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Career advice for PhD students: How to get the most out of your time in the PhD program

Career advice for PhD students: How to get the most out of your time in the PhD program

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Career advice for PhD students: How to get the most out of your time in the PhD program

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  1. Career advice for PhD students: How to get the most out of your time in the PhD program CristianBorcea

  2. Preamble • Why am I doing this? • Not many resources to learn how to be a successful PhD student  trying to help you • Faculty create new knowledge and next generation of researchers • “A professor is as good as his best student” • Why now? • As every September, we got fresh PhD students • I might soon forget my PhD student experiences  • Talk applies to any CS PhD student despite influence from personal experiences and systems/networking background • Acknowledgment: I admit to “stealing” advices from many successful people (too many to be listed)

  3. Outline • PhD student stages • Thinking about doing a PhD • Taking classes and getting involved in some research • Choosing research area, topic, and advisor • Doing research • Writing the thesis • Getting a job • Slightly different view of these stages • Student: “I know everything”; Advisor smiles • Student: “I don’t know anything”; Advisor: “Let’s talk” • Advisor: “Let’s do X”; Student: “You’re wrong because of Y and Z”

  4. Why are you getting a PhD? • Prerequisite to a research career • A PhD degree should ensure that the student can later take on independent, long-term research commitments • The work required to earn a PhD is not worth the effort if you don’t intend to do research • You can do better with an MS degree in such a case • How do you know if research is for you? • Have inquisitive mind and critical thinking • Like to understand how things work • Like to identify problems and come up with solutions • Did some research during undergraduate studies and liked it • More philosophical reasons: dream of changing the world, good way to have a legacy beyond your family

  5. Bad reasons for pursuing a PhD • Afraid of going out in the real world • If you never had a job and not sure about going for a PhD, go and work one-two years • Ego • Impress your girlfriend/boyfriend/parents • Opportunity to work/emigrate in US • OK if your goal is to do research in (still) the best place for that in the world • Otherwise, working very hard for something that you don’t care much while living on a PhD stipend will soon make you unhappy • Money (i.e., amount of money you make is more important than what you do) • While starting salaries of CS PhD graduates are good, can reach higher salary if you worked since you got your BS/MS degree • Plus money earned during that time

  6. What qualities do you need to be successful in the PhD program? • Passion and Self-Motivation • Doing a PhD is a life changing decision • Be sure that this is the path you want to follow in life (yes, it’s normal to have doubts sometimes) • Perseverance and Self-Confidence • It could be heartbreaking to work hard for one-two years and get your paper rejected • Trust yourself (and your ideas) and don’t give up • Independence • It’s your PhD; you should know what you want to do, how you want to do it, etc. • Obviously, you need intelligence • Many times you don’t know how smart you are until somebody challenges you

  7. CS department expectations* • Take qualifying exams after first year and pass them all after second year • Proves that you are good enough to continue in the program • Find advisor and choose thesis topic after second year • Defend thesis proposal by the end of third year • Not very strict deadline (depends on progress and advisor) • Defend thesis by the end of fourth year • Can stay longer if necessary if advisor awards you RAship • Take a number of courses and maintain a decent GPA (e.g., 3.5) throughout these years * refer to full time, department-supported students

  8. Advisor expectations • Every PhD student must have thesis/research advisor • Advisor decides when student is ready to graduate • Process very similar to apprenticeship • Thesis committee makes sure advisor’s decision is correct and gives feedback to improve work • Each advisor has own requirements, but they can be generalized as: • Have enough background in CS and depth in your research area • Work on one or multiple projects and publish the results in several good conference/journal papers • Be able to clearly present your ideas and results • Write a good thesis • Your papers and thesis must include your novel ideas • Of course, they include your advisor’s ideas as well

  9. First year • Get involved in research! • Ask professors with research interests matching yours • Combine reading with working on a small part of a project • “Steal” tricks of the trade from advisor and more senior students • Classes and the qualifying exam are required, but don’t spend more time than necessary on them • Nobody cares about the grades of someone with a PhD degree • Don’t get bogged down with teaching/grading • Need to do a decent job, but make sure you don’t work more than the required 20 hours/week (many times you can work a lot less)

  10. TAship vs. RAship • RAship is better • Can spend time on you research instead of teaching • Being awarded an RAship means you’re doing well • Since RAship comes from a grant, the advisor will ask you to work on the project defined by that grant • Advisor can ask you to work on demos or robust implementations as required by grant (which are not necessarily research) • TAship has some advantages as well • Independent to work with several professors before deciding about advisor • Teaching experience required if you think of academic career • Teaching helps you improve communication skills • Every PhD student should teach at least one semester

  11. Choosing research area • Don’t celebrate too much passing the qualifying exams • You are expected to pass  • Choose area based on your research interests • Must like it; otherwise, the next few years will be painful • Don’t choose it just because you can get an RAship • Need to think strategically as well • Is this a hot area? • Will you get a good job in this area after graduation? • Hard to predict if certain areas that are hot now will still be hot in 4 years

  12. Choosing advisor • Should be compatible with advisor/get well together • Tenured advisors • Have more experience, could have more money, could have more connections • Don’t push you hard, don’t have time to work closely with you • Tenure-track advisors • Will push you hard (their future career depends on your results), but will work with you (i.e., co-authors of thesis) • Might have more up-to-date information about job searching

  13. Choosing thesis topic • It’s your topic, but the advisor must approve it • It’s rare to know the topic from the moment you start working with advisor • If work supported by a grant, the general topic is somewhat clearer • More common to work on several related topics in your chosen area • First ideas might not work, new ideas could come up • Some will be more successful than others publication-wise • Many times, thesis will define a common framework for topics covered by publications

  14. Take ownership of your PhD • No one is responsible for getting your degree but you • Faculty set up opportunity, but it’s up to you to leverage it

  15. Doing research (1) • Be proactive! • Don’t wait for advisor to push you • Reading papers • Develop critical thinking: identify both strong and weak points • Advisor will point you to important papers as well as conferences and journals in your area • You responsibility to find more papers starting from these pointers • Must read a few papers every week • Read outside your area as well • Follow technology news to know where the world is going • Let advisor/colleagues know about interesting things you read • Robin Kravets’s advices for reading/presenting papers •

  16. Doing research (2) • Identifying important and hard problems • Learn to differentiate between cool problems and junk • Advisor will offer a lot of guidance • By graduation time, acquire good taste for selecting problems • Problem solving/design • Always ask yourself: “what’s the novelty of my solution?” • Also: how is it different from/similar to alternative solutions? • Advisor suggests a potential solution • Never go back and say “doesn’t work!” • Instead, say “X didn’t work, but how about Y or Z?” • Don’t get upset/discouraged if advisor points out drawbacks in your solutions – it’s technical, not personal

  17. Doing research (3) • Implementation • Except for purely theoretical CS, will have to implement your ideas • Every successful project goes through this unglamorous, hard phase • Design is more fun than implementing it • No magic here: work hard! • Don’t suffer in silence if you don’t know how to implement something or have troubles with a bug – ask colleagues or advisor for help • Evaluation • Prove that your solution works as claimed • Should know from the design time experiments and metrics • Form a hypothesis: what type of results you expect • Experiments contradict hypothesis: think of potential reasons and discuss them with advisor • Work in the lab a significant amount of time • Learn from interactions with colleagues/advisor

  18. Mutual trust between student and advisor • Trust advisor and earn his/her trust (e.g., through good work, reliability) • Advisors, being human, are not perfect, but try their best to help • Almost everyone goes through periods when doubts advisor (the converse holds as well) • Papers getting rejected • Different opinions on how to proceed with a project • Seemingly advisor cares only about his career • During these periods, remember the advisor/student symbiosis • Advisors work hard to get grants to support your work • You work hard to produce results that will enable new grants • Typically, what is good for advisor is good for student, and what is good for student is good for advisor

  19. Communicating your results • Clear communication separates top students from average • An unknown brilliant result is useless • Write and publish papers in conferences/journals • “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen” • “Publish or perish” • Reviewed by peers • Hard to get accepted (good publication venues have 10-15% acceptance ratio) • Can start small with conference posters or workshop papers • Talks • Presentations of accepted conference papers (or invited talks) • Good chance to convince people that you did great research • Successful researchers spend 50% of time writing papers and preparing talks

  20. Writing papers • A lot harder than you think! • Good results are not published due to sloppy writing • Ask advisor for models of good papers • Get feedback from advisor early and often; then re-write • Read Shrunk and White book on writing • One idea per paragraph • Do paragraphs follow one another in a logical structure? • Typical structure: abstract, introduction, related work, design, implementation, evaluation, conclusions • Have clear abstract/introduction • If vague or poorly written, reviewers will just look for reasons to reject afterwards • Don’t claim more than you did • Distinguish between “will do” and “have been done”

  21. Conference talks • Goal is to make audience read your paper and talk with you • Emphasize the main idea, skip some details • Shouldn’t follow too closely the structure of the paper • Pay special attention to motivation • The more illustrations, the better • “A picture is worth 1000 words” • Don’t take this talk as model  • The more you practice, the fewer surprises during the actual talk • Time management is your responsibility; be prepared to skip slides • Show excitement • If you are not excited, then why would anyone else be? • Be clear, firm, and polite when answering questions • Show belief in your work

  22. Attending conferences • Typically, you go when have an accepted paper • Could ask advisor to pay or get travel grants to go to top conferences even if you don’t have paper there • Check technical program ahead of time and identify papers/people of interest • Goal is to do networking, not just hear technical talks • Take advantage of coffee breaks/lunches/receptions to talk with people • Be prepared to initiate conversations and introduce your work (prepare an elevator pitch) • Get contact information from people you want to stay in touch • Learn how top researchers present their work and answer questions • People you meet there can hire you, review your papers, or become future collaborators

  23. Summer internships • You should go once or twice • Get real-world experience, make connections • Must do it if plan to work in research labs/industry • Go in research oriented places • Doing an internship just for money is not worth the time • Decide together with advisor when and where to go • Advisor can help you go to good places (e.g., IBM Research, Microsoft Research) • Better go once you have at least one publication; can select internship that allows you to work on related topics • Be aware that they can delay graduation as summers can be very productive research-wise • “Can’t have the cake and eat it too”

  24. How much should you work? • Work only the number of hours you are paid! • Don’t let the master class exploit the workers! • Students in high-ranked schools work between 60 and 80 hours per week • Faculty spend a similar amount of time • Don’t get fooled that you do better than some colleagues while spending a lot less time • You will compete for jobs with students form other schools as well • Citing my advisor: “school breaks are for undergrad students” • Good time to work in case you have teaching duties • The advisor has more free time to help you

  25. Don’t have time to finish all your tasks? • Must acquire time management skills • Write down your tasks (both work-related and personal), set deadlines, and categorize them function of importance • Randy Pausch’s graph for task time management: Continue with these tasks Importance Obviously, finish these tasks first Urgency

  26. More on time management • Don’t have time for personal life? • Some personal tasks must have high importance • Family/friends help you avoid “going nuts”  • According to previous slide, you might end up not doing “urgent, but not important tasks”; it’s ok, the world goes on • Know yourself and manage advisor’s expectations • Learn to estimate accurately the time it takes to do certain tasks • Learn to say “no” if it’s not possible to do a task before a deadline • Try hard to respect deadlines once you agreed to them • Inform your advisor as soon as you are getting behind the schedule

  27. When to graduate? • Graduating as fast as possible might not be the best idea • This is not the Olympics where the best finishes first • Should become a well-rounded researcher, not just someone very narrow expertise • Working on larger/higher impact project might take longer, but help you become a better researcher and get a better job • Taking classes outside your area and attending seminars/talks can improve your overall background • Doing paper reviews or helping advisor with grant proposals can take time, but are invaluable learning experiences • Job market conditions may delay graduation • Taking longer than 6 years not good either • Potential employers don’t like it • Even advisor might lose interest in you

  28. Thesis (1) • Thesis: one sentence to describe your contribution to the progress of humankind • Dissertation: the 100s pages that prove the thesis • Dissertation is very much a collection of your publications • Of course, need to link them well under one clear thesis • Also, need extensive related work and potentially more experiments • Thesis proposal • ~= thesis without a chapter or two • Not as important as you may think because early validation of your research comes from good publications • Form thesis committee and get feedback from committee members • Both student and advisor must agree on committee members • Contract between you and committee: agree on content to be added in the final thesis

  29. Thesis (2) • Finish writing during your final year • In parallel with job searching • Models: theses that received ACM awards • Thesis defense is reason to celebrate • Advisor/committee won’t allow you to defend if not ready • Not a good idea to defend if you don’t have a job (especially for foreign students who plan to stay in US) • Unless you don’t receive support any longer • You could get job before thesis defense • Risk: you might never get the drive to finish • “Useful things to know about PhD thesis research” by H.T. Kung •

  30. Job searching • Once advisor confirms you will be ready to graduate that year, prepare: • CV (long, not the typical 2-page resume) • Research statement (at least 2 pages) outlining your research contributions and future plans • Teaching statement (if applying to academia) outlining your teaching experience, teaching philosophy, etc • List of references • Have them ready by early December • Most academia and research jobs are posted by January • Must submit the above-mentioned documents by their deadlines • Have your job talk ready by January • Learn about research interviews by January • Wait for call/email and hope 

  31. Job in academia • Research universities have similar starting salary with research labs (but doesn’t increase at the same rate) • Teaching university have significantly lower salary (and no research) • Flexibility to choose research topics • Can work on fundamental research and explore higher risk ideas • Need to get them funded through grants • Can publish and go to conferences more often than in research labs • Can make your own schedule • In the beginning, you work more than in industry • Can influence people directly through education • Safer job (after tenure)

  32. Job in research lab • Over a number of years, salary will be slightly higher than academia (could go for management positions as well) • Can have impact on real world through products incorporating your ideas • Research topics need to be in line with company’s goals and approved by managers • Short-term profit-oriented research may preclude you from working on fundamental or high risk topics • Working in an R&D department is even more about practical research that can quickly turn into profit • Still need to worry about funding (convince your managers to invest in your ideas) • Can’t publish everything • Patents first, publication later (if at all) • Job safety depends on company health & market

  33. What do interviewers look for in your CV? • Thesis title, research interests, and name of advisor • The advisor’s reputation matters a lot • Research contributions • Projects you worked on and their main results • Software distributions • List of papers & talks (& patents if any) • Teaching experience (for academia) • List of references • Reference letters are very important • CS community service (e.g., conference/journal reviewer) • NO! • GPA • Programming languages, tools, etc (you have a PhD in CS! You’re supposed to either know or be able to learn everything)

  34. Job talk • Single most important part of your interview • Two main purposes • Sell yourself • Sell your research • Write down 3-4 ideas you’re going to say per slide • Practice and remember those ideas • Do dry runs with advisor, colleagues, friends • Videotape yourself and try to improve … after the shock of watching the recording has passed  • Practice questions and answers • More information on job talks and interviews from Jeanette Wing •

  35. One-to-one interviews • Typically, 30 minutes about your research and everything else • They look for • Creativity • Brainpower • Independence • Technical skills • Leadership • Energy • Fitting in • Be prepared, articulated, honest, genuinely curious • Ask questions about the person’s research • Ask questions about the place to see if it’s right for you • OK to engage in less technical discussions (e.g., benefits, housing)

  36. Selecting a job • Congratulations, you got several job offers!  • Many factors to consider besides money • Reputation of the place • Can you grow there? Possibilities for promotion? • Will you get along well with your colleagues/bosses? • Geography • Two-body problem • Cost of living • Quality of schools • Are you a city person or more of the outdoor-type?

  37. More readings instead of conclusion • “How to Be a Good Graduate Student” by Marie desJardins • • “So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!” by Ronald T. Azuma • • “You and your research” by Richard Hamming • • “Technology and courage” by Ivan Sutherland • • “How to have a bad career in academia” by David Patterson • • “Paper writing and presentation” by Armando Fox •

  38. Your time in the PhD program is a unique experience: Enjoy it! Good luck and make us proud!