WNCG Alumnus Joins Virginia Tech Faculty

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

WNCG doctoral alumnus and winner of the 2013 WNCG Student Leadership award, Dr. Harpreet S. Dhillon, recently accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech. Dr. Dhillon received his Master of Science degree from Virginia Tech and now returns to one of his alma maters as a tenure-track faculty member.

Dr. Dhillon's research interests are broadly in communication theory, stochastic geometry, and wireless ad hoc and cellular networks. His dissertation titled, "Fundamentals of Heterogeneous Cellular Networks,” developed a new approach for the modeling and analysis of heterogeneous cellular networks using tools from stochastic geometry and point process theory. Since Fall 2013, he has worked with Professor Giuseppe Caire as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Communication Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Dr. Dhillon sat down with WNCG to share his recent success, to offer career advice to current students and to reminisce about his time with the WNCG.

Q: How did you originally connect with the opportunity at Virginia Tech?

A: The main source for academic job openings for me was the IEEE Spectrum. It was complemented by personal suggestions from my PhD advisor, Professor Jeff Andrews, my postdoc mentor, Professor Giuseppe Caire and others.

Regarding Virginia Tech, I was in touch with my MS advisor, Professor Mike Buehrer, who first told me about the possible opening around the time I defended my PhD dissertation in August 2013. IEEE Spectrum announced the opening later and I applied there in December 2013.

Q: You received many offers from other schools and industrial labs. What made you choose Virginia Tech over these other offers?

A: It was a very difficult decision to choose one from amongst several good offers. I decided to go with Virginia Tech because of three main reasons: the outstanding engineering program that is consistently ranked in the top 15-20 in the nation, a very well-known communications and networks program, and my personal bias as a Virginia Tech alumnus.

Q: What led you to choose an academic career path instead of a corporate career? 

A: That is a tough choice every graduate student has to make at some point. Both academia and industry are special in their own way. I enjoyed both worlds very much—academia during graduate school and industry during summer internships. I eventually decided on academia because of the higher freedom in choosing research topics compared to a typical research lab and my love for teaching and mentoring students. 

Q: What do you look forward to most about teaching? What do you foresee being the biggest challenge?

A: Nothing is more satisfying for a teacher than seeing their students understand and appreciate the material covered in class. Each teacher wants to be a part of the “Aha!” moment of the student and I am no different.

The biggest challenge of being a teacher is the need to reinvent oneself. With the increasing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the traditional brick-and-mortar way of in-class instruction relevant and attractive to students.

Q: How did your time at the WNCG prepare you for this new role?

A: WNCG is an excellent place to train for an academic job. The faculty members are world experts in their respective areas and work on cutting-edge problems, which makes it easier for students to gain visibility. The wide variety of courses offered by WNCG provides rigorous academic training in communications and networks.

The affiliate program and events such as the Texas Wireless Summit and the WNCG Open House provide access to top industrial labs, which I found particularly helpful in shaping my vision for future research. Overall, WNCG provides many opportunities and it is really up to the student to reap maximum benefits from them.

Q: What advice from your life and career can you give to current students with similar academic aspirations?

A: It is no secret that the academic job market in the U.S. is extremely competitive. Two things almost every serious applicant have are several high quality publications and top recommendation letters. Therefore, your first goal should be to excel in your dissertation research and foster collaborations with people outside your group, such as other WNCG professors and people from industry.

While recommendation letters and a strong CV increase your chances of getting shortlisted, they do not necessarily guarantee a job. To be successful, you need strong communication skills and a general awareness of your research area. Try to give talks, present posters and speak with WNCG visitors whenever you get a chance.

Also, let your PhD advisor know about your career ambitions early during your graduate program. I did that and Professor Andrews created many opportunities for external collaborations, research visits and conference talks, which all helped prepare me for an academic job. Be proactive. 

Q: What was your most memorable moment during your time with the WNCG?

A: While I had many memorable moments during my three-year stay at WNCG, the one I cherish the most is when I read Professor Andrews’ comments on my project report from his wireless communications class during my first semester at UT. That project went on to become the pilot project of my PhD and motivated most of my dissertation research.