Vincent Kandagor, one of the first graduates of the Energy Science and Engineering program in the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Education at the University of Tennessee, opens up about his experiences as one of the "guinea pigs" in a new doctoral program 8,000 miles from home.
Read about how he made the decision to pursue graduate school, what getting a doctoral degree has taught him about work-life balance, and his advice for future graduate students interested in the program.
Having never met Vincent before, I had no idea what to expect when I asked him if I could interview him for my science blog. In my experience, someone about to graduate with their doctoral degree should have been frazzled with multiple dissertation revisions, anxious about his oral defense, or at the very least, too busy to eat lunch with a bushy-tailed first year with a bunch of questions. Vincent was, however, none of these things. He was cool, calm, and collected, and he even offered to buy our lunch. I started to relax pretty much immediately after introducing myself.
M: So Vincent, tell me a bit about yourself. And, how did you get interested in science?
V: I'm originally from Kenya where I have 5 brothers and 5 sisters. My dad was a politician there and my mom raised all of us. One of my brothers is an electrical engineer but the rest aren't actually in a science field, so I'm not sure what drew me to science really. I remember always liking math and physics as a kid, and in high school, I participated in an aerospace engineering program. I think that's when I really first became interested in science as a career. Now I am married, have a wonderful son, and am currently deciding what to do next!
M: Wow! 10 siblings?! Where do you fall in that mix? And, what brought you to the U.S.?
V: I'm the 8th of 11, so I'm one of the younger ones. I knew I was interested in going to graduate school, and I have an uncle that lives in Missouri, so I decided to apply to the Material Science department at Missouri State University. I got my Master's degree there researching how to get greater conductivity in nanocomposites and carbon nanotubes.
M: How did you find out about the Bredesen Center?
First, I was actually recruited to Oak Ridge National Lab when I was presenting a poster at a conference during my Master's. I was offered a position there in the Spring of 2008 for the Chemical Sciences Division, researching ways to stimulate retina in the visually-impaired and increase responsiveness in artificial retinal prostheses using electric arrays. I got married in 2008, and moved to Knoxville to work at ORNL, but I knew I wanted to get my doctoral degree. So, I applied to the Material Science department at UT, was accepted, and started to work with Dr. Meek and Dr. Bhat. That's when Lee found me and offered me the Bredesen fellowship.
M: What made you decide to try such a new program?
V: Lee really sold me on the program. He was very convincing, haha. Besides that though, I am interested in entrepreneurship and the program ended up being a great match for me.
M: Can you describe what the first 2 years of your PhD were like for you?
V: I took a lot of classes in the first years; about 15 credit hours each semester. Dr. Bhat was on sabbatical during my first year, but I was still able to do some research. My second year was mostly research, but I also took Dr. Lee Martin's entrepreneurship class and learned how to write proposals for SBIR grants, and found that to be very helpful. My son was also born during that time, in 2012. I took about one class per semester after that to finish up the degree requirements.
M: Wow, you are quite the busy guy! What does a typical day look like for you now?
V: I wake up pretty early to hang out with my son for awhile. Then I head in to the lab and work until about 5 or 6. I come home to eat dinner with my family, and then go back to lab for awhile afterwards and work until about midnight. It's always been important for me to have time for my family and my research.
M: That's really great. Good for you! So how did you choose your advisers?
V: I first found Dr. Bhat when I looked at the Material Science department, and then found Dr. Bhave once I had joined the Bredesen Center. I wanted advisers and committee members who were personable, could communicate well, and who were supportive and understanding of my schedule.
M: What was your first committee meeting like?
V: My first committee meeting was actually during my qualifying exam oral presentation. I was in the first class of Bredesen Center students, so we weren't really sure what to expect. We got a list of current research questions or topics, and were told to write a proposal about one of them. I chose a bioenergy topic and my written proposal was about 12 pages long. I also gave a PowerPoint presentation, for my oral defense, in front of my committee. It was pretty stressful. They asked a lot of questions, but they weren't hostile or anything.
M: How about the cumulative exam?
V: I had done a lot of research for the qualifying exam during the summer after my first year. So, I continued off of that and pushed to finish my cumulative exam by the end of Spring during my second year. It was tough! But, I set myself a deadline and made sure to meet it.
M: That's a good idea. How many publications have you had during your time in the program?
V: I've been in the program for 3.5 years, published 2 papers, and I have 4 in preparation. I wrote a separate thesis, a more traditional layout, versus the option of combining my publications and writing an introduction and conclusion.
M: Now, how was that dissertation oral defense?
V: I was a little nervous beforehand, but once I got started, it wasn't too bad. It's technically a public defense, but usually it's just your committee and research group members. You present, and then they ask you a lot of questions afterwards. They have to make sure you know your research well. I told my friends in the group, "You better not ask any questions...", haha!
M: So, what's next?
V: Well, I've been to a couple career fairs at Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, and I went to companies' websites to look for recruitment events. I'm mainly interested in companies like Shell, Exxon Mobil, Intel; an energy-related research and development position. I've been offered a couple jobs that I've turned down, so I'm still looking for the right position. Hopefully, I'll be able to visit Africa for a little while first!
M: What has been your favorite thing about the Bredesen program?
M: Haha, she is pretty great huh?! Anything else too?
V: Yes, I really liked the way the program is structured. It's great to have the freedom to choose which classes you want to take; classes that compliment the science you're working on. I also like that it's interdepartmental and that you get to interact with so many great people. Working with people at ORNL also gives you a different perspective that you rarely get in a graduate program, and we get to see how research impacts 'real life' situations. The collaboration is a unique opportunity I think.
M: What is something you wish to see as part of the Bredesen program in the future?
V: I think it would be great to have some sort of system in place where we are able to start making professional connections earlier on; meeting and networking with different companies and potential employers. There isn't too much offered here at UT that is designed for science-specific careers.
M: What advice do you have for future Bredesen students?
V: Identify what you really want to do, what is interesting to you, and then choose an adviser that will help you reach your goals. It's important to find an adviser who knows a lot in their field, has an interest in you and your success, and will help you get to a conference or two each year. Set concrete goals from the beginning. And then, just make sure to meet them. Always dress nice for presentations and career fairs, and be able to sell yourself in about 10 minutes. Don't wait too long to start going to conferences either. Get out there and network as soon as possible!
Vincent's PhD work, with his advisers Dr. Gajanan Bhat (UT) and Dr. Ramesh Bhave (ORNL), focused on developing new technologies to convert biomass into fuel at the pretreatment steps. He's one of our first ESE graduates, and we're all looking forward to seeing where this degree will take him! Be on the lookout for a "Where Are They Now" post in future years. Good luck Vincent!
For more about Vincent, leave a comment or question below!
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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