Day: March 31, 2017

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Notes from the PhD Program

Prof. Elena Semouchkina with PhD students Saeid Jamilan and Navid Gandji
Prof. Elena Semouchkina with PhD students Saeid Jamilan and Navid Gandji

Here we are at the end of March, and the end of Week 11 in the academic calendar – one month to go until the end of the semester and commencement. The snow on campus is steadily disappearing, Mont Ripley is closed, and I have hung up my skis for the seasons. Out like a lamb, as they say. This is the calm before the storm, although for me it is not so calm as there is a lot of planning to do! I’ll be on the road next week, but after that we have the Design Expo, the meeting of our External Advisory Committee, final exams, all leading to commencement on April 29.

One area of the department that does see a flurry of activity at this time is the completion of the PhD dissertation defenses. These do not happen right at the end of the semester, as it is often the case that PhD candidates need to make some changes to their dissertations before they get to the final approval stage. We have two defenses this week and two next. I like to go to as many of the presentations as I can, although unfortunately I have to miss the ones next week. The ones I saw this week, both yesterday, were quite good.

It has been a pretty good year for PhD production, by our standards. Assuming all the remaining work is completed according to plan we will graduate 12 PhD students this academic year, which ties a record for us. Our departmental goal over the last 3-year period is to graduate 30 PhD students, or 10 per year. We hit that mark over the 2011-2014 time period, but will not make it this time – we only had 9 graduates total in 2015 and 2016. There are a lot of variables that affect PhD enrollment and completion, so we accept that and move forward.

Building and sustaining a PhD program in a department like ours, which has a long and distinguished record in undergraduate education, requires a concerted effort and a shift in the culture over the long haul. I believe the ECE Department is doing exactly that, and I am proud of the direction in which we are going and the gains that have been made.

At all universities, PhD training is intimately connected to research activity. I have heard it said that the PhD education is an “apprenticeship in research”, also that “you do not earn a PhD, you become one.” The process requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the student, who undertakes several years of an almost monastic existence while doggedly pursuing the goal of making an original and creative contribution to a (usually) narrowly-defined technical area. It requires a lot of effort on the part of the academic advisor as well. Unlike a lot of other teaching roles in higher education, the relationship between the advisor and the student is often deeply personal and almost certainly unique. For this reason, people often think of an academic “lineage” defined by the chain of advising relationships, much like a family tree. Believe it or not, I can trace my academic lineage back to Fourier! (Aside: many years ago, it was pointed out to me that my academic advisor, Bede Liu, had an academic lineage that went back to Fourier. I thought that was cool but it was a full 24 hours before it dawned on me that as a result, the same was true for me.)

The decision to have a viable PhD program that is recognized nationally and internationally begins with a shared understanding of why we do it in the first place. As described above a PhD program is certainly connected to research, but I have long maintained that the two are not synonymous. A research program is the responsibility of the faculty, who set the direction for the research, are carrying out their own research, and who are working hard to build up a program with sustainable external funding. While the PhD students are participating in the research, they are really here to learn the craft from their advisors. An analogy I like to think of is that of a master musician and a student in the conservatory: the master must be an accomplished performer in his or her own right, and perform in public regularly, while at the same time training the student in the art.

This then raises the question, why do we do research? My answer on this one is simple: we do research to make the world a better place. Any other reason, such as having a research program in order to justify having a PhD program, will doom the research organization to failure or at best mediocrity. The department faculty need to be enthusiastic about, and committed to, their scholarship. In this way they will lead by example and produce outstanding PhD graduates, who in turn will do the same in their own careers. I am happy to say that, from what I have seen this week, the Michigan Tech ECE faculty feel the same way.

It is often the case that university and department rankings are heavily influenced by the size and productivity of research and PhD programs. Since prospective students, including high-school students, often use such rankings in their decisions about what schools to attend, one could easily imagine a motivation to build up a research program for the sole purpose of attracting undergraduate students. This would be misguided and we need to guard against it. This is not to say that quality research programs and quality undergraduate programs are in conflict in some sort of zero-sum game; far from it. The best universities are the ones in which the faculty are passionate about their scholarship and are effective in communicating that passion to the young minds that pass through their gates. The ideal of the teacher-scholar is something we should all be striving toward. It is not easy, and we do not always live up to that ideal, but if we keep the goal out in front of us at all times the university will be the better for it.

It is exciting and rewarding to be at a place like Michigan Tech, where we have proud traditions from the past but also are moving forward to build new ones for the future. My congratulations in advance to all our PhD graduates and their advisors in the 2016-2017 academic year.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann
Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University