Aeriel is one of my sorority sisters and a phd candidate at University of Michigan. I'm impressed by her scholastic achievements, but also in the way she maintains her femininity while succeeding in a predominately male field. She also writes a blog about maintaining mental and physical health. Her answers below spoke very close to my heart, especially when she discusses the sacrifices she has made for her career. -Elyse
Name: Aeriel Murphy
Hometown: Wetumpka, Al
Current city: Ann Arbor, MI
Undergraduate with major: University of Alabama, Materials Engineering
Graduate school with degree and concentration: University of Michigan, PhD, Materials Science and Engineering (current)
Take me back a decade, what did you want to be when you grew up? This is a funny question to me when I look back on it because in all honesty I am exactly where I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a super nerd in high school. I was in robotics, science Olympiad, but mainly I was extremely competitive in science fair. I have presented all over the U.S in regional, state, and international competitions. I have participated in college level research since I was a sophomore in high school. During my Junior and senior years of high school, I participated in a project with Dr. Mark Barkey at the University of Alabama. My project dealt with improving the mechanical properties of aluminum and steel ball bearings. This was my first introduction to physical metallurgy and I loved it. I worked closely with his PhD students and learned a lot about the field of research and development. After that experience I knew I wanted to obtain a PhD and I have been on that journey ever since.
Tell me about your college application process? How did you decide on a school? My mom was/is a high school counselor so I knew a lot about the college application process, especially, when it came to applying and writing essays.
When I was in high school, I had my heart set out on going to Spelman College, a small, all-women, HBCU in Atlanta, Ga. I had visited the school on many occasions and fell in love with the culture and atmosphere, but my mother was against it. She did not understand why I wanted to give up a full ride to the University of Alabama to go to a liberal arts school (that did not have engineering). She felt I had great connections at Alabama and that is where I needed to go. But I did not give up without a fight and purposely missed the deadline of confirmation for UA. But my mom was two steps ahead of me and responded for me. Let’s just say I ended up going to Alabama and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I guess mother knows best.
How did you decide on an undergraduate major? Why engineering? I was not your stereotypical girl growing up. I hated dolls, princesses, the color pink, playing dress up, purses, and anything “girly.” I loved putting things together and making things. I had jewelry makers, perfume and lip-gloss makers, chemistry sets, and a portable microscope that I took everywhere with me. I always loved using science and math to solve problems and learn new things. My mom always says I "have been an engineer from the very beginning,” and that is true.
As I stated before, my science fair projects were my first introduction to physical metallurgy and I loved it. I was excited knowing that I could control how a metal behaves simply by changing its microstructure; it was so fascinating to look at them under a microscope or study how a crack moves through a material before it fails. When it came to choosing a major, Metallurgical & Materials Engineering was an obvious choice.
What was the hardest part of your undergraduate studies? How did you get through it? The course work during my undergraduate years was not hard. I think the hardest part for me was the sexism I faced during my senior year of college. During that year, I had a professor tell the class to not let the women be in the same group because women have a hard time getting things done. Only 2/7 people in the class were female and we had the best grades out of everyone there. That statement was extremely demeaning and it hurt at the moment. The worst part about it is that he treated us unequally and was condescending in every conversation we had with him.
At the end of the day we felt we had to take it because we needed the class to graduate and that’s exactly what we did.
I just prayed and asked God to give me the strength to make it through. We leaned on the shoulders of other male professors who were encouraging and reassured us we were just as qualified as any man in our program. It was tough, but when the semester was over and our grades had posted we reported him the Dean, who handled the situation fairly and justly.
When did you decide on a doctorate program? Did you consider any other options? I chose Michigan a day before the universal deadline. It came down to them and MIT.
How did you decide on which graduate programs to apply to? Why did you choose Michigan? I knew I wanted to go to a top ten program. After that, I narrowed it down to who had the best research. I chose a dream school, two in the middle, and two safety schools.
I chose Michigan, mainly because I have wanted to work for my current advisor since I was a sophomore in college. The school has state of the art facilities and the research is cutting edge. Also, the people here at Michigan really care about their students and their experience. From day one of my visit, it felt like home. This is the best decision I ever made.
goals & dreams:
What's your ideal career? When I came to graduate school I was so sure that I did not want to be a professor, but after a teaching and mentoring assignment in Summer 2015 I started to change my mind. I made a list of five things that were important to me: Research and Development, Being my own boss, Mentoring students, Teaching, and Traveling, which all spelled out professor. My ideal career would be to become a tenured professor at either The California Institute of Technology, Stanford University, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, John Hopkins University, or MIT.
My research would focus on quantifying dislocation density during mechanical testing of metal alloys and understanding microstructural evolution/deformation structures during mechanical testing. I would have a lab of about 15 students including graduate students, post-docs, and research scientists.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Hopefully, I will be living in California as a professor at one of the universities I mentioned above.
life outside of work:
How has the move to Michigan been? What do you love about the Midwest and what do you miss about the South? Michigan is a great place. I love the atmosphere and culture of Ann Arbor. The weather has been an adjustment, but I have adapted. I love all the different festivals that the Midwest has. It makes the summer a lot of fun. The one thing I miss about the South is being around my family. Being so far away from home makes you feel disconnected from everyone’s lives. When I go home, I feel like I am playing a game of catch-up and it can be exhausting.
What sacrifices have you made for your career? This path has come with a lot of different sacrifices.
1. Being away from friends and family. I have missed a countless number of birthday parties, engagements, weddings, graduations, births, etc. It makes you feel like a stranger and it can be lonely. You feel like everyone is moving in a forward direction without you and you feel left behind.
My grandparents are getting older and sometimes I feel as though I am missing out on valuable time with them that I will never get back.
2. Starting a family. In all honesty, with the goals I have in mind, I know I will be 35 or older before I attempt to have kids. When I become a mom, I want to be able to devote a lot of my attention to that, but I also know that my career path will not allow me to focus on both of those things at the same time. Therefore, motherhood will have to take the backseat until I can give it my all. When it comes to getting married it is hard to ask someone to give up their goals and dreams so that you can accomplish yours. When I finish graduate school, I have no idea where I will end up and when it comes time to be a professor I don’t know what school/state/country I will find a job in.
I don’t think it’s fair of me to ask someone to follow me around until my life is settled. That realization is a tough one to deal with, but it comes with the territory.
As I have said before my goals and legacy are so important to me that I have to accomplish them or I will be extremely disappointed in myself.
What advice would you give to a freshman engineering major? Be ok with failing and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Engineering is all about teamwork. In every group, everyone has that one thing that they know very well. If you are struggling in a subject and your neighbor is doing well, don’t be to prideful to ask them for help. I have never met a person not willing to give help to a colleague in need of it.
There will come a time in your college career where you will fail an exam, a homework assignment, or a quiz and that’s okay. Just pick yourself up and keep studying and keep trying.
What advice would you give to someone applying to graduate school? When applying to graduate school, do your homework. Don’t just focus on who has the best research, rank, etc. Talk to the current students to learn what their experience is like, from which professor to work for to finding an apartment. If you have an advisor in mind, ask his/her students what it’s like working for him/her and what his/her expectations are for students. If you want to go into industry choose an advisor who has great industry connections. Ask the prospective advisors how long it takes his/her students to finish, how many papers do they publish, and if they present at conferences. Ask about the stipend and compare it to the cost of living. Make sure the school provides health insurance. Don’t walk into the situation blind.
For people starting out on the PhD journey, I would say that the imposter syndrome is real and everyone faces it at a time in their career. If you find yourself feeling like an imposter, schedule a coffee date with an older student, your advisor, a friend, or a professor that you trust and talk out your feelings with them. Just know that what you’re doing is hard and there will be times that you or your advisor will not know the final answer. If getting a PhD were easy, everyone would have one.