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Ph.D. Life: Surviving the Early Years

In the late 1990s,Sophia Suarez's life began a new chapter. She had just entered the Ph.D. program in physics at the GraduateSchool and University Center of CUNY (City University of New York). She was excited about the challenges of being a doctoral student, but the challenge was daunting: An African-American single mother and one of the few women in the program. She knew the transition would be tough.

The way Suarez saw things, she had 3 major hurdles to clear in graduate school--two qualifying exams and the dissertation defense. So, at first, she focused all of her efforts on passing the first major test: the first qualifying exam.

She made it through. Suarez is now a National Research Council research associate at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Suarez hopes that by sharing her experiences and observations about the first few years of grad school, she can help others through this critical time.

Finding Success Locally

Suarez, a Jamaican native, had wanted to get a Ph.D. in physics ever since she was in high school.After graduation, she moved to be near relatives in Brooklyn, New York, and to attend Hunter College of CUNY. She earned a Bachelor’s degree--followed by a Master’s degree--under advisor Steven Greenbaum.

When it came time to choose a Ph.D. program, she decided to stay within the CUNY system and continue doing research with Greenbaum. She also wanted to stay at CUNY because she had become a single parent after completing her Master’s and wanted relatives close by in case of emergencies. Although for some people relocating can mean avoiding the distractions of old friends and habits, for Suarez staying close to home was entirely positive: it allowed her to adjust to graduate life better. The best thing about CUNY, Suarez says, was that she would know the people she worked with, especially Greenbaum who had been her advisor for years, and who she continued to rely on for guidance.

Furthermore, Greenbaum's connections helped Suarez find funding for her Ph.D. study so that she didn’t have to work outside of school. Suarez got fellowships from the National Institutes of Health’s Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) Program, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program, and NSF’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) Program. Greenbaum also helped her secure a coveted assignment as a lecturer, teaching first-year classical mechanics lecture and lab courses at CUNY.

Suarez prepares to refill a superconducting magnet--part of a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer--with liquid nitrogen.

The First Big Obstacle

At the GraduateSchool and University Center of CUNY, students have four sections to tackle for their first qualifying exam: general physics, classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and electricity and magnetism. General physics, Suarez says, was the comprehensive part of the exam and included all areas of physics, while the other 3 sections were more specific. Suarez knew that students often had difficulty with the exam, so she needed a good study strategy. “A lot of students were not able to pass the first qualifying exam,” she says. “It’s very difficult to study and focus on every aspect of every [physics] course.”

In addition to working hard and doing well in her courses, Suarez solved physics problems independently every day, apart from those assigned from her courses. She was unable to find problem-solving books at local libraries, but obtained old exams from the school and found books that contained physics problems, many from Chinese universities and a few from the U.S. “Physics is nothing if you’re not able to solve problems. That’s the basis of physics,” she explains.

About 6 months before her exam, Greenbaum hired a tutor to make sure she and other students were solving their physics problems correctly, particularly those from books and exams that didn’t provide answers. These tutoring sessions were either one-on-one or in groups, depending on individual schedules.

While preparing for the exam Suarez decided to focus on the specific areas of the test--electricity and magnetism, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics--because she felt her chances of passing these sections were higher than if she would include the broader general physics section. She did well in the three specific parts of the exam, but didn’t pass general physics. Since Ph.D. students at CUNY are allowed to attempt the first qualifying exam twice, she studied for and took the general physics exam 6 months later and passed.

Sophia’s Survival Tips

Sophia has helpful tips for those entering a Ph.D. program.

  • Speak to students who are in the Ph.D. program you plan to enter, including those who are and are not doing well. The ones who are matriculating successfully will tell you what you need to know.

  • Expect Ph.D. courses and qualifying exams to be hard; spend a lot of time preparing for them.

  • To do well in research, learn to work independently and in a group.

  • To be successful in teaching, make sure to talk to other instructors and get a feel for the job.

  • While doing lab rotations, get to know potential advisors as well as possible. Speak with current Ph.D. students and get a tour of the lab. Choose your lab home carefully.

  • Seek a graduate advisor who has your best interest at heart (as opposed to viewing you as cheap labor). Work with those who are always willing to talk to students, particularly about work-related issues, and those who encourage graduate students' involvement in skill-enhancing activities and events.

  • Your dissertation is a work in progress. Start early. Try writing chapter by chapter. Show your drafts to people in your lab, your advisor, and professors for proofing or editing.

Being a Master’s Student Helped Her Along

Going through the master’s program in physics at HunterCollege was a big advantage for Suarez, she says, because it helped her make the transition to doctoral study. The required physics courses for the master’s program were the same as the first-year Ph.D. courses. While studying for her master's degree, she learned that taking advantage of professors' office hours and spending more time studying on her own and in groups was the key to excelling in class. The students in her master’s and doctoral program were noticeably less diverse--fewer women, Hispanics, and African-Americans--than those in her undergraduate courses in physics. Nevertheless, she learned, “It doesn’t matter where you come from. We were all going through the same struggles.”

Balancing Motherhood and Graduate School

Good time management skills were important for Suarez. She had to fit in teaching, studying, doing research, and being a mom to her young son. Because she often worked in the lab 6 or 7 days a week, she relied heavily on day care, but family and friends helped with childcare when necessary. Suarez says she was able to complete her doctorate because she learned how to work around her son’s schedule. “It doesn’t matter if the experiment isn’t going well or whatever crises or joyful thing is happening,” she explains. “You have to be at the daycare by closing time to get your son. You have to make sure that whatever it is that you have to do is done within that time window, and if it’s not done, you try again the next day.”

Physics at CUNY and Beyond

After all the work she did to prepare for the first qualifying exam, Suarez found herself better qualified for future challenges, namely her second qualifying exam and dissertation defense. Neither presented a problem. Suarez completed her Ph.D. in 2004 and moved to Washington to develop high pressure nuclear magnetic resonance techniques at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. She studies the effects of hydrostatic pressure on the molecular structure and dynamics of polymer blends.

Her experiences at CUNY cemented her desire to become a physics professor at a university. She benefited from having a good mentor, access to great resources, and funding. “It [CUNY] provided a very good environment that allowed me to actually finish my degrees and be where I am now,” she says. “So ultimately, one of the things I would like to do is be that for somebody else because, especially in physics, there are not a lot of women [and minorities in the field].”

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet.

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