Interview with Eric Rehm

“Students can come out of their programs without any debt at all, as long as they live within their means. Poor finances should never be the reason that a student chooses not to pursue a PhD in oceanography.”

Seventh year PhD student in Oceanography with a specialization in Physical Oceanography
University of Washington

Graduate School – Application Process

How did you select your graduate school and program?

I selected University of Washington’s oceanography program for my PhD after several months of research and contact with the department. Through my previous career in software engineering and film, I had discovered an interest in the physics of light and color, which ultimately led my research interests to a niche in the field of oceanography.

I zeroed in on the professors who I wanted to study with based on their work in this niche, although I did not limit myself entirely to it. After e-mailing and calling professors from a few different universities for several months, I finally decided to apply for the PhD program at University of Washington.

What did you do to prepare yourself for graduate school?

Frist, I prepared myself for graduate school by reading a basic undergraduate oceanography text cover-to-cover. Then, I contacted professors at multiple universities to introduce myself and learn more about the field. I was not entirely convinced that I wanted to do a PhD program until I applied for it, but the fact that the professors all knew me by the time I did apply certainly helped my chances.

Did your application requirements include standardized test scores?

Yes, my application did require me to take the GRE, although I am unsure if the university had a minimum score requirement. I do know that my scores were strong, but not great. I prepared for the test by buying a GRE book and attending a GRE prep course, which helped me to learn test-taking strategies.

What kind of information did you include in your personal statement?

My personal statement included information about my 20 years in software engineering and any achievements that I felt were relevant to my future success as a doctoral candidate. I also highlighted my academic background because, in my opinion, that background gave me a unique perspective on the field.

How did you choose faculty to approach for letters of recommendation?

Having been out of school for a long time before applying to graduate school for oceanography, I had lost touch with faculty from my existing BS and MS degrees. But I had significant work and industrial research experience. So I asked work and research colleagues to write these letters. I made sure at least one of the letters of recommendation came from someone with a PhD who had experience with my industrial research publications.

Do you have any other tips for a student who is considering applying to graduate school in oceanography?

Yes, I recommend that students who are considering applying to graduate school in oceanography try pin down their research interests before applying to any programs. Although nontraditional, this approach allowed me to outline my research goals clearly in my application and showed that I was serious.

I also suggest that students look for a contact in the departments of their prospective programs who can give them some pointers. In my case, I had an adjunct professor whom I met through an extension course at University of Washington who was able to direct me to my current advisor.

Graduate School – The Program

How long is your program and how is the curriculum distributed?

My oceanography program takes 5 to 6 years to complete and contains coursework and dissertation components. The first 2 years of the program are devoted almost entirely to coursework, especially in the physical oceanography specialization, which requires 2 to 3 additional applied math courses. Once students in my program complete their coursework, they must complete a masters degree project to show that they have learned to write and research properly. Typically, within 12 to 18 months, this is followed by an oral general exam before their faculty committee to outline their dissertation research project. If they pass, then they can move on to their dissertation research.

What is the focus of your dissertation research?

The focus of my dissertation research is looking at the way the color of light behaves in water to determine the state and structure and phytoplankton in the ocean. I chose this topic before I even applied to a doctoral program. I wanted to be sure that I had a topic that would hold my interest for the full length of a program before making any academic commitments.

I arrived at this specific topic through my previous experience in the engineering and computer science, an extension oceanography course I took, and communication with several oceanography professors. I knew about this niche of oceanography, but not until I had done extensive reading and cemented my understanding of the field with a course did I have the tools necessary to think seriously about doctoral research.

My advice for students who are worried about finding a topic is to use the Internet and start looking around for opportunities that will allow you to give the topic a try before committing to it. Oceanography has tons of free online resources devoted to it, and if students are careful about looking for the names of professors on those resources, they can start seeking out research internships that will help them to gauge their actual interests. Also, a number of oceanography programs have brief research apprenticeships that let you “try before you buy.”

Can you describe the process of researching for and writing your dissertation?

Yes, the process for researching and writing my dissertation resembles a full-time job. I spend most of my daytime hours on my dissertation or doing research for my advisor, but if a milestone or deadline is approaching, I may work even longer hours to meet it. Now that my classwork is complete, I try to work hard during the week so I can decompress and play on the weekends.

What role does your advisor play in your education?

The role of my advisor is to guide me through my research. I selected him as my advisor before I even applied to the program because he had an interest in physics as well as oceanography, which lined up with my research interests. He and I also seemed to get along well.

I also consider him to be a mentor, or someone who can see beyond my immediate struggles and help me find the future directions that I need to take my research, but I do not rely on him for everything. No professor can be a completely devoted mentor all of the time, and I also think that it is healthy for me to work things out for myself sometimes.

In my opinion, the best approach for struggling doctoral students is to get occasional help from someone other than their advisor. In my case, that may mean consulting with another member of my dissertation committee, or even with people who are not at all connected to me or my research.

Does your doctoral program require comprehensive exams prior to graduation?

Yes, my oceanography program requires students to take a general exam before they can graduate. University of Washington’s oceanography program is different from most other programs, however, in that its general exam is not a written exam. Instead, students present a written dissertation proposal and give an oral presentation. I think that the faculty committees who hear the presentations just want to make sure that students can write and research at the doctoral level.

Graduate School – Paying for It

How much does your doctoral program cost?

My doctoral program costs me very little because I receive full funding from the university via one of my advisor’s grants, which is typical for most students in oceanography programs. Without a tuition waiver, I think that students would have to pay in excess of $10,000 a year.

Most of the secondary costs for a doctoral program, including rent, books and warm research clothing, are paid for through the stipend that I receive, which is about $22,000 to $24,000 a year. That said, advisors usually pay for expensive instrumentation and the computers that their students may need.

How are you funding your education?

I am funding my education with a tuition waiver and stipend that I receive through my university and advisor. I had applied for several fellowships and grants early on, but when I failed to get any of them, my advisor continued to fund me with his grants. I received several departmental academic awards that helped offset my advisor’s grant contributions, as did working one quarter for another oceanography professor. Students in my program must also complete at least one quarter as a department-funded teaching assistant.

Graduate School – Living Life

What are the time commitments for a PhD in oceanography?

The time commitments for a PhD in oceanography are considerable. During my first 2 years, I did nothing but oceanography coursework. Now that I am in my dissertation phase, I work 40 to 50 hours a week on research, which has replaced my full-time job, but I also find that I have more hours to myself in the evenings and on weekends.

How has graduate school affected your personal life?

Graduate school has affected my personal life by consuming most of my thoughts and energy. My wife calls the laptop my girlfriend because I spend more time with it than I do with her, on average. Although she is a good sport, I think that her words reflect the type of commitment that I have had to make to my education. However, I try to regularly put my “girlfriend” away to go out on date nights with my wife.

One way that I try to keep on top of my academic tasks so that I can free up more time for my personal life is through timelines. I am a visual person, so being able to look at a timeline and chart my goals and progress toward them helps me to stay focused. I may not always meet those goals, but I can look back at my timeline and see that my failure has been due to a miscalculation of time needed, not laziness.

Graduate School – After Graduation

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years, I can see myself completing a post-doctoral program in another country, possibly Britain or France. In my experience, oceanographers often work alone, but as a former software engineer, I miss group collaboration and research. In post-doctoral and subsequent assignments, I’ll be looking for the collaborative working environment again.

Graduate School – Advice

What insights can you offer a student who is interested in pursuing a PhD in oceanography?

My biggest insight for students who are interested in pursuing a PhD in oceanography is that this degree path is an investment of passion, time and energy, but not money. Students can come out of their programs without any debt at all, as long as they live within their means. Poor finances should never be the reason that a student chooses not to pursue a PhD in oceanography.

I also encourage students to do their research and find programs with strong faculty who share their research interests and mesh well with their personalities. I invested months into this research, and it has paid off many times over for me.

Chayala Englard


College of Staten Island