People and Ideas | Interview with Deji Akinwande

The most important things are people and ideas. They are transcendental. People working at their full capacity can do anything. Ideas can change everything.

Deji Akinwande stressed people and ideas in our interview. He is an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and was awarded a 2016 Presidential (PECASE) Award by President Obama.

His three pieces of advice for graduate students:

  1. Invest in and nurture your ideas
  2. Networking is critical
  3. Communication, communication, communication

More about Professor Akinwande is at the end. Here are his three pieces of advice.

1. Invest In and Nuture Your Ideas

Pivotal advice came from one of Deji’s Teaching Assistants during his first year of graduate school at Stanford. “Research is the most important thing. Don’t focus too much on classes or other extracurricular activities.” He continued to spend sufficient time on his classes to learn and get a good grade. Advancing his research ideas became his top priority. He carved out the time to develop and nurture them.

Dr-Deji-Akinwande

Dr. Deji Akinwande

Now he counsels students to do the same thing. Faculty value students who have their own ideas, he says.

You need a lot of thinking time, he continued. Be proactive in advancing your own ideas. Show that you are working at the frontier of the field. Figure out what the important questions in your field are. What is yet to be addressed? Propose your own approaches. To stimulate your ideas: take classes on contemporary issues, go to seminars, and read widely.

It is very important for your career to identify substantial issues that people care about. You need to show that you worked on significant problems. By the time you finish your degree you should have proposed and attempted solutions.  Employers are keen on this. This advice holds for all career paths.

2. Networking is Critical

“The more people you know who see you positively, the better your chances of being successful. People who have a positive opinion of you will champion your case. They will be good and effective mentors.”

Deji executed a purposeful strategy to forge mentoring relationships. He targeted several faculty members that he wanted to have a strong relationship with. He tried to have lunch with each of them every term, “so that they know what I am up to and can offer me perspective.”

How did he do this? Once he had taken a class with a faculty member, and had made a good impression by doing well, then he took the next step. He stopped by office hours and engaged in conversation. This gave him the opportunity to suggest having lunch. He discovered that it was uncommon for students to reach out to faculty members in this way. They enjoyed the chance to hang out and talk informally.

He cautions against making initial inquiries by email. He only emailed with these faculty members after the relationship was established. Students have to persist, he noted. If you can’t find a mutually agreeable time, keep trying.

[You might find these posts on networking helpful: Why You Should Network|7 Myths Dispelled, Networking in Three Directions and The Four I’s of Networking.]

Good Questions Lead to Memorable Conversations

Two gentoo penguinsConferences are a place to meet new people and expand your circle. His advisor introduced him to prominent colleagues. Deji then engaged them in conversation for 5-10 minutes. Ask questions that will make a good impression and help the person remember you. Then you can follow up later, because you have established a connection. For example, Deji would ask, “What are 1-2 critical things that you did that made you successful?” This question usually resulted in an extended and interesting conversation.

Having memorable conversations is a skill that requires effort and practice. “We must have questions ready to ask people,” he emphasized.

He takes question-asking very seriously. Later in the spring of 2016 Dr. Akinwande will meet President Obama, and he confided that he was thinking hard about the question he would ask. His goal is to ask a question that will inspire the President to have a private conversation with him.

3. Communication, Communication, Communication

Develop the art of effective oral and written communication. Many students don’t have effective communication skills. Recognize and fix the problem, if it is true for you. It is critical for your future.

Speaking

Learn to communicate ideas in layman’s terms and talk to a broad audience. You need to be able to persuade and convince others. Wherever you go after grad school, you will have a supervisor and colleagues, and you will need to advocate for your ideas. Develop the ability to motivate and persuade others about the value of what you think.

 Writing

A technical article can be extremely challenging to write, both narratively and grammatically. Many students struggle to write well; especially international students. Seek out writing classes and writing centers, such as these at UCLA, the University of Utah, Washington State University, and UC Berkeley.

Build Your Skills

He concluded the interview by reiterating his key point.

“The most important thing are people and ideas.” Ideas can change everything and you want to get your ideas out. He encourages people to develop good skills sets, particularly the “soft skills” of leadership and working with people with different personalities and from diverse backgrounds. Learn to speak to different audiences, motivate people, collaborate, and persuade.


Akinwande coversDeji Akinwande is the Jack Kilby/TI associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas at Austin and was awarded a 2016  Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award by President Obama. His research group works at the frontier of nanomaterials, flexible nanoelectronics, bioelectronics, and RF integrated circuits.

He and his collaborators recently created the first transistors made of silicene, the world’s thinnest silicon material. Their research holds the promise of building dramatically faster, smaller and more efficient computer chips. This discovery was featured on NPR, Time magazine, and on the cover of Nature Nanotechnology. It was named one of the Top 100 Science stories of 2015 by Discover magazine.

Dr. Akinwande received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University in December 2009. His Ph.D. research was on the synthesis, device physics, and circuit applications of carbon nanotubes and graphene. He received B.S/M.S. combined degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics from Case Western Reserve University, where he pioneered the design and development of near-field microwave probe tips for nondestructive imaging and studies of materials. You can learn more about him in this interview.


Published April 12, 2016.

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