Sep 20, 2022

Interview with Claude De Lamater-Brotherton, a first-year graduate student at the University of Tennessee in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Overview:  This post is part of series of interviews with graduate students about their application process and transition into a STEM graduate program.  Claude De Lamater-Brotherton obtained both an associate’s degree in Applied Science from Trident Technical College in 2018 with emphasis on welding and a bachelor of science in materials science and engineering from Clemson University in December 2021.  During his undergraduate program, he conducted research with Dr. Ming Tang to improve glass properties for nuclear waste applications.  Claude entered the University of Tennessee doctoral program in materials science and engineering in August 2021. 


Dr. Kennedy emailed Claude a list of questions and he graciously sent me back a series of replies.  She edited this to make sure that the key points of the discussion were clear with his input (and Kate Epstein did light editing for clarity) and removed parts she felt would be of little interest to the reader. 



Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Q: When did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?  What was your motivation? 

A:  I decided to pursue a graduate degree at about the time that I decided to transition to Clemson University after completing my associate’s degree. I knew that I wanted to go into the field of materials science.  I took time to research and found that for me to do actual material science instead of using my degree to get hired in a tangential job, such as quality assurance, I would need a graduate degree.


I have since learned many materials science jobs do not require a graduate degree. However, I also discovered that learning about material science and learning, in general, was something that drives me. My motivation evolved into learning for the sake of learning because that is what fueled me to pursue higher academic goals in the first place.


Q: What do you want to do after completing your Ph.D. degree?

A:  I have not yet found what I want to do after completing my graduate degree. As of right now, I am tentatively planning on taking a job in industry. Mainly because I don't see myself as a teacher and I do not have enough experience in research yet to know if I want to pursue further research as my focus. I recently had a co-op [cooperative education program] for six months and found that I enjoyed the work, so I know that I would probably be comfortable in the industry.  However, I want to explore research to the full extent that I can before making any sort of decision.


Q: Why did you decide to pursue a Ph.D. rather than an MS in materials science and engineering?

A:  I felt that it was very important to me to push myself as far as I could. Through my academic journey, I have found a passion in learning and a desire to curate an expertise in the field of materials engineering and energy science. An M.S. would have furthered my knowledge, but a Ph.D. is the epitome of understanding in a field. With a Ph.D. I will be able to learn more and have more opportunities both personally and professionally than I could have with a MS.


Q: Why did you decide to attend the University of Tennessee?  What drew you to that program?

A: I decided to go to the University of Tennessee for a couple of reasons. The first is that the Bredesen Center program is focused on interdisciplinary work and research, and being able to work with others who are not necessarily of the same background I think widens one's view. The Bredesen Center programs also have a focus on non-science work such as policy, teaching, and entrepreneurship. I thought that this portion of the program would be very important to build a broader background as I go forwards. They also had the best offer both monetarily and the opportunity to work at a national lab, which is something that I wanted to do. Additionally, I have some family from the area and wanted to reconnect with some of those roots.


Q: What are some key differences between your undergraduate and graduate-level classes?

A:  In graduate classes, there is more of an onus to teach yourself and to get what you need from a class, not just do the bare minimum. My first few assignments in graduate school classes showed me that it is just important to know why the answer is that answer as the answer itself. The classes also go more in-depth than most of my undergraduate classes. While I haven't finished my first semester yet, it also seems that there are going to be more written papers in graduate courses when compared to my undergraduate classes.


Q: When did you start preparing to apply to graduate school?

A:  I started preparing much later than I should have. I started in earnest the August prior to graduation (December of that year). I should have been working with my professors for a year and a half before I graduated, instead of for 5 months prior to graduation.


Q: What was the most difficult part of the graduate application process?

A:  The most difficult part of the application process for me were the personal statements. I found it difficult to communicate what I have learned, my desires for school, and the skills that I have gained clearly without saying too little. I still find it all awkward to talk about myself. Additionally, I think picking a school that would be a good fit for me was a hard process.  Because there are so many different programs, each with its own positives and negatives, and I couldn’t apply everywhere.


Q: What advice would you want to give yourself at the start of your junior year as an undergraduate?  

A:  I would advise myself to start immediately by finding a career advisor—someone to help you along the process makes everything so much easier. I would tell myself to seriously start looking into various programs and specifically their details to see if they these programs were something I would like to be a part of. I would also advise myself to start talking with professors about the various schools I'm thinking about to learn more about whether they would be a good fit.


Q: What is research? 

A:  Research is kind of a catch-all term, as I have found it to include anything that involves professionally learning about a topic and discovering new information, which you can then share with other people. Depending on your field of expertise this could be gathering data and summarizing key takeaways. This could also be developing new technology and presenting how you did it. One thing I have learned is that a fundamental part of research is communicating the information that you discover.


Q: You are currently finding a graduate advisor at the University of Tennessee.  Can you tell us what that process has been like? 

A:  I have both reached out and been reached out to by professors who might have a space for a Ph.D. student. I have then met with these researchers either via Zoom or in person and toured a couple of their research facilities. I found the process to be slightly confusing because during the application process you must juggle multiple opportunities for the next four years.


There are so many different factors in picking a graduate advisor. Personality is a surprisingly important part, as well as research, work ethic, research interests, and more.


Q: There are so many *management tools* and *time management rules* that people use to optimize their time. What tools or rules do you find helpful to improve your daily productivity in graduate school?

A: I have found that music with a fast beat and no vocals helps me focus. I have also found that utilizing short but frequent breaks, of roughly 45 minutes on and then 5 minutes off, allows me to work more productively over a longer period. I also discovered that sometimes I need to limit all distractions such as a phone or people to be able to get what I need to be done, but other days I can multi-task more efficiently.


Being aware of how you are doing on any one day is also important to tweaking how you optimize your time. This is because there are some times when I know that I just will not be as efficient working on one topic or doing one thing over something else. One of the really important factors in helping me drive up productivity is wanting to do the work and not feeling as though it is a slog. My worst classes in undergraduate and graduate school were classes I didn't have a particular drive for. One thing that helped was watching a lecture by Marty Lobdell, Study Less, Study Smart. I put into practice many of his recommendations and there was an immediate improvement.


Q: Who is a researcher you admire? If you had the ability to ask them one question, what would it be? 

A:  I admire the researcher John B. Goodenough for the work that he has done in furthering battery technology and material science. I would like to ask him what he thinks he has done differently than other researchers that have allowed him to be so successful. Many researchers are great, discover something amazing, or invent something revolutionary, but there are just as many who don’t. I would like to hear what he thinks was his secret to success.


Many thanks to Claude for sharing his experience with us and helping those applying to graduate school.  If you are interested in contributing by being interviewed, please submit a message on the main page.