Oct 13, 2022

Interview with Allison Kaczmarek, a current graduate research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Overview:  This post is the second in a series of interviews with scholars who are in or recently graduated from a STEM graduate program.  Each one shares their perspective on the best path to pursuing a fulfilling graduate career. 


I am appreciative that Allison Kaczmarek is sharing her perspective through this blog. Allison began as a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in fall 2020 after completing a double major at Clemson University in chemistry and materials science and engineering. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and is currently advised by Drs. Caroline Ross and Geoff Beach.  You can learn more about her here:  LinkedIn


Transparency of how this post was constructed:  We emailed Allison a list of questions ahead of time and she met with Dr. Kennedy on Zoom. Dr. Kennedy used her notes and transcript to write this post and then and Kate Epstein did light editing for clarity.  Allison Kaczmarek then read over for final approval.   




Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Q: How does taking classes and doing research differ as a graduate student?  You did both of those activities (participating in courses and research) as an undergraduate.


A: In terms of classes, graduate school feels much less like I am trying to meet an expectation.  Instead, I feel focused on exploring and learning the concepts.  It has been less stressful.    


Research is more your own in graduate school.  It is less directed.  In graduate school, I am defining my own research questions, responsible for designing my material systems, identifying the characterization needed, etc. 


Q: When did you first decide that you wanted to pursue an advanced degree in STEM?


A: The summer after my sophomore year, I was a research intern in Switzerland. While I had worked on research for academic credit earlier that year, the experience in Switzerland allowed me to see research in a broader context and think about research as a career instead of just an activity.


For most students, science is experienced through small classroom experiments. The activity involves one or two other people and has a fixed end. In Switzerland, I was able to see that research has many people across the world working together to complete a research project that solves a societal problem. 


Q:  Why did you decide to pursue a PhD instead of a MS?


A: I pursued a doctoral degree since the research would be more independent.  I wanted an experience where the focus was less on the outcome of the research, more focused on integrating creativity, and allowed me more room to explore and learn. 


Additionally, a student is more often financially supported pursuing a PhD. 


Q: When did you start preparing your applications for graduate school and how did you decide what programs to apply for?   


A: I started seriously considering applying the spring of my junior year and the following summer.   


I used that time to really start thinking about the kinds of graduate programs I would want to pursue, where I wanted to live, what kind of research I wanted to do.  By that time, I had a sense of research as a process, but I did not understand the breadth of research activity within my discipline. When I started to seriously investigate graduate school, I saw a wide array of research missions.   


I decided to apply to programs that offered at least two research areas I was interested in pursuing and had a couple of faculty members publishing in each of those areas. 


Q:  What do you think were the experiences that made you a more competitive candidate for graduate school?


A: I utilized my summers to gain a wide array of experiences. One summer, I worked abroad as a research intern. Another summer, I worked in at a national laboratory as an intern. Each of these experiences gave me a broader understanding of the research ecosystem and solidified my relationships with scientists who could write letters on my behalf and describe me to grad school admissions committees. 


Q: What advice would you give to an undergraduate starting the graduate school application process? 


A: The biggest barrier for me was writing a personal statement. I would tell an applicant for graduate school to really think of that statement as a “purpose” rather than a “personal” statement. The wording kept tripping me up. The statement is not supposed to be a description of you as a person, but instead a description of your reasoning for going to graduate school and your goals afterward. 


Q: Looking back, what advice would you have given yourself as a junior in college to better prepare for graduate school? 


A: Looking back, I would give myself three pieces of advice. 


I would emphasize that balance is important. 


Next, I would encourage myself to work on goal setting, a skill really needed in graduate school. I wish that I had practiced that more. 


Finally, I would suggest taking a step back to make sure that I saw the bigger picture. As an undergraduate, I got caught up taking classes in each semester, completing those classes, and then moving on to the next semester’s requirements. I wish that I had taken a step back to holistically look at my trajectory as an undergraduate and interests as a scientist rather than just jumping from class to class.   


Q: Thinking back over the last two year, what was the most surprising part of attending graduate school and joining your research group?


A: The amount of self-regulation and self-motivation that I needed to have.  


The research group I joined is self-driven. I am given the freedom to decide what hours I work and what I will be working on and the responsibility to decide if my results are sufficient. While my advisor is here to help me set goals, it is up to me to do the work.  It’s a surprising amount of freedom coupled with the responsibility to work diligently.



Q: What do you think are the skills needed to be strong graduate student based on your experience and observation of others?


A: In addition to self-regulation and self-motivation mentioned above, graduate students need to have strong time management. 


In graduate school, you will persistently be exploring a void in our collective understanding.  You will be become immersed. You will explore the published literature on the topic, talk to colleagues, plan experiments, etc. You will need to periodically “come back up for air” to revisit your original research question and resituate. 


You will also need to “come back up for air” on a personal level too.  For me, it is taking the time to do fun things like sailing or just hanging out with friends. 


(At this point in the conversation, Allison was cajoled into confirming the best location for Cannoli in Boston.  She gave a shoutout to Bova’s Bakery in the North End.).      


Q: There are so many *management tools* to help graduate students improve their productivity or impact today. Can you highlight one management tool you think students should consider utilizing?


A: The hardest part of graduate school for me has been analyzing collected data. With that in mind, I would suggest that graduate students learn Python. It’s open source and once you learn how to utilize it, you can adjust your code to other systems.


While Python is helping me mine data, it has not yet solved how to fix the disorder of the files on my computer. 


Q: Who is a researcher that you admire? If you had the ability to ask that person one question about the experience being a researcher, what would it be? 


A: I really admired the research style of Mildred “Millie” Dresselhaus. She was a solid-state physicist and MIT Professor Emerita of Physics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.  (For those of you unfamiliar with her, read Institute Professor Emerita Mildred Dresselhaus, a pioneer in the electronic properties of materials, dies at 86 published by MIT News.)  


I see her quotes around this campus, citing the importance of creativity in research.  If I could have spoken with her, I would have wanted to ask what she found arduous during research.  She was human and I suspect that there must have been some part of the research process that she did not enjoy. 





I had seen Millie Dresselhaus at the fall Materials Research Society conference held in Boston over the years. Since my research did not overlap with hers, I mostly remember her at the poster symposia taking the time to talk with everyone. After listening to Allison, I read up about Millie on the internet and was most touched by an article by her daughter Marianne which discussed the impact of the Holocaust on Millie’s family and the growing of academic families.  


I emailed Allison and asked her to send me her favorite Prof. Dresselhaus quote to include at the close of this post.  She sent this.


“People who have it too easy in early life have a disadvantage for later on, because they get to thinking that everything is going to be easy.”


Allison on why this quote spoke to her:  Graduate school has been anything but easy. It’s new, uncomfortable, and challenging to sit with a hard problem and chew on it for a long time. It’s easy to get discouraged, but the satisfaction of being the first person in the world to show/know/ or prove a thing is incredible.


“Follow your interests, get the best available education and training, set your sights high, be persistent, be flexible, keep your options open, accept help when offered, and be prepared to help others.”


Allison on why this quote spoke to her:  I think she easily sums up everything I tried to say in this interview, with one more important point: no one goes through this journey alone. Getting help and helping others is a crucial part of working in a research ecosystem (and in life in general). While you could make others your “competition”, it’s much more productive to learn each other’s strengths, be open to learning new things, and always lend a helping hand.