The Road to Academic Research: Weighing PhD Opportunities

Author: Stuart J. Williams, Ph.D. ME 2009
Stuart J. Williams
Stuart J. Williams
My career path from engineering student, to graduate student, then currently to my position as an Assistant Professor was never clearly defined nor straightforward, yet the end goal was always in sight. It started when I conducted my undergraduate co-op at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM) in the field of microsensors. This occurred shortly after 9/11 and our group was thrust into explosive and chemical detection sensoning techniques. About every professional around me had a Ph.D. and I knew that if I wanted to continue to work in cutting-edge research I had to obtain an advanced degree.

A few years later I graduated with my Bachelor’s and Master’s from the University of Louisville (my hometown) and began my search for Ph.D. institutions. It came down to three choices: the University of Louisville, Purdue University, or MIT. I had received fellowships (a.k.a. graduate school scholarships) from all of these institutions, but I ultimately chose Purdue. This may come as a surprising choice over a top-ranked MIT, but my reasoning was sound. First, the University of Louisville gave me a great education, but my mentor told me that my professional career would be further valued if I went to another university besides UofL to learn more techniques and network with more professionals. Looking back, this is one of the best choices I made; I highly recommend any of you contemplating graduate school, whether Master’s or Ph.D., to migrate to another university or, at the very least, a new research field within your current school. The more techniques you learn, the more valuable you become professionally. Second, my support group at Purdue University was a lot stronger than at MIT. My loving and supporting family and, at the time, girlfriend (who is now my wife) was closer - a three hour drive is very feasible for weekend visits compared to more expensive and infrequent airline travel. Also, my undergraduate social fraternity, Kappa Sigma, had a strong chapter at Purdue where I built relations with their members. The combination of local friends and near-by family would provide the stress relief I needed with experimentally-based research and a demanding graduate program. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the average Ph.D. degree in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue takes 4.5 years compared to a longer period of time at MIT.

For those of you contemplating a graduate degree, especially in engineering, I would strongly consider it. You typically are paid (enough to get by) during graduate school and, upon graduation, you earn a larger salary that those with undergraduate degrees. You would have demonstrated that you are an independent researcher that can accomplish difficult tasks on your own. Always be willing to learn new tricks and make sure you have a strong support system – this will help you both in graduate school and in your future careers.