Pathways to a PhD
Doctoral students at Cornell balance work, family
By Kathy Hovis
They’re anxious about their research and bleary-eyed from late nights in the library or the lab or early mornings with young kids needing to be fed and cared for. And their future careers hang in the balance.
That’s the daily life of a Cornell doctoral student.
Although peers in doctoral programs throughout the country are anxious as they hear daily news reports about universities cutting tenure-track positions in favor of part-time teaching posts, Cornell doctoral students have fared better than others as they search for positions after graduation. And while academia is the traditional career path, Ph.D. students are qualified and often sought after to work in a wide range of private industries, nonprofits and consulting firms.
As the tide changes for academic jobs, Cornell is at the forefront of efforts to help its doctoral grads explore a variety of pathways. It’s one of 10 universities taking part in a new National Institutes of Health-funded program, Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST). The program offers career resources, workshops and mentor-matching services to any science, technology, engineering and mathematics Ph.D. student or postdoc interested in careers in science policy, industry, business, science communication or government.
Doctoral students are swarming to Cornell programs. In 2014, 9,829 students applied to doctoral programs at Cornell, with 607 enrolling. In 2013, Cornell awarded 490 doctoral degrees.
For many students, a doctoral degree is still the only way to achieve their goals, despite the arduous process of obtaining the degree and the tough competition they’ll face finding work after.
“I’ve always known that I want to teach, to write and to make theatre,” says Aoise Stratford, a doctoral student in the field of theatre arts, which is housed in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. “A Ph.D. in theatre qualifies you to do nothing but teach theatre, but that’s OK.”
Stratford grew up in Australia, as did her husband James Lloyd, a Cornell associate professor of astronomy. Stratford earned her M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of San Francisco and entered the doctoral program at Cornell in 2010.
A program that typically takes five years, Stratford took a hiatus when her third child, Hugo, was born in 2011. Her daughter Gwen is 5 and daughter Rowena is 8. She’s passed her qualifying exams and her “A” exams, so is embroiled deeply in dissertation writing and editing.
Gabriel G. Rodríguez Calero received his doctoral degree in chemistry in 2014 and is working in the electrochemistry lab of Prof. Hector D. Abruña, while working to start his own company.
“I’ve always been interested in renewable energy and have been exposed to a lot of amazing speakers at Cornell who talked about the need for us to really start moving on this now,” said Rodríguez Calero, who grew up in Isabela, Puerto Rico and earned an undergrad degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. “I knew a doctoral degree could give me better opportunities.”
Getting a Ph.D. isn’t a walk in the park
Although details differ, the process for obtaining a doctoral degree at Cornell is not an easy road.
In a recent survey of Cornell doctoral students, Cornell’s median time-to-degree and completion figures — prominent indicators of doctoral education — compare favorably with national averages. Median time-to-degree for doctoral candidates across humanities disciplines at Cornell is 6.8 years vs. 9.2 years nationally; the university also has shorter median time-to-degree in the life sciences (5.7 vs. 6.9 years), physical sciences (5.6 vs. 6.5 years) and social sciences (6.0 vs. 7.7 years), compared with national figures.
Cornell’s average completion rate among doctoral students is 72 percent, compared with a national average of 57 percent.
For doctoral students in the field of theatre arts like Stratford, the first year is spent taking three to four classes a semester and developing their thesis idea, working with a committee of faculty members. (Stratford’s includes three Cornell professors and one from Wells College.) The second and third years, doctoral students are expected to teach, as well as take classes and work on their research. Qualifying exams are given at the end of the second year, while “A” exams are taken at the end of the third year.
Those exams are typically based on reading lists, which are developed by students and committee members. For Stratford, each committee member developed questions about the texts she had read, giving her three days to finish her 30-page answers or, in one case, develop a two-semester syllabus for a new class based on her readings.
“The anticipation is worse than the reality,” Stratford said of the exams, “but for me they happened around Christmas, so I was fitting in my writing around wrapping Christmas presents and the kids being off from school.”
Stratford is now hard at work on her thesis, which focuses on the gothic in plays by contemporary women. The tentative title: “Still Haunting the Castle: The Gothic in the work of Contemporary Women Playwrights.”
“I’m reviewing chapters and sending them to my committee for their review,” Stratford said. “I’m never completely confident that what I have written is as good as it could or should be, and I don’t like the ticking clock. But I know it’s hard for a reason.”
Ellen Gainor, professor in the Department of Performing and Media Arts and chair of Stratford’s Special Committee, says Stratford is one of select group chosen for the department’s doctoral program, which only admits two to three students each year.
“We have a reputation among our peers for training students who are phenomenally successful in their careers and win awards for their creative work and research,” Gainor said. “In Aoise’s case, she could have pursued a playwriting career on her own beautifully, but she was interested in deepening her understanding of dramatic history and theory.”
As part of the doctoral program in chemistry, Rodríguez Calero took classes each semester, with many of them being concentrated in the first two years. He received a fellowship for his doctoral work so he didn’t have to teach classes. He made sure to take some classes at the Johnson School, knowing he had an interest in business.
At the end of his second year, Rodríguez Calero passed his “A” exams, then continued with his research on energy storage technologies for the next three years. “I had good results after two years, so I felt pretty good about continuing,” he said. Still, professors offered lots of feedback to make his research better and more impactful.
His work explored polymers that could be used in cathode electrodes as possible substitutions for cobalt, which is heavy, expensive and toxic, Rodríguez Calero said. He has written an invention disclosure for a patent with the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization and his work has already been featured in 10 publications.
Because of his early results, continuing feedback from his thesis advisors and hard work, Rodríguez Calero said defending his dissertation was “more of a celebration of my accomplishments,” he said. At that point, he said he felt that professors treated him more as a peer than a student.
Advisor Abruña agreed. “Gabriel is an exceptionally talented, creative and hard-working individual,” he said. “Throughout his graduate career, he required minimal supervision. In fact, my interactions with him, especially in the last two to three years, were closer to those I would have with colleagues, rather than students.”
The importance of balance
Many graduate students are also juggling families or relationships along with courses, research and teaching.
“I don’t do anything that’s not essential,” Stratford said as she explains her family’s simplified meal plan and her early morning alarm that allows her to write or clear her desk. “But I’m not completely phoning it in.”
During the summer, she and Lloyd have a complex spreadsheet schedule of camps and experiences for the kids, but she makes sure to plan some weeks for family time. “I don’t want to come to the end of the summer and say I haven’t seen my kids,” she said.
Rodríguez Calero said the first years of his doctoral process were more stressful, working 12–15 hour days without good results. “But you have to keep a positive attitude,” he said. Time spent playing softball, soccer and basketball helped with stress relief, he said, as well as a few drinks with friends.
As Stratford finishes her dissertation, she’ll be searching for an academic job and will consider either a tenure track or a senior lecturer post where she could continue to write plays.
“I think the separation between pedagogy and scholarship and creative practice is totally bogus,” she said. “If you do work in the rehearsal room, it will inform how you engage with the work of others in the classroom and with your students.”
She’s writing a play now, an adaptation of James Planché’s “The Vampire,” which she found in the Cornell rare books collection at Kroch Library. A reading is planned for March.
“Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I love finding actual books in the library; it’s a great resource for inspiration as well as information,” Stratford said.
At the same time, she’s working on her thesis, spoke on two panels and presented a paper recently at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference. She hopes to submit that paper for publication soon.
“There’s starting to be a lot of interest in my research area right now,” Stratford said. “I want to be able to take advantage of that and be out in front of the wave, so it’s important that I be presenting and publishing my work.”
Gainor said advisors play a key role in helping doctoral students plan for their future careers.
“Our world (of university theatre departments) is fairly small,” Gainor said. “So our faculty are very visible, and they’re well-respected. When we go to conferences, we bring our students with us.” Those connections and introductions have led to a nearly 100 percent placement rate among grad students, she said, although she adds that the job market has been more difficult in the last four to five years.
Abruña said he always has “the talk” with his chemistry grad students near the end of their fourth or the beginning of their final year.
“My standard question is ‘What would be your ideal job?’ This often takes them aback, but serves to start the conversation,” Abruña said.
“While the job market is bit weaker at this time, I am happy to say that, in general, my students have been able to find very good jobs. In fact, they generally have a job lined up before they finish.”
Rodríguez Calero entertained the possibility of going into industry nearing the end of his thesis, however, starting his own business resonated more with his commitment/passion to work in renewable energy technologies.
“I’ve always wanted to start a business, to have a say in decisions and get a product to market that I believe in,” he said. With his part-time job as a researcher, he can spend the other time developing his business ideas, which focus on improving technology related to solar storage.
His girlfriend is also an entrepreneur, developing a business related to her interests in sheep farming and wool products, he said.
Taking classes at the Johnson School has been invaluable as he plans for the future of his new company, but Rodríguez Calero said the basics of the scientific method provide a solid foundation for an entrepreneur.
“You’re trained to think deeply about your work, to solve problems trying different methods,” he said. “And it teaches you how to endure and persevere.”
Great skills for an entrepreneur, and for a doctoral student.