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CMU Portugal Inside Story: Afonso Amaral’s first year at CMU

Afonso Amaral is a CMU Portugal Dual Degree Ph.D. second year student in Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) at Instituto Superior Técnico (IST) and the Department of Engineering and Public Policy, currently at CMU through spring 2022. Afonso sat down with the CMU Portugal Program to share his thoughts on what drew him to the Program and his goals for this time at CMU, the biggest challenge he has faced in an international Program, and where to find his favorite place to grab a snack on campus.

 What drew you to the CMU Portugal Dual Degree Ph.D. Program?

I’ve done my bachelor’s and master’s at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon. After my master thesis, which was very research-oriented, I did an internship in a company basically publishing my master thesis. Currently, I have three papers available and published on that. In fact, I realized that research is pretty cool and that doing a Ph.D. could be an option. Since I’m in Portugal, I initially wanted to do a Ph.D. in Europe and not in the US. Still, then I remembered receiving an email from Carnegie Mellon Portugal and thinking that the Dual Degree Ph.D. offer looked very promising. At that time, I felt that I was probably not the right fit, but I also remembered one of my professors saying that this was a fantastic opportunity and that I should apply. So, I did.

The main driver for me was that I could be doing a Ph.D. in two different universities and two different environments. It’s that interdisciplinary feature that I was looking for. Doing a regular Ph.D. with one adviser at one university might be interesting. But I wanted my experience to be out of the ordinary. And this is an insane opportunity.


What are you looking forward to experiencing the most while at CMU?

Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’m from a Ph.D. cohort that started with COVID. And so, my first day was pretty rough with all of the classes online and being basically at home. But apart from that, coming to CMU is impactful in terms of interaction with people. Building relationships and learning about the research of other colleagues is really relevant to my understanding of what I’m doing. For example, working with Professor Erica Fuchs allows me to have research group meetings every week and learn about the research of every student there. It gives you a different kind of insight and perspective of your research. And so, I try to triangulate these perspectives and insights that I collect from my cohort.

This interaction with other students, most of whom are also my friends, and with the professors is a great opportunity. I am just two minutes away from some of the world leaders on specific topics, which is fantastic, especially this year when I’ve started looking into quantitative analysis. I’m doing some work at Heinz college, one of the country’s best policy schools. And I can visit and meet these people during office hours and try to get their feedback that I would most certainly not have if I was not here in person. Sometimes a short conversation with these fantastic faculty and researchers can change the whole course of your research and that, in fact, happened.

What was your most significant adjustment from (PT Institution) to CMU?

The university in Portugal where I’m doing the Ph.D. is the same as where I did my bachelor’s and master’s. I can see that difference even though my first year was not traditional. Honestly, in terms of location, I would say the weather because it is really cold here, and that is a huge adjustment. My colleagues say things to me like “Afonso, you have to wear a jacket, you have to wear a scarf,” but I don’t own most of that things!

Also, when I came here, I was not expecting to have so much administrative support from my department. They’re just always willing to help. However, I would say that the most significant adjustment was all the bureaucracy inherent to the fact that I am an international student. It’s something that I was not expecting to be so hard. And actually, the office of international education is pretty helpful, but it’s still very bureaucratic for me.

What lessons, skills, or techniques have you learned while at CMU that you are looking forward to incorporating into your work in Portugal?

I am fortunate to have three advisers, Professor Joana Mendonça at Técnico, Professor Erica Fuchs and Professor Granger Morgan in EPP at CMU. Lucky enough, they know each other, and all of the conversations, meetings, and research flow nicely. They trust each other, and we all concluded that it would be very interesting for me to research Europe.

In terms of bringing skills back to Portugal, I like that we can cross-register between colleges here. So, I’m from the College of Engineering, but I am doing some classes at Heinz College, the number one school for Public Policy in the US in terms of Information Systems. CMU is known for its School of computer science, so I will do the CS introduction class to learn how to program, not just write some code. If there’s a school in the world to learn how to program its CMU. Doing that will complement my research and curriculum. I’m an engineer, but I’m researching public policy. I’m trying to get a little bit of everything.

CMU Portugal is such an interesting fellowship because it allows me to have the flexibility
and to do whatever I want to tailor it for my research and experience.


What is your favorite spot to eat on campus?

I don’t usually eat on campus, but I drink a lot of coffee. I would definitely choose a place that reminds me of home, La Prima. The double cappuccino is the best kind of coffee they have, but if you’re looking for a cheap option, I might go to an ABP (Au Bon Pain) in the University Center, and they have a lot of options like sandwiches and wraps. But if you don’t want to wait in line, there are always things like bagels which I had never tried before coming to the US, and I think I now eat like ten a week. So, I’d say, for a good coffee, go to La Prima for a double cappuccino, but if you’re looking for a snack or something, then ADP is a pretty good option.

Being a second-year student, what advice would you give to an incoming first-year Dual Degree student?

This is probably the most challenging question. I would first advise making sure that you have the research interest aligned with both universities before completing the application. The second is to understand if your advisors in Portugal already know someone at CMU. For example, I have three advisors who have already worked together. In the beginning, it didn’t seem so important, but now in the second year, I realize that is very relevant because they trust each other’s perspectives, and I don’t necessarily have always to get three checks on something. Oh, and make sure to prepare your application. The application was very intense for me because I was unsure if I had to take the GRE and the TOEFL. But in the end, everything worked out.