Faculty Mentorship Spotlight: Jim Buckwalter

Faculty Mentorship: Interview with Jim Buckwalter,
ECE Professor

photo of jason marden with student

Interviewed for the Fall 2018 ECE Current newsletter

"Mentoring is the number one role of a professor, but we’re researchers and we’re teachers. Students need to navigate both a complicated technical world as well as a broader society. I mentor undergraduates who are trying to understand the field for the first time, but also who want to understand the context for the material in the world we live in. It’s important to me to be a role model for students, so they understand who engineers are and what they do." – Jim Buckwalter

As a student did you have faculty that you looked up to?

Yes, absolutely! Dave Rutledge at Caltech. As an undergraduate, I enjoyed his classes and then decided during my junior year that I wanted to pursue summer research in his lab. I approached him about it and he was eager – well not eager, but willing – to have me mess around in his lab and test out power converter circuits. He gave me a problem and I spent the summer trying to solve it. That’s what I originally expected I would do as an engineer. At the time that’s what I wanted, someone who could get me into the laboratory and make it a fun, engaging experience.


I really consider success when students stay in my class even if they are challenged by the material. Some students struggle with the material – everyone struggles at some point in their education – and I encourage them to maintain the course and work through the material. I want students to learn to persevere. There’s a lot of things you’re going to have to work out in life and I guarantee getting through one quarter of my class is not the hardest thing you’ll encounter. I measure success by coaching struggling students to see it through to the end.

Do you keep in touch with any of your former students?

Yes, certainly! A lot of the time I have students who come back and they want a job and they ask me things like “Who’s hiring?” “What’s a good direction to go?” It’s always nice to have someone you can reach out to – and I’m always there for them.

Do most students come to you with a clearly defined path and goal? If not, how do you help them get there? And if they do, how do you push them to grow in ways they had not considered?

I think it’s completely natural to lack a clearly defined path as a sophomore or even senior. Students should allow themselves to be a little ambiguous early on and explore a broad reach of specialties or classes. Do something in controls, do something in photonics, do something in materials. Otherwise, you might miss something you would have really enjoyed doing. A faculty advisor who can push you to look beyond the scope of what you thought you wanted to do is really important. The career paths in engineering are not always linear or clearly defined, and I’m here to help students navigate that and consider all of their options.

What aspects of an academic career do you find most rewarding?

Certainly mentoring; but it’s great to be able to do fundamental research and to teach. In the end, the reward of an academic career is when a student succeeds in their career and tells you they appreciate the time you spent with them.

What do you hope your students take away from their time in your lab?

There are very few places where you get to play with state-of-the-art equipment, and see how it works, and try to push the hardware to do something no one has done before. I don’t expect my students to solve every problem that they encounter in my lab, but I hope they can appreciate and learn from the experiences.

Do you think it's helpful for undergraduates to find a mentor at that level?

Yes, I would encourage undergraduates to bang on our doors. Getting a mentor can have a huge impact on your future, both as a student and a professional. We know a lot of people in the industry and we know exactly what they are looking for. The sooner you start networking, the better off you will be. This is not a world for shy people. You need to put yourself out there. Engineering is such a vast field, and professors are a doorway into that world.

What is the greatest thing a student ever taught you?

First and foremost, my students have taught me patience and perspective. My students remind me to come out of a place of intellectual comfort and re-evaluate things from a fresh angle. Another thing they have taught me is perseverance and dedication; I have students who travelled through war-torn countries to get to an embassy where they can get a visa all so they could come here and be my student. Once you understand the sacrifices some people make to take advantage of the education we provide here, it’s absolutely humbling.

Do you have any advice for ECE students?

ECE is a great major because it’s so broad and there are lots of opportunities for ECE students. You don’t have to be just a hardware person; you can be a mathematician, or do something at the atomic level as a materials scientist. We have a remarkable program here in that it covers such wide breadth. As a student, I can understand how it might seem overwhelming. If you’re unsure of what you want to do, this is a great major because you will have a chance to think about where you would like to be later on, and experience so many different things.

My best piece of advice is to take your time and don’t rush. These are some of the best years of your life. No matter what you choose as a career, you will have all the experience you need to approach any other field.

Learn about Jim's research at his RF & Mixed-signal Integrated Systems Laboratory