opportunity to actually learn something.

Imagine that.

-Joel

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My Summer Research: Saving the World

OK, not quite. But I did contribute a tiny bit to my research group’s efforts to develop a new type of solar energy converter that could make a big difference in the way we create and consume energy.

I spent most of this summer working in a multidisciplinary research group under the Stanford EE Department’s Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Our work focused on a new solar energy harvesting concept called Photon Enhanced Thermionic Emission (PETE) and dreamed up by Nick Melosh, a MatSci professor at Stanford. I can’t go too much into the details now, since the seminal paper is yet to be published, but PETE holds a lot of potential as a novel source of low-cost renewable energy because unlike traditional PV (solar) cells, which quickly lose efficiency at high temperatures, PETE actually gains efficiency with increasing temperature, feeding off the heightened thermal energy to aid photoemission. As a result, we can combine the PETE device with a solar thermal converter––which, as a heat engine, can only run efficiently at elevated temperatures––and realize some absurdly high theoretical conversion efficiencies. For those familiar with solar cell operation, PETE can beat the Shockley-Queisser limit by taking advantage of below-bandgap photons and heat energy from hot-carrier thermalization.

Anyway, it turns out PETE, as well as many other optoelectronic devices, can get a pretty significant photoemission efficiency boost from the use of semiconductor nanostructures, like nanowires. For that reason, I spent 10 weeks this summer building a Monte Carlo simulation to characterize electron dynamics in nanowires, to help us better understand how electrons behave under various material conditions at nanoscale dimensions. My post-doc mentor, Igor, created the basic framework and helped me build and test the simulation. I ended up with some pretty cool results. I reproduced the negative differential resistance phenomenon in GaAs and matched the experimental scattering rate data surprisingly accurately. The graphic below is a visualization (created in Mathematica) of a single electron trajectory in a GaAs nanowire.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

The lucky electron is injected at the solid black ball and bounces around for a while under the influence of probabilistic scattering mechanisms, gaining kinetic energy (shown as a black-to-red gradient), and finally escapes into free space at the solid red ball.

I got really lucky this summer, with a great mentor who wanted me to learn and a meaningful project in a high-potential field that might have shifted my entire academic and career trajectory toward grad school and solar energy research. That said, I’m still exploring other interests, and entrepreneurship still holds a fundamental appeal to me, so who knows where that combination will lead me? At the end of the summer, I got to give a couple presentations, one to my lab group and one to the entire REU program, advisors, and guests. I had a good time with both, and I’m excited to keep working on the PETE project as the new school year starts.

One of the greatest things about research, especially engineering research, is the flexibility that you often have with your work environment. Maybe it’s because they didn’t want to waste precious desk space in Allen on me, but I ended up working from my dorm, from the library, and from just about anywhere else on campus with an internet connection (and at Stanford, that’s pretty much everywhere). I could, and often did, wake up at 10PM and still get more done than a 9-to-5er by working on my own schedule, at times when I was most efficient, including sometimes late into the night. The 8-hour workday and Monday-to-Friday workweek simply didn’t exist––I might work 13 hours one day, 6 the next, a few hours here and there on a Saturday––but when something needed to be done, I got it done. If a friend needed a 4th man to fill out a beach volleyball team, I was there. And I still found time to read a couple books, go to the beach with friends, keep up my running, and have the summer of a lifetime. And although the task may be harder, the prospect of starting my own company holds a similar allure. After all, when you truly care about and believe in the meaning of your work, why wouldn’t you want to spend as much time with it as it takes to succeed?

Thanks for reading.

-Joel

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Thoughts on Undergraduate Research

What is “undergraduate research?”

I spent most of my summer doing research at Stanford in the EE Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. It was an eye-opening experience for me, since before this summer, I had no clue what real academic research was. I’d worked as a research assistant at the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Dayton, OH, for the past 3 summers, but the problem was, as a senior in high school, I didn’t believe I could actually contribute anything worthwhile to the USAF mission, much less to the field of electrical engineering; and with that mindset, I was right–I couldn’t. But I did leave the base at the end of each summer with a solid appreciation for my mentor’s patience with my questions––I didn’t even know enough engineering vocabulary to ask proper questions––and overall mastery of EE. This guy is barely 30 years old, I thought. There’s no way I can learn that much in 10 years. That was back before I encountered the quarter system.

If you walk up to a science/engineering undergrad and ask, “What are you doing next summer?” there’s about a 98% chance that he’ll reply, “Oh, I’m just doing some research on campus.” Especially if “next summer” is actually Summer 2009 and tech companies are tossing employees overboard like sacks of sand from a sinking ship. Everyone always talks about “doing research,” but what part of “research” can a college undergraduate actually do? The answer, it turns out, is “a lot”––for the good of the undergrad AND of the research team he joins.

An undergrad can’t expect to waltz into a research group and immediately start churning out first authorships. You gotta pay your dues. That said, as long as you go in with an open mind and can-do attitude, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish, even in one summer of research. I’ll talk about what I did this summer in a later post; I’d like to think I did something meaningful in my own 10 weeks of research.

Let’s say you’re a research assistant in a bio lab for the summer, it’s 9AM, and you’re hard at work PCRing or pumping your mice/fish/monkeys full of chemicals. Your PI asks you to clean up the lab because he’s got a visiting professor from some university you’ve never heard of coming to tour the lab this afternoon. You can: a) whine and complain and spend your entire day slowly rearranging lab equipment––I mean, hey, your stipend check for the entire summer’s already signed and deposited anyway––or b) smile, clean like you’ve never cleaned before, and be one more injected mouse closer to curing cancer before the dining hall closes for lunch. It’s up to you. In real life, your success is almost always up to you.

In talking to professors and post-docs and grad students that I’ve met at Stanford and elsewhere, I’ve often heard that the common trait of all successful researcher/grad students is that they have acquired the ability to endure consistent uncertainty. No research scientist is ever 100% sure of a particular outcome and of the future applications of his work. That’s the challenge of research, and it may be for the best––the term “serendipity” comes to mind. Interestingly enough, many ASES speakers and business articles I’ve read have stressed that same capacity to act, to make the hard decisions, in the face of unpredictable circumstances as a quality that nearly all highly-regarded CEOs possess in spades. That unusual parallel hints at a secret to uncommon success that may be––dare I say it––universal.

-Joel

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An Auspicious Start

It’s 9/9/09.

Welcome to my first-ever post on my first-ever blog!

First order of business: an introduction. I’m Joel, a junior (Class of Oh-Leven!) EE major at Stanford University. Some of my greatest interests lie in entrepreneurship, solar energy, tennis, marathon running, and changing the world, so most of my posts will probably touch on at least one of those topics. I might also use this blog as a training log and a journal of sorts, to keep track of my weekly mileage and occasional profound thoughts.

Maybe if I smile big enough I won't remember later how much this hurts right now...

Big Sur Marathon 2009: *Maybe if I smile big enough, I won't remember how much this hurts right now...*

I decided to start writing a blog for a few reasons:

1. Writing’s fun when you don’t need a thesis and “6-10 pages double-spaced by Friday at noon.”

2. EE problem sets rarely call for more than a few written words, and never a complete sentence. Given my courseload, if I don’t do any writing on my own, I’ll leave Stanford in 2 years with diploma in hand, broke AND illiterate.

3. I missed out on Pokémon cards, Tamagotchi pets, Xanga sites, Furbies, Monica Lewinsky, and all manner of useless trends that made the rounds in American high society near the turn of the century, so I’m long overdue for an atrocious lapse of judgment.

Another good reason to blog: I’m serving as Marketing Director for the Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society (ASES) at Stanford this year, and even though I have no formal marketing experience at all, I do know that, as a marketer, the more people you can reach, the better. So starting in a couple weeks, I’ll be posting periodic updates on ASES speaker events, mixers, and conferences. Most ASES events are open to the public, so if you’re in the Bay Area, come on by Stanford to hear and meet the best and brightest in Silicon Valley and beyond.

Thanks for reading.

-Joel

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