Lessons I have learned from my PhD

Before doing an actual PhD, I used to believe that  intelligence and hardwork are the only requirements of doing a successful PhD and personality traits have little or nothing to do with it. However, I learned the hard way that the journey is far more complicated and there are factors other than intelligence and hard work that can appear crucial to your PhD. Although knowing the real world of PhD would not change my determination to be a scientist, knowing those factors beforehand could have helped save enrgy and make my  journey much smoother. Here are a few tips based on my personal experience of doing a PhD for those who haven’t started yet or are early in their journey:

Self awareness is the king. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is the key to perform a fruitful PhD journey. Many of us might be good at knowing our strengths, but when it comes to our weaknesses, our unconscious reaction is to either ignore them or hide them and If you don’t take control of your weakness early in your journey, that could end up to a truly daunting journey. When I started my PhD, I used to be a perfectionist who was also extremly afraid of being judged. That had led me to have trouble approaching people to ask for help or ideas, therefore ,undergoing a lot of unnecessary pressure and loss of energy.  I was also a horrible presenter just because I was extremely nervous in front of public. I am still nervous in front of public, but the difference now is that I am not trying to hide the stress anymore. Instead, I try to acknowledge its presence and control my performance rather than my stress. 

It is, however, really important to be able to recognise that there is a difference between self awareness and self criticism, the latter being largely destructive. Developing self awareness is also a precondition to developing a mutual understanding between ourselves and co-workers and mutual understanding is obviously the key to conflict free and happy relationships at work. 

Resilience is the art of  coping with stress, adversity and change through enhancing your confidence, optimism, problem solving and communication. If you are like me and your PhD journey is coincident with migration and its unique complications and on the top of that having a baby in the meantime, be prepared to be challenged massively. There might be numerous circumstances where you see yourself in a dead end with no way out. You feel trapped and empty. This situation is totally understandable and there is nothing wrong with that. It can happen to everyone. You can’t get the results you want, your experimental design doesn’t work, your equipment stop behaving and you have deadlines to meet. In addition to these, you don’t have much common with people around you. They seem to you like aliens from another world. You have also family commitment and have to juggle family and work. These are all normal feelings and phases that everyone can go through. You can’t and shouldn’t avoid such circumstances but you can manage your attitude toward them. The important thing in such situations is to stay confident and positive, pull together your strengths and communicate, communicate and communicate. 

Communication and transparency is an important factor contributing to a successful PhD. It is really important that you communicate your expectations from people you work with clearly. Don’t expect your supervisors to be mindreaders. Don’t be shy and let them know what level of freedom or support you need and ask expectations of your supervisors and other team members as well. Be transparent about your planned milestones and ask them the same. That helps a lot in developing a trustworthy and collaborative environment. 

Social skills while doing PhD and investing time in learning technical skills, it is really vital to invest in your social and networking skills as well. Don’t waste even a single chance to network. Get your work out and let others outside of your team know what you do. You never regret hearing other perspectives on your work. Sometimes, that can be the only way to free you from the nightmare of not getting anywhere. In addition, I guess it is not necessary to mention that your network can appear extremely valuable in your job search following your PhD. 

However, bear in mind that it is very normal if you don’t feel comfortable with networking. Referring to self awareness here again, just try to find out why. For me, being an introvert had little to do with my uncomfortable feeling at networking  but it was mainly due to lack of enough confidence originated from my fear of being judged. Work on the origin of your uncomfortable feelings and develop strategies to obtain control over them. 


Women of inspiration: PiMothers

PiMothers is a platform for mothers in Tech Where they are encouraged to raise their concerns, share their experiences and provide advice for professional mothers/ mothers-to-be who don’t want to pause their career and are fighting similar battle. Dedicated platform to professional mothers is an outstanding idea in support of ambitious women and it is very aligned with “Women of Inspiration” in this space. If you are a working mother juggling full time job and family, you can share your journey here With PiMothers.

Women of Inspiration: Margaret Burgraff

The importance of having great role models and mentors is well addressed. Career-wise, having a large network of mentors from different industries with different levels of experience is critical, however for us as women, having female role models is far more critical in providing insights and vision in fighting against barriers going up the ladder. Despite underrepresentation of women in STEM, there are plenty of outstanding female role models with the huge potential to influence, inspire and empower younger girls, and I strongly believe that distributing stories of successful women is a powerful and encouraging tool to improve underrepresentation of women in STEM. In this regard, “Women of Inspiration” is dedicated to introduce great role models for younger girls and early career professionals.

Margaret Burgraff of Intel is one of my favourite. She climbed up the ladder all the way from a farm in Cork in Irland to Intel in Silicon Valley as a Vice President and general manager of Intel services division. you can read her story here. She is also an advocate of women in STEM. Her advice to women struggling with glass ceiling is: “challenge the notion of glass ceiling and refuse to be a victim”. According to her, core attributes of successful people are decisiveness, empathy, accountability, confidence, optimism, honesty, focus, inspiration and communication. To hear more insights from her watch this video here.

Tweeting from a toxic lab

I found this post very relevant to my previous post so I”ll share it here too.


Social media presence of women in STEM

Last year this time, I would never imagine myself having my own blog or being highly active on Twitter. I used to believe that as a full time working mother with research and family commitments I don’t have time to waste on social media. But to be honest “I don’t have time” was only an unconscious excuse for staying within my zone of comfort. As soon as this unconscious state of my mind transformed into conscious, I decided to give it a go and soon realised that what an opportunity I was missing on.

Traditionally, attending conferences or events is a great tool for many professionals when it comes to networking and communication. However, in reality many of us don’t have the luxury of attending all our favourite conferences and events simply due to our family commitments, high cost of childcare and babysitting or travelling with family – in addition to funding problems. This is while, social media offers much more flexible resources for networking and communication for free and at the comfort of our homes. Since my boosted engagement with social media, I found Twitter to be my favourite one, as unlike other platforms, it provides an easy connection without making you to go through the hassle of sending request to a stranger and waiting for approval to get connected. This means you can reach unlimited number of people to communicate your work with no hassle. The spread of words is considerably easier and faster and you can develop virtual relationships and network easily.

My point here is that despite the generosity social media is offering in terms of availability, flexibility and ease of use, it is largely ignored by many professionals specifically women. This is while if we want to see a change in the current situation of underrepresentation of women in STEM, we need to utilise every possible opportunity to enhance the situation. The main reason for social media being ignored is probably related to the common perception linking social media to entertainment. however, apart from its entertaining aspects, there are many benefits intrinsic to social media for women in STEM which we cannot afford ignoring them such as:

  • Improving social skills and building confidence, 
  • Communicating and promoting our work,
  • Building a larger network of connections,
  • Extending our reach to the community,
  • Creating multi-disciplinary collaboration opportunities,
  • Extending the network of our mentors and mentees and providing support to each other,
  • And at last but not least who doenst like treating herself occasionally with entertainment aspects of social media?

Considering all these beneficiary aspects of social media on thing is clear: community of women is STEM cannot afford not to use social media. Sign up today to your favourite platform, if you haven’t already, raise your concerns, get heard and get connected. 

How does a scientist look like?

I am a big fan of fashion, high heels and make-up. In fact, as much as I admire art of painting or photography or interior design, I admire fashion as well. Matching colours and clothes that go well together as well as going well on you in addition to delivering the message of beauty, confidence, competence and authenticity is pure art and like other aspects of art some are very good at and some not. Nevertheless, your look has a great impact on your career advancement and as Colette Werden says: “The clothes you wear are just pieces of fabric.Yet, they have the power to influence the way you walk, talk and connect with others. They affect the energy of your presence and self certainty. They’re an extension of your inner identity. And a reflection of what you have to say without even uttering a word. They’re either expressing your authentic self or contradicting your message. These pieces of fabric are a critical part of your self-marketing strategy. Just like any marketing campaign, the message needs to be aligned, consistent and positively memorable. Choose them carefully. Never, ever, settle for “that will do”. Never, ever, let these pieces of fabric affect how confidently you show up. You’re working way too hard to let them be the only thing costing you that next opportunity”

Having said that,  a stereotypical image of an engineer or scientist is far from being good looking and in this respect, two clever UK scientists have launched an innovative blog where they post stylish images of scientist from all around the world with the purpose of challenging the common stereotype images of scientists.  This is a brilliant move and if you are interested to contribute and have your pictures published on their blog visit sartorial science and email your pics to: sartorial.sciences@gmail.com

Women of Inspiration: Paola Elefante

As a high school girl I was very good with math – equally well as other boys around me, if not better. I used to hate gender stereotyping whenever in came to math and I was so glad and proud that I was proving the opposite. There are different reasons about why I didn’t choose to do math (I have to confess that sometime I regret though), but so glad that Paola Elefante did and she is a solid proof of the fact that girls are good at math too and math is not boring. She is a great woman of inspiration. Keep up the spirit Paola!
Read her story in the link below:

Mathemagic: tracking cancers with maths with Paola Elefante


Adaptable nature of Moore’s law through materials engineering

As mentioned briefly in my previous post, Moore’s law is not merely about the number of transistors integrated into a small chip. It is generally about strategies to decrease the processing time, power consumption, weight and cost (have a look at the new Skylake processor for example). Although with the recent IBM’s announcement of 7nm chip technology, increasing computing power through increasing transistors count still seem to be the main preference for industries, they have been continuously looking into alternatives as the current silicon technology is approaching its limits. In bypassing those limits, materials engineering has done a great deal of benefit and will continue to play a significant role in the future. In what follows, I will go briefly through materials engineering related strategies applied to keep up the pace of development Moore predicted 50 years ago.

Copper interconnect

Late 90s was the time when microelectronic industries realised the urge for switching from aluminium to copper interconnect. This was basically due to higher conductivity of copper compared to aluminium leading to less power consumption and smaller metallic components. Additionally, higher resistance of copper to electromigration  was another advantage which appeared attractive to the industry. Electromigration is a phenomenon through which mass of atoms are misplaced due to collision of the current conduction electrons with the atoms. This misplacement of atoms is highly undesirable in terms of reliability of electronic devices. Material chemistry and microstructure of material such as grain size and orientation can play a significant role in electromigration of atoms.  However apart from metallurgical factors, current density is a major role player and it can highly aggravate the effect of electromigration. As the current density in the interconnect is high enough to aggravate electromigration, therefore it is a serious reliability problem and copper has remained the metal of choice for interconnect materials.

High-K materials

Gate leakage in semiconductor devices is a quantum mechanics phenomenon through which mobile charge carriers tunnel through an insulating barrier. Gate leakage is very sensitive to the thickness of insulating barriers and obviously highly undesirable as it reduces the processor performance quite significantly. Minimizing leakage is necessary to facilitate miniaturization of electronic devices and one way to reduce leakage could be increasing thickness, however, it should be noted that increasing physical thickness which leads to an increased electrical thickness is not an option as it deteriorates transistors performance. Apart from proper system design which I don’t want to go through that here, it appeared that with a proper selection of materials it is possible to further down scale the electrical thickness while providing a physically thicker layer, achieved by replacing silicon dioxide with high dielectric constant metal oxides (so called high-k dielectric).  Hafnium-based dielectric layer in combination with a gate electrode composed of alternative metal materials was Intel’s ingredient  for fabrication of 45 nm microprocessors in 2007 and the following down scaling of transistors beyond 45 nm.

Strained Silicon

Another way to improve the performance of transistors and speed up the processing time is increasing the electron mobility through changing silicon properties. Stretching atoms of silicon beyond their normal interatomic distance decreases the forces that interfere with the movement of electrons leading to a boost in the performance of a transistor. Strained silicon technology is currently using the same concept to increase the electron mobility of silicon which is done through depositing a layer of silicon on the top of silicon-germanium layer. Due to a mismatch between the atoms of silicon layer and silicon-germanium layer, the atoms of silicon are stretched. The force stretched atoms apply on the moving electrons is reduced notably, thereby enhancing electron mobility of silicon compared with normal bulk silicon crystal.

Materials with higher electron mobility than silicon

In my twitter feed yesterday there was an announcement from Intel regarding its new $50M investment in quantum computing. Whenever I hear about quantum computing, the first thing that comes automatically to my mind as a materials engineer is the destiny of current established and future developing materials (for the purpose of computing) with the advent of quantum computing.  I have not done much research into quantum computing yet but up to my limited understanding, silicon’s related limitations does not apply in quantum computing. This means that with quantum computing silicon would remain material of choice without the requirement of replacing it with new exotic materials. However, it seems that quantum computing has got a long way to go and replacing silicon seem to be a more tangible option to catch up with Moore’s prediction.

For instance, a new family of semiconductors, so called  compound semiconductors (they are composed of two or more elements such as indium arsenide and indium antimonide), have electron mobility up to 50 times higher than silicon and their application is in the rise.  In addition, adding a small amount of germanium to silicon can enhance its electron mobility properties and this approach is also  in use already. It is interesting to note that very first semiconductor devices were made of germanium so moving back to a fully germanium chip could be a possible option. Moreover, hybrid semiconductors in which different materials are combined could be a real life possibility anytime soon.

Graphene or the “miracle material” has been attracting a lot of attention recently as a possible alternative to silicon due to its extraordinary properties such as remarkable strength, thermal and electrical conductivity. In its current form however, graphene is not viable as a semiconductor material because it lacks a band gap which is a requirement for semiconducting properties. If the issue of lack of band gap is resolved, then graphene could be a promising future material for further development of electronic devices. Carbone nanotube is another form of graphene (rolled graphene) which holds promises as possible future material for microelectronic industry. Similarly, it has extraordinary properties in terms of strength, electrical and thermal conductivity, however, the current challenges with manufacturing of carbon nanotube such as control over diameter, density and chirality remain the main barrier against its commercial applications.

moving up from chip level to assembly of components level, there are still more room for materials engineering and specifically metallurgy to play a role in keeping up with Moore’s prediction – which I will go through that in a separate post. Stay tuned!

Academic Job Hunting for Aliens

or Academic Job search for non-resident* foreign nationals in the US In which @scitrigrrl discover one way that academics are like fashion models DISCLAIMER: I am not an immigration lawyer, Tenure She Wrote does not have an immigration lawyer as a consultant, and what I have written here about visas is only the most cursory […]