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The Last Challenge to Earn My Ph.D. From MIT 精选

已有 6854 次阅读 2017-11-5 04:32 |个人分类:S and T|系统分类:海外观察

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Dr. Art Chen of Seattle and Boston is my good friend and Fraternity  brother for over 50 years. Two nights ago he told me  a personal  story which He kept to himself for all these time since I knew him. It contains life lesson we all could use. With permission I publish his storybelow (unedited).

The Last Challenge to Earn My Ph.D. From MIT

By Art Chen

I participated in celebrating Larry and Sophia Ho’s 50thwedding anniversary many years ago. Many of Larry’s colleagues and studentsflew from around the world to join a large crowd in this event. As I stand there I could not help but to think that I was not fortunate to have  such relationship with my professor when I did my Ph.D. in the mid 1960’s.

At that time, right after Sputnik, the U.S. was ramping upthe graduate school programs in STEM. Foundations were helping by providing schools such as MIT with funding  for new young faculties. I was among thesestudents at MIT. I graduated from MIT in 1961  and was admitted to the graduateschool. (The graduate advisor told me that I was among the better students admitted; left unsaid was that only I could screw it up.)  With the increased number of students, the faculty was, I believe overloaded,  and thus I did not have a chance to select my advisor. I was “assigned” to a new assistant professor, who was only a few years older than me.

No problem as I have always “took care” of myself since youth. I spent my childhood in  China during WWII and its aftermath Civil War.My parents were very busy heavily involved  in KMT politics. In 1949, we settledin NYC. Again my parents again were very busy  struggling to make a living. (Bythe way they both were educated in U.S. with my father earning a Ph.D. from Harvard).  

With this introduction, some readers may surmise that thechallenge that I would ultimate  face was not scientific but something else.Political probably best describe the challenge.  No matter, the story is interesting and I am writing it up after more than 50 years hoping that  it can provide some insight to young students.

Working with my advisor and fellow graduate students we setup a new lab, primarily in thin films, in the old Radiation Lab building andstarted to work on new ideas, which would  attract contract funding. One idea that came out was solid-state display using  ferroelectricity  “thin film” as the switching element. In the early 1960’s  ferroelectricity  was discovered in a quenched phase of in the well-known chemical potassium  nitrate (KNO3).  And you could easily make relatively thin KNO3 by melting it and  place it between glass plates with appropriately designed conducting  electrodes.  My professor was happy with this “invention” and was able to  secure contract funding to pay forus to continue its development.

The key challenge facing all Ph.D. candidates is to find a thesis topic. This research  should develop new knowledge and, if possible,should have both experimental and theoretical contributions. As it was a new discovery, no one knew what was the basis for  ferroelectricity in KNO3. Some Japanese researchers were working in this area but had  yet to publish anysignificant results.

So as my thesis topic I decided to see if I could answer this question: what is the  nature of ferroelectricity in KNO3. I built special X-raydiffractometer equipment to  study the crystal as KNO3 undergoes thetransformation from ordered to non-ordered state. I also measure its dielectricspectrum from low AC to microwave frequency. With these experimental results Icame up with a theoretical explanation for the nature of ferroelectricity inKNO3.

Generally I did the entire work by myself. I rarely saw myadvisor as this area was not within his expertise and he was busy hustling for money. I was confident of my results that  I started job interviews and gavetalks on my research in all major industrial labs (Bell Labs, IBM, RCA, DuPont,GE, etc.). And I received job offers from all of them. Thus I was ready tograduate – or so I thought.

A few months before my thesis defense, few Japanese researchers published  a paper on ferroelectricity in KNO3, with a different theory on its phenomenon  than my results and wrong in my opinion. So I went ahead with my thesis  defense.  My thesis committee consists of the senior professor in material science  in the EE department and two younger professors,one being my advisor.

I cannot remember my thesis defense at all because of the trauma associated with the  experience.  The result, however, is that I could not convince the senior professor  the validity of my research, the difference between my work and the Japanese  results. My professor, not been familiar withmy work, could not defend me well. So I was left in a limbo.

To make the situation even worse, both readers on my thesis committee were in the process of leaving MIT. My advisor was lured to anotherschool and will take his group  with him. The other advisor did not get tenure even through he published extensively and widely. He has two Ph.D.’s, one from Oxford. He, however, was encouraging, and suggested that I write my thesis upanyway.

Behind this limbo was the specter of the story I heard at Bell Labs. A Ph.D. student at  Harvard  about to finish his thesis was scoped by the publication of a paper  describing the same result. He went to see his professor, who told him that “well,  we will have to start all over again”. This student just turned around and  walked out and never received his degree.

My situation was desperate. We were married and had a young baby. I distinctly remember looking out from our MIT apartment at the beautiful view of the Charles River  wondering what to do. Seeing our beautiful daughter playing in her crib, I decided that I will finish my thesis. After all I now have a family to support.

Don’t remember how the decision was made. But as there were gap in my dielectric measurement at high microwave frequencies, a compromise was reached for me to make additional measurement at these frequencies. It would take me a few more months to grow small crystal of KNO3 and build additional experimental apparatus to complete these measurements

In the meantime, my job was waiting for me and my new employer at GE Research was  getting impatient.

Thechallenge now is how to break the logjam. There were no one to give me guidanceand no one scheduling another thesis defense for me.

The solution I came up with was to submit my thesis as apaper to the Physical Review, the most prestigious publication in the area. If accepted then I would have external  validation of my thesis work. If not, wellI did not have a plan B, at that time.

Happily for me, Physical Review accepted my paper, see the citation below. (My advisor was my co-author. After all he did finance myresearch.)  Once my paper was accepted I went to see the senior professor, gave a short talk on my results and told him that my work was accepted by thePhysical Review [1].

That was it. I never had another thesis defense.  I finished writing my thesis while working at GE and never saw my thesis signed-off by my thesis committee. I always lived in fear of the situation until I received a copy of my MIT transcript and attendedthe graduation ceremony where I received my hood.

What are some lessons I took away from this experience?

1.    Keep you boss informed of your work. He cannot help you if he does notunderstand or know the situation.

2.    For us nerds, the challenge in work is often not technical but“political or inter-personal”. Learn to deal with it early in life.

3.    Be prepared and practice your presentations. I walked in my Ph.D.thesis ill prepared and did not go over the material with my advisor beforehand.

4.    Better to work in a situation where there is a formal process to reviewyour accomplishment and progress periodically. My story is in mid-60’ academia.I hope  the situation is better now.

5.     Time is of the essence. Iwas happy and relaxed in graduate school and took five years after B.S. to getmy Ph.D., the average time span. But if I had finished earlier I would not havethe complication of a competing Japanese publication.

6.     Seek out advise in any newsituation. I made a mistake of many young people not listen to my father, whotold me to get a well-known thesis advisor. Who listen to their fathers; youshould take the time to reflect if the advice is sensible.

For those interested my short bio is on LinkedIn.



[1]http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1967PhRv..154..493C




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