27 Dec 2019
by Mark
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Frequently Asked Questions by Prospective Ph.D. Students

Summary: I answer several frequently asked questions that prospective Ph.D. students have about what it is like to work in my lab or at UMD. Hopefully this helps Ph.D. students better decide if UMD is a good fit for them and their professional goals.

When recruiting and interviewing graduate students for admission into UMD, I often end the preliminary interview by asking students if they have any questions for me, since I know how difficult deciding on graduate schools can be. Over the years, I have seen that many students have a subset of similar questions that often come up when they are considering whether UMD is a good fit for them. I have written up some answers to the most common questions I get to help address them ahead of time for prospective students and also help shed some light on these things when students are considering applying here.

About My Lab Group

Where do your students end up? What kind of jobs can I get after working with you? Are your students successful?

This is largely driven by the interests of the students, since some students are interested in more industry-type research jobs, while others seek an academic position or something in a national government lab. As of last time I updated this, I’ll list below where my past students or post-docs ended up, organized by whether or not they wanted/preferred an industrial, academic, or government job. You can decide for yourself whether or not the types of jobs they secured align with the type of jobs you are interested in for yourself, with the caveat that a student’s personal preference and motivation is the key determinant in where they end up. Note that this list includes only the job that they interviewed for and got right after working with me, which I figure is the most relevant to you as a prospective graduate student, and thus their current positions may differ from what is below depending on how much time has elapsed since they left the lab.

Student/Post-Doc wanted Academic Position

  • Dr. Faez Ahmed (PhD ‘19) - Asst. Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Dr. Zois Boukouvalas (Post-Doc, ‘19) - Asst. Professor, Mathematics and Statistics, American University

Student/Post-Doc wanted Industrial Position

  • Dr. Wei Chen (PhD ‘19) - Research Scientist, Generative Design Group, Seimens Corporate Technology
  • Dr. Kailyn Cage (PhD ‘18) - Technical Program Manager, Amazon Lab126
  • Mr. Ceena Modarres (MS ‘16) - Data Scientist, Capital One Financial Corporation

Student/Post-Doc wanted Government Position

  • Dr. Dan Elton (Post-Doc, ‘18) - Staff Scientist, National Institutes of Health

How many students do you have? What kind of backgrounds do they have?

This changes year-to-year given the natural ebb and flow of how many students join or graduate each year, but, in general, we have had between 6-12 FTE (full time employees) including post-docs, depending on the year and whether you count remote or part-time employees/students. I typically aim to hire 1-2 on-campus graduate students per year, on average. This would be considered “medium-sized” compared to other labs at comparable instituions. For what it is worth, I think this size is a nice size as a new graduate student, since you will have other students to work with and call your friends and colleagues, but there aren’t so many students that I can’t meet with you one-on-one regularly.

In terms of academic background, many students have a B.S. in Engineering (typically Mechanical) but we have also had folks in the lab (or who closely collaborate with us) who possess B.S. degrees in Computer Science, Applied Math, and Physics. Students in my lab also come from a diverse array of nations, cultures, ages, gender identities, learning styles, beliefs, and cognitive backgrounds. I view this as a strength that enables us to do new and innovative things. You should know that wherever you come from and whatever you believe, you will always be welcome in the lab provided your respect your colleagues, approach your own work with integrity, and like bringing computing and math to bear on hard engineering and design problems!

How many years do your PhD students take to graduate?

This depends heavily on the student’s willpower, determination, and publication record. In the case of the two PhD students I have graduated start-to-finish thus far, both took almost exactly four years. I think the department average is slightly under 5 years, last I recall.

Will I work alone on my project or as part of a team?

This depends on the student’s preferences, but generally speaking you will interact with other students on various papers and projects. Even when your project is somewhat different that what other folks are working on, there are generally many opportunities to collaborate on joint papers or proposals if you think it would benefit you. For example, a common collaboration story in the lab often sounds like “Hey, you developed cool technique X in your last paper, and I think if we combine it with cool technique Y that I just worked on we would have something awesome!” Likewise, we often teach each other useful skills, such as how to use our NVIDIA DGX or the HPC cluster or different statistical/math techniques. So, even if you work on your own project, I don’t think anyone ever really feels like they are doing things alone here. This differs if one is a remote or part-time student who works far off-campus, but even in those cases we often connect folks remotely with people in the lab who have diverse or helpful expertise.

Can I talk with your students?

Absolutely! Typically, after I have decided to extend an admission offer to you, I will connect you with some current graduate students and alumni who can speak to their experience at UMD. I do this because they can give you unfiltered/unbiased responses to any questions that you have and also address things I don’t know well as a faculty member. Often there are questions you don’t feel comfortable asking a faculty member directly, and in those cases talking to actual students can be helpful.

I have another offer from famous person X; what are some reasons why I should work for you instead of him or her?

This is always a hard one since I probably personally know famous person X and collaborate with or respect him or her immensely. He or she would probably be an excellent choice of advisor! That said, here are some “highlight points” that you can jot down on your pros/cons list when making your decision. You can read through some of the other questions in this FAQ to get a fuller picture beyond these brief points.

  • In general, my students do really well (academically and professionally) at securing whatever employment opportunities they want, whether academic, government, or industry positions. So in that sense, we have a good track record of getting people where they want to go.
  • We collaborate a lot on interesting, hard problems that matter to society and industry. From healthcare to energy efficiency to national security, generally speaking, people care about the problems we work on. Here it is easy to feel like your efforts will make a difference, even if your research is highly theoretical in nature. In some labs it can feel like you are making only incremental progress on niche problems, but that is generally not the case here.
  • Living here is both awesome and cost-effective. You get access to big-city-level (Washington DC) amenities/attractions and nearby national parks (Shenandoah), but living in College Park is fairly inexpensive and safe. Our graduate student salaries are at the top range of what schools offer. You can have a good life here both inside and outside of school.
  • Unlike famous person X, who already has A# citations, B# awards, and C# graduated students, I am early enough in my career where you will make a serious impact on my own trajectory and success. So I have every possible reason to want to invest in you and your success! You are not just a bean to be counted but rather a valued partner who I must cultivate if I am to succeed myself. Your success literally defines my own success in ways that are simply not often the case for PIs who are already well entrenched in their careers.

About Myself, as an advisor

How often do you meet with your students?

For graduate students, typically once a week for between 30-60 minutes, depending on the student career stage and how much we have to cover. If there is a particularly gnarly technical concept or paper we need to discuss, it would not be unusual for us to schedule a separate 2-3 hour discussion at a local coffee shop where we dig into the details of some specific paper or derivation. There is no technical problem that cannot be solved with sufficient amounts of Pour-Over coffee mixed with brain power.

How do you evaluate success with your students?

I evaluate student progress primarily on what I call growth. That is, is the student growing sustainably in a way that reflects the goals they say they want to accomplish? Unlike certain labs which have fixed minimum “quotas” for things like publications, presentations, hours in the lab, etc. I don’t believe such a “quota” mindset is helpful in cultivating a researcher’s long-term success.

Instead, typically we would start by discussing what your plans are with your degree. Do you want to graduate in four years and immediately apply for a faculty position at an R1 Univerity? Do you want to be a research intern at several industrial companies to find the right fit for your interests? Do you want to explore a topic deeply while balancing and supporting your growing family part-time on with your current job? Obviously the path that each of those goals would take requires a different set of evaluation criteria and expectations for yourself. I view my goal as helping you set expectations and plans for yourself that can help you achieve the end point you want in a reasonable and sustainable way. So by growth I mean that, with respect to your chosen path, you are accelerating your progress along that path at a regular pace; that is, getting better over time.

Procedurally, this means typically an initial meeting when you start your PhD program to assess how things should go, then having you craft up a plan (most typically a plan of what you want to publish where and when) that we both agree is reasonable at achieving the goal you want with the funding sources we have. Then re-evaluating that plan every semester to see how things are progressing and what support you need to keep on track or adjust as needed.

How will I be funded? What happens if funding runs out?

We will discuss the particulars of this during the interview in terms of which possible projects carry what types and duration of funding. But, generally speaking and as of writing, every single one of my PhD students has been funding using Full-Time Research Assistantships (RAs), unless they have specifically asked me to be a Teaching Assistant to gain experience needed for faculty jobs or because they want to. Put another way, funding in my lab has yet to be a problem for my students. I view it as my job to make sure everyone never has to worry about where their funding is coming from.

However, in the case that funding for a specific project does end, the department does have TA slots available for students or fellowship opportunities that are available. Though, as mentioned before, I have not had to use these yet.

Will I be expected to teach?

Not unless you want to or we mutually agree it is in your interest or if funding necessitates so. Unlike some other departments, UMD does not have any required teaching assignments for students. For example, some schools require their students to TA for 1-2 semesters as part of the program; our department does not do that. If you would like to TA because you get personal satisfaction from it, just want the experience to see if you enjoy teaching, or you want to bolster your record for faculty application purposes then that is a different story and I can help you achieve that if you want to.

About The Department and Coursework

What kind of coursework do your students typically take? What kind of skills might I learn if I came to UMD to work with you?

As Mechanical Engineering departments go, UMD is (thankfully) fairly flexible in the specific courses you need to take (see the enme.umd.edu website for the specifics). In practice, my students have had no trouble satisfying any formal coursework requirements. In terms of specific courses, my students typically take courses in the MechE, Computer Science, Applied Mathematics, Statistics, or Mathematics departments, since those courses tend to be the most closely related to the skills we specialize in (usually Machine Learning or similar advanced mathematics/computation). These courses will typically equip you with skills in optimization, advanced computation/programming, statistical learning, among other related areas. Generally speaking, every semester we will discuss what courses will best support your research interests and goals, and select courses based on that.

In addition to formal coursework learning, you will pick up technical skills in things like software version control, advanced computing hardware (such as using GPUs like our NVIDIA DGX or the HPC center) or advanced additive manufacturing equipment if the project requires it (e.g., some of the equipment in the Maryland Robotics Center’s Robotics Realization Lab). My students also end up getting fairly good exposure and practice with technical or academic writing (see, for example, my scientific writing guide) as well as presentation skills. This is in part due to my own focus and extra advising on how to write and present well, which I have found to be key to academic success. In addition to this, my students tend to gain mentorship skills via the UMD undergraduate research program where we can pitch projects and recruit undergrads to work with them. This helps you develop your skills at mentoring and leading others.

About Living in the Area

Is UMD expensive to live near? Can I survive well on a graduate student salary in that area?

I live in College Park and find it particularly affordable, given the amenities that are located here. You can ask current students who rent near here what they typically spend, but I can tell you that the UMD graduate student salaries that we provide are larger than any other school I have heard of when comparing offers that students send me, while our living cost here is not nearly as high as some other comparable schools. So, translating that into total quality of life, I think students here can live quite comfortably, especially given what kinds of amentities we have access to via the metro.

I have a spouse or family that needs specific access to work opportunities or school systems. Does the area around UMD support those constraints?

College Park is located in easy access to the broader DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) area and is located on the Green Line for the DC metro and is right on a Beltway exit. So, if you have a partner that works in a specific industry it is generally easy to find employment here since the DMV is a major metropolitan area and has a wide range of employers. Likewise, there are many good and affordable school options nearby if you have school-aged kids, or the University has a daycare system if they are younger than school aged. Unlike other schools where the university might be perhaps the only large employer, UMD’s proxity to DC and Baltimore make us an ideal place to balance your academic and family constraints, compared to other large cities or more rural settings.

Is UMD a fun place to live? I like to do activity X in my free time; is that easy to do at or near UMD?

While the specifics depend on the particular activity you enjoy, in general, many things are easy to do here. For example, College Park is located on the Green Line of DC’s metro system. This makes going into DC easy and fairly fast. For example, the metro gets you to the edge of DC in 20 minutes and pretty much anywhere in the city within 45 minutes. We are a few hours drive from multiple large National Parks (like Shenandoah) and less than an hour from the beach/water. We have a commuter train station near campus that is serviced by Amtrack, and their lines go up and down the east coast regularly. (I have personally taken the train to CT from MD and it was quite pleasant.) Our central location with respect to the East Coast makes visiting nearby cities quite easy and fast to do.

Being a major cultural center, Washington DC has everything you would expect from a major city, with the added bonus that most museums and the zoo are free (they are the Smithsonian Museums). For example, my wife and I have gone to everything from local comedy clubs to dancing to the visiting chinese ballet and musical performances at the Kennedy Center. UMD even has its own performing arts center on campus (the Clarice Center). Likewise, for sports, UMD is part of the Big 10 and has every major sport you can want plus relevant fitness facilities. There is no shortage of interesting and diverse things to do and food to eat here. This is often not the case at some schools. Moreover, because you don’t have to pay big-city cost-of-living prices compared to some schools, doing many of those things is actually quite possible on a grad student salary, which is not the case for some schools near other large cities.

Lastly, though importantly for certain students, we are a short drive from three international airports (BWI, DCA, and IAD). Because we live near the capital, you can generally find non-stop flights to almost anywhere on Earth. This can matter a lot for certain international students who want to visit their families because what might be a 1-flight trip from UMD could easily be a 3- or 4-flight trip at other, more remote or isolated universities. It is also easier and cheaper for us to go to academic conferences for this reason.

Are there any specific things I should know about UMD’s location or living the that I haven’t asked already?

  • In general, I think when people first hear of College Park, they don’t realize how accessible it is to DC and major attractions in the area. Put it into Google Maps, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised, especially compared to some other schools you may be considering. There is a lot going on near and around here, while not being all that expensive!
  • Our proximity to DC provides many useful internship or collaboration opportunities that can aid your research that many graduate students do not realize when applying. For example, multiple National Labs are right nearby here, including places like NIST, NASA, ARL, NRL, FDA, NIH, NSWC, and others. This means that you will have lots of opportunities to network with other scientists who can later be helpful to your career, or attend short workshops held by funding agencies that are less than a $10 metro ride away!