November 2019

Letter from the Editor

How are Your PhD Students Doing?

By Badri Roysam, University of Houston

Dear ECEDHA family and friends,

From my Chair’s desk, I occasionally reflect back on my PhD student days (1984 – 89, Washington University). Happily, it was a carefree, energetic, and exuberantly creative period for me that had a formative impact on my subsequent career. However, this is not the universal case. The PhD student experience is inescapably a function of the student’s own personality and intellect, and the research style of the faculty advisor. At the next level, the department’s and the university’s environment play important roles in shaping the student experience. Recently, Nature conducted a global survey of >6,000 graduate students in five languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, French and Portuguese), and the results are revealing. Importantly, they offer important hints to department chairs on ways to improve the student experience.

In this issue of the Source, we are pleased to feature a letter to the membership from ECEDHA President Zhihua Qu describing the progress being made by the Association. Saliently, the Association now has a grown-up organizational structure that provides abundant opportunities for members to engage and contribute. As always, we all look forward to our annual meetings. Bring the family along - the next Annual Meeting and ECExpo will be held March 18 – 21, 2020 at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld.

Regional meetings are a vital ECEDHA activity, and they have been exuberantly upping the game over the past few years. We are pleased to feature reports from the Central States, whose members met in Norman, OK, and the Northeast, whose members met at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

Finally, we are pleased to welcome and spotlight new ECE Chair Dr. Deepa Kundur at the University of Toronto. Serving new Chairs is a vital aspect of ECEDHA – the New Chairs’ workshop at the Annual Meeting is always well attended.

The PhD Student Experience

It is fair to state that the PhD student experience is challenging. The student is expected to advance the state of the art in a focused area, and publish his/her findings in respected journals and conferences. This makes research a competitive sport, and the competition has grown fiercer over the past two decades. Aside from the research itself, nearly 40% of all students study away from their home country, with the attendant language and cultural challenges. Also aside from the research, students are taking graduate classes that are challenging by themselves. Finally, students make much less money compared to their classmates who took up careers after completing their BS/MS.

Some of the reasons for the increased challenge are clear. At a gross level, the number of competing researchers is much larger now compared to a decade ago, with countries around the world investing heavily in PhD students, and in building more research-active departments. I visited my own undergraduate alma mater (IIT Madras) this past summer, and I quickly became jealous of the fact that the University underwrote the full tuition and stipends for all PhD students, making them a free manpower resource to faculty members. More recently I visited China, and heard accounts of how their universities provide major salary addendums to faculty members whose papers get published in a high-impact journal. You may have similar stories from other regions across the globe, especially the Middle East and parts of Europe.

At the next level, the speed at which research findings are disseminated has gone up tremendously. While we have all witnessed a tremendous increase in the number of new journals (many of which are frankly questionable, publishing content rapidly for a fee), a singular salient development is the emergence of new non-journals like ArXiv. In some ECE-relevant areas, especially deep neural networks, ArXiv has emerged as the preferred forum for researchers to report their findings first, in a frantic bid to establish primacy. Some of the most impactful developments in this field were either not reported in authentic journals, or were reported much later. This creates a much greater sense of anxiety and urgency compared to the time when we were students. My students and myself wake up each morning, and our first act each morning is to scan for new publications in our research area. Students often need to modify or abandon research topics when another researcher beat them to the punch.

On the other hand, as reported by Nature, 38% of the students (and perhaps their faculty members) enjoy the intellectual challenge. They found that 18% of the students enjoy working with interesting and bright people, 13% enjoy the academic environment, and 11% enjoy the inherent creativity associated with PhD research. Fully 49% of the students stated that their university calls for long hours, and sometimes working through the night. About 76% of the respondents were working in excess of 41 hours per week, and some worked more than 80 hours. Almost 39% of the students reported gender discrimination, racial discrimination (33%) and some forms of harassment. Interestingly, only 1% of the survey respondents enjoyed the social life of a PhD student.

When you boil the above numbers down to the level of human impact, it is telling that 36% of the respondents actually sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies. Tellingly, one third of them sought help from sources outside their institution, and only 18% sought help from the university itself.

What Can be Done?

As Chairs, it is now more important than ever to improve departmental mechanisms for students to share their anxieties and concerns with trusted individuals. Below is a bullet list of action items to consider:

  • Strive to set a positive tone for student – faculty relations in the department. While faculty members, especially untenured faculty, naturally feel the pressure to produce, and often transmit their own anxieties on to their students, it is vitally important that they play the role of a kind and helpful coach who is focused on ensuring their team wins, rather than blaming students for lack of results.
  • Strengthen faculty mentoring resources in the department.
  • This is a good time to refamiliarize ourselves with university resources for helping distressed students. We must learn to be careful in addressing students concerns in a manner that maintains confidentiality, and in line with applicable federal laws and requirements, especially Title IX
  • This is a good time to ensure that our student advising staff have the training and mindset to spot students in distress and point them to the most appropriate resources on campus.
  • Highlight and showcase student successes. Many students have second thoughts on whether they made the right choice in enrolling in a PhD program, or are otherwise anxious about their future. Seeing successful peer role models can help strengthen their resolve and show the path(s) to success.

Thankful Thoughts

As we head into the Thanksgiving season, we at ECEDHA wish you and your family, and your extended (academic) family of students and postdocs, a happy month. All told, we have so much to be thankful for.

Let us strive to make our extended families a little happier!

Badri Roysam, D.Sc., Fellow IEEE, Fellow AIMBE
Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor
Chair, Electrical & Computer Engineering
University of Houston
Houston, Texas 77204-4005
Phone: 713-743-1773