Reflection: My Graduate Experiences at Princeton University

Please note: there will be mentions of the current global public health crisis in this post. I have no background in medicine, public health, or closely-related fields. Please consult public health agencies and other governmental agencies for guidance regarding responses to this crisis, and please consult actual professionals as appropriate for individual problems in this context.

This post is the third in a series of three posts about the end of my time as a PhD student in Princeton University (in this post henceforth referred to simply as "the university" when there is no ambiguity). As a write this, I have successfully defended my PhD thesis! Furthermore, I will officially be graduating this coming weekend. This post follows the first, which was meant as a reflection of the events of this public health crisis that led to my premature physical departure from the university campus combined with a paean to the friends I made over the course of 6 years in the PhD program, and the second, which explained the experiences & thought processes that led to my decision to change careers from research in physics to transportation policy. This post is a broader reflection of my time and experiences at the university, with all of its ups and downs, and a message of gratitude toward the people in the university and elsewhere who meant so much to me during my time in the program; a lot of it is taken from the acknowledgments in my thesis, though for privacy reasons, I won't be giving explicit names. Additionally, there will undoubtedly be many comparisons over the course of this post to my undergraduate experiences at MIT, for which I wrote a post around the time of graduation 6 years ago. Follow the jump to see more.

My advisor and the group

I actually first met my advisor around 2012 May, when I was an undergraduate student and he was a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, as my undergraduate research had taken me in a direction that necessitated his supervision on a more day-to-day basis (as my faculty advisor was a great person to talk with and was & is a stupendously hardworking & successful group leader but was frequently busy with other engagements, so his day-to-day supervision, particularly of lowly undergraduate students like myself, was practically nil). This postdoctoral researcher struck me even as an undergraduate student by the combination of his passion for learning not just physics but more broadly too, his remarkable capacity for synthesizing ideas and intuitions from seemingly disparate fields of physics, his high standards for himself & for others (including me), and his empathy for coworkers from faculty all the way down to undergraduate students. I really appreciated how he never made students interested in physics feel inferior for not having earned a PhD or higher positions yet, how he was always open to chat in person in his office or online via instant messaging tools, and how he was always ready to discuss whatever was on my mind with respect to research or classes in physics or even otherwise. When a highly-respected older professor came to visit the research group where I was working, as part of a broader visit & talk to the department, my faculty advisor had recommended that I give a short talk to that professor, but this supervisor was the one who actually guided me through the intuitions that I should keep in mind for the talk and the process of preparing a research talk, because even though I had some experience giving scientific talks in experimental physics classes that I had taken the previous academic year, giving talks about my own research was still different enough that I needed more guidance, which he was happy to provide. In both college and graduate school, even when I realized that some of the undergraduate work that I had done and had hoped would relatively quickly turn into papers would not happen as such and felt a bit upset about that turn of events, he was quite empathetic and encouraging that there would be enough projects for me to do in the future to yield good-quality work publishable in journals. He truly cared, which was why at the beginning of my senior year of college, when he moved to Princeton University to start as an assistant professor and recommended in turn that I consider applying to the PhD program in the Department of Electrical Engineering there, I made that choice to apply there much more readily & enthusiastically than if he hadn't gone there. Then, when I visited during the department visit days, he very enthusiastically told me about the research projects I could work on with him (as he already had a sense of the flavor of project that would interest me), but also mentioned other professors in the department whom I should also consider. Most importantly, he made abundantly clear near the end of my visit that he didn't want me to feel pressured to enroll in the PhD program in the department just because he was there, as he simply wanted me to make the decision that would make me most confident that I'd be happy, no matter what that might be; this convinced me that he'd always have the best interests of students like myself at heart whenever he would deal with me or other students.

His empathy, high expectations, passion for the work, and general enthusiasm became far more apparent once I enrolled in the department and then a few months later officially joined his group, given that the relationship between faculty and undergraduate students is anyway quite different from that between faculty and graduate students. In the context of being a graduate student in his group, I cannot really speak for anyone else's experiences other than my own, in large part because his group has typically been fairly small, and the nature of the work and his own advising preferences have allowed him to sustain a group where essentially each person has projects that do not involve working with multiple other members of his group, so he mostly meets individually with group members instead of holding full group meetings. He is also a relatively hands-on advisor, meaning that he will encourage group members to pop into his office during normal work hours on weekdays, and to reach out to him by email or instant message at any point, to which he would respond very quickly during normal work hours on weekdays and in a reasonable timeframe at other times too. The latter point does not mean that he is necessarily working all the time, nor that he expects others to do so either: apart from times before impending deadlines (which are relatively rare in his line of work), he does generally seem to enjoy his evenings & weekends, and is fine with group members doing the same, respecting group members' work-life balance & vacation times as long as they are generally getting work done in a timely manner as appropriate to the project. These are all qualities of his advising style that really worked well for me. The style of individual meetings may have been driven more by the style of advising group members on essentially individual projects (i.e. with very few projects requiring the full group's efforts together), as is more common for theoretical work, but that in conjunction with his hands-on advising style, as well as his respect for work-life balance & related issues, deserve more description.

As I started as a PhD student in his group, my first project was about modeling Casimir force-driven wetting and dewetting transitions, and several months later, my second project (on top of this first project, which was still going on at that time) was about extending a solver for the volume integral formulation of Maxwell's equations to allow for nonlocal (spatially dispersive) susceptibilities. My skills at thinking clearly about computational ideas had become a bit rusty after high school, because while I did have to code for my undergraduate research, truthfully those research experiences were ultimately quite low-commitment, so I was able to get by simply from having API references for various software packages handy without needing to think much more deeply about what I was doing. This, combined with the general transition from focusing on classes to focusing on research, was a big adjustment for me in graduate school, and I found that adjustment difficult at times. Through my first and second years, my advisor encouraged me to persist with learning about this material on my own, to come to him at any time with questions, and to learn to be more rigorous and quantitative in the way that I communicated science with him & others. This was particularly necessary for me to dig deeper into the second project and ultimately recognize that it wouldn't be possible to continue that project as we had envisioned it, and overall, I needed that frequent contact & constant encouragement coupled to high expectations & constructive criticism in order to better adjust to the expectations of graduate school. In the latter half of my second year, I had my general exams (what the university calls the PhD qualifying exams), consisting of a public research presentation where I would present my research through that point, and then a later private oral exam where the examiners could ask me in principle about anything they felt fit to ask; around that time, I was preparing my first project into a paper to submit for peer review. In both cases, my advisor held me to the highest standards for communication of science: this intuitively made sense to me even at that time for the paper, but even for the presentation, he drilled into my head the view that every presentation should be polished to the same quality standard as a presentation for a job interview, and there can be no half-measures in that respect, which I really took to heart since then, and which pushed me to perform at a level that I could be reasonably proud of during my general exams.

What came after my general exams was what I felt really allowed me to come into my own as a budding researcher, no longer just a glorified undergraduate student. Prior to that, the projects I had been working on seemed mildly interesting, but the first project didn't seem like it had a lot of room for further work after that paper was submitted, and as mentioned earlier, the second project folded entirely. Two days after the oral exam portion of my general exams, my advisor pointed me to a collaborator of his who would be giving a presentation at the university and suggested that we discuss a potential extension of that work, combining their framework of van der Waals interactions in molecular systems and with our framework of Casimir interactions in larger systems, as an idea for a project which might involve me. From the beginning and through the summer, that work seemed far more interesting than what had come before, so with my advisor's encouragement, I took the initiative to read a lot more on my own, rederive existing results, and make deeper connections between the two frameworks; while I had previously needed much more frequent meetings with my advisor for the previous projects, for this one I felt much more comfortable working on my own for relatively (compared to before) longer stretches of time, and he felt comfortable giving me that space & time that I needed, as I think he recognized that as a necessary part of my growth as a PhD student. This work carried me through a good chunk of my third year, and through it all, I saw that he was just as generous with kind words of praise for good work as he was with general encouragement & high standards even when I was still adjusting. In the middle of my third year, it was his encouragement and belief in my capabilities that led to me presenting this work at a conference, which was the first such conference that I attended. Then, near the end of my third year, with his and our collaborators' encouragement, I was able to extend this framework further to account for thermal effects, energy transport out of equilibrium, and the effects of collective nuclear oscillations in molecular systems, while at the end of my third year, he was willing to let me take on even more responsibilities by helping him write a grant proposal, thereby exposing me to that side of academia and further honing my skills at communicating research (especially as communicating research that is yet to happen is related but not identical to communicating research that has already been done). This line of projects continued through my fourth year, and when I hit some unexpected scientific snags in continuing those projects, my advisor assured me that I could depend on his continued support. As my fourth year progressed, I attended another conference, and while I had earlier (perhaps around my second or third year) clearly expressed to my advisor my preference to work most efficiently on one project at a time, I had developed enough by that point to be able to handle multiple projects at once: he recognized and encouraged further development in that way, especially as his own style is to juggle several different projects at once and think about connections among many of those projects. Once I entered my fifth year, my advisor said that he could see that my skills had matured to the point that I could be reasonably expected to juggle a similar number of separate projects as he normally would, so we discussed what projects I would work on. One set of projects that was actually developed many weeks after that meeting had to do with limits to thermal emission and radiative heat transfer. These projects were quite a bit more intense than what I had worked on previously, because while my prior projects involved a fair amount of initial theoretical formulation but mostly computational implementation, these projects were entirely theoretical and essentially mathematical in nature, so I needed to stretch quite a bit beyond my comfort zone: as the weeks wore on, I was at many points frustrated with the seeming lack of progress, but through it all, my advisor continued to profess his belief that I could do it, and was elated when I finally seemed to be able to derive the desired result, though as it would turn out, a fair amount of further development was needed, largely by the efforts of some of my groupmates. With this, my advisor felt comfortable sending me to present at a conference as well as to our collaborator's group, both in Europe, over the summer, for me to gain further experience with communicating this work to general technical audiences. Finally, my sixth year was when I could simply focus on finishing remaining projects and applying for jobs that I would start after graduation, because by this point, I met with him frequently only when I was particularly excited about sharing results and was otherwise content to work on my own for relatively long stretches of time.

All of this is evidence to me that I felt so good about the advisor-student relationship with my advisor not just because of how things were in the beginning, but broadly because he had a keen eye for recognizing what I was doing well & where I could work harder, for recognizing how to praise me about what I did well & encourage me in a positive way with respect to the things for which I needed improvement, and for adjusting his own advising in some respects (as far as meeting frequencies and level of involvement are concerned), his expectations over time, and the projects he let me work on, to really maximize my growth as a researcher. For these reasons, I could not ask for a better advisor even from the relatively narrow perspective of a student's needs from a research mentor. As I've discussed with some of my groupmates, as per Freeman Dyson's article (published as an AMS notice) about "frogs" and "birds", my advisor really is the consummate "bird", taking on many different projects at once and having great intuitions for where the commonalities & bigger picture lie, and seeing his clarity & vision has been inspirational.

Yet, my admiration for my advisor is not just for what he does as a scientist and guide, but also for what he is like as a person, both within and outside of the context of advising PhD research. He could empathize with my frustration about slow progress or seeming inability to publish papers in my college years and in my first two years as a PhD student. In my third year, as I faced anxiety from the consequences of the 2016 election as well as other personal setbacks, I initially felt comfortable sharing some of these issues with him, and he patiently listened and offered his support; after a point, I realized that it would be more productive for me to figure out what I could do to help myself instead of merely venting, but even when my research progress slowed in the middle of my third year due to these issues, he never applied undue pressure in this context and gave me the space & time that I needed to heal. Throughout my PhD experience in his group, he was very willing to let me take vacations/breaks as needed or desired, and never made me feel like I had to "earn" the right to a vacation, as he recognized that breaks are necessary to refresh the mind too; his perspective on the latter point applied to both short time scales, as he didn't generally enforce a particular working schedule apart from those meetings that were scheduled in advance and he was very flexible in letting me work from home or take the rest of a day off if I was feeling ill or fatigued, and long time scales, as he was generally fine with being notified of longer vacations/breaks around a week in advance. Plus, as mentioned before, he was generally quite respectful of my evenings, weekends, and breaks, and only messaged me on the rare occasion of an impending external deadline. Beyond all of these things, it was also incredibly inspirational to hear of his own personal story and all of the challenges that he has faced through his own life. I'd like to think this empathy for others was what gave him the confidence to wholeheartedly support my decision, which admittedly surprised him when I first mentioned it to him around the middle of my fifth year, to switch from research in physics to transportation policy after graduation.

My advisor has fostered a wonderful group culture as well, generally keeping a relatively small group so that we could each have essentially our own projects and we could each feel like he was giving us attention frequently & fully. Truthfully, in my first two years, I felt rather intimidated by the high achievements of my groupmates who were already publishing great work in high-impact journals, but my advisor assured me that it would happen for me soon enough, and my groupmates were similarly encouraging. Through the years, as the group gained some new members and as others graduated, I have been grateful to get to know all of them, to all of them for being so open in bouncing off ideas randomly in the office, and to my advisor for fostering a group culture that encouraged such frequent sharing of ideas that we never really needed formal full group meetings. It has also been interesting to observe that unlike many other groups, members of our group didn't generally see each other as our primary social circle. Personally, I preferred this to the extent that I could more easily separate work from life outside of work, such that work didn't have a totalizing effect on my life, and any potential interpersonal disputes would never spill over into work; in any case, I've really admired the professionalism, passion for the work, and consistently strong work ethic & high standards demonstrated by my groupmates through the years. The recent public health crisis has changed a few of these things though, in that our group now has regular group meetings for brief research updates and for socialization & online games as a way to maintain the bonds among group members when it is so easy to fall into isolation during these lockdowns; I have appreciated that change too, perhaps more so now because I don't have to worry about work-life separation as I have graduated and am changing fields, and it will be interesting to see if that persists longer-term.

Collaborators and mentees

I have had the great fortune of being able to collaborate with several researchers in Europe who are experts in their field, made possible by telecommunications and the nature of theoretical/computational work. In fact, I have written at least one paper with each set of collaborators before meeting them in person, and I still haven't met some of them in person yet, though I hope to do so in the coming years even as I change fields. They have been so supportive and gracious in letting me take the lead on the day-to-day progress of many of these projects, and their feedback has been really useful & encouraging. I also had the privilege of being able to mentor three undergraduate research students at various points during my time in the PhD program, and was fortunate that each of them was quite motivated, hardworking, and high-achieving in the projects on which I worked with them.

Other departmental personnel

There are several other professors in the department that I have had the pleasure of getting to know in different contexts, particularly in classes that I have taken or been a TA for. I've really enjoyed getting to chat with them about other topics in physics or engineering, some that were somewhat related to my line of work while others less so, as well as other random topics including but not limited to logic puzzles, the history of the university (and of the department more specifically and of academic research in physics more generally), and career plans & things to look for in future mentors. It should be noted that some of these professors read & commented on my thesis, and others sat on my FPO (thesis defense) committee. Additionally, there are so many staff members in the department who were endlessly patient with my various questions about departmental requirements and bureaucratic needs, and janitors & bus drivers (the latter contracting for the university as a whole, not the department per se) who were so good about helping me get where I needed to go. I am thankful for all of their support.

Friends and family outside of the university

I've been truly lucky to have the support of so many relatives and friends outside of the university, including friends from childhood as well as those from college. Some of my family members have been able to give me help quite frequently by virtue of living within driving distance (in one cases within a few minutes, in another within a few hours) of the university, and I am grateful for their support in this way. More broadly, I'm thankful for my family and friends near & far just for being there for me & supporting me through all of the ups & downs of the PhD journey, whether when visiting in person or talking from far away.

Friends and experiences around the university, and growth

I've saved for last the discussion of friends & broader experiences in & around the university, because they are closely tied to each other and with the ways that I've grown through the PhD program. Furthermore, these are the things that I think are most easily compared to & contrasted with my experiences in college at MIT.

I have been so lucky to meet a variety of people in my department (including students from other departments, particularly the Department of Physics, who have worked with professors in my department), including students from prior cohorts as well as postdoctoral researchers who had really invaluable advice and insights about the process of getting a PhD in the department, students from my own cohort with whom I got to share classes and the experiences of making our ways through the program, and students from later cohorts whom I met through mentorship or TA activities. Many of these friendships were formed through the simple act of eating lunch with them regularly in the department, simply as I didn't want to eat at my desk and allow work to become totalizing in that way either. Many of these friendships were further solidified through sharing dinners at restaurants or at each other's homes, playing board games together, and occasionally traveling together, all the while having fun discussing books, science, technology, finance, politics, philosophy, and sillier things too. I've striven to make friends wherever I go to support me through all of the ups & downs of my life: so far, nowhere has this been more true in a way that I can directly appreciate than in the PhD program, and I'm truly grateful for the friends I've made, as they have really gone above & beyond in that regard. Plus, just as in college, these friends opened my mind to life experiences and perspectives that I never would have considered before, and they have thus been instrumental in shaping me as I am now.

There have been some notable differences though in the kinds of experiences I've been able to have in graduate school compared to college. In college (as discussed in the link at the top of this post), I got to make friends from a wide variety of departments, many of whom lived in my dormitory but others of whom lived in other dormitories, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to swing by their room on a whim to chat or to make impromptu plans for dinner or a movie. By contrast, in graduate school, as mentioned earlier, almost all of my friends were from my department, and these sorts of impromptu or serendipitous meetings or plans were much less common.

Part of this is just a reflection of the preferences of myself & of my peers changing as we age. For one, I & my peers in graduate school were generally living not in dormitories but in proper housing for most of our times in the program. This would generally make swinging by someone's place a bit harder. For another, as my peers & I age, many of them may start families or have other obligations that would reduce such flexibility that is more of characteristic of younger adults in college with fewer external responsibilities. This would make impromptu plans & late-night conversations harder to come by. I have generally been able to accept these things as my preferences have similarly changed with age.

However, there are certain aspects of these differences in experiences that I feel are more reflective of my disability and the particular issues with accessibility in Princeton (as well as in New York City) compared to Cambridge/Boston. The hilly nature of the university campus, in conjunction with the much greater ages & poor designs (with respect to accessibility) of many of the buildings, made it much more difficult for me to generally get around, especially as my apartment building was at the bottom of the hill as far as possible from most other buildings on campus. The university ran a shuttle service with multiple routes, which sufficed for daily commutes between my apartment and my office in the department, but which I generally found inadequate for quick transportation to various parts of campus or surroundings especially during the weekends (particularly as many of the buses had chronic mechanical problems that posed special challenges for boarding in a wheelchair), including grocery shopping and other activities; meanwhile, the New Jersey Transit public transit buses around Princeton are too slow & unreliable to be easily usable for such activities on a regular basis. For these reasons, although I did try to participate in on-campus activities outside of work from time to time, my involvement in those was rather infrequent, as these problems with accessibility, and the university's slow or nonexistent support with respect to rectifying problems with accessibility, damped my enthusiasm for going out so much. Furthermore, many of my friends took part in activities outside of campus that required car transportation, which didn't help me either in this regard, and even going to New York City with its denser planning was a challenge due to accessibility problems on the New York City Subway. This change was particularly noticeable in my first through third years, given the contrast with the much greater accessibility & denser planning of Cambridge/Boston as a whole as well as the much greater support by MIT for rectifying problems with accessibility on its campus. Related to this, many fellow students in my cohort and in other cohorts too stayed in the graduate dormitories during their first years, whereas I did not; this allowed them to more easily form friendships & collaborations with students in other departments, so I somewhat regret missing out on that.

That said, this doesn't mean that I wasn't able to participate in any such activities at all, only that such participation took more effort & was less spontaneous than I might have liked. I definitely went out to eat a significantly more in graduate school than in college. Particularly from my fourth year onward, as there were more student life events promoted by the university for graduate students, I made more of an effort to attend some of those events of interest to me, including free food events, game nights, and things like that. Plus, some of my friends' interest in the arts, philosophy, broader societal issues (particularly from perspectives other than those developed from living in the US), and things of that nature inspired me to read more books about philosophy & broader societal issues (thanks in large part to the huge & very accessible collections of the university libraries) and attend more performing arts events (thanks in large part to the accessibility of the McCarter Theater in Princeton). I was able to do these things more than in college because in college, with the exceptions of orientation before freshman year and the last 3 weeks of senior year (and, to a lesser extent, the two summers where I did UROPs on campus), my time was uniformly taken up by classwork at high intensity, whereas in graduate school, once my time was mostly taken up by research work during normal weekday working hours, my evenings and weekends could be much more free. Mostly, though, I came to recognize from my friends' much broader perspectives that my own perspective coming out of college was too narrow, and I have since striven to be more self-aware, introspective, philosophical, and appreciative of the arts, humanities, and things that make people more complete & well-rounded. On top of all of this, I was still able to travel on my own to places other than my family's home much more in graduate school than in college, whether for pleasure or for work. As discussed in previous posts, some of these experiences precipitated a greater shift in my attention toward issues of accessibility, and that has since led to my desire to change careers from research in physics to transportation policy. However, I don't think I would have seriously considered it without a broader development of greater self-awareness, introspection, and appreciation for these societal issues in graduate school.

Looking to the future

It remains to be seen how my attitudes toward participating in various local activities and getting to know people shifts once I move to Davis. On the one hand, one of the things that I really liked about Davis when I visited several months ago was how flat it is, particularly in contrast to Princeton, so that would make it much easier for me to get around on my wheelchair. On the other hand, it is still a small town, though it isn't too difficult to get to Sacramento (somewhat comparable in some ways to going from Cambridge to Boston, and much easier than getting from Princeton to New York City) for other attractions. On top of all of this, my preferences may continue to change as I age further. I know I'll have the support of my family and the friends that I've made thus far, and I hope that I can continue to have supportive mentors there, push myself to try new things, and form new networks of support there.

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