Below are answers to commonly asked questions, in no particular order. In some cases, I have grouped similar questions together. If you would like more detailed answers, please feel free to email me.
1) What is your management philosophy or group structure?
Admittedly, my research group is large. Often, large research groups will begin to have a hierarchical structure where the PI manages the post-docs who manage the PhD students who manage the undergrads. I deviate from this strategy. I feel that the only way I can truly know what is going on in my group is by interacting with everyone individually.
My approach to my research group management style is directly related to my approach to student mentoring, as the two are inter-twined. I meet with every group member (post-doc and PhD student) bimonthly, individually for 30 minutes, in addition to weekly group meetings (1hr). During the summer, I hold similar meetings with my undergraduate and high school researchers. Depending on the stage of the student’s academic career, the meetings can include discussions on coursework, research and personal career goals. By meeting at least every other week, research challenges are addressed as they arise and personal issues are brought to my attention.
In addition, we have yearly reviews that are comprised of two stages: 1) a self-evaluation and a 2) formal evaluation (I fill out). Then, we meet to discuss. These reviews provide an opportunity to discuss a student’s or post-doc’s progress in research or their degree program as well as any strengths or weaknesses.
However, these bimonthly meetings are a minimum. I strongly believe in an open-door policy, which is enabled by the fact that my office is across the hall from my research labs and near my student offices.
2) Where do your students go after they graduate?
My group alums have been offered almost every type of position after graduation that is possible (academia, industry, government, non-profit). My goal is to help everyone get the type of job that they want, and I do not place a preference on any field or job category.
Specifically, my undergraduate, graduate, and post-doc students have all obtained industry positions in a wide range of fields (e.g. semiconductor, biotech, comp sci, defense). My PhD students have also obtained post-doc positions and government positions. My undergraduates have started companies and are attending top PhD and MD programs. My post-docs are in faculty positions and in industry. A complete list is located on the group alums page.
3) What is the average time to graduation for PhD students?
Currently (June 2020), the average time is approximately 5 years. Based on an analysis of my current senior graduate student’s progress in their PhD research, it will probably stay in this range (~5 years) for at least the next few years. However, it is important to note that this number is primarily dependent on the student. In other words, I do not have a minimum or a maximum number in mind.
My goal for a PhD student is skills oriented. During a PhD, I want a student to do three things: 1) both modeling/theory and experiment, 2) build something, and 3) work in two of the three areas of the group. Briefly, the balance between modeling and experimental work is up to the student, but I feel strongly that having a basic understanding of the limitations of modeling is important. Similarly, in the process of building something (e.g. a testing set-up or a chemistry synthesis line), a student has to source parts from multiple vendors and overcome systems-level challenges related to incompatibility issues (pieces don’t fit together or software doesn’t work). This is a life skill. Lastly, our group works in three broad areas: chemistry, physics/optics, and biology. Typically, a student “enters” into one area that corresponds with their degree program, but at some point, I want them to do a project that requires them to learn a second field. This teaches them about a new area, and they get experience self-teaching, which is a key life-skill.
4) How are your PhD students supported? Do you require them to TA?
The majority of my PhD students are supported on some form of a PhD fellowship (internal USC or external) for a portion of their PhD. For the remainder of their PhD, I support them on my government, foundation, or industry contracts. However, I do expect students to TA for 1 year. This expectation is motivated by two factors. First, TAing is a good experience. You learn how to clearly explain concepts and give presentations. (And you become comfortable giving presentations). If you are planning a career either in industry or in academia, you will need to be able to give presentations and explain your work. So either way, this experience is useful. Second, if you are planning a career in academia, TA experience is expected. Additionally, if you TA and discover you don’t like working with students, it is better to discover this fact early. Similarly, the converse can be true. (Side note: If you are planning a career in academia, I may work with you to increase your TA experience (different types of classes) to enrich your CV and make your subsequent application more competitive.)
5) How do you choose PhD students for acceptance? My previous research is not related to the research in your group. Will this hurt my chances of being accepted?
While previous research experience is important, many skills are translatable. As such, the specific field is not as important as the fact that a student performed research successfully. It is also important to remember that admissions decisions consider numerous factors, not just the field of prior research. Additional information is located on this webpage.
6) The research in the group covers many different fields, and it seems like many of the projects require a student to know several fields. I’m worried that I am not prepared to join the group. Will this hurt my chances of being accepted? How will I be successful in the group, if I’m not prepared?
One of the key benefits of my group is that it is a virtual melting-pot of talents. I actively recruit from a wide range of disciplines, and no one joins the group knowing everything. It simply is not possible. Everyone works together and teaches each other. I strongly feel that the point of graduate school is both to deepen your knowledge in one field and expand your skillset into another. If you don’t push yourself and get outside of your comfort zone, you are doing something wrong.
My main goal in choosing PhD students is to find smart, talented students who are not afraid to try something new and who work well on an interdisciplinary team. In my group, students with different academic backgrounds need to work together. This type of collaboration is very different from working within a single field. As such, I typically involve my current students/post-docs in the new student selection process.