National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Graduate Forum

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009, Glenn Research Center – Cleveland, OH

The Graduate Forum began with Dr. Kankam talking about his path to his current career. Dr. Kankam was born in Ghana, where he did his secondary schooling. Then he moved to Canada to do his undergraduate and PhD work. After obtaining his PhD, he worked with General Electric in New York.

He has been working in NASA since the early 1990s. He started in the Research & Technology Directorate where he worked for 12-13 years, then switched to become the director of the University Programs for Glenn where he has been working for the last 5 years. Dr. Kankam’s undergraduate schooling was paid by a scholarship he received from Ghana. Once in graduate school, he relied on teaching assistantships to pay for his PhD.

Dr. Kankam said that he had very good mentors in graduate school and he recommended that people should go to different thesis dissertation talks because he learned a lot just attending those. He also mentioned that the application deadline for NASA’s GSRP (Graduate Student Research Program) is on February 1 and briefly went over the application requirements. One can apply to three NASA Centers and the proposal from the student should align with the Center’s goals.

The next speaker was Dr. Malik Elbuluk, a professor at the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Akron. Dr. Elbuluk went to MIT for his graduate degrees (two years for his Masters, one year for Engineering and 4 years for a PhD). He mentioned that the best way to get funding for graduate school is through research assistantships and teaching assistantships.

For the rest of his talk, he listed the differences between an undergraduate and graduate level education. In an undergraduate education, the student is introduced to the basics, the subject areas cover more breadth than depth providing a well-rounded education, the curriculum is textbook oriented and the focus is on maintenance and development. On the other hand, in a graduate level education, the student has to specialize in a more focused area, covering more depth than breadth, the curriculum is based on published research and the focus is on research & development.

The other primary difference between a typical undergraduate education and a typical graduate level education is that graduate degrees are almost guaranteed to be tuition-free while most undergraduate degrees are paid for by the student. Most graduate students devote about 20 hours per week of their time serving as a research assistant (RA) or teaching assistant (TA) to pay for their tuition. If a graduate student receives a fellowship, then he/she is not obligated to do TA work.

Dr. Elbuluk highlighted some important issues when considering graduate school: grad school requirements, choice of advisor, uniqueness of a graduate program and funding. He concluded by saying that a PhD is a long-term commitment and one must prepare well for the Qualifying exam in order to actually start their PhD.

The rest of the graduate forum consisted of a panel of speakers who work at NASA and have received PhDs. Each speaker shared their experience of how they got where they are and what they would change if they were to do it over. One of the speakers, Dr. Sandi Miller, who worked on her PhD going to school part time while she was working, said she would not recommend doing that because PhD is a big commitment and should not be taken lightly.

Another speaker shared her experience of how to stay connected with NASA while pursuing your PhD, as she got her PhD while working at NASA on a NASA scholarship. She finished her PhD in 2004 and was hired at NASA after she finished her PhD. She emphasized that students should give special consideration to the environment of the university, because you will be at the same school for many years in the case of a PhD and you want to make sure you will enjoy your time there.

When asked what was the biggest personal reward of getting a graduate degree, Dr. Grigory Adamovsky, who has been a civil servant at NASA for 22 years in the Optics field, said, “deep understanding of the complexity of the physical phenomena.” He said not to take the laws of physics for granted. Like the other speakers, Dr. Adamovsky was also very encouraging with his words as he ended his talk with, “Do what your heart tells you to do.” The other speakers mentioned that their biggest reward was being able to do independent research.

The session concluded with the speakers giving a few words of advice for the attending students, many of whom were considering their upcoming applications to graduate programs.

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