Center for Integration of Research and Learning

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Department of Physics, North Carolina A&T State University

Last modified 4-October-2001.
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Ron McNair


Pursuing a Ph.D. in Physics

12 APRIL 2002 

It wasn't until after I took a physics course with a certain energetic professor that I started to figure out what I really wanted to do.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, with three brothers, two sisters, and the original superwoman: my mother. My mother has been single for most of my life, and she literally worked night and day as a nurse so that her six children could go to private school. When my mother earned her B.S. degree, she had four children and a full-time job. When she earned her M.S. degree, she had a full-time job and a daughter with sickle cell anemia who was constantly in the hospital. My mother is my hero. 

I began my undergraduate education in electrical engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and I knew that I should get at least a master's degree. But, even though I planned to attend graduate school, I had no real vision for my future career. It wasn't until after I took a physics course with a certain energetic professor that I started to figure out what I really wanted to do. Professor Abebe Kebede at North Carolina A&T took me to a national laboratory and farther from home than I had ever been. 

Actually, I had three summer internships at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. I was surprised to see how undaunting science can be. I was conducting real research alongside professional scientists who were publishing in reputable journals, and I was just a sophomore in engineering. The work that I did each summer contributed to a published paper. When I went back to A&T after that first summer, I changed my major to physics. Of course, as I considered changing my major, I had to count the cost of time, because all of the scientists I met had Ph.D.s. 

I applied to six graduate schools and for seven fellowships. I was accepted to five graduate schools, but the one I wanted to attend, the Georgia Institute of Technology, would not accept me unless I was able to pay my own way. Of the seven fellowships, I received one: the David and Lucile Packard Foundation fellowship, which would amount to as much as $100,000 over 5 years. I believe I still had the letter from the Packard Foundation in my hand when I called Georgia Tech to tell them that I was on my way to Atlanta. 

There were several simple reasons why I selected Georgia Tech for my graduate studies. First, many students from A&T went there for graduate school, so I had a lot of confidence that I would be successful. Second, during my initial visit to the school of physics, I found a professor with whom I wanted to work. Finally, I considered the environment in which I would spend the next 5 or 6 years. A warm climate and the culture of Atlanta made up the perfect combination for pursuing my studies! 

In preparing my statement of purpose for graduate school and fellowship applications, I knew I needed to focus on various strengths from my background and experiences that would make me stand out. Because I did not perform well on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), I relied heavily on my experiences at the national laboratories. In my personal statement, I presented an overview of my research accomplishments, and I gave the three journal citations of the articles on which I am a co-author. Obtaining research and internship experiences as an undergraduate can be extremely valuable, particularly if you want to earn a graduate degree in science. 

Currently, I am in my sixth year of graduate school. I can sum up my experience at Georgia Tech as being in a tough but fair environment. Classes are difficult and students are very motivated, so I couldn't depend on "the curve." Students in my first-year class stuck together, and ethnic background did not matter. However, when it came to the dreaded comprehensive exam, I found that I had to study alone. 

After successfully passing the exam and thus being admitted to Ph.D. candidacy, the next step was to conduct my own research project. Initially, I had some bad luck. I started on a promising research topic that, after 1 year, ended up going nowhere. However, learning from my past experiences, I proceeded to pursue a different research topic, which--again after 1 year--had to be scrapped! This was very disappointing, and I was quite frustrated. But I soon realized that I only had two options: I could quit, or I could try again. I am presently at the 1-year mark of my third research project, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel! Conducting original research can be a very frustrating experience, but it also can be very rewarding. I enjoy my current work immensely and should finish my Ph.D. in less than a year. 

There are many different things I would like to accomplish after I graduate. I am very interested in continuing my current work on fuel-cell electric vehicles in the automotive industry. And I am also interested in teaching high school physics. Teaching will allow me to serve as a role model and mentor for other minority students. I am looking forward to giving back and motivating others to accomplish their goals. 

C. Marcelle Buford is a native of Detroit, Michigan, and is completing his doctoral degree in physics at Georgia Tech. For more information, please 
e-mail Marcelle at

Published in Science NextWave Magazine