Learn from the experts

I was elated to be starting my Ph.D. and felt ready to give all of myself into research. In parallel to doing research, I thought to get advice from people that have already walked the Ph.D. path. The quest to find advice led me to two directions. The first direction was to the library, I searched for famous physicist’s autobiographies/biographies – famous enough to have last the eroding passage of time. The second direction was to interact with alive people. I found a space to converse about the Ph.D. journey with Prof. de Leon. She told me that to learn how to do the research, I had to learn from somebody who knows how to do research. I nodded in agreement, but I did not understand what she meant. Now I will tell you my interpretation.

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Dear great Peruvian

Doctorate and Master programs attract prospective students from all over the world: China, India, Turkey, Canada, South Korea, etc. In my entering electrical engineering cohort, I was the only Peruvian and Latin American. In my first year, I felt tiny compared to my peers who came from renowned universities and very competitive college degrees – that was my perception.

A few years before I started my Ph. D., a fellow from Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería (UNI) started his Ph. D. at Harvard University. “How did you get admitted to Harvard from Peru?” another Harvard graduate student asked this UNI fellow. Even now, I cannot understand what this other student’s opinion of Peru was. The story remained in my mind, feeding the “maybe they are right.” Feeding the perception.

Now, I am writing with confidence that Peruvian students are astounding as the top students from all over the world. I broke free from my initial perception.

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Toxic apprenticeship

Verbal and psychological aggression in the academia can be part of the apprenticeship – read toxic apprenticeship. I think that students and postdocs who learn toxic apprenticeship and become faculty keep feeding the loop of an unwelcoming academia for future generations.

Way before I started my PhD, I heard about horror stories that occur at research universities between bosses and their students. One needs to be careful to not step into a minefield by choosing the incorrect adviser for one’s personality. 

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Why was it challenging to start a PhD coming from Peru?

I want to make you aware that doing a PhD is challenging, but not only because is academically arduous. Five years ago, I moved 6000 kilometres away from my family, friends, and systems of rest. These supported me to perform at my best during my years at Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, and all of the sudden they were gone. These systems of support were running silently in the backdrop, and is now my goal to bring awareness to this not so talked topic.

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How does it feels to be the best in the world at something?

One of the great things of being part of the Electrical Engineering department at Princeton University is to have Loren Pfeiffer in the 4th floor (video and website). Loren is a materials grower that uses molecular beam epitaxy to grow the best single crystal gallium arsenide (GaAs) in the world. The materials that he grew were used in studies that led to the Physics Nobel prize in 1998. So, the best person in the world at something in this story is Loren Pfeiffer. I will write down about a conversation I had with him at the beginning of my third year. By that time I have had a couple of failed projects under my belt and I was seeking out for advice. To whom better to ask than to a person who is the best in world at something? Loren must be having an easy time with his experiments, I thought.

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It is OK to ask for help

Over the past years I have found asking for help extremely difficult. Specially in my academic pursuits. I have had questions such as What is important to focus on? Am I doing the right thing? Back in my undergraduate years I felt I had to navigate it all by myself. I did survive my undergraduate education, so I took the same approach to my PhD. Reflecting in the 5 past years I really think one needs to ask for help – in my own case it would have been to gain some more confidence in capabilities to do the job. Even impressive personalities ask for help. Luis Alvarez, Nobel prize winner, asked for help to get his postdoctoral position, which led him into a journey of fascinating discoveries. I wanted to share the story with you.

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Do fewer things

Kevin, there is not a fix-it-all formula in the years ahead of you. I know you will try to look for one. In that process you will try to read about methodologies and the lives of physicists who were where you are right now. Indeed, nothing will account for the learning from your own future experiences. Here I am leaving you some words for you to take in your steps forward. First, the length scales in a PhD are going to be very different than in undergraduate. And second, you will have narrow much more your focus.

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Choosing a laboratory

Every new PhD student has to face the difficult decision of choosing an adviser. During the next 5 to 6 years, the student will work under the guidance of the adviser, with efforts of trying to learn the craft of doing scientific research. Those were the thoughts in my mind back in the Fall of 2015 as I started fresh in the ELE department at Princeton University. Now, as a senior PhD candidate, I have earned new insights along the way that are worth sharing. Mainly, I want to tell you that you do not only join a PhD adviser, but a whole team of people working around a similar goal. Looking back, I want to write down that the process of choosing an adviser is better described and tackled as choosing a laboratory where to work on.

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