Are you considering a PhD, either in the United States or abroad? [Show summary]
Dr. Eva Lantsoght, a professor of civil engineering who has lived and studied all over the globe, shares her insights on applying to PhD programs in STEM fields.
What to expect when applying to domestic and international PhD programs. [Show notes]
Would you like to attend a US or UK master’s or PhD program in a STEM field? Are you concerned about the process of both applying to and completing the degree?
Dr. Eva Lantsoght is a citizen of the world, professor of civil engineering, blogger, and podcast host. Dr. Lantsoght was born in Belgium and earned her bachelor’s in civil engineering in Brussels and her master’s in structural engineering at Georgia Tech, with a full ride scholarship and a scholarship from the Belgian-American Educational Foundation. She earned her PhD at TU Delft, where she has been a researcher since earning her PhD in 2013 and recently received tenure. Since 2013 she has also been an assistant professor at USFQ in Quito, Ecuador, where she also has tenure.
Officially, you’re a professor of civil engineering with a focus on concrete. However, you’ve been blogging and podcasting about something not so “concrete”: how to get into and complete PhD programs. How did you get interested in this process? [2:14]
I started blogging in the first year of my PhD, and at that time, it was just documenting my experience in the laboratory. I wanted a place where I could write about what didn’t work in the lab or the processes behind what we do in the lab, like how to keep lab notes, how to organize all that information, things that don’t get into a journal publication. So I started to use my blog as a space for documenting those things. As I progressed through my career, I started to write about other topics related to PhD research and PhD education, and then came questions from students thinking about doing a PhD. “What is it like? What should I consider? How do I select a school? How do I select an advisor? What is different about a PhD in the Netherlands versus the United States?” I started to write about all of these topics.
I think there’s a lot of information out there, but I found that, especially in my niche of engineering and civil engineering, there may not be that many professor bloggers or PhD student bloggers out there. I stepped up to the lack that was there and started to address those. From those questions came my interest in looking at what PhD programs are like at different universities and why there are these differences and how that then impacts the career of researchers after going through a more research-oriented or more a coursework-and-research-oriented PhD program.
What is the typical process for earning a PhD in a STEM field? [4:24]
It also really depends on the country, but mostly I’ve worked in the Netherlands. What I see is that typically, if it’s full-time, it will be a three- to four-year endeavor. If you do it part-time, of course, it takes at least five years. There will always be a time of reading, familiarizing yourself with the literature, defining what is really going to be your research question, the topic that you really want to address. And from that comes the methods that you will apply, and in a STEM field, that typically has either a theoretical component or an experimental component, or that experimental component can be physically in the lab, or it can be numerical experiments. That requires a large amount of time on either bench work or computer simulation work, or a deep theoretical analysis. And from there comes interacting with the data, wrapping up everything, getting back to your research question, and then writing the dissertation and defending at the end.
What if a PhD student has a hypothesis, and the test shows that the hypothesis is false? [5:31]
I do a lot of experimental work, so I am very well aware of all the surprises one can get in the lab. There’s a lot of things that can happen. It could be that your experimental design is not correct, that you are finding something different there, or that you are measuring the incorrect quantity to address your research question, or you can be finding something completely new, and everything we’ve known before cannot be extrapolated to this particular case. It is very common, and it’s important then to figure out for a PhD student, what’s really the reason for this finding? That can be very difficult, but you go through the basics first, the experimental design, the set of parameters that you use, all of that, and from there ask, “Oh, did I really find something that nobody else found before?”
That’s really exciting. So I wouldn’t get too disheartened. I understand that if something unexpected happens in the lab, it can be shocking. You’re like, “I’ve done all this reading. I think I know what’s going to happen.” And something completely different happens. It still happens in my field and my experiments. Sometimes different failure mechanisms occur, for example. Then, I get excited because then you’re finding something new. But I do understand that if you’re just starting to do experimental research, you may be like, “What happens here? Maybe everything I’ve been doing was wrong.” In short, I would say, cover your bases, make sure that the experiment is properly designed. And from there, see if you are finding something new and then link it back to theory.
Let’s say I’m an undergrad and I know I want to get a PhD in a specific field. Do I have to get a master’s first? And if so, should I get a master’s that requires research and a thesis? Or should I try and take classes as an undergrad that require research and go directly to a PhD? How would you advise an undergrad? [8:02]
The short answer to that is: It depends. If I hear that a student has identified a topic, that probably will mean a university and a professor to work with as well. In that case, it would really depend on the requirements of that university. If you can enroll in a master’s that then immediately continues into a PhD, then that may be the right way to go. If you’re already interested in research, I would say, start doing research as an undergraduate with a professor at your undergraduate institution and talk with them on what they recommend. They may say, if you aim for that university, perhaps it would be good to go do a master’s somewhere else, get a particular experience that they may not have there, and then have a larger chance of being an excellent contributor where you want to go do your PhD.
What is the typical application process for a PhD applicant? [9:35]
That also really depends on the university and the country, and in the United States, it is a very standardized process. Whereas in the Netherlands, the way I got into my PhD program was by cold emailing a professor and saying, “I saw this on the website and I’m interested.” That’s really the only professor I emailed for a PhD position. He didn’t answer for a month, and then he answered and said, “Oh yeah, we are actually still looking for one PhD student. Send your CV, and we will talk.” I know that I’m very lucky there because I get cold emails from applicants pretty much every day now, and I get so overwhelmed with emails that I can’t even politely decline. I’m very sorry to say that, but I just delete most of them, unfortunately, and I guess that’s what most people do. For us, when we have a project, that project is funded, and then we start to look for the person.
In some cases, these positions get advertised on the website, the vacancies at the university, but in some cases, especially when we are on tight schedules for funding, we will either just ask some of our recent master’s students if they are interested or reach out to colleagues saying, “Hey, do you have a student who just did a master’s in the lab and would be willing to continue?” Or we share it within our own networks. That’s the time when a cold email would land very well. But of course that’s a lottery.
In the US, I think applying for a PhD is a much more formalized process. Am I correct? [11:23]
I did my master’s at Georgia Tech. I went through the whole procedure of applying to universities there, as well as applying for the Fulbright and the Belgian American Educational Foundation. Those are very standardized processes where you take standardized tests such as the TOEFL, and in my case the GRE. In other fields, that would be the GMAT. You put together your application package with your letters of recommendations from your professors with your statement of purpose and your autobiographical essay. It is a much more standardized process, especially for foreign students. I was in Belgium at the time where these types of applications do not exist. For me, it was a bit of a learning curve on how to write those essays. But once I got the hang of it, then I knew it was the same for all the schools, so I could pretty much process them all together.
How important is the fit with your advisor? [12:45]
It depends. For a master’s program, especially if you’re going to do coursework with perhaps a thesis or the first semester, it will be fully coursework. Then you may still have a very vague idea of what your research would be like. Of course, identifying the people that are important to work with and having some direction is helpful. But at the PhD level, it becomes much more important, and knowing for yourself as well if you want to work with an assistant professor who may have less resources, but may have much more drive to publish and get tenure and all that, or to land in an established lab where you may be with other PhD students, have more resources, but where your supervisor may be much more hands-off. Seeing somebody’s career level and what would fit you and your learning style is quite important there.
I see applicants questioning the role of the university’s reputation and brand versus some specific strength, usually a specific professor’s strength in your particular area of interest. Are you better off going to a less well-known university that has a professor studying exactly what you’re interested in and want to pursue? What kind of advice do you have on that? [13:55]
It really depends on how you as a student work. If you are self-directed and you are fine with very limited supervision and you think, “Oh, if I go to Harvard and I get those resources, I will talk to the postdocs and the other PhD students and find my way around,” then that would be a great opportunity. If, on the other hand, you say, “I really want to be somebody’s apprentice, and I want to be side by side, and I want to learn as much as possible on this particular topic,” then go to the perhaps lesser known university where you could be having a much closer working relationship. Later in your career, that very close working relationship can also help you, because if you go somewhere where your supervisor does not have that many PhD candidates, eventually when he or she steps down from any service position or editorial board thing, you may be the person that they will recommend. Whereas if you are one in many, then it’s harder to be the one that stands out.
How important is international exposure when pursuing a career in academia? Do PhD programs like to see applicants who’ve lived in multiple countries or studied, like you, in the Netherlands, South America, and in the United States? [15:39]
For me, that was the right decision, but I also understand that may not be right for everybody personally. Any international exposure is good to shake up your thoughts. Not just working in a different working environment, but seeing a different school of thought helps you to be able to see a problem from different angles. That is really something that I have appreciated from going through different countries and seeing different ways that engineering is being taught. Belgium is very mathematical. Every engineering problem would be written out as a differential equation or something like that. We see things very mathematically, whereas in the United States, engineering is very hands-on, very practical. And then in the Netherlands, it is also more practical, but then very entrepreneurial as well.
I’ve appreciated those different angles in being in these different places and learning from that. But I also understand that there’s many family situations and personal situations where that may not be the right decision, and that committing to a full study abroad may not be the right thing for you, but there’s always opportunities to go for a short-term. You could always spend a shorter amount of time abroad. Especially for PhD students who may already have some work experience and already have a family and their house, it’s not the right time and season in their life to move to another and shake everything up. Still, if they have the opportunity to go for six weeks to another lab, that would still be very enrichening. I wouldn’t write it off completely, but I would see what would be a right fit for the right person.
What do you think would surprise international applicants applying to US MS or PhD programs? [18:10]
What surprised me was the level of standardization. As I mentioned before, in Belgium and in the Netherlands, things are much more haphazard, especially at the PhD level. When I did my first masters in Belgium, it flowed directly from the bachelor’s. There were no cuts in between and no application process. The level of standardization was something that surprised me. I hadn’t done standardized testing in I don’t know how long, so I had to get used to it again. I have my own ideas about that, but it’s one of the things that’s part of it, so you’ve got to practice for it and do your best and rise to the occasion.
I was also surprised to see the difference between the schools. I was looking for a master’s in structural engineering at the time, and I was interested in concrete structures, but of course, every university has its own special sauce. They have their own research that they do. I was coming from a small country, where we didn’t even have a concrete professor at the University of Brussels. He was from another university. Seeing that there’s so many people working on the topic in a large country, like the United States, was for me a big surprise.
Sometimes internationals struggle with the fact that US programs demand more than just your test scores and your grades. The concept of other qualities being sought by graduate school feels foreign to them. Did you have the same experience? [19:43]
I’ve always been a little bit of an odd duck, so for me, I think it was one of my strengths. I’ve always been very active as a musician as well. That’s something that I wrote in my autobiographical essay. When I went to interview for my BAEF (Belgian American Educational Foundation) scholarship, one of the jury members said, “Oh yeah, you’re that engineer musician, right?” So I knew at the time that’s the thing that stuck with them. That’s also something that now I tell my students when they apply to go do their master’s in the United States: “Your scores are excellent. Your GPA is great. You are going to be at the same level as all the other 3.8, 3.9 GPA students from all the rest of the world. So show them who you are, what makes you, you, what makes you unique.” I think that is really what a professor looks for as well. You’re still working with another human being.
What would surprise somebody applying, let’s say, to a UK program or a South American program? [21:37]
When it comes to the UK, it’s very different from continental Europe. We need to acknowledge that as well. There is a very large difference in the nature of the PhD, as well as in its defense. I’m currently working on a book on the topic of the PhD defense, and the Viva from the United Kingdom is very different from the defense in different parts of the world. There are variations of the Viva in the United Kingdom, but typically it will be a closed examination. For your defense in the Netherlands, for example, you can bring your friends and family, and in the United States you can bring your friends and family. There may be a part where you’re just alone with the committee, but your presentation is open to everybody.
In the United Kingdom this is going to be closed. You typically have an external and internal examiner. In the traditional Viva, you are in a room, closed off with just these two people that grill you and then give a recommendation on your defense, for the Viva as well as your PhD thesis. In the Netherlands, you have a committee of a lot of people which will include your promoter or supervisor as well. There are variations in the UK where the supervisor can be in the room to take notes, but not ask questions. In some cases there will be a chair of the department as well to make sure everything follows the rules, but traditionally, it’s just an internal and external examiner in a closed room with the PhD candidate. That can be a very difficult exam to pass. In the Netherlands, for example, we have these committees of eight people.
It’s very ceremonial, the defense. There’s what’s called the beadle. That is a person who has a ceremonial role in university. They have full regalia and a very long stick. They come in with the committee, then they go back, and after exactly one hour, they come in and they tap the floor with a stick and say, “Hora est (it is the hour),” and then you’re supposed to end the defense. So it’s very, very ceremonial, caps and gowns and everything. Standard sentences to address the PhD candidate. There’s very, very strict protocol. There’s only one room in the university that can be used for the defense. So it’s very, very ceremonial, very medieval, almost. It’s a very different atmosphere. Even though it’s still a defense, you still get grilled, you’re still nervous. It also has that very ceremonial and celebratory aspect to it, with the caps and gowns.
Is the outcome for sure that you’re going to get the PhD? Is the defense more of a ritual than a reality? [24:39]
Yes, you get the degree at the end of that. After that hour, the committee will sign, and then you get your degree. It really is the commencement and defense all rolled together. The months before, the going back and forth with the committee, is really the time to get the thesis up to speed.
We mentioned how the US schools in particular were interested in the fact that you love music, but are there non-scientific skills that you need to succeed in a PhD program and in academia? [25:23]
I think these are very important. People tend to say that your publications are the currency of your academic career. In order to get to the point of getting your work publishable, you will need to be able to write in a clear manner and make good figures and present visual information in a clear way. These are things that typically are not thought of in engineering school. Those are very important skills. If somebody has never had a course like that, you can still, when you are in graduate school, hone those skills. I had the chance of taking a course on writing and presenting during my master’s at Georgia Tech, and I still credit that course with a lot of what came afterwards as successes in my career, because in that class, I really learned how to write clearly and how to present formulas and complex mathematical elements in a clear way that the audience could follow. Those are such important skills.
What are your top tips for getting funding for PhDs? [26:44]
It depends on the program. For example, if you go to the Netherlands, you may be hired on a funded project, and that is different from going somewhere with funding, either from your home country, an institution, such as a Fulbright, or getting an excellent scholarship, or any of these opportunities. If I am an engineer interested in concrete, and I’m up against somebody who is going to work on cancer research or baby hearts, as I often say, maybe my research will be less attractive to a committee, because concrete is gray and boring. But there is always a value to society to what you do. In my case, concrete is the second most used material in the world after water. The possibility of impact there is very large. Just look around and try to think away everything that is concrete, and not much would be left standing. It’s still important. Finding the thing that connects to people and connects to funding bodies and committees by showing beyond your mathematical model and your experiment, trying to explain why it’s relevant and how you contribute to learning in the world, is what’s going to help a lot with getting funding.
How do you combine your academic career and parenting since your daughter was born? [29:29]
Since part of my work is also in the Netherlands and requires a lot of traveling, it took me a bit of learning. First I thought, I’ll just go in the summer and get my research done and then pick up being Mom again. That’s what I thought before having my daughter. I did that one summer and it was pretty miserable. That’s when I said, well, I guess I cannot switch off being Mom. And then the next summer that I went to the Netherlands, I just made sure I had arranged childcare in the Netherlands and took her along with me. I had a bit of fear of going with a toddler and being on my own with her for six weeks and in a tiny apartment and how that all would work out. But then, I was much happier having her around and sharing some of Europe with her and taking her to see my family.
What I’m getting at here is your identity changes as you become a parent. You cannot think like I thought, that I would just flip off being a mom and go work for six weeks and then flip on again. That’s impossible, and I didn’t know that. Any idea that I had of how I would combine career and motherhood before having my daughter, things turned out different. The important thing is finding what works for you. That comes back to my answer of, “It depends.” Find what works for you. That may mean finding very good childcare that you can rely on, knowing when it’s time to lean into work and when it’s time to lean out to work, knowing when it’s time to be there for your child. That’s still the most important thing in life. Work can wait for a moment. Let things rest when they need to rest and go with the ebb and flow has been what I’ve been learning these years. It has brought so much extra value to my life to have my daughter and to see her grow.
And as a teacher, it inspires me to see how she learns. It inspires me to see how she sees the world and how she sees things. It makes me think of my students; for them, what I teach is all new as well. It has changed me as a teacher and it also has added a level of purpose to my work. I’ve always had the feeling that the research that I do is for that contribution to society that I mentioned before, making sure that our bridges are safe and thinking about a way that we can keep using concrete or concrete-like materials in a future where we may not be wanting to use so much cement because of the amount of CO2 production that’s related to the cement production. It adds a level of purpose to what I’m doing, knowing that my research is going to contribute to a better world for when she grows up.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [33:02]
For students in Ecuador, what would be good advice for applying, and where they should apply to go to graduate school? Why should they go to graduate school? From the perspective of having started in Ecuador, what would be something that would surprise them when they apply to a graduate program?
I’ve helped a lot of my bachelor thesis students apply to graduate school in both the United States as well as in Europe. One of the things that’s been important for them is to know that even though they are from a small country, they still have a chance. We now have a master’s of engineering program in the university where I teach. We have a masters of engineering structures, but for somebody who really wants to go into any of the other fields of civil engineering, we’re very limited in what is available in Ecuador. It’s considered, “This is as much as I can learn because that’s what’s available here.” I’ve been challenging my students in trying to break that thought pattern. When I applied at University of Brussels, that’s a small school as well. Not many people know that school. While of course I’m privileged having grown up in Europe and all that, but any good student can go on to the university where they want to study. The first thing to do there is the work of really believing in yourself. I’ve had students with excellent GPAs ask me, “Do you think I would be good enough for that school?” And I just want to tell them, “Yes, of course you are.” That’s the most important: to believe in yourself and go for your dreams.
In addition to that, I’m always very impressed by the work ethic of my students here in Ecuador. They are hardworking. I look back at myself when I was a student. I sometimes think like I was so lazy compared to them; they work so hard. I hope for more faculty in programs in the United States and Europe to know that these students are at that excellent level. They’ve gone through a lot of adversity. There’s just not that much available here for them. They’ve done the extra work. They’ve done all the extra reading to get to that level. Their work ethic is so impressive.
Where can our listeners find you online? [37:13]
My website is evalantsoght.com, and my blog is there as well. My podcast is the PhD Talk podcast, which I co-host with Rico Massa from McGill, who is a PhD student. You can also find me on Twitter @evalantsoght and on Instagram @evalantsoght, and my Facebook page is PhD Talk.
- Eva Lantsoght’s website
- Plotting Your Way to a PhD, a free guide
- How to Be a Competitive PhD Applicant and Apply to the Best Programs for You
- 3 Things You Should Look for When Researching PhD Programs
- Accepted Admissions Consulting Services
- Application Trends to Watch in 2021, and a Look Back at 2020
- Wake Up to Your Amazing Career Possibilities
- Writing a Compelling Personal Statement
- Awards! Grants! Scholarships! Oh My!
- How to Get Into Grad School, and Get Jobs After Grad School