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Life as an engineering PhD Student at Vanderbilt: application, funding, workload, and career plans

πŸ”¬Phd
Engineering
Research
Teaching Assistantship
May 7, 2023
8 mins read

English

Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University
tauseem

πŸ˜„

@tauseem
from
PakistanπŸ‡΅πŸ‡°
πŸ’Ό PhD: Electrical and Computer Engineering
⏳ Jan 2021 β€” Dec 2025
πŸ“ Nashville,
USπŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ
πŸ—£ English
βœ… Student Visa (F1)
Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt University
πŸ“ Nashville,
USπŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ
πŸ’° 100% Financial Need Met
πŸ€“ 13,000 Students
🌏 15% International

Why I decided to pursue PhD

During my freshman year at NYUAD, I visited the career center in the second week to ask about pursuing a PhD. They advised me to return after a couple of years. I've always seen myself as an academic, and being a student has been comforting. Now at 26, I still haven't experienced life outside of school.

When applying for the program, I realized that my technical skills needed improvement. I could have pursued a master's degree, but it was expensive, so I opted for a PhD, which takes longer but is technically free. Even if I had the funds, I would still want both a master's and a PhD because a master's alone isn't enough.

I never interned in the industry, as I spent most of my time working as a research assistant in labs, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I once worked with Mohamad Eid (professor at NYUAD) on a mid-air haptic screen project, which allowed users to interact with and feel feedback from a screen in the air. This experience solidified my love for research, as it made me feel part of the future, witnessing advancements that others might not see for another 10-20 years. All of these factors ultimately led me to pursue a PhD.

Finding a right PhD program

Initially, I was drawn to the idea of combining human elements with engineering, so I considered robotic surgery, which has a visible human connection. I entered NYUAD with the intention of pursuing a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering to focus on robotics. However, upon arrival, I discovered a stronger interest in electrical engineering and computer science. Over time, as I applied to and worked with different labs and researchers, my interests narrowed down further, and in my senior year, I found my passion for human-computer interaction (HCI).

When applying for PhD programs, I searched for professors conducting research in HCI in the US, Canada, and even Turkey, where I found a particularly interesting professor. I narrowed down my options by considering the program requirements, my qualifications, and the overall fit. Aware of the high application costs, I limited my applications to five universities.

Application process

I started my PhD application journey during the summer before my senior year. I took the GRE and began emailing professors in September and October, sending them my resume and personal statement. To look for professors, I began with a basic Google search. After getting a feel for the field, I checked out Google Scholar to find some really interesting papers. By figuring out the labs and professors working on these papers, I managed to create a shortlist of potential PhD programs and advisors.

I finished submitting most of my PhD applications by December and January of my senior year and after that, it was just a matter of waiting to hear back. I had an interview with one professor in March who asked if I could start working immediately, although unpaid. Since COVID was becoming a significant concern and I still needed to finish my senior year, I decided not to pursue that opportunity.

Interestingly, my current professor at Vanderbilt initially told me he couldn't take me on as a student due to personal reasons. However, he reached out again in April to ask if I was still interested, and I gladly accepted.

Overall, the application process was very straightforward. In my personal statement, I dedicated two paragraphs to describing my previous work and experiences. I also shared my LinkedIn profile, as it's an opportunity to showcase achievements and possibly capture a professor's interest. While I didn't have to submit a project proposal, I know some professors may ask for a small project or test to gauge an applicant's capabilities.

Applying directly to a university is also an option, but it seems that connections play a crucial role in the process. My professor shared that when looking for a new PhD student, they first consider candidates they know personally, then candidates referred by existing lab members or interns. Only after exhausting these options do they review applications.

My lab group at Vanderbilt
My lab group at Vanderbilt

About GRE & TOEFL costs

Taking the GRE is essential, but it can be quite costly, so it's important to be aware of that. When you take the GRE, you can send your test scores to five universities for free, but if you decide to apply to more schools later, there's a fee for each additional score report. Keep in mind, this information is based on my experience from three years ago, so some things might have changed.

For international students who attended a school where the native language wasn't English, English proficiency tests like IELTS or TOEFL are often required. I remember calling some universities to ask if I really needed to take the TOEFL, considering that I am literally talking to them in English, but they insisted on it. Even though I attended NYUAD, it wasn't enough because it wasn't in the US.

Building connections with professors

It's important to establish a good relationship with the professor you want to work with. In my case, I had already received a rejection letter from Vanderbilt, but when the professor reached out to me again, I expressed my interest and received my admission letter shortly after.

Working in a lab is like a mix of school and a job. The person in charge of the lab is like someone running a business, hiring engineers, and securing grants to get the work done. For them, it's more important to have a good relationship with the students working in the lab than for the university to simply like the students. So, focus on building that connection with the professor to increase your chances of success.

Funding for my PhD

Funding was a big factor when deciding where to go for my PhD. Every university provides information on the stipend their PhD students receive, and there may be external or internal scholarships available. However, keep in mind that some scholarships might be limited to US citizens if you're applying to universities in the US. I know someone who underestimated the living costs in their chosen city and relied on scholarships to make ends meet, only to face financial difficulties later on.

When choosing a university, consider the cost of living in the city, the stipend offered, and whether you can make ends meet. In my case, my stipend is pretty decent compared to other universities. It covers tuition, fees, and living expenses. I receive around $31,500 per year, which allows me to save a little and afford small luxuries like buying expensive bread if I want. However, don't expect to make a lot of money during your PhD program.

When applying to universities in the US, remember that you'll have to pay taxes on your stipend. Universities usually deduct taxes monthly, and you'll have to calculate your tax obligation at the end of the year. Depending on your home country, the percentage of tax you pay may vary. I'm from Pakistan, which doesn't have a favorable tax treaty with the US, so I end up paying more taxes than others. It was initially disappointing, but overall, my financial situation is comfortable and manageable.

PhD schedule, work & life balance

My schedule changes a lot during my PhD program, and it's hard to pinpoint a precise routine. Expectations change as you progress through the years. In my first year, things were quite relaxed, and my principal investigator (PI) allowed me to explore my interests. It's important to choose a PI who won't make your life miserable, as you'll be working closely with them for the next five years.

During the first semester, I took two classes and an independent study. Independent studies allow you to focus on specific coursework not offered within your program. In my case, I studied physiology since it was relevant to our lab's work in affective computing. The second semester, I took two more classes and received research credits.

In the lab, you're typically paired with someone who's already working on a research project. I joined a team focused on helping autistic individuals improve their teamwork skills with non-autistic individuals. Depending on project deadlines, your workload might increase, and it's important to find a system that works best for you, as each person's research process and productivity differ.

The key to managing your time during a PhD program is setting realistic expectations and meeting your commitments. If you promise your professor you'll complete a task within a week and finish it in three days, the remaining days are yours.

Teaching Assistantship

As a PhD student, I worked as a teaching assistant when there was a funding gap in my lab. Teaching assistantships are funded by the university, and responsibilities can vary depending on the supervising professor. In my case, I was responsible for grading exams and providing support to undergraduate students as needed.

While I wasn't required to attend classes or hold regular office hours, I enjoyed teaching and reached out to students to offer assistance. I would often hold Zoom meetings to help them with any concepts they were struggling with.

As a teaching assistant, it's important to remember not to take student evaluations too personally. In my experience, the majority of the evaluations were positive, but there were a couple of negative ones as well, which is very normal!

Accommodation and Living Expenses for PhD Students

Most PhD students tend to have roommates to help with living expenses, as affording a place on their own can be challenging. To determine how much you can afford in rent, a good rule of thumb is to allocate no more than 20-30% of your monthly salary. When searching for an apartment, consider proximity to campus and public transportation, especially if you don't own a car.

I live in a nice neighborhood within a 15-minute walk of campus, which has worked out well for me. It's important to factor in additional expenses such as utilities, parking, and renter's insurance, as well as any desired amenities. Despite losing 30% of my salary to rent each month, I've found that managing my expenses has been smooth. Living in a good neighborhood with other young people has allowed me to make new friends and feel independent, which has been a positive aspect of my experience as a PhD student.

Nashville
Nashville

Favorite parts about PhD

My PI is very supportive which is very important as good PI can make or break your entire experience. There were days when I struggled in Nashville, mainly because my values didn't align with many people here. I considered moving to the east or west coast, where I might find more like-minded people. However, I kept telling myself that while Nashville might not be my favorite place, I love my lab.

I've made some amazing friends in the lab, including two of my best friends, who are like family to me. We travel and work together, and there's always excitement when we're all in the lab.

I also feel like my brain has expanded since starting my PhD. I'm always thinking and looking for solutions, which I believe a good job can offer as well. This mindset has even impacted my personal life. When there are differences in opinions, I don't claim to know everything because my PhD has taught me that I'm constantly learning.

Future career in Industry

In the beginning, I wanted to become a professor, but my perspective changed over time. I realized that being a professor can be like running a small business, with the research aspect taking a back seat. Professors need to secure grant money, write proposals, and ensure their lab is functioning well and publishing enough. So, I decided I want to work in the research department of an industry instead, allowing me to stay focused on the research I'm passionate about.

Currently, with my work in human-centered research and augmented reality, I'm considering companies like Meta and Google. I remember seeking advice on how to apply to Google during my first year of my PhD. My friend provided me with a list of recommendations, such as improving my coding skills and networking for connections. As for where I want to live, I'd like to stay in the US, particularly New York, as I feel a strong connection to the city.



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