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Part Time PhD
You can't beat perfect
Minh Nguyen earned his Ph.D. last fall after an experience that challenges many common assumptions. He completed his coursework and dissertation on communications traffic analysis and interference cancellation for avionic systems in just three years — as a part-time graduate student holding down a full-time engineering job.
Nguyen entered the Ph.D. program at the Northern Virginia campus in September 2002 and worked with Amir Zaghloul as his advisor. When he started the program, he was a senior communications systems engineer with MITRE Corp. He had thoroughly researched his options and decided that he could pursue a Ph.D. and continue fully contributing at work.
“I was one of the youngest in my division and many colleagues had doctorates,” Nguyen remembers. “MITRE is very research oriented and encourages employees to pursue advanced degrees.” Nguyen had earned both his B.S. and MS degrees from Tech at the Blacksburg campus and wanted to study here for his doctorate as well.
The hardest part, he says, was the decision to pursue the degree, then to go part time. “Once we engineers start working in our professional field, it’s difficult to quit for four or more years for a program that does not have a definitive end,” he says. “We think that if we focus on school, we must quit our jobs.”
Nguyen tried to weigh the economic cost and the benefits of getting a Ph.D. “Was the degree only for personal satisfaction, or would it help me thrive in my career? I had no answer to that.” The option of keeping his job and going to school part time was intriguing. “I talked to 10 people, however, who all said the same thing: that doing a part-time Ph.D. is impossible.”
In the end, he chose the job and the degree. “I could not quit a great job for a commitment that was not well defined. I continued to work at MITRE as a salaried, full-time engineer and performed advanced technology research that I really enjoyed.”
He entered the program with a big advantage for Ph.D. research. He was already up-to-speed on a research topic that was related to his job. “The idea actually spun off from an internal R&D project that I had been working on. Dr. Zaghloul helped me narrow the focus for an appropriate dissertation. This gave me a jump start,” he says. He also found that working in the more applied corporate environment and the theoretical academic environment cross fertilized both efforts. “My industrial work motivated my academic objectives, and what I learned in school helped with my career.”
Because his academic research was related to his work at MITRE, he was fully funded to write papers and journal articles, and present his work at conferences. His work also resulted in two joint MITRE-Virginia Tech patents, which are pending. “This is a real plus for Ph.D. students.”
His biggest challenge in pursuing both activities simultaneously was “heavy-duty multi-tasking. I had to balance my workloads between work, school, and family — and each one could be considered a full-time commitment.” His advice for others considering a similar path: “Eliminate the word ‘procrastination’ from your dictionary! If you have a research idea in the middle of the night, get up and work on it immediately. Give it further thought or you might lose important ideas forever. There are many things to distract a part-time Ph.D. student and you must maintain focus.”
After Nguyen completed his degree, his program at MITRE slowed down due to limitation of government funding, so Nguyen decided to pursue new opportunities. He is now at Argon ST, Inc., applying his communications system architecture signal processing, and interference cancellation expertise to sensor applications and satellite systems. “My academic and research achievements from Virginia Tech helped give me the opportunities at MITRE, and now at Argon ST, working with highly competent colleagues on interesting and cutting-edge research programs.”