So You’re Thinking About Grad School, Part 2: Tips for Writing a Proposal

Pro Tip 1: Do not start your NSF proposal a week and a half before it’s due… especially when that week and a half includes needing to work with the administrative departments at three large organizations… and especially when that week and a half includes Thanksgiving break when all those administrative departments like to be home, you know, eating turkey… and especially when that week and a half includes your Fiancé flying into town for four days.

Pro Tip 2: When you ignore “Pro Tip 1,” be working with amazing people on said proposal.

Pro Tip 3: Invest in coffee.

You may have been wondering where all the updates on this blog have been. And then you used your keen eye and highly trained critical reasoning skills to read between the lines of my Pro Tip 1 and deduced: Luke has been busy.

In my defense for doing the unthinkable of pulling together an NSF Proposal in just over a week (Pro Tip 4: Allow yourself a couple months for this under normal circumstances), I was unaware of this Fellowship until about two weeks before its due date when I got the heads up from the professor I’ll end up working with on this project (if we get it). Luckily, I followed my Pro Tip 2, because between her and my other potential mentor for this project I was fortunate to be working with incredibly generous and motivated people who put in a lot of hours to make things happen for me… because the week involved a lot of this:

So what was my proposal for? Here’s the one paragraph summary:

Magnetic materials are present in many advanced devices and motors that are indispensible to modern life. Permanent magnets have the ability to enable the conversion between electrical and mechanical energy, the transmission and distribution of electrical power, and provide for the basis of our data storage systems. So-called rare-earth (RE) “supermagnets” are highly desirable because they combine the high magnetization of the transition-metal components with the very large magnetocrystalline anisotropy of the RE components. This magnetocrystalline anisotropy, which donates the high resistance to demagnetization, needs to be replaced in any magnet design that does not include REs. In this work, novel approaches to the synthesis of RE-free nanoscale magnetic materials with significant magnetocrystalline anisotropy and high magnetic energy products will be undertaken. In this manner, results from the laboratory will be more effectively transitioned into technological applications. Two RE-free systems will be created in nanoscale form using rapid solidification processing (melt-spinning, thermal plasma synthesis), thoroughly characterized, and then densified into compacts for mechanical and thermal evaluation. The two materials systems include L10-FeNi and Fe-Fe3O4 in nanocomposite form. Non-equilibrium processing of these two systems is expected to alter the defect density in the L10-FeNi material and alter the oxide cation occupancy trends in the Fe-Fe3O4 nanocomposite; both effects are anticipated to allow tailoring of the materials to achieve high energy products. This research is distinguished in its goal to attain fundamental information concerning high energy product magnetic nanomaterials and to extend these results to pilot-scale production of promising magnetic nanomaterials.

If I get it (a long shot, considering the… you know… one week timeframe of throwing this together), I’d be working with an amazing professor up at Northeastern University, as well as a great partner from the research lab of General Motors. So: hopefully it’ll work out. Without their help, and the help of many many administrators at UT, Northeastern and GM, during this process there is no way I could have got this done. We literally got the last thing uploaded three minutes before deadline! (Pro Tip 5: Don’t do that.)

Anyway, it’s an amazing opportunity, so fingers crossed! In the meantime, this research isn’t going to finish itself…

John B. Goodenough Symposium in Materials Science & Engineering

It’s a long title… but it represents a long legacy. I meant to recap the symposium that was put on in honor of my advisor’s 90th birthday sooner (it was Oct. 26-27), but life and work–mostly work, I am a grad student after all–kept getting in the way.

It was a really impressive event, and a lot of credit is due to the organizers Jianshi Zhou (my co-supervisor) and Arumugam “Ram” Manthiram. And equal credit is due to the behind-the-scenes organizers who included Lauren Murrah, Christy Aletky and others.

Something on the order of 200 scientists all specializing in Transition Metal Oxides and Lithium Ion Batteries came in from all around the world. Two fields of Materials Science/Solid-State Chemistry/Condensed Matter Physics that were birthed, in large part, from the mind of John B. Goodenough.

On Friday, we were able to mingle with everybody, and I was able to show my poster (which I posted about before the event). I’m not particularly good at networking, but I was able to have a couple of really great conversations that evening.

The first was with Dr. Laura Lewis of Northeastern University in Boston. We started discussing some of my research and also some of the work I’ve been able to do up on the synchrotron. But beyond that we were able to have a great conversation about different things I should be looking for as I move along the last year of my program and start looking toward next year. I’m really grateful for the chance I had to pick her brain!

Another great conversation was an impromptu talk by Dr. Gang Cao of the University of Kentucky. He has been able to move forward a lot of research in the 4d and 5d transition metals (especially concerning the Iridates), so it was fascinating to get caught up on his findings, and have a relatively informal conversation about the slides he was presenting to a little band of 6-8 of us. It had a great feeling of camaraderie and community discovery which sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day of working in a lab. It was really refreshing and invigorating.

Saturday was a series of very good lectures both on the history of the fields (stories of the early days), and in the most modern applications (like the possibilities of Lithium-Air batteries and the like). They were great.

I especially enjoyed the talk by Dr. José Antonio Alonso of the Insituto de Ciencias de Materiales de Madrid in Spain regarding high-pressure perovskite phases of the transition metal oxides. Mostly because it was highly relevant to my own research. And because I’ve collaborated with him on these topics before when I spent a couple weeks in Spain last year learning some experimental techniques from him and others in his  lab.

So Happy Birthday to the boss-man! The event in your honor was amazing, as is your storied career. Many congratulations.

The only thing missing from this post is a copy of the short video that features Dr. Goodenough himself. He tells a couple great anecdotes, so I will try to track down a copy to post. In the meantime, the man himself giving his talk at dinner:

So You’re Thinking About Grad School, Part 1: Asking The Right Questions

If you’re in the process of applying for graduate school (which I believe we’re in the season for), one thing you’ll want to do to make sure you land somewhere you are comfortable and happy is ask the right questions. It’s really easy to get carried away in the process (as I did) and forget to look out for your interests.

And I mean “interests” in both senses of the word: you want to make sure you are setting up yourself to meet your future goals, and that you are going to find the work you’ll be doing engaging (because otherwise your next 4-8 years are really going to suck). As with most thinks grad school related, Jorge Cham sums this up well:

So let’s go through some of these. I’ll try to point out which ones are critically important, which less so, and add some of my own. (Note: I’ll be speaking only to my own experience in the Materials Science program at the University of Texas… I would expect most of my answers to be true most places in the hard sciences, but take it with the appropriately sized grain of salt.) (Double Note: If you somehow landed here but you’re actually applying for Business, Law, Medical or Dental Schools, this definitely doesn’t apply to you… the professional schools are a totally different animal.)

Do I already need funding/fellowship coming into the program?

No. But it can be incredibly helpful if you already know exactly what to study. Having your own funding gives you incredible leverage when determining the path you will pursue throughout you time at the host university.

To a certain (read: large) extent, graduate students are cheap labor for research professors. When you match up with a professor to be your advisor, you are asking them to share their experience and knowledge with you and you are giving them hours and hours in the lab in exchange.

Those hours and hours get used basically how your professor wants them to be used. Mostly this is for a good reason: you have no idea what you’re doing yet, so you’re not a good judge of the most effective way to use your time in the lab:

If you have funding already, you have leverage. And if someone gave you funding… it’s because you already have some idea of what you’re doing (or they’re idiots and you should send me their number immediately). So if you have funding: Congrats! You’re ahead of the game. If not: no worries… just prepare for a little drudgery.

Money: will I have any?

This was the biggest surprise to me: Yes. Assuming you are not an idiot with your money, you will have enough to get by. And what I mean by that is that I have enough cash to:

  • Make good food (not ramen) every night (but not eat out very often)
  • Pay rent in a nice place about two miles from campus
  • Keep my bike maintained to get me to/from campus (Note here: using a car everyday would increase your costs by a lot, parking on campus is expensive)
  • Hit happy hour most weeks
  • Start and contribute monthly to an IRA account (this was the biggest surprise to me!)
  • Fly to Boston to see my fiancé (every now and then… this one is the tight squeeze)

To make this work make sure your program covers your tuition, and has a stipend. Additionally, apply for departmental or third-party fellowships that can supplement your normal stipend. (I have a departmental stipend that is what allows me to start an IRA. Without it, I would not be able to save anything.)

Do I know what the local city is like?

Really important question to ask. I love Austin. There are some days that the lab is unbearable, and the cure is going to a live music show somewhere. Make sure you like, or can at least learn to happily tolerate the place you’ll be for the foreseeable future. Keep in mind: your university and professors will have the most contacts for future jobs in your local area… could you start a family in this community?

Will I get along with the professor/group you’ll be working with?

This is probably the most important question. It’s sorta like being pretty picky about who you’re going to marry:

So make sure you get along with everybody, and that their hands-on/hands-off/terse/verbose/friendly/serious demeanor matches up well with your learning style.

Is there going to be a lot of pressure to publish?

Yes. Get over it.

Will I ever get to sleep again?

Yes… my experience at least is this: once I finished my course requirements, there isn’t much work  that I take home with me. I probably work 50-60 hours a week, but almost all of that is in the lab. Once you go home, you can relax (read: sleep). Unless you’re anal. Or a workaholic. Or meeting a deadline. Or fretting that your professor is disappointed in you. Or wanting to finish your degree so you can move to where your fiancé lives…

Crap, I just realized have some work to do tonight. Gotta run.



Speaking of trying to figure out what grad school is like… here’s a little “why you should come here” short from my school (incidentally, that’s my buddy Will):