My name is Stephanie Taboada. I am currently pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at Stony Brook University and two advanced graduate certificates (AGCs) in science communication and interdisciplinary science training and research for developing informed science policies (i.e., STRIDE). I was born and raised in New York to parents who emigrated from Ecuador.
Me on Vacation in Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
My professional journey started when I obtained my bachelor’s in chemical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology. Afterward, I decided to study part-time for my master’s in chemical engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. At the same time, I worked full-time as a consultant in the chemicals industry. One of the most exciting projects I worked on involved managing the construction of one of the largest petrochemical plants in Latin America.
Independent Engineer for the Construction of a Petrochemical Plant in Latin America
My goal after graduating is to become involved in science policy and teach so I can incentivize younger generations (particularly minorities) to pursue STEM. I started a blog for this purpose.
Based on my graduate school experience, I summarize below crucial information for those considering pursuing a master’s degree or doctoral degree.
1. Do not let the costs of a graduate education scare you.
Graduate education is expensive, and it is understandable to fear going into debt to obtain another degree. However, it is essential to realize that there are several funding sources available to offset costs. STEM fields tend to provide more funding than non-STEM fields. Due to the lack of minorities pursuing STEM, a significant amount of funding is available for these students. STEM professionals also have higher salaries and better career stability, flexibility, and advancement opportunities than non-STEM professionals. Given these benefits and economic incentives, minorities should consider pursuing STEM.
2. Do not let the difficulty of graduate courses intimidate you from enrolling in a graduate degree program.
The advantage of graduate courses is that they tend to be small, allowing for students to get to know one another and form study groups to work on homework problems and understand complex topics. The following has helped me: re-reading class notes, diligently completing homework assignments, actively participating in class, going to office hours, and watching relevant educational videos or listening to podcasts. I also complete additional practice problems beyond those assigned for homework. For example, when I prepared for an exam for a graduate-level statistics exam, I watched several YouTube videos in addition to working on practice problems. The videos walked me through several concepts I was having difficulty grasping. I encourage students to use as many resources as possible during their graduate studies.
3. If your GPA does not meet the minimum requirement to apply to a graduate program, do not let it deter you.
Several graduate program directors said my 3.8 GPA was not high enough to be considered a competitive candidate for their program because other applicants had a 4.0 GPA. I felt like my chances of enrolling in a doctoral program were slim. I decided to apply anyway because I knew I would regret my decision if I did not. I prepared the best application I could and, thankfully, was admitted. In some cases, program directors will allow students with a low GPA to take a few graduate courses without being accepted into their program, and if they earn a B or better, then the student can be admitted. Therefore, my advice is never to give up. If you have the determination to accomplish your goal, you can achieve it.
4. Understand the difference between a master’s degree and a doctoral degree.
A master’s degree can be non-thesis based (i.e., only graduate courses) or require a thesis and the completion of some graduate courses. Full-time engineering students finalize their master’s degree in about two years. Students can pursue a master’s degree part-time, but it will take on average four years or more to graduate.
A doctoral student generally takes the same classes as a master’s student, but the doctoral student must submit a dissertation that adds knowledge to the existing scientific literature. Some postgraduate programs permit students to obtain their master’s degree once all the courses have been completed. The timeline to complete a doctoral program as a full-time engineering student varies between four to seven years, but the average is five years. Some programs admit part-time doctoral students, but it has been my experience that full-time students are preferred. Doctoral students must pass a qualifying exam, usually by the end of their first or second year. The exam varies based on the program and the university. In my program, an oral exam is required. The examination involves presenting and defending my preliminary research results and research plan to a committee of professors. At other universities, a written exam may be required in addition to an oral exam. The written exam encompasses key questions from your field.
5. Plan on how to fund your master’s degree or doctoral degree by understanding the different funding sources available.
Typically, universities fund their doctoral students by providing research assistantships, teaching assistantships, or graduate assistantships, which cover tuition and provide a yearly stipend. Stipends of doctoral students from different programs can be found on www.phdstipends.com. On the other hand, students enrolled in master’s degree programs usually fund their studies. There are ways to offset costs by applying to federal and private loans and external and internal fellowships/scholarships. The university provides internal fellowships and scholarships. Due to the lack of minorities in graduate programs, particularly those in STEM, there are many external fellowships/scholarships geared towards these students from organizations such as the GEM Consortium, Great Minds in STEM (GMiS), Graduate Fellowships for STEM Diversity (GFSD), professional societies (i.e., Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers), etc. These can be used to pay the tuition for a master’s degree or to substitute existing assistantships for doctoral students. In some cases, this funding can be added to the assistantship. In the past, I never applied to external funding because I thought I was not a competitive candidate, and therefore would never win. I was utterly wrong. In the past four years as a doctoral student, I won three fellowships and several scholarships totaling ~US$90k. I encourage all students, especially minorities, to apply to fellowships/scholarships because of the substantial funding available. These are a great addition to your resume as well.
Another way to fund your graduate education is by having your employer sponsor you. Some employers will pay their employees a full-time salary while covering the costs of their graduate education. It is critical to be aware of any requirements the employer may have in exchange for sponsoring you. For example, some will require their employees to work for the company for a certain number of years after graduating.
6. Securing funding (i.e., fellowship, scholarship) before applying to a doctoral program will make you a highly competitive candidate.
Universities generally have a limited amount of funding (i.e., assistantships) available for doctoral students. Therefore, if students apply to doctoral programs with funding (i.e., Ford Foundation, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, employer, etc.), they have a higher chance of being accepted.
7. Find a university with a department dedicated to supporting minority students.
For the first time, I am attending a university with a department dedicated to supporting graduate minority students known as the Center of Inclusive Education (CIE). The CIE has created a safe place for minorities to express their concerns and provide helpful advice on navigating difficult situations that may prevent them from completing their degree. They also host monthly events to encourage minorities from different disciplines to get to know one another and to form a social support network. Having social support is particularly important for minorities because there tends to be a lack of diversity at the graduate level, which leads to feelings of isolation for students of color. In my doctoral program, for example, I am currently the only Latina enrolled. Having a department dedicated to supporting minorities has made all the difference because I do not experience social isolation like other graduate students have reported.
8. If admitted to a doctoral program, make sure to select an advisor that you can form a good working relationship with.
Every boss has a different management style. As a doctoral student, the adviser you select will be your boss for the next few years. Your adviser is typically a professor from your program that will fund your doctoral studies through an assistantship and will be your most prominent advocate. Therefore, make sure to select an adviser that you will be able to work well with.
Some questions to ask a potential adviser include the following:
How long do your students usually take to graduate?
What is your management style? How often do you meet with your graduate students?
What do you require from your doctoral students to graduate?
Where are previous doctoral students working?
What research projects are available?
Is there funding available?
I was fortunate to find an adviser that has been incredibly supportive of my goals, has sufficient funding, and works well with students.
My Lab Group
9. Find a research topic that you are passionate about.
Because a dissertation is carried out solely by the student, doctoral studies can be isolating. For minority students, the isolation is even more pronounced because of the lack of representation. This environment leads some doctoral students to quit their program without graduating. However, if the student selects a dissertation topic they are passionate about, the likelihood of remaining in their program and graduating increases.
In my case, I am passionate about addressing climate change. I knew I wanted to work on developing renewable energy. My research involves developing novel catalysts to produce renewable natural gas (RNG). RNG does not add to existing carbon emissions in the atmosphere, and it can substitute fossil natural gas in our existing gas pipeline infrastructure. My work is part of my adviser’s Institute of Gas Innovation and Technology (I-GIT). Most of my research is carried out at a national laboratory.
A Summer Student and I utilizing a Lab Instrument to determine the Surface Components of our Catalyst Sample
10. Create a robust support system during your graduate studies.
For the first time during my academic studies, I have a strong support group comprised of the CIE, STRIDE, the Alan Alda Center (i.e., manage the science communication AGC), my adviser, lab group, my parents, and friends.
The CIE provides peer mentorship, fellowships, and career development opportunities. For example, through the CIE, I signed up for the Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program, which will help me transition into my dream job as an early-career STEM professor at a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI). The doctoral peer mentors I have been paired with have also been helpful because they made me aware of campus resources that I can use, how to navigate paperwork and course requirements, and how to plan for my dissertation.
STRIDE has a fellowship that they award to a select number of students through a competitive application process. I was fortunate to have won the fellowship twice. One of the many benefits of being a fellow is the mentorship provided. I was paired with a senior faculty mentor who has given me excellent advice on navigating careers in academia (i.e., obtaining tenure, winning grants, etc.) successfully. Similarly, the Alan Alda Center has also provided a mentor but to assist with academic-related projects.
My adviser and lab group have been welcoming and supportive as well. For example, before my oral exam, my lab mates and adviser critiqued my research plan and gave me helpful pointers. Both are readily available to answer any questions I may have related to research.
My parents and friends provide emotional support in three ways: encouragement, esteem building, and love. They are the people I rely on when I have a bad day or when I need to de-stress. My parents have also provided financial support and assistance with housework so that I can focus on the copious amount of work associated with my doctoral degree.
My Friend and I at the Annual Chemical Engineers Conference
My Parents and I
Overall, I consider myself fortunate to have a robust support system to assist with every aspect of my life: academic, career, and personal. It has made a significant difference in easing my stress level and making me feel welcome in the research community. I encourage students to develop their own support group.
11. Just because you graduate from a specific major does not mean you are locked into jobs associated with that major.
Based on my work experience, I have seen people crossover into career paths completely unassociated with their major. For example, I have witnessed chemical engineers with a master’s degree working for human resources. The same applies to doctoral degree holders. Many people erroneously think that doctoral holders can only become either a professor or work in research and development. Doctoral holders can also go into science policy, science writing, consulting, non-profits, data science, business development, marketing, patent law, education in K-12, etc. A few years ago, I attended a conference called What can you be with a Ph.D. The conference discussed in detail the different career paths available for doctoral holders. In the four years I have been a doctoral student, other institutions have organized similar conferences. The best way to find out about these conferences is to contact your career development department on campus or connect with people on LinkedIn dedicated to helping graduate students become aware of alternative careers. A great starting point would be to reach out to the organizers and presenters at the What can you be with a Ph.D. conference: www.whatcanyoubewithaphd.com
If you would like further advice or have any questions for me, please contact me through my blog, Instagram, or Tik Tok. The associated Instagram and Tik Tok handle for my blog is @Latina_PhDing. I regularly host a Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on Instagram to give my followers the chance to ask me questions live.
I hope the information provided is useful. I wish you success and happiness in your future endeavors.