University of California, Irvine doctoral student Nick Vizenor held on tight as the plane sank from 40,000 feet to 500 feet. Through the window, he saw the angry waves of the Arctic Ocean and large icebergs rushing toward him. The jumbo jet’s emergency system kicked in: “Warning – terrain approaching! Warning – terrain approaching!”

“Terrifying,” says Vizenor, 26, describing the moment months later. But he quickly realized that everyone around him aboard that NASA research flight was calm and that the quick descent was part of the task at hand: gathering air samples to measure pollutants at every reachable altitude.

Each Ph.D. student’s career has its ups and downs, though Vizenor’s are more physically dramatic than most. Doctoral students across UCI are dissecting American film history; analyzing the impact of Facebook and video games on educationengineering flood and drought monitoring tools; achieving biomedical, pharmaceutical and alternative energy breakthroughs; and shoving aside glaciers to measure sea level rise, among dozens of other specialties. This week, application season gets underway for future Ph.D. candidates.

  • Nick Vizenor Steve Zylius / UCI

“A doctorate is the ultimate challenge; you have to find something in your research that no one has ever found before, so it’s a spirit of discovery. Our doctoral students don’t always get the credit they should for the research they do,” says Vice Provost Frances Leslie, dean of UCI’s Graduate Division, who oversees a pharmacology lab with the help of Ph.D. students. “People are attracted to the faculty who are the big names, but these are the future big names. Graduate education is a path to leadership.”

Doctoral students are also the glue of American campuses. They teach classes, grade papers and oversee teams of undergraduates doing faculty research while pursuing their own intellectually exacting work. UCI is pushing aggressively to increase its number of doctoral students – currently 2,500 – by 35 percent in the next five years, at a cost of more than $30 million. The growth will ensure that UCI keeps its top-tier standing as an Association of American Universities research university. The ratio of teachers to students must be maintained, for instance, in the face of swelling undergraduate enrollment.

Leslie is determined to ground the campus’s Ph.D. programs in 21st-century educational strategies, allowing graduates to achieve fulfilling careers in academia or elsewhere. The traditional doctorate is rooted in a medieval system in which an apprentice literally learned at the knee of the master, she says, “and it’s a little out of date.”

In her eight years at the helm of graduate programs, Leslie has quietly and effectively pressed to update that approach: “It’s very important that the students have a faculty mentor. … However, the modern Ph.D. does not just prepare you for a career in research. It gives you deep analytical and creative skills that can be applied much more broadly.”

The campus offers doctoral students an array of financial, emotional and career support. Tuition is covered for five years by most schools at UCI, housing is subsidized, and teaching assistants have long been unionized, with guaranteed wages and healthcare. The Graduate Resource Center also provides unique acting and writing classes, teacher training, wellness counselling and other programs. Current students say these are highly beneficial.

“I’m a shy person; I was shy as a kid,” says Jessica Kizer, 28, who took a drama class for doctoral students and learned how performers cope with nerves and other public speaking skills. “Teaching was so scary to me. I thought, ‘Who am I to talk about these things?’ And presenting my research, I felt very vulnerable, like I was opening it up for criticism. Learning all these different strategies was extremely helpful. Now I think about presenting my dissertation as an opportunity for my audience to learn something new about the world that they didn’t know before.”

Kizer plans to complete her sociology dissertation in June on how skin color differences among siblings affect their life outcomes in education, criminal justice and the labor market. She’s applying for assistant professor tenure-track positions and feels well-equipped for job interviews now.

Other UCI doctoral students taught by physicist-turned-comedian Sandra Tsing Loh are writing scripts for her “Loh Down on Science” segments that air on public radio stations across the U.S.

“That is perfect communications training,” Leslie says. “It’s increasingly important, in a world in which science and social sciences are being viewed with great suspicion, that all of us academics are able to describe what we do in simple terms.”

Yiran Wang, 29, says that as an international student, she often relies on peer mentors to help sharpen her writing skills. It’s one example of the interdisciplinary, collegial atmosphere that she treasures here. Born and raised in China, Wang excelled at technology, but her first love was psychology. She yearned to study “the human part, how computers affect humans.”

She found that in UCI’s informatics department and enjoys collaborating with colleagues there and in other areas. “It’s worked out perfectly,” Wang says.

That doesn’t mean it’s an easy path. Being a doctoral student involves long hours, and the drive to succeed and to develop one’s own critical thinking can be isolating.

“It’s pretty much around the clock,” says Wang, who on average grades 72 papers a week while teaching an online class, conducting group research, fitting in meetings, and writing her dissertation on how students use digital media in learning. She says that friends, dance movement and concerts are escapes, as well as vibrant mentoring networks.

Kizer, who is African American and Puerto Rican, agrees. She says the Diverse Educational Community & Doctoral Experience, or DECADE, program – which strives to increase the number of women and underrepresented minorities receiving doctorates at UCI – helped her discover a welcoming community of peers. “It made me feel I did belong here, there is a place for me,” she says.

Taking to heart faculty advice about how to live a well-rounded life, Kizer makes sure that cooking, walks around campus and the occasional cup of coffee with friends are parts of her routine, along with sitting at her computer patiently analyzing data and crafting academic findings.

Guaranteed financial support, housing and nice weather drew James Wo to UCI from his Honolulu home, first as an undergraduate and then to do graduate work in criminology, law & society. The 29-year-old is pushing to complete his dissertation this spring; it’s on why some communities have higher crime rates than others and how nonprofits can reduce those rates. Like most doctoral students, he’s been thrilled to be published in peer-reviewed journals. He has already gotten job offers and accepted a tenure-track assistant professorship at The University of Iowa.

“This illustrates to me once again that UCI is a top research institution. My faculty adviser is amazing; he’s been integral to shaping who I am as a researcher, and I’ve been able to have a good work-life balance too,” Wo says. His favorite downtime television show? “‘The Big Bang Theory,’” he says. “It’s about people like us!”

Ultimately, Wang says, “seeking a Ph.D. is a pursuit of knowledge but also a pursuit of figuring out who you are as a person. You read a lot of papers, you do research, and you become an expert in your field. But for me, what’s most important is that I realize what my skill sets are, I learn what I care about, I figure out in a stressful and collaborative environment who I am. It’s about being a responsible adult.”

Vizenor was accepted to several doctoral programs in chemistry, including UCI’s and one at an elite private California university. Born in Orange County and raised in the Central Valley, he was wined and dined by a leading professor and his team at the private school. But he was uncomfortable with what he perceived as some arrogance and sensed that professors there might not do much for their Ph.D. students while expecting grueling hours from them. When he discreetly asked the students, his suspicions were confirmed.

At UCI, Vizenor had his choice of three renowned atmospheric chemistry labs, eventually joining the storied Blake-Rowland group. He didn’t know at first that F. Sherwood Rowland had won a Nobel Prize for his work exposing the risks of chlorofluorocarbons but is excited to continue the tradition of using atmospheric chemistry to benefit public health. For his dissertation, Vizenor is studying the South Coast Air Basin above Greater Los Angeles. Thousands of Californians still die prematurely from air pollution-related diseases each year.

He may not stay in academia, instead setting his sights on possible government or commercial laboratories. Leslie says that’s increasingly common: Only 15 percent of hard-science Ph.D. students seek tenure-track university careers, while about half their social sciences and humanities counterparts stick with academia. She points with pride to one of her own doctoral students who went on to serve in a critical role at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, advising legislators and others on drug policy.

Leslie, who earned her doctorate in the Scottish lab that discovered the endorphins that make people happy, says that work-life balance is critical: “My philosophy is that students should have a life. … I’ve always believed that occasionally you need to rest your brain for it to be most effective.”

Vizenor agrees. Most Friday nights, he and his girlfriend head to Disneyland. “We just love it; it’s our thing,” he says. After his summer research expeditions aboard a NASA jetliner dropping from the clouds, the roller-coaster rides are a breeze.