Mother's Day appreciation (part III): Turning the graduate program you have into the graduate program you need.

May 13 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

In part II of the interview, my mother discussed her transition from mentor-ific undergraduate physics to a graduate physics program with no mentoring to speak of, not to mention astronomy courses that were described in the course catalogue but not actually taught. Here, in the final segment of our interview, she describes how she developed an exit strategy that took her closer to who she wanted to grow up to be, and reflects upon the lessons learned.

Part III: Making your graduate program work for you:

Was writing a masters thesis even a standard option in the physics program at City College? Why did you opt to do the masters? What (besides qualifying exams) did you see as the potential downside of staying for the Ph.D.? How did you figure out who to work with?

Writing a masters thesis was NOT an option then in practice, although it might have been mentioned as an option in the catalog, along with the mythical astronomy course offerings. Students took the standard required courses and passed or failed the qualifying exams. If you failed with a high enough score you were voted a masters and left. If you passed you took advanced, specialized courses and did research.

At that juncture almost no American students were passing the quals, and my stomach went south whenever I tried to start studying for them. Besides, since NO astrophysics-related courses were being taught, I could not see that I would get into astronomy by following the standard route and taking the quals, pass or fail.

Through no fault of any advisement in the department, I determined that the only working astrophysicist in-house at the time was Chi Yuan, and knocked on his door. (Those pushy American women!) After telling him that my goal was to get into astronomy (in my lifetime), and that since none of the astro courses in the catalog were being taught, and I had become ineligible for the NASA funded research program that had drawn me to CCNY, I wanted to have a research experience in astro, write a thesis, and finish with a terminal masters. Having considered this, he pulled out two research outlines, put one down saying it was too big for a masters project, and handed me the other. Fortunately, I found the project interesting.

What kind of adjustments and negotiations did you have to make to find research, supervision, and a thesis topic that really felt like they were heading you in your intended direction and not some specialty in physics that you didn't want to end up in?

To get approval to write a thesis in lieu of taking the quals (and failing with a "respectable grade"), I had to formally petition the graduate committee, as did my proposed advisor. I was fortunate that the head of the committee at the time had been my E&M prof, who believed in me, saw the wisdom of my proposal for my goals, and was one of a handful of profs who genuinely believed in helping students. He called a meeting at which we presented my case. Some days later, he called the meeting to take the binding vote, setting it at a time when he new he could get those most in favor to attend, and then actually finding them (in office or class) and escorting them to the meeting for the brief vote.

My petition was granted. I worked on the project for something over a year and produced a thesis that my advisor admitted was not too far off from a dissertation's worth of material. So it only took me 1 to 1.5 years longer to get the masters than if I had gotten in by failing the quals, but I got some experience in astronomical modeling.

This experience gave me more than the masters. It made it clear to me that if I could figure out a solution to a work situation, it could only happen if I made the argument to those in control. You cannot get a "YES", unless you state your case and are willing to hear "NO".

The folks at CCNY were encouraging you to stay on for a Ph.D. in physics even after writing the masters thesis, rather than moving on.

You were in college, and your brother was about to go to college too (with 2 years' overlap). There were two more at home waiting for their turns. My plan was to get a job that would net me ONE of those college tuitions. When profs cornered my in the hallway outside the department office and insisted I should stay to do the Ph.D., I looked them in the eyes and said I would consider staying if they would add one really good course to the curriculum: a course in bank robbery -- but a really good one so I would learn how to do it without getting caught. Some of the profs looked at me in horror, but the ones paying tuition for their own kids in college at the time were doubled over laughing.

I did stay on to take the fluid dynamics course taught by my advisor the term after I had earned my masters, while I looked for my job in astronomy. The story of how I got that credit on my transcript is a tale in itself, and since we're beyond the statute of limitations I might tell you that one someday.

What were some of your strategies for lining up collaborators and networking in your intended field?

I used my advisor's contacts, and contacts from my undergraduate astronomy department, sending each person my resume (focused and polished with placement office advice). There were only a few actually job postings to which I could respond, so most of the contacts were "cold". With each resume I sent a cover letter that I made as personal as possible, citing my connection, and always requesting that if the recipient did not have a position requiring my qualifications, that he/she pass my resume on to contacts who might have an appropriate position. I call this getting your resume to bounce.

I also took myself to a June meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to meet with some of my college astro connections and work the hiring process at the meeting.

I found a job through my college connections, not my grad school or advisor's connections. The man who hired me (the head of a small tech company, which are called "Beltway bandits" in these parts) to work on IR rocket data at NRL had gotten my resume from four sources.

I can't claim that I really netted a college tuition, but I stopped paying tuition for me, started earning some money, and was far too busy to spend much.

What did you end up getting from your graduate program?

Commuting to CCNY for four years gave me a real education, in many ways.

I got enough credentials to have a chance to "practice" astronomy for a few years. (Like practicing law, in astronomy what you learn in school prepares you to keep learning on the job.) As funding dried up I did other things, some very related, others less so. But I did get my "moment in the sun".

Did getting through a masters degree in a field that you initially dodged as an undergraduate, and figuring out how to tailor that program to your own interests, change how you saw yourself? Do you think the experience had value beyond allowing you to work in astronomy?

I believe that persisting to the goal firmly established in my mind that my stubbornness was really one of my gifts (when used properly). That has been exceedingly important in my work AND personal life since then.

It also taught me this lesson: If you can figure out an accommodation that can make things work, you'll only get it if you ask (and fight) for it. No one is going to volunteer to do it the way you need to get the job done. You have to make your case. That gave me the gall to ask to work mostly from New Jersey at an astronomy job in Washington, D.C., once I had had a year being away from home 5 days a week while your younger brothers were 12 and 14. I figured out a solution, made my case (and backed it up by interviewing for other jobs closer to home), and got the accommodation.

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  • Bill says:

    if I could figure out a solution to a work situation, it could only happen if I made the argument to those in control. You cannot get a "YES", unless you state your case and are willing to hear "NO".
    I may have some of these quotes tattoo'd on my body...

  • sciencewoman says:

    Wow. Your mom definitely deserves her Super Sally moniker. I'm including your entries in this week's Scientiae carnival, they're inspiring and they even fit the theme. Thanks for sharing this interview.

  • Jessica says:

    This is truly inspiring! Thank you so much for sharing your mother's story.