How a VCU grad student is getting her degree in style

Aspiring scientist Shani Levit finds a way to balance her love for engineering and creativity.

Chemical engineering doctoral student Shani Levit
Chemical engineering doctoral student Shani Levit conducts research on electrospinning and nanomedicines and also posts fashion photos and writes about grad student life on her blog, The Graduate Perspective. (Photos courtesy of Shani Levit)

By Ahniaelyah Spraggs
University Public Affairs
Thursday, May 30, 2019


Shani Levit describes herself as curious and innovative. She loves exploring and tackling new challenges — two qualities that drive her passion for engineering. But those characteristics also play a large role in her personal life. Finding outlets for her creativity such as crafting and fashion has helped her maintain balance — something that can be quite hard for a busy graduate student.

“Navigating grad school is difficult across most grad programs,” said Levit, a chemical engineering Ph.D. student at the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering, where she studies under assistant professor Christina Tang, Ph.D. “There are a lot of expectations to perform at a high level in terms of the experiments we perform, papers we write, and extracurricular work we participate in.”

For her first two years as a doctoral student, Levit said she felt lost about some unwritten rules. Take vacation, for instance.

“It's not necessarily that we can't take vacations, it’s that there is no reference for us on how much time is appropriate because we are not employees of the [college],” she said. “But at the same time, we also do not get the same breaks as undergraduate students [such as a summer break]. … There are many unwritten rules of grad school, which new students need to navigate. Some examples are how many hours we should spend in the lab, or … how and when can you go to conferences or understanding where the line should be drawn on appropriate expectations for graduate students. 

“These unspoken rules, in my opinion, create a lot of stress for students that can lead to imposter syndrome, depression and isolation.”

Wanting to help other students have fulfilling and positive experiences in school, Levit decided to share her experiences through a blog. 

The Graduate Perspective includes everything from Dior-inspired outfits (for those on a student’s budget) to making the most of your Ph.D. (by joining professional organizations and taking professional development classes). Levit also uses her online platform as a graduate school survival guide that includes recipes — such as experimenting on a better pancake — and do-it-yourself projects such as cutoff shorts.

The blog also shows female engineers how they can express themselves in a male-dominated industry.

“Working in a university research lab, means two things: that I don’t have to wear business formal clothing and that my attire has to follow lab safety standards,” Levit wrote on her blog. “The general guidelines include closed-toe shoes, long pants, and no loose sleeves. However, in the past I found it a little tricky to translate style of influencers and fashion bloggers into practical everyday outfits for my life as a scientist.”

As a kid, Levit spent half the summer planning her first-day-of-school outfits. She also designed dresses, which her grandmother would sew for her. That experience made Levit consider becoming a fashion designer.

But her childhood also consisted of completing various science projects and experiments. As the daughter of two engineers and as someone who enjoyed science and math, Levit decided against going to art school and instead chose to study engineering.

“It was kind of a difficult decision for me but I decided to go for it anyways,” Levit said.

Levit is on track to earn her Ph.D. in spring 2020. She hopes to go on to work in either the pharmaceutical industry creating and formulating drugs, or the personal care industry making products for everyday use, ranging from over-the-counter medication to makeup and shampoo.

Once she’s finished with school, Levit also hopes to finally pursue a side career as a fashion designer and start her own clothing line. In the meantime, she will continue to blog and showcase her passion for fashion while earning her doctorate in style.