Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why should you go to graduate school? One student's perspective

Last month AWE held a panel on why you might want to attend graduate school and what the graduate experience is like.  The purpose of this panel was to try to encourage more young women to consider attending a PhD program after graduation.  I understand that graduate school isn’t for everyone but I worry that many students who would excel in a PhD program don’t even consider it so I wanted to give some insight into what graduate school is like and how I got to where I am today.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Graduate Student in Search of Inspiration

About two months ago (jeez how the time flies!), Gioia De Cari’s “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” was playing at the Annenberg Center here on Penn’s Campus. Expecting a witty, yet inspiring, satire on the female experience in the STEM fields, I eagerly purchased my tickets well in advance and also managed to persuade several of my female colleagues to join me for the experience.  When performance day came, I sat down in my seat, prepared to be to have my emotions pulled every which way but ultimately ready to feel empowered as a female pursuing an advanced degree in engineering by the end of it… 

But 75 minutes later, I really had no idea how to feel. And not particularly in a good way either… It threw me for such a whirl around that it took me over two months to finally sort out my thoughts about it!

Just to fill you in – “Truth Values” is a one-woman show by Gioia De Cari about her personal journey through the mathematics PhD program at MIT. In 75 minutes, she details her struggles from both within the department and without by acting out in key moments in her life, playing herself and other colorful characters in each scene. And to be honest, it was an excellent 75 minutes of excellent entertainment – the event was accurately advertised as filled with “wit and gusto.” However, the event was also said to be “reminiscent of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in,” which I find myself having a more difficult time agreeing with. While Lean In is also detailed with personal accounts, the book also, very clearly, sends an empowering message to women: get out of your own way, believe in yourself, and “lean in” to your careers, however male-dominated they may be.  I contend that “Truth Values”, while well intentioned, struggled to execute this task.

What isn’t explicitly said in the event description is that De Cari ultimately decided to leave MIT earlier than anticipated, taking a Master’s degree instead of the PhD she had initially set out to achieve… and she turns out to be so very much happier in her secondary interests (i.e. acting and playwriting) than she ever appeared to be struggling through MIT’s male math maze. Taking this at first impression, I felt like “Truth Values” was encouraging women to leave or stay out of the female-unfriendly STEM fields.

Suddenly, I started to feel completely overwhelmed by all the setbacks I had encountered recently in my graduate school career. I began to wonder whether I had been right to doubt my decisions to pursue my advanced degree... and if I had been completely wrong to even embark on the journey in the first place! What if I, too, had left early with my MS degree, like I had desperately considered only a few months earlier, in order pursue my secondary, more enjoyable interests (read: dog walking and creating delicious baked goods…… okay so maybe first, I’d have to rethink those into other more lucrative secondary interests, ha)? 

Weeks of self-doubt ensued, and what perfect timing too, as I soon had to give my first talk at a national academic conference. Then, less than a week later, I had to begin prepping my poster talk at a department symposium that I helped to organize and recruit industry representatives for. My research hadn’t gone as smoothly as I would have hoped, and I felt so incredibly foolish to be talking to any audience, let alone one that included future potential employers, about my seemingly lackluster results. 

But then I saw the light.

As I was finishing up one iteration of my poster talk to an industry rep, he stopped me to say, “Wow, this must have been a ton of work. Great job, keep it up, and thanks for a great talk.” At first, I was taken aback, but as I processed his comment, I realized that my research was and continues to be, in fact, a ton of work. And really, it is an incredibly difficult problem that I’m trying to address… and you know what? I have done a great job, especially considering the difficulty and complexity of the problem! Why was I realizing this only now? It is insane how just a little bit of outside perspective can knock a ton of sense into you.
 Graduate school isn’t easy stuff. And it’s not supposed to be. Otherwise, why would having a PhD be impressive at all? But if you’re anything like me, and by that I mean someone who is constantly comparing herself to others to judge appropriate life progress, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. 

So what is the bigger picture? 

Graduate school is an individual experience. The people you encounter along the way – whether they are labmates, advisors, collaborators, or far off potential employers – they will all influence it in some small or big personalized way. Some grad students will be lucky enough to have all the right resources at all the right times, enabling them to speed through achievements and tangible results. Others will have a slightly harder time getting all their ducks in a row. In either case, however, students will still be acquiring new skills, learning not only about solving real-world problems but also about key insights about themselves that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Really, the bottom line is that it’s up to the individual student what they make of the experience.
Gioia De Cari had one (mostly) awful experience at MIT, and it was her decision to do what she did with it.  But that was her experience. And perhaps most importantly, it was her experience in a very different time. While I’m sure that not all of the problems she encountered as a female in STEM have been solved since, I’m also sure that a lot of forward progress has been made in the nearly 30 years that have gone by. Let’s ask the question - would I have been so easily commended and encouraged at a departmental showcase 30 years ago? Judging by De Cari’s depiction of female prejudices in the late 1980s, it is very possible that the answer is no. 

“Truth Values” may not have been obviously inspiring, but it most definitely sparked necessary dialogue, both inner and outer, about female issues in the scientific world. And maybe it took me over two months to get there, but I do feel empowered. “Truth Values” depicted a world where allies (mentors and friends alike) were hard to find for STEM females, but this is no longer true. And it’s up to us (you, me, and everyone else currently in this female math and science boat) to step up and make the best of it.  

Questions for Melissa?  email her at

Friday, December 6, 2013

Reflections from a senior

I looked at a calendar the other day and realized that I only have 2 days of class left this semester. My first reaction was “thank God! I’m ready for this semester to be over.” But then I realized that this is another one of those “lasts” you go through as a senior. My last, first semester, last course selection period, last winter break, etc. Although on one hand I am more than ready to be done with the classes and the homework, and start a real job, I also know that I am going to miss it here. 

I’ve loved it here since I first arrived for pre-orientation over four years ago where I met one of my best friends on, literally, my first day. Since then, we, along with all those other engineers in our grade have suffered through the ups and downs of our courses while trying to balance school and work with extracurriculars and a social life. Truthfully, it hasn’t always been easy and I don’t know how I would have gotten here without all the help from my friends both in and out of school. But I think that’s why I like it so much here, and what I’ll miss when I’m gone. Penn may be difficult but the people here are amazing. Instead of competing, they realize the best way to get through is work together. That camaraderie is something I saw when I came and visited while still in high school, and I’m glad to say has always been there throughout my four years at Penn. Without it, I might have gone crazy (though some might contest that I have done that anyway).

I wouldn’t really consider myself a sentimental person but when you can start to see the end of something that has been the center of your life for so long, it’s hard not to look back and think about what you should have or could have done. I myself, am happy to say that I have no real regrets about my time here – sure I’ve done some silly things, but it’s college; who hasn’t? And yes, there are some things I still want to do (like go to D.C.) but I figure that’s what my final semester is for. I’m looking forward to having a (hopefully) more relaxing semester – only four classes – doing some more exploring and traveling, and then graduating in May. 

Questions for Patricia?  Email her at

Monday, November 25, 2013

Finding Your Niche at Penn

Penn quite simply is a huge school.  While this is an advantage because it means there are more opportunities than your time at Penn will even allow, it is also overwhelming for freshmen coming from high school where classes were maybe 30 students maximum.  This is why it is incredibly important to find smaller communities within Penn.
Each year in the beginning of the fall and spring semesters, there are club fairs that occur on Locust Walk.  You have never seen so many flyers and email list signups fly at your face before, but it is a great chance to learn about various clubs that you may never have found out about otherwise.   Furthermore, it is no mystery that engineering is tough, and so it is essential to be involved in other activities that can allow you to use a different part of your brain.  You should always make sure to take study breaks for the things you are passionate about; it will make you more productive! 
For me, I am involved in Class Board, a branch of student government that plans spirited events for my class.  Being part of Class Board allows me to be creative and to meet other students who I normally wouldn’t meet in my classes.  Most of my board is in the College of Arts & Sciences, and if it weren’t for being a part of Class Board, I may never get the opportunity to interact with these students since Penn is so vast.  Being friends with students who take completely different classes from me offers me an even greater perspective on what Penn has to offer, and it is nice to talk about topics other than math and science occasionally! 
Within engineering, however, I am also a part of Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity.  Becoming a brother of Theta Tau has been one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had thus far at Penn because all of the brothers understand the demands of an engineering curriculum.  It is also helpful to know other engineers from various years and majors who can give you can ask about classes, work on problem sets with, or just hang out with when you have downtime (which does in fact exist!).  Engineering is one of those fields where you cannot go it alone, and so it is crucial to connect with your classmates.  Some of my closest friends at Penn are in Theta Tau, and it is not only a fun group of engineers who are all nerds at heart, but also an awesome support network.  I feel like being part of two very different groups like Class Board and Theta Tau gives me the best of both worlds because I can be creative with planning events for my class, but also be connected to my home school through the engineers I know from across majors and years.
So how do you find where you belong at Penn?  The important thing to note is that there is not just one place where you belong.  You can be a part of as many or as few communities as you want as long as you are passionate about what you spend your time doing.  In high school, there was this sense that everything you did was for your resume in order to impress colleges.  But being in college is different, and it is a fantastic opportunity to delve into something you love or to try something completely new.  At Penn, there is a club for everything under the sun, and even if you cannot find what you are looking for, there is bound to be someone amongst the 10,000 undergraduate student population who is interested in the same things as you who would want to create a new club.  The bottom line is, do not be afraid to commit to an activity or go outside of your comfort zone completely.  As my best friend Rebecca always tells me, “Girl, you gotta PYOT & SOT (put yourself out there & stay out there)!”  So go out there and find your niche or niches at Penn!

Questions for Chloe?  Email her at

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Greener Penn

This past summer, I interned at a local start up company that performs solar analyses of properties and develops solar related products.  Working with this company, my eyes were opened to the world of solar and the opportunities it presents to society.  Employing larger scale solar energy in a public setting not only helps the environment but also educates the general public on the benefits of solar. 

A majority of my work revolved around the development and production of a solar-powered table that charges cell phones, iPads, laptops, etc.  Without much prior solar knowledge, I delved into component research, competitive analyses, and marketing of the tables.  Initially when I took this internship, I did not see my involvement with solar going much further than the end of the summer.  However, when I returned to school, I learned about the Penn Green Fund and its efforts to make Penn a greener university.  The Green Fund offers grants up to $50,000 for the execution of project proposals aiming to improve Penn’s environmental performance that their committee deems promising and valid.

After learning about this chance to make Penn greener while simultaneously providing great exposure and ample opportunity for my former internship company, I decided to submit my own proposal for four of the solar tables to be installed on Penn’s campus.  After performing site evaluations around Penn, I hope to install the tables in Penn Park to provide both seating and power to those involved in activities on the east side of campus.  Only time will tell if my proposal will be approved, and I am excited to see what the future holds.  In the meantime, I am happy to simply continue interacting with my former internship company.  I barely knew anything about solar power before my internship, and it required a lot of me to step outside of my comfort zone and take a job I was not familiar with in the least.  Looking back, however, I am so glad I took that chance because it opened up so many opportunities, like Penn’s Green Fund proposal, for me to pursue.

Questions for Kristen?  Email her at

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Being in Grad School!

One of the best things about doing an undergraduate degree in engineering is that it’s really easy to do a master’s degree too! Penn Engineering has a special program called submatriculation that enables you to easily enter a master’s program. One simple application during your junior year lets you submatriculate. This is really great for a host of reasons.

  1.  You don’t have to take the GRE’s or go through the lengthy admissions process all over again.
  2.   You can double count three courses from your undergrad degree so you only need to take 7 additional courses for the masters (which isn’t a lot considering you need to complete about 40 undergraduate courses) 
  3.  Because of reason number 2, you can easily finish your master’s in only one extra year or even just one extra semester (as opposed to a year and a half or two years which is how long it takes most people to do a master’s degree)
  4. You don’t have to do a master’s thesis (unless you want to of course).
  5. In some cases, you can do your masters while receiving your undergraduate financial aid.

Coming into Penn, I did not even know submatriculation was an option. During my first few years, I met several upperclassmen who had submatriculated, but I still wasn’t seriously considering it. However, I decided to apply during my junior year because I thought, “Why not?” The application took about 20 minutes, and I had nothing to lose by applying.

Fast forward to now: I was accepted to submatriculate, and I’m in my fifth year at Penn working towards my masters. Transitioning to being a master’s student has been an interesting experience. For one thing, there are far fewer women in the master’s program than in the undergraduate program. One day I looked around and realized there were no longer nearly as many women in my classes as there used to be.  And, as expected, the classes are also harder than the undergraduate ones, but nothing a Penn engineering undergraduate degree hasn’t prepared me for. I think there’s a perception that grad school is really hard. Here’s a secret: it’s not. Especially if you’ve just tackled an undergrad in engineering. Especially when you’re taking classes from the same professors with whom you already know.

So far, I’m really happy with my decision. I have more time to think about what I want to do in my career, and I feel less rushed about entering the job market. I can study topics I’m interested in like renewable energy at more depth. And when I do finish my degree, I’ll be able to command a higher salary. If you told me five years ago, that I would have my master’s degree when I was 23, I wouldn’t have believed you. But I will, and so can you! 

Do you have questions for Annie?  Contact her at