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THE USA: Once you arrive

Studying a PhD in America: Q&A w/ Ivan

Read our Q&A with Biomedical Engineering student Ivan about what it's like to study a PhD overseas in America, and learn more about this exciting new programme...

A Biomedical Engineering student and professor at George Washington University

Are you considering studying abroad at PhD level? It’s a major commitment so you should be sure of what you can expect. We spoke to international student Ivan, who is currently studying a brand new doctoral programme in Biomedical Engineering at The George Washington University to learn what it’s like to study at this level overseas.

Meanwhile Antony Spatola, Graduate Recruitment and Admissions Coordinator at the University tells us more about what the new doctoral programme entails (skip down to the bottom for Antony's part).


Ivan, why did you decide to study a PhD overseas?

‘Coming from a developing country, it seemed very difficult to find funding opportunities for biomedical research in my home country. The U.S. has an established state-of-the-art infrastructure for all sorts of scientific research and a myriad of funding sources for projects requiring the use of cutting edge technology. Top universities abroad also count with some of the greatest minds in arts and science. Working and learning from them has truly been a humbling experience and a great asset in the development of my professional career. Nonetheless, being able to live and experience an entirely different culture has always been a dream of mine. While in the United States, I have developed strong friendships with people from around the world and I have learned a lot about the culture, traditions and customs of their countries. Overall, my experience as a graduate student abroad has helped me grow as a professional and as an individual.’


What are some of the benefits of studying a PhD in another country?

‘Nowadays, scientific research is not limited by the walls in a laboratory. Thanks to globalization and recent advancements in communications, groundbreaking research is done in collaboration among top scientists in laboratories around the world. Therefore, developing strong communication skills with scientists from across the planet is essential for the career development of a research scientist. Studying a PhD in a different country exposes the student to the sort of diversity that one can encounter in some of the top research centres around the world. The student will therefore learn about different approaches to problem solving that are taught in different cultures worldwide. Finally, there are many funding opportunities for students looking to study abroad at the graduate level. Fellowships are offered by local governments that are aware of the benefits of studying abroad, by foreign governments looking to bring cultural diversity into their academic institutions (Fulbright programme in the United States), and by organizations aiming to promote international education through exchange and studying abroad programmes (Boren Awards for International Study).’


What are some of the most notable differences between studying at MA and PhD level? What’s the transition or “step up” like?

‘The curriculum designed for undergraduate programmes are meant to teach students the basics of various disciplines related to the field of study. Graduate degrees are meant to direct the new professional down a specialized path. Therefore, the classes in a graduate programme teach much more specific topics and generally, these are topics of interest to student since many of these courses are considered "electives". Furthermore, graduate programmes in engineering look to stimulate the innovating capabilities of the student. Whereas undergraduate students are often given class projects with specific instructions to follow, graduate students are asked to come up and develop their own projects meant to solve a problem using the material taught in a given course.’


Tell us about the new programme you’re studying, the PhD in Biomedical Engineering.

‘I am really enjoying it as I believe that GWU provides an ideal academic and social environment that is essential for my success in the programme. The classes that are offered are very interesting but challenging. The graduate coursework is designed to foster the innovative spirit of the engineering student. Therefore, the success that I have had in graduate courses at GWU has definitely improved and enhanced my problem-solving skills. Also, throughout my graduate programme at GWU, I have been to find clarity about my professional goals and the path that I need to take to meet them. Overall, I am a very happy GWU student.’


How do you think studying a PhD (abroad) will help your future prospects/career goals?

‘Studying a PhD abroad provides many benefits. For one, it is allowing me to create a vast network of scientists worldwide that could collaborate with me in future projects, or provide valuable inputs and insights into future research endeavours. Furthermore, it opens entirely new career opportunities since foreign countries might offer a wider spectrum of potential jobs to graduates of their universities. Lastly, I am given the great privilege to obtain a graduate degree from a very prestigious institution which is a great advantage when looking for jobs in industry or academia.’


GWU's Biomedical Engineering PhD course is brand new and prepares students in a number of ways including teaching the field at an academic level.


Do you have any commitments in addition to your course? Do you tutor or teach on the side?

‘I am a teaching assistant for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at The George Washington University. I have taught laboratories in Circuit Theory; Circuits, Signals and Systems; and Anatomy and Physiology for Engineers. Furthermore, I volunteer as a research assistant for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Silver Spring, MD. I am also a graduate ambassador for the GW School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). My tasks as an ambassador include welcoming and supporting new incoming graduate students, provide information about graduate programmes and current ongoing research to prospective students, and promote the university at engineering events nationwide.’


Why should international students consider GWU to study at?

‘GWU is located in the heart of one of the most exciting cities in the world. Washington D.C. is a vibrant city full of culture and diversity. Moreover, the university is surrounded by top-notch federal research facilities (National Institutes of Health, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Department of Defence, National Science Foundation, etc...) that often offer amazing research opportunities to students of universities in the DC metropolitan area. Engineering at GWU is also going through perhaps the most exciting times in its long history. In January 2015, it will unveil its new, state-of-the-art Science and Engineering building. This building will be home to multiple GWU schools and programmes involved in scientific research with the purpose to stimulate and foster collaboration among different scientific disciplines (engineering, chemistry, biology, physics, medicine, public health, etc...). I have no doubt that GWU is undergoing a transformation that will soon place the university among the top research institutions in the world. And it is truly an honour to be a part of this process.’


What is there to do for fun in the local area? Where do you go?

 ‘Washington DC has many things to do for all kinds of personalities. I am personally a huge sports fan, therefore I love going to the Verizon Center to watch Wizards (basketball) and Capitals (hockey) games. Other sports team and venues include Nationals baseball in Nationals Park, Redskins football in FedEx Field, DC United in RFK Stadium and our very own GW Colonials at the Smith Center. DC also offers free admissions to amazing museums that are part of the world famous Smithsonian in the National Mall. My favourite museums to visit are the Air and Space Museum and its planetarium (fun for engineers) and the Natural History Museum. This city also has a vibrant food scene and nightlife. You will encounter multiple restaurants with cuisine from world-famous chef Jose Andres (i.e. Zaitinha and Jaleo in Chinatown), and amazing bars in lively neighbourhoods such as Adams Morgan, Dupont Circle and Chinatown. Last but not least, Washington has beautiful green spaces, ideal for active individuals. You can enjoy walks around the grassy areas of the National Mall, bike rides along the Potomac river in Virginia, Kayaking in the Potomac river and hiking in Rock Creek Park.’



Want to know more about the Biomedical Engineering PhD programme?

Antony, tell us more about the new Biomedical Engineering PhD programme which GWU has recently launched:

‘Students in the Biomedical Engineering programme can choose from a number of areas to take courses and conduct research in including biosensors, cancer detection and therapy, drug delivery, electrophysiology, heart disease and failure, medical imaging, microfluidics, physiological flows, medical instrumentation, and others. PhD students also play a vital role in the GWU academic community. The majority of PhD students are placed as teaching assistants or research assistants and are expected to teach and/or conduct research as part of their curriculum.’


What are the aims of the new programme?

'The programme is designed to provide students with two major outcomes. The first, and most important, is to provide biomedical engineering students at GWU with a top quality education and a broad knowledge of their specific field within biomedical engineering as well as related fields. This is evidenced by GWU's innovative classroom environments and the completion of our new Science and Engineering Hall that will provide GWU students with state of the art laboratory and research facilities. Secondly, GWU aims to prepare students for the workforce and teaching at academic institutions. The curriculum at GWU is designed to prepare students for a long career after their studies and has a particular focus on entrepreneurship. The School of Engineering and Applied Science has a full service Career Services Offices that can help students create and review their resume or CV, prepare for job interviews, find internships, and secure employment after graduation.'


Who teaches the programme?

‘Students can expect to learn and work alongside the top minds in the field. Dr. Igor Efimov, the newly hired department chair, is a leading researcher in cardiovascular disease. Dr. Vesna Zderic is conducting pioneering research on the effects of therapeutic ultrasound drug delivery. Dr. Jason Zara has received a patent for his work on an imaging probe that has been used to detect cancer in mucosal tissue. Other faculty members hold prestigious grants from multiple organizations. GWU faculty also have connections throughout the Washington, DC metro area and the world. These partners include the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, NASA, and a number of private global biomedical companies. These partnerships allow our students access to research, internship, and career opportunities that separate our programmes from other universities.’


And how can students apply?

‘Students may apply for the programme either in the fall (deadline of December 15 for PhD, January 15 for MS) or the spring (deadline of September 1). The application process is entirely online and can be started at go.gwu.edu/applynow. International students are required to submit either TOEFL (minimum of 80) or IELTS (minimum of 6.0, no individual band below 5.0) scores as well as GRE scores (no minimum).’



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