My ‘AHA Moment’ and then what? The Start of the PhD Journey: the 2nd Annual Undergraduate/Graduate Student Mixer

    by Leslie Kolodziejski | Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

    The questions posed were- how do you know the PhD path is the one for you? What is the next step, and how do you begin? Sponsored by Thriving Stars and a collaboration between the Undergraduate and Graduate Offices at EECS, the second annual social mixer brought together undergraduate women and graduate women to talk about these questions.

    Current women graduate students shared their ‘aha moment’ and then talked about what next steps they took and who helped them along the way. Aspiring young undergraduate women were then able to ask their questions, and unravel some of the mystery and uncertainty surrounding the PhD. Accompanying the exhilarating, lively conversations were hors d’oeuvres for an afternoon ‘pick-me-up’; the event was well attended with 60 women student participants! The social mixer included two parts: (1) small group conversations with each table having current PhD women representatives along with aspiring undergraduate women and (2) a ‘report-out’ where current graduate women shared a little about their PhD journey.

    In her 5th year of the EECS PhD program and looking forward to defending her research, computer scientist Geeticka Chauhan was happy to reflect upon her journey to the larger group.

    “I had been involved in undergraduate research since my first year (as an undergrad), as I wanted to gain more experience in coding. I was also a TA for two subjects (in CS and math), and had great experiences with my profs and the students I was tutoring. A PhD wasn’t in the plan until my 3rd year, when I took my introduction to AI (artificial intelligence) and NLP (natural language processing) classes.” Geeticka shared that her aha moment was “I became really excited about AI & NLP and the professor of the class became my mentor as I pivoted my research direction. I am grateful to have fruitful conversations with my mentor about research and the possibility of doing a PhD — my original plan was to do a masters, but my mentor empowered me and suggested that a career in research would fit well with my interests. During my senior year, I gathered letters from profs I had TA-ed for and done research with, and my mentor guided me on the universities and professors that would fit most with my research interests. I also went through several iterations of my statement of purpose before officially submitting my applications to universities.”

    Geeticka recalls that her experiences during her undergraduate degree were affirming and encouraging, especially because no one in her family had experience pursuing a higher ed degree beyond the bachelors. As an international student, Geeticka felt much uncertainty in the process, but she was thankful to have a great support system in the form of her family and mentors. The message Geeticka heard was “a PhD degree is for you and you can do it!” 

    Just beginning her second semester in the EECS PhD program, Jordina Pierre shared the story of how she was inspired to begin a PhD, remarking, “During the summer of 2021, I attended the MIT Summer Research Program-Biology (MSRP-Bio) program where I dived into the world of neuroscience and the effect anesthesia has on the brain. I learned that neurons communicate by transmitting electricity throughout the network, which reminded me of my passion to understand electrical networks on a power system level. Originally, my goal was to become an electrical engineer and return home to address the decade-long issue of frequent blackouts in the Virgin Islands. Mandana Sassanfar, the director of MSRP-Bio, provided us with the necessary tools to prepare the PhD application, and so I spent the entire semester preparing my personal statement for submission. I communicated with the many connections I made at MIT during the summer as well as a few colleagues from back home, and to my surprise was accepted the following year. Without the support from my peers at my home university who encouraged me to apply to this summer program, I would not have known about the endless opportunities awaiting me. I am grateful for my summer experience during MRSP-Bio and am ecstatic to continue my journey as a PhD student.” 

    Today, Jordina is a graduate research assistant in the Electrical Energy Systems Group led by Professor Marija Ilic, and is working toward her original goal to give back to her home islands in the Caribbean. 

    Fourth year PhD student Taylor Baum shares: “When I entered undergrad, I thought that engineering was mainly just building bridges, and I had no idea that there was something called graduate school! However, I was hired for a summer position where I could mentor students entering into my university, Penn State. In that experience, my students taught me about graduate programs, and their own passion ignited my desire to attend graduate school as well. There are incredible life lessons and pieces of knowledge to learn from every mentor, and every mentee. Always be on the lookout!”

    Fourth year PhD student Bilkit Githinji was happy to share: “My “aha moment” occurred during my second year in industry, when it became clear that grad school was a necessary path for me to achieve my career goals. The lead of the science group that my engineering team supported was starting a satellite team in Zurich which would research algorithms for applications that included robotics. My industry role involved working side-by-side with PhDs on computer vision algorithms for augmented reality. My passion to work as a scientist in these areas sparked an internal fire to pursue an advanced degree. That spring I crafted an agenda for delivering grad school applications for the following academic year.  I’m grateful for the varied perspectives on research and development I got exposure to during my undergrad co-op project and time working in industry. Prior to that moment, my father and undergraduate research advisor had already planted the seed – my father challenging me to at least match his master’s degree, and my advisor often referring to me as ‘Dr. Githinji’.”

    Each person’s start on the road to the PhD is unique, there are three necessary ‘ingredients’: personal determination, a network, and an opportunity.

    The PhD journey is a winding road, with some bumps along the way, but will undoubtedly be exhilarating, life-changing and filled with some truly unimaginable opportunities. The journey is inspired by an “aha” moment; is joined by supporters who offer advice and perspectives; and begins with a letter reading, “Congratulations, you are admitted…”

    To all the students who are considering embarking on this journey, we want to say, “Good luck on your PhD journey; you can do it; and one day, you’ll be addressed as ‘Doctor’!”