School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Dr. Junlin Yuan – From PhD to Professor in no Time

October 2016
By Adenike Ogunrinde

Alumna Junlin Yuan

Alumna Dr. Junlin Yuan

Dr. Junlin Yuan completed both her MSc (2011) and PhD (2015) in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Queen’s University. Impressively, she was offered and accepted an Assistant Professor position in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Michigan State University (MSU) in the same year she completed her PhD.

Having an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from Northwestern Polytechnical University in China, Dr. Yuan switched fields by coming to Queen’s for graduate research in the field of fluid dynamics in Professor Ugo Piomelli’s lab. Her PhD thesis was rooted in computational fluid mechanics - trying to solve physical equations numerically. More specifically, her thesis was focused on turbulent flows. Her objective was to design a strategy for more accurate estimation of frictional drag on surface roughness, for example, in hydraulic turbines. This involved studying computer simulations and understanding what kind of physical mechanisms govern near-wall flows. In her professorship, Dr. Yuan is taking her research in this field one step further. She now uses computational data to develop real-world models, the applications of which can be wide due to the ubiquity of turbulent flow.

In attaining her first position, Dr. Yuan’s publication record, both in quantity and journal quality, in addition to the reputation of her research group, allowed her to get her foot in the door. She disclosed that hiring committees will first consider the calibre of your research-group as well as your CV. Once you have passed the first stage, what is crucial then is your productivity as a student. Dr. Yuan felt the hiring committee was particularly impressed by the ‘depth’ of her research – how extensively she delved into her topic – in addition to the width, which highlights the importance of thorough investigation in academia.

Although most of Dr. Yuan’s role models at Queen’s University were male, she stressed that the Mechanical Engineering Department did not offer preferential treatment to men, nor was she made to feel any different from her male peers. In her professorship, she feels corresponding gender equality (roughly half of the junior members of the department also happen to be female). Dr. Yuan admitted that gender inequality is purported to reveal itself as she moves upward in the academic world, but when I asked her how she felt about this moving forward in her career she disclosed that she “remains optimistic of continued improvement of gender equality in the work place”, which for a woman like myself, is reassuring.

If you are in the process of determining if you should follow an academic career path, Dr. Yuan suggests first determining whether you want to do a Ph.D. and whether there is a field of study that will truly interests you for the next 4 years of your life. Unlike with industry, “as a professor you will have the right and obligation to choose the big questions to investigate, which makes your interests in the field especially crucial”. In looking for a professorship, Dr. Yuan’s advice revolves around quantity as well as quality. She advises attending and presenting high quality work at as many conferences as your supervisor will allow so that you can market your capacity as a researcher. At these conferences, “make connections with those who are interested in your work, and approach those whose work interests you.” Similarly, she advises “going for both academic and industrial interviews, partly for the experience, but also to determine, from the inside, which kind of job you’d prefer”.

In the two-week period prior to her own interview at MSU, Dr. Yuan resorted to her supervisor, committee members, and online forums for both advice and reassurance. “Ask people for information. Even though [their response] might not help in itself, the fact that you’ve asked might make you feel better knowing you’re doing all that you can”, she said. If you have not found success after that point, Dr. Yuan then suggests looking for a post-doctoral research fellowship in a top-lab in your field. 

In conclusion, by investing in a topic she was highly interested in and collaborating with a supervisor in a strong research group, Dr. Yuan was able to conduct productive research that facilitated the move on to the next stage in her academic career. As a final point, Dr. Yuan advises, “Before you decide to do a PhD think about it, but once you decide to do a PhD, enjoy it”.


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