Office Hours: Henderson Johnson II


Henderson Johnson, II @thehenman_12

Aerospace Engineering Ph.D. Student at Georgia Tech

M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from Georgia Tech

B.S. in Aerospace Engineering/Technology, minor in Management from Georgia Tech


What inspired you to attend grad school?

When I got the Gates Millennium Scholarship in high school, the idea of going to graduate school at a great discount immediately put in on my radar. I didn’t seriously consider attending until I had my first (and only) Black professor. He, ironically, was teaching on a subject that I am passionate about: Jet and Rocket Propulsion. My experience in this class was amazing, and led me to wonder what my experience would have been like if I had more Black professors. So here I am finishing my second year!


Tell me about your proudest grad school moment. Why was it special for you?

Citing myself had to be my proudest moment. I was creating a presentation for my advisor and needed to cite a series of data sources. As I was going through each source, I realized that the only way I could mention my data was by self-citing. I felt pretentious doing it, but it was great to have no choice but to mention the work I’d done.



Update - passing my qualifying exams is my proudest moment. Qualifying exams are the hardest thing (mentally) that I’ve ever done in my life, and overcoming that was amazing.



What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten while in grad school?

Focus on the work, and the activism will come. Our former Dean of the College of Engineering and now Chancellor of University of California-Davis, Gary May, was and is a bastion of academic success and a champion of diversity initiatives of the school. He created multiple programs that support increased diversity in the STEM fields that still exist today. When I began my program, I often felt that I was not doing enough as far as activism because I was so focused on classwork and research. It was comforting for him to say that he didn’t intend to be a champion of diversity, but rather aimed to be the best academic he could be and leveraged that success to create the programs he did.


If you had to describe your Black grad experience with one song, which one would it be, and why?

"blkswn" by Smino. The chorus says “I’m just sitting here thinking bout’ all of the money that I could be getting right now” which is a daily thought for me. I’ve got two degrees, tons of intern and research experience, so I could find a job relatively easily and make an actual salary. But, I’m in grad school surviving off a stipend that limits what I can do sometimes. Thankfully, grad school is incredibly fulfilling so the money issue is less important.


What has been your biggest obstacle in grad school? What strategies have you used to try to overcome it?

My biggest obstacle in grad school has been fear. Fear of not being perfect. Fear of not fitting in. Fear of not being enough. All of these have been at various points in my grad school experience crippling. I can be honest and say that I have definitely set myself back in my program because of fear. The only way I have been able to overcome these fears to a degree is by directly confronting them and also understanding their root. Although I haven’t done these things to the degree that I need to, I can say that I won’t let it be a burden for me any longer. I have resolved to not be a victim of my fear and instead approach everything with passion and intention.


What has this experience (pursuing a graduate degree) taught you about yourself?

My first two degrees were dominated with coursework that, although challenging, didn’t demand so much of me that I had to put in 100% effort. Graduate school, specifically the PhD portion, is the complete opposite. Whereas in undergrad I could skate through without putting effort, graduate school requires my absolute dedication and full effort. This last year and a half has showed me that I am capable of doing incredible things when I put in the work to make it happen.


If you could go back to the first day of grad school, what advice would you give to yourself? Why?

READ! I didn’t really respect the necessity of reading until I began working on my first conference paper. Every draft that I sent to my advisor, he would ask me questions that I couldn’t answer. After being embarrassed enough, I recognized that there was not going to be a textbook that I could dig into with the answer. I would need to truly scour the literature to find the answers. Additionally, reading keeps me excited about my work and helps me sharpen what I believe my thesis will discuss.


How do you think your identities have informed your graduate experience?

Being a Black first-gen doctorate has been a lonely experience. I am the token of the lab and though my lab makes me feel comfortable, there is nothing like having some else who looks like you in the lab. The most interesting experience I have had in graduate school was at my first conference. I am growing my hair out so when I attended this conference, I noticed a lot of weird looks from others. I knocked my presentation out of the park, and it was interesting to see the looks I received change from “he doesn’t belong here” to “he knows his stuff.”


How do you intend to use your degree in the future?

This part is still up in the air. I plan to attend law school upon finishing my PhD. My current plan aims to increase the awareness of intellectual property amongst the Black community. Because we tend to drive culture, I think it is important to own our IP. I could also leverage the PhD/JD combination to start interdisciplinary engineering and law programs at HBCUs. I also want to be a politician or maybe a consultant. Point is: I’ll have four degrees and should be able to do what I want at a premium!


What’s something that you would tell someone who is interested in pursuing a similar path?

Besides the academic advice encouraging REUs and doing well in school, find something you are absolutely in love with and go for it. I love combustion. Fire is what helped bring civilization to mankind, and understanding it to a deeper degree is incredibly exciting to me. If you go to grad school and choose a topic that you don’t love, it will be a miserable n (where n is a potentially large number) years.

Follow Henderson on Twitter: @thehenman_12, and Instagram: @hendimane