36 Views of Conversations with my PhD Advisor: View 1–Grad School Story

My graduate school applications resulted in several PhD programs to choose from. Naturally, I visited each school. After an eight-hour drive from Poughkeepsie, NY to Pittsburgh, PA, I found myself across a desk from Wojciech Maly. The acceptance letter indicated he would be my advisor. He took time from teaching his VLSI design project class to talk with me. I remember watching him talk to Derek Feltham about what to cover in class.

The conversation began with my asking him questions that others had advised me to ask. The basics: average length of time to earn the PhD, possible research topics, frequency of meetings with research group. Then I asked about his thoughts on female engineers. It startled him a bit and he fired back in his Polish-accented English, “My wife has a degree in electrical engineering. I have no problems with female engineers.” My experiences at IBM showed differences in treatment and I sensed I would need an advisor who could discuss it. His response gave me the confidence conversations on this topic would be possible.

He also had some questions for me and made additional comments. The one that startled me went something like this: “I don’t understand why you’re here. I look at your transcript; I see all the math and I don’t understand why you’re here.” An odd comment given his acceptance of me as a potential student. What was I to say? I didn’t know what to make of it at the time.

This first conversation I have revisited again and again, just like the Hokuasi painting, Mt. Fuji from thirty-six viewpoints. Upon revisiting over time I have had new interpretations of our exchange. While I don’t know if I can revisit this particular discussion 36 times, it will be revisited.  I do predict that 36 conversations with my advisor will easily be highlighted as I write about my time at Carnegie Mellon University.

Have a Productive Day,

Anne Meixner

Dear Reader, What memory or question does this piece spark in you? Have you ever looked back upon an important career conversation over time and picked up something different? Please share your comments or stories below. You, too, can write for The Engineers’ Daughter–See Contribute for more information.

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