Graduate Programs

Blogs from students, faculty & staff

Graduate school is a challenging yet rewarding journey that demands determination, resilience, and a passion for learning. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the insightful conversation between Dr. Christopher Lewis and Dr. John Long, a senior lecturer in engineering at Deakin University in Australia. Dr. Long shares his remarkable journey through graduate school, offering valuable advice and insights for current and aspiring grad students.

The Decision to Pursue Graduate Education

Dr. Long’s journey began with an unexpected opportunity that presented itself during his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan Flint. After spending time at Monash University in Melbourne as part of a physics study program, the idea of pursuing a PhD was planted in his mind. Despite initial uncertainties, Dr. Long seized the opportunity and embarked on a transformative journey that eventually led him to a successful career in academia.

Navigating the PhD Experience

Transitioning from a bachelor’s degree to a PhD program comes with a set of unique challenges. Dr. Long candidly shares his experience of feeling unprepared and unqualified, highlighting the difficulties he faced during his PhD journey. He emphasizes the importance of persistence, stating that success in the program was more about perseverance than sheer brilliance. His insight into the realities of PhD life, particularly the “dark times,” where challenges seemed insurmountable, provides a realistic perspective for current students facing similar struggles.

Setting Up for Success

One of the key takeaways from Dr. Long’s journey is the significance of early preparation and goal-setting. He stresses the importance of working closely with supervisors to articulate a clear research question, reflecting on the time he spent hammering out his own question. His advice to get things going early aligns with the idea that a well-defined research question serves as a guiding light throughout the graduate journey.

Overcoming Hurdles and Maintaining Motivation

Dr. Long recounts the moments when he hit a “dark time” during his PhD, emphasizing the need for self-motivation and resilience. Engaging in rigorous research, constantly reading and learning from research papers, and receiving support from fellow students were instrumental in his journey. Additionally, personal motivations, such as not wanting to return without a PhD, and the support of friends and family, served as driving forces during challenging times.

The Importance of Graduation and Mentorship

After completing his PhD, Dr. Long initially contemplated not participating in the graduation ceremony. However, he emphasizes the significance of celebrating this significant achievement, underscoring the culmination of years of hard work. Furthermore, he shares a heartwarming anecdote about the cyclical nature of mentorship, recounting how his mentor, Dr. Trevor, inspired him and others while celebrating his own academic achievements.


Dr. Long’s journey through graduate school serves as a testament to the resilience, dedication, and support systems that contribute to success in academia. His advice to current and future grad students emphasizes the importance of persistence, proactive goal-setting, and the celebration of milestones. Navigating the challenges of graduate education requires a combination of determination, ongoing support, and the willingness to seek guidance. Dr. Long’s story exemplifies the transformative power of education and mentorship, inspiring others to navigate their own graduate journeys with tenacity and optimism. In conclusion, the conversation between Dr. Long and Dr. Lewis provides a wealth of insights and advice for anyone pursuing or considering graduate education. The challenges and triumphs shared by Dr. Long offer invaluable wisdom to those navigating the often-daunting landscape of higher education.


Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:01]:
Welcome to the Victor’s in Grad School, where we have conversations with students, alumni, and experts about what it takes to find success in graduate school.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:11]:
Welcome back to Victor’s in Grad School. I’m your host doctor Christopher Lewis, Director of graduate programs at the University of Michigan Flint. Really excited to have you back again this week. Every week, I love being able to sit down and talk to you and work with you as you go through this journey that you’re on. And I say journey intentionally because it is a journey. For some of you, it may be directly going from undergraduate to graduate work. Some of you may go to work first and then decide at some point that, you know what, I’m gonna Keep going with my education. And for others, it may be some a completely different type of journey.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:00:46]:
And that’s why it’s so important that every week that I have this opportunity to talk to you because there’s many ways in which you can end up in grad school. But when you’re in grad school, you wanna find success. And that’s why every week I love being able to bring you different guests, guests that have gone before you, that have done graduate work At many different universities in many different areas that can talk about what it took for them to find success in that journey for themselves. This week, we’ve got another great guest with us. John Long is with us. And John is a senior lecturer in engineering at Deakin University In Australia, in, in Geelong, in Victoria, Australia. So really excited to be able to have him here today, to have him share his own journey with you and to be a guest on the show. John, thanks so much for being here.

Dr. John Long [00:01:38]:
Chris, thank you for having me.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:01:40]:
It is my pleasure. Love being able to have you here to Talk a little bit about your journey. I know you did your undergraduate work at the University of Michigan Flint. And at some point in that journey, whether it be right in undergrad or after right After undergrad, you made a decision. You made a decision to continue your education at Monash University And worked on a doctorate degree. So let’s turn the clock back. Talk to me about what was going through your head, and what made you decide that you wanted to go to get that graduate degree.

Dr. John Long [00:02:12]:
Well, in a nutshell, it was simply an opportunity presented itself that I couldn’t refuse. So part of the U of M Flint honors program, I spent a few months in 1986 at Monash University in Melbourne doing some work in X-ray. So that was part of a physics study program through the U of M Flint honors program, and I had tremendous time. A tremendous it was a tremendous experience for me and Clearly life changing. And after I completed the project and had graduated, so I graduated in 1987, basically, my academic supervisor Sir, in Melbourne, a fellow named Trevor Finlayson started dropping hints. So what if you, came back here and did a PhD with me? And at the time, I’d finished at U of M Flint. I was working full time at the AC spark plug engineering area over on, Davidson Road, I think it is. And I had really no intention of doing so, but Another has become a a lifetime colleague of mine sent me the PhD scholarship applications and said, here, fill these out and get them back to us quick.

Dr. John Long [00:03:09]:
This would have been October of 1987. So having nothing to lose, I filled them out and sent them back. And, this is all snail Well, in those days, got a couple of referees or references, so I think doctor Larry King might have been one of them. He was a mathematics professor that I Worked with for a little while and a few others. So I sent the applications in, and my supervisor called me on the telephone in November and said, I have a scholarship here for you. Do you want it? And it was a a 3 year full PhD scholarship. And for an American coming out only with an undergraduate degree, this is unheard of. But in Australia, that was pretty common that you would have, a good student who completes a 4 year undergraduate degree with honors.

Dr. John Long [00:03:47]:
In those days, it was common for them too if they were good. And if the supervisor was prepared to take them on, they could go straight to a PhD program, and I was PICT is one of those. So I went back to U of M Flint, and I talked to the various professors around the physics department, the mathematics department. I spoke to, my colleagues and bosses at AC Sparkplug, and they all said this opportunity is too good to turn down. Go. And finally, the day after Christmas, I asked my mother, and I asked her if I could go because she was recently widowed. We we lost my father that year, and so I asked my mother on the day after Christmas, Mom, I’ve got this scholarship opportunity. Here it is in my lap.

Dr. John Long [00:04:25]:
What do I do with it? And she said, off you go. So that was the final tick of approval. So I packed up my life Roughly March of 1988 and shipped off to Australia for what was meant to be about 3 years, and it wound up being more like thirty 5 years, and I’m still here.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:04:40]:
Now you made that jump. You went ended up going to a foreign country, and you had been there before in that In a foreign country, to be able to be educated, but you transitioned into from a bachelor’s degree to a PH which, again, very different in the way that you are taught, but also the expectations, the way that you are assessed. Lots of difference in regards to the complete outcome of the degree and what you’re going to be expected to do. So you went through that experience, but you found success in that experience as well. You graduated, ended up finishing up. And as you Transitioned into that PhD, what did you have to do to set yourself up for success? But what did you have to also do to maintain that success Throughout the entire PhD experience.

Dr. John Long [00:05:32]:
Before I left, I had a long chat with a couple of people. Professor So Larry King spent some time with me to say, well, this is what graduate school is really like, kid. And I spent a fair bit of time with one of the physics professors, doctor Mary Cox, also a A long time staff member, EFM Flint in my day, and she was my local supervisor for my 4th year honors project. She spent a fair bit of time. And among other things, she gave me a long list of books. I said, okay. If you’re gonna be studying physics and material science at the graduate level, any of these, and we wrote them all down and I went and bought them all, and they’re not part of my professional library. But anyhow, Those 2 in particular spend their time with me to sort of say, this is what you’re up against.

Dr. John Long [00:06:09]:
This is what you’re up for, kid. And then, well, I got there, and how do I put it? I certainly wasn’t prepared for it. I probably wasn’t even qualified for it, to be quite honest. In hindsight, I probably would not have taken myself on, but I got there and found myself Really thrown in the deep end. I mean, I was thrown in the deep end, sink or swim kinda thing. And, boy, it was hard. It was extremely hard. It took me 6 years To complete the PhD, maybe by American standards, that’s pretty normal, particularly somebody coming straight out from undergraduate.

Dr. John Long [00:06:39]:
Bypassing master’s completely, 6 years isn’t bad. And in those days, your typical candidature for a PhD in at least in physics or the sciences was up to 10 years, And 6 years was relatively average. Your normal PhD scholarship in those days ran for 3 years Up to three and a half if you got an extension, so that’s typical now too. So I should just go for 3, three and a half years. I can it took me 6 years To get through mine, it was pretty typical. Certainly, it wasn’t the shortest of my colleagues who completed PhDs. I wasn’t the longest either. I was kind of in the middle there somewhere.

Dr. John Long [00:07:15]:
And I also had a number of colleagues who, quite frankly, were smarter than me, who did not complete the PhD. He stayed down for 10 years, This is a really good work, but simply couldn’t write a thesis. And in the end, I know of at least a couple who, unfortunately, who were booted out of the program after 10 years and Multiple extensions because they simply couldn’t write up, which is unfortunate. That that was sad because some of those guys helped me when I was early on. So in my case, The fact that I completed a PhD and it’s pretty respectable PhD in Australia, Monash is certainly in the top 10 universities in Australia as Far as research funding and outputs and all that are concerned, my doing it, in my view, was more a matter of persistence than a brilliance. Put it that way. I just doggedly stuck to it and wouldn’t quit even though I thought about it multiple times, and eventually, I figured it out. Interestingly enough, doctor Cox told me that in her experience, she said, once you figure out what you’re doing, if you get into an experimental PhD, Which is what I did.

Dr. John Long [00:08:13]:
The actual data collection will only take you about 6 weeks. 6, 8 weeks is what she told me. You’ll collect all the data that winds up in your thesis In 6 to 8 weeks, even though that might be spread out over a number of years, and she was dead right. She was absolutely dead right. The actual data that wound up in my thesis That got me over the line with the examiners, was collected in about 6 weeks, and one whole chapter, which was photographic micrographs, One whole chapter was devoted to optical microscopy. I shot all those photos in 1 night, and that was my 3rd attempt. Took 3 goes to get it right. And eventually, I thought, right, this is what I have to do to get these photos correct.

Dr. John Long [00:08:51]:
And it also meant collecting them all in one setting. So I did it in an overnight run so that I I would have the lab to myself, and I wouldn’t have the door opening and closing all the time. Shaking the microscope when the door slammed. Yeah. I saw she was dead right. All the data that went into my thesis That was useful while I end up I clicked it in about 6 to 8 weeks.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:09:07]:
So I know that now you work with graduate students at your university As you’re teaching them, but also working with them on their own research, as you are working with young graduate students and they’re They’re walking in and and you’re giving them advice. What’s the advice that you’re giving them in trying to help them to find success Early on and throughout their graduate school journey.

Dr. John Long [00:09:30]:
Well, I certainly push them to get things going early. One of the most important things that in a PhD program anyways, Do you have to come up with early on the pace? I mean, once you do a a literature review and find out what everybody else have been doing on the particular topic at hand, you have to come up with your research Question. So one of my difficulties in my PhD was it took a long time to hammer out the research question. And once I did, I knew what I had to do, and I did it. Tell I tell graduate students to work out their research question as early on as possible if the student is lucky enough to be attached to a research grant. So sometimes professor will will will get a research grant, and a scholarship will come with it. In my view, those students are are the lucky ones Because a research grad comes with a research question. There’s a research question that the that the that the researcher wants to wants to answer, And then, you know, the government or the funding body gives them the money to to do the work.

Dr. John Long [00:10:24]:
So if you have that, I would tell the students, well, first of all, Get your hands on the grant application that your supervisor wrote to get the money that pays your scholarship and read it and find out what’s in the head of your supervisor. And that’ll make life a 1000000000 times easier to work out what the research question is. If you’re given now what I was, like, a generic scholarship so I I had a generic Scholarships. So I had to think of my own research question after being given kind of a vague topic by my supervisor. That was harder. But then you have to spend a lot of time with your supervisor to Really hammer out what is the research question. Once you’ve got the research question worked out, then you’ve got focus and you have a direction. Another thing I’ve noticed with with most PhD students, The research goes up and down, and a lot of students nowadays in engineering, the research would accompany would would be accompanied by a great deal of Theoretical modeling, and there are some brilliant modeling tools out there, computer modeling tools that they’re used in science and engineering.

Dr. John Long [00:11:21]:
And so a lot of PhD research these days begins with computer modeling. It often produces publications pretty quickly, and that’s great. Then the student will go and try to replicate the modeling with experimentation. Experimentation is a totally different beast. Experimentation is things that don’t work. It’s the real world. And so I have to spend a bit of time preparing the student for life in the lab where, again, you might have to do an experiment 3 times before you get it right, Well, you might have to do a chemical preparation 3 or 4 times until you get the purity correct, and it actually replicates what other people have published. That sort of thing can be very discouraging to a student.

Dr. John Long [00:12:00]:
Writing up can also be very discouraging to a student if he doesn’t have writing skills. It can be very difficult. So in any PhD program, or at least most of them, the student comes into what I call the dark times, Where it’s kinda like a long dark tunnel and things aren’t going well. I had that for a good 3 years. I had this long dark tunnel where I had one failed experiment after another, and I was Terribly discouraged, but something basically happened about halfway through that I got a a vote of approval from the department head. And then I decided, well, if the Department head believes in me, then I better believe in myself. So I’ll keep on going until I finish this thing. I’m thrown out, but I won’t quit.

Dr. John Long [00:12:35]:
I talk to PhD students, particularly the ones who are finding things difficult either in the lab or relationships with supervisors or other staff members or whatever, Lots of reasons. I tell them that story, and I know that it certainly has helped at least a couple of, a couple of students that I’ve worked with over the years who now have PhDs. So I simply say, look. You make a decision. I’m either gonna finish this thing, whatever it takes, or I’ll be thrown out, but I certainly won’t quit. That was one of my bigger decisions that I made About halfway through my time as a PhD student. Once I figured out the research questions and hammered all them out and finally got the my supervisor to say, yep. If you answer these questions, you’ll have a PhD.

Dr. John Long [00:13:13]:
I submitted about 2 years later. So once I had direction and knew what I had to do, Then I got the job done.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:13:19]:
And there will be dark times. I agree with you. I mean, no matter if you’re in a PhD program or working on a thesis For the masters, there’s always gonna be that proverbial wall that you’ll hit that you need to kind of stick to it, like you said earlier, and Be willing to know that you’re just gonna have to overcome those hurdles. And what did you have to do when you hit that dark time that that, you know, hit that wall per se to be able to push past it, to be able to get over it, to be able to push yourself to the finish line.

Dr. John Long [00:13:53]:
Well, I still didn’t really wanna come home to the United States without a PhD. Put it that way. You know? In other words, sort of coming home a disgrace. You didn’t wanna do that. I had a girlfriend at that stage, and we ended up getting married, And that was a motivating factor. The dark time were before that, I just doggedly stuck to the task at hand. That’s all I can really say about That I just dragged myself into into my lab every day and just kept that. I went through research paper after research paper after research paper, And it took a few years to learn how to read a research paper.

Dr. John Long [00:14:22]:
The 1st research papers I read, well, you have to read them 5 times before you figure out what they’re on about. But again, doing it over and over and over and over and over again. Eventually, I figured out how to read them. And, of course, by the time I submitted my thesis, I could read a research paper in my field. In one read, I knew what the guys were doing and why. That was great, but that was a skill that I had to learn. I guess I also had the support of my fellow students because we all had similar kinds of journeys. Some people finished a lot faster than me.

Dr. John Long [00:14:49]:
Some people didn’t finish at all.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:14:51]:
Well, John, I just wanna say thank you for sharing that. It it’s definitely important for people to understand that any of graduate school is not Always going to be easy. There’s going to be challenges. There’s going to be things you’re going to have to overcome. It could be a class. It could be research. It could be lots of different things. Life gets in the way.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:15:09]:
There’s lots of things that happen that you have to be able to balance and be able to, as John said, overcome To be able to get to that prize at the end, that diploma that you hold. Yeah. You know, if you’re working on the PhD, the hood that you get given and get hooded at the end. The piece of paper, you know, of the research, you know, when you get to the end and you have that research done, and then you can share that.

Dr. John Long [00:15:34]:
When I submitted and passed, I think I was probably pretty typical. I was tired. I was a bit angry, exhausted by the whole thing. And I remember saying at the time when I submitted, I’m not going through graduation. And I think it’s a good thing that the examination of a thesis takes 6 months because it gives you time to to to to cool off a little bit. So I submitted in April of 1994, And my examiner reports came back in September and took about a month to do the changes. And by the end of November, I had the Stamped from the university PhD committee, yes, she passed. We didn’t have an oral examination in those days.

Dr. John Long [00:16:11]:
They do now, but it was strictly written thesis At Monash in those days because very often, at least 1 examiner was overseas. So I had 1 examiner in Germany, so he couldn’t come in person to do an oral examination. Anyhow, graduation was, I think, Following April. And so Monash University contacted me early in 1995. Here, fill out this form for graduation. I went, Okay. I’ll go. Very much glad I did.

Dr. John Long [00:16:34]:
And what I tell PhD students now when they submit, I tell them you will go to graduation. You will walk across that stage, and you will wear, we call it, the floppy hat. It’s about being hooded, so you will wear the floppy hat. This is important for you. It’s important for your family, and this is the the conclusion of 4 to 6 years of extremely hard work. We’ve got to celebrate this. And I had a PhD student a couple of years ago. When he he graduated and finished during COVID, the university suspended graduation ceremonies for a couple About 3 years.

Dr. John Long [00:17:04]:
And so he didn’t have a graduation ceremony per se. We had this thing called grads on the green. So we we, we went in an outside venue, put up tents, and celebrated graduation that way, and diplomas were sent out by post. But at least we got together outside on a COVID safe setting, and we could at least, you know, take photos and and and celebrate with our with our students. And I remembered that particular Student, I tried to lay his graduation. I said, just wait till the next ceremony so we can do it properly. And he waited as long as Couldn’t and no. He couldn’t couldn’t wait any longer.

Dr. John Long [00:17:39]:
So we had a grads on the green with him as well. But to me, it’s very, very important to go through that graduation ceremony. Now I’ll tell you something else. My supervisor, who is getting on years now, but he’s still in the game. He retired from Monash a long time ago. Now he’s at Melbourne University Still doing physics and material science. He’s kinda become an inspiration to me to keep going myself. He sat on stage for me when I graduated.

Dr. John Long [00:18:01]:
And then fast forward 20 years or so, I sit on stage for him, and that to me was a very special experience. So he got sick. He wound up in hospital for a while. And while he was in hospital, he wrote a dissertation. And we think, yeah. That’s Trevor. He wrote a a DSC thesis. He wrote a doctor of science thesis, which was the culmination of his research work over probably 30 odd years, which included the work of his PhD students, which included me.

Dr. John Long [00:18:28]:
He put it all together, and it was a big thick tome, complete it with all research papers that he got over the years, Submitted it to to Melbourne University for a DSC. He passed, and he graduated. And he rounded up the PhD students that he could which included me, and we went to a graduation ceremony in Melbourne from Melbourne University, and we sat on stage for him. That to me was is a very special experience for I’m glad that we did it.

Dr. Christopher Lewis [00:18:51]:
I really appreciate you sharing that. It kinda shows the cyclical nature of mentoring relationships and and how Important those are as well. John, I just wanna say thank you. Thank you for sharing your journey today, for being with us today, and I wish you all the best.

Dr. John Long [00:19:07]:
Thank you for having me. The University of Michigan Flint has a full array of masters and doctorate programs if you are interested in continuing your education. Whether you’re looking for in person or Online learning options, the University of Michigan Flint has programs that will meet your needs. For more information on any of our graduate programs, visit to find out more. Thanks again for spending time with me as you prepare to be a victor in grad school. I look forward to speaking with you again soon as we embark together on your graduate school journey. If you have any questions or want to reach out, Email me at [email protected].