Alumna Shares Why She Left Workforce to Earn Ph.D.

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It’s been more than a decade since Lynn Austin received her doctoral degree at commencement at Georgia Tech, but she still considers it one of the most unforgettable moments of her life.

“As my advisor put those robes over my head, tears were running down my face,” said Austin, Deputy Director for Management in the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health “I could see in the audience my mom, my two daughters, and my husband, and know how proud they were of me.”

For 18 years, Austin worked as a mid-level manager at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before she realized she needed to have a doctoral degree to be competitive in the industry. So, in 1997, Austin entered the Public Policy Ph.D. program at Georgia Tech.

Read on to learn more about her experiences as a Ph.D. student at Tech.

Why did you choose Georgia Tech?
Georgia Tech had just created the Public Policy Ph.D. program, and I was in the first class. It was one of the very few universities offering my desired program, and it was a dream come true to receive my Ph.D. from such a rigorous and valued institution.

What was an average day like for you while you were involved with your program?
I went back to school for my Ph.D. 18 years after completing my master’s degree. At first, it was a culture shock, and it was difficult to re-acclimate my brain to academic studying. I was a single mom when I first entered the program, so I was incredibly busy at home. Some classes were in the morning, and I’d rush out the door after getting my daughters off to school. Some classes were in the late afternoon from 4 to 6 p.m., so I’d have to arrange for child care after school. When I got home from classes, I’d cook dinner, help my daughters with their homework, and put them to bed. Then, I’d get on the computer and work on my own homework until midnight. I would also often take my textbook to the ball field where they played T-ball or to the gym where they played basketball to be there for their practices or games to keep up with assigned reading.

What was the greatest challenge you faced as a graduate student, and how did you deal with it?
It was very difficult to adapt to the academic setting again. It had been many years since I finished my master’s degree, and I was older than all of the other students in my program. I had a very supportive academic advisor, Gordon Kingsley, who coached and mentored me through those early days. I will always be grateful and appreciative of his encouragement.

What three pieces of advice do you have for current students at Tech?
a) Be aware that other people are watching you. Your work ethic and commitment are very important and people notice these things.
b) Build relationships. This is not networking. I dislike the word “networking.” It is important to build relationships, help others, come through for people when you agree to do something, and be available to others if they need help or want your opinion or advice about something. A network is only about who you know. A relationship is when you are there for each other when either of you need help. This is very important in a career and in life.
c) Listen. Take time to soak it all up, and ask questions. Value and enjoy the experience.

What did you enjoy most about graduate school and why?
Since I had already been working in my career field for nearly 20 years, it was a tremendous opportunity to have the two years away from work where I could just focus on school. To be able to work on my doctorate degree and truly concentrate on the academic study, work with my professors outside of the classroom, and be able to engage in discussions with professors in and out of the classroom was truly rewarding. The professors sought my input in the classroom from my real world work experience and would ask me to share my insights with the class. This was very rewarding for me.

What is one thing you wish you’d known about graduate school that you weren’t aware of early on?
I wish I had known how much fun it would be after getting over the initial shock of learning things in the academic setting again. I enjoyed talking with my professors about my federal experience and applying the theoretical concepts to my real world work experience.

How long did it take you to complete your degree? How did you stay motivated?
I graduated in three years, which is pretty quick for a Ph.D. I completed most of my program during the two-year, long-term training program through the CDC. Through this program, I was able to go to school full time and begin collecting my thesis data. During the third year, I had to return to work full time, as well as write my doctoral thesis. I was driven during those three years, as it was truly a gift to have the opportunity during this midpoint of my professional career. I wanted to complete as much of the program as I possibly could during the two years I attended full time, and finish the dissertation, so I could actually be awarded the degree and Ph.D. credentials. I knew having this degree from Georgia Tech would be of great value through the remainder of my career, so it was important for me to complete it.

What are three things every student should do while at Georgia Tech?
a) Attend an athletic event like a volleyball, football, or basketball game. Become a Georgia Tech fan! Meet some of the student athletes. They are attending college while also essentially working full time as a student athlete.
b) Get to know your professors outside the classroom. Learn about the academic research areas they are interested in. They are incredibly experienced and accomplished, and are so interesting to learn from.
c) Help mentor younger or incoming students. Give back to Tech with your time, experience, and resources as you can.



  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Vivek Kannan
  • Created: 03/30/2015
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 05/26/2022

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