You and Your Research Proposal

It’s that time of year again, when researchers young and old gear up to write research proposals. Graduate school hopefuls are preparing research statements, Ph.D. students are writing fellowship applications, students who are trying to graduate are writing thesis proposals, and professors are writing grant applications to funding agencies.  At the core of each of these activities is a single kernel: a research proposal.  Since research proposals show up in many forms throughout one’s research career, figuring out how to write a good one is one of the most important skills that a researcher can learn (and hone).  I think it’s also important to embrace the process—as a researcher you’ll be writing a lot of proposals, so learning to enjoy the process (and becoming good at it) is an important part of one’s happiness (and, hence, ultimate success) as a researcher.

I was initially motivated to write this post as advice for Ph.D. students applying for fellowships, as part of the Intro to the Ph.D. class I’m teaching—we had a long discussion about fellowship applications last week, and some of the content in this post crystallizes that discussion.  As I thought about it, however, I realized that much of the advice that applies to writing a fellowship application can be applied to writing a good research proposal in general, so I’ve decided to generalize the advice that we discussed.

What is a research proposal?

A research proposal is exactly what it sounds like: it is a proposal to perform a certain research project.  It is a plan that is typically non-binding.  In the words of Eisenhower: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”  Your research proposal will thus outline a vision and a plan of work for a research agenda that spans generally three to five years.  This timeframe appears to be common across almost every form of research proposal.  Shorter timeframes generally do not account for the fact that research is an inherently uncertain process and ideas take time to germinate (i.e., if you knew you could complete the work in one or two years, it likely wouldn’t be a research project).  Timeframes that are longer than five years are impossible to plan—generally, there is far too much uncertainty in life, in the world around us (technologies, other discoveries and advances, etc.) to say anything credible about reasonable problems to work on ten years from now.

In all likelihood, nobody will hold you to the plan that you outline in a research proposal.  It is well understood (at least by your colleagues who will review your proposal) that research can take unintended twists and turns, and you may find an exciting thread to pursue mid-course that you could not have imagined or foreseen at the beginning of your journey.  Therefore, as long as you do not stray too far from your original mission, you generally have the flexibility to adapt your research as you proceed.   There is definite value in specificity (I always try to outline specific paper-sized tasks in a proposal), but the broader vision is equally important: The specifics of your proposal (and how or whether certain aspects of your proposal are ultimately executed) are likely to evolve, but the vision is likely to stay roughly the same over the course of the project.

For these reasons, I think the process of writing a research proposal can be tremendously fun.  It is also a crucial part of the research process.    Writing a research proposal is an opportunity to think more broadly about a research agenda, and to be introspective about what problems you think are really important.  Because it is an opportunity to think as far as five years in advance, you can think about the bigger problems that you really want to solve and the best ways to go about solving them.  Because you have a longer time period to solve a problem, you can think about the best methods to solve the problems with and the best people to work on those problems with—even if you don’t know everything about those methods now or aren’t working with those people yet.  Thinking in this unconstrained fashion about bigger problems on a three-to-five year arc allows us as researchers to think beyond the next paper and consider how the work we do fits together into a larger picture. It is a lot of fun.

A recipe for a winning proposal

Of course, we should be clear that success is never guaranteed.  Many factors will affect your proposal’s chances of success, including some factors that are completely out of your control.  A research proposal is often evaluated by a committee.  In the case of a fellowship or a grant proposal, that committee may be made up of people of varying levels of experience and familiarity with your area of research.  They also bring their own biases and assumptions, some of which may be incorrect but be nonetheless held with strong conviction.  You cannot control who reviews your proposal or whether their pre-conceived biases will clash with your vision of a better world.  Fortunately, a few simple steps can dramatically increase your chances of success.

Get to the point.  I remember when I asked a colleague to read my NSF CAREER proposal.  He said, “Here are some comments. Sorry, these are based on only about 30 minutes of reading, but that’s probably the most any panelist will spend reading the proposal, anyway.”  You may find it disheartening that you spend hours, days, or weeks putting together a research proposal, only to have its fate turn on the whims of a reviewer who spends 30 minutes or less on your proposal before rushing off to teach a class or returning to tomorrow’s paper deadline.  That’s life.  Remember that there is more to the process of proposal writing than what one person ultimately thinks of the proposed work (see above on the benefits of the proposal-writing process).  What’s more, if you can’t capture someone’s attention in a few minutes of reading, chances are you need to work on distilling your message more.  You should be able to draw the reader in with just a few sentences or a paragraph at most.  A reviewer is obligated to start reading your proposal, but they are not obligated to finish reading it—get to the point as fast as possible (more below on what your point should be), and entice the reader to continue.  Make it easy for the reader to digest the key points; use bullets and bold headings as necessary (this post is an example of such a writing style).

Tell a story with vivid contrasts.  Everyone loves a good story.  If you want people to enjoy reading your research proposal, then the proposal should tell a good story.  The story, of course, needs to be of a certain type, and written in a certain style (I would not recommend the “mystery novel” approach, for example).  One of my favorite recipes for telling a story is to set up the problem context, explain why the problem is important and hard to solve, and then draw a succinct, stark contrast between your approach and every other previous approach.  For example, many research proposals I wrote about email spam filtering followed this recipe: (1) spam filtering is an important problem; (2) everyone else has been trying to filter spam by looking at the content of email messages; (3) in contrast, I will develop spam filters that discriminate good from bad based on the network traffic, without looking at the content of the messages at all.  I’d then proceed to explain why this was a promising approach and likely to result in new breakthroughs (which it ultimately did).  Your research proposal can and should also follow this recipe.  Tell the reader what sets your work apart, and why it’s likely to succeed where others have failed or otherwise come up short.  Effectively, you are painting your work as so promising and so different from everyone else’s approach that it would be foolish not to fund the proposed work, because nobody else is going to do the work, and not doing it could result in a missed opportunity for a breakthrough.

Answer the Four “Whys”: Why Important, Why Hard, Why Now, Why You?  I think every proposal should answer the following four questions.  Every proposal I write aims to answer these questions, and when I review a proposal, I also look for the answers to these questions:

  • Why is the problem important?  I heard a professor at MIT once tell a fellow Ph.D. student, “There are an infinite number of hard problems.  You might as well work on one that’s worth solving.”  In your proposal, it is important to convince the reader that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and, if your research is successful, it will result in solutions that will make the world a better place for some people.  You might be ridding the world of a certain kind of cyberattack, designing better user interfaces for some class of technology, making it easier to debug software programs, or something else.  There are many ways to advance knowledge and make the world a better place in doing so.  You should first convince the reader that there is a problem out there that needs to be solved—in fact, you should convince the reader that the problem is too important to be left unsolved.
  • Why is the problem hard?  I’ll follow up on this more in a later post, but you should beware of industry “bulldozers”.  The problem that you are working on should require deep thinking and insights, and possibly the application of tools and techniques from multiple disciplines.  It should require a level of thinking that goes beyond the next couple of months (quarterly deadlines, etc.).  If your problem does not pass this test, it’s likely that industry could solve your problem, and they could likely solve it better.  Industry has the capability to hire armies of software engineers to rapidly churn out code.  If the solution to the problem that you propose is a “simple matter of engineering”, and the problem is worth solving, then there is a strong risk that industry will solve the problem better and more quickly.  Convince the reader that the problem that you are working on cannot (or will not) be solved by industry, and that investing money in research on the problem is the best (or only) way to solve the problem.
  • Why now? Most research problems are not entirely new. You may think that you are the first to propose a particular problem.  In many cases, however, problems are longstanding, and many people have proposed variants of the same problem before.  For example, to return to the example of spam filtering: people had been working on the problem for at least ten years; why now is there a possibility to make headway on an old problem, where many others had attempted the same problem?   The answer to this question may be a recent technological advance (e.g., the ability to monitor traffic at high speeds); it might also be the emergence of new technologies in other areas that bring new “hammers” to an old nail (e.g., a new machine learning algorithm that makes an old approach more tractable, efficient, or accurate).  Regardless of what creates the “perfect storm” for doing the research at this time, you should aim to convince the reader that “things are different this time” because of recent advances, changes, etc., and that you’re equipped to take advantage of these new opportunities.
  • Why you?  I think this is perhaps one of the most important elements of a proposal, and one that is commonly forgotten.  Why are you the right person to carry out this research?  You may have convinced the reader that you have identified a hard problem that is worth solving, but if you are a networking researcher who has identified a hard and worthwhile problem in complexity theory (or vice versa), you will have a very hard time convincing the reader that your proposal should be funded.  You must establish credibility, and convince the reader that you are qualified (and, ideally, uniquely qualified) to carry out the work that you have proposed.  Establish your “secret weapon” that you will use to solve the problem that other people don’t have (e.g., domain expertise, a certain body of knowledge, collaborations with people in the appropriate discipline).  Tie back to successes from your own previous work, where possible, and establish bridges between your old (successful) work and the new work that you are proposing to do.  This aspect is where some delicate balancing comes in: You should lean on your past record to establish credibility for the proposed work, yet the proposed work should be visionary enough to encompass three-to-five years of future work.  One way to do this is to include some preliminary work in the proposal to demonstrate that your vision is feasible and that you are qualified to carry it out.  It’s worth noting that this is not the time to be modest.  You’re not talking with friends at a cocktail party; you are selling yourself and your research.  If you don’t sell your work, someone else is going to sell their work, and their sales job may edge your proposal out.  We can be cynical about the need to give a sales pitch and promote ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that if you don’t do it, the other researchers who are competing for the same fellowships, grants, etc. will anyway, so you might as well put your best foot forward and so that your proposed work can be judged on a level playing field.

Be meticulous.  Make sure your proposal is accepted or rejected for the appropriate reasons. Absolutely do not forget to include all mandatory sections of the proposal (e.g., the National Science Foundation takes education, diversity, and outreach extremely seriously; leaving out discussion of these aspects is almost certainly a showstopper for your NSF proposal).  Don’t forget to read the fine print about certain things that reviewers expect to see; if a call for proposal explicitly asks questions, be sure to answer them.  Perhaps most importantly, spell check your proposal, and have it read by a native English speaker before you submit it.  Sure, we all have the occasional typo, but more than one or two typos suggests extreme carelessness and sloppiness.  How can someone trust you to conduct your experiments carefully if you can’t even be meticulous with a short research proposal?  Can someone trust your code or research results if he or she can’t trust your ability to proofread a short, simple document?  Do not convey carelessness, ever.  It is a surefire way to put off reviewers and set you back significantly.  Running a spell-check is super easy, so there is absolutely no excuse for spelling errors.

Have fun, and enjoy the process. Hopefully these pointers will help you in the proposal-writing process.  Not every proposal will win the fellowship or get funding. Remember that there are always factors that you cannot control.   Like many things in life, the process is often as important as the outcome, and with these tips, hopefully the process of proposal writing can be both enlightening and fun.

[Update (October 23, 2013): From Craig Partridge]

I had a great chat with Craig Partridge, one of the Internet’s luminaries, chief scientist at BBN, and an all-around great researcher.  Craig has spent a large part of his career at BBN, which submits proposals for government contracts regularly.  He rightly pointed out that much of what I wrote above is accurate for academics who are applying to funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, but also that some funding agencies are extremely regimented about the format and content of a proposal.  He offered the following tips for the proposal writing process, which researchers at BBN regularly practice when replying to government funding solicitations.  Thanks, Craig!

“Two thoughts to the recipe for a winning proposal.

  1.  A best practice for being meticulous is to create a checklist.  Scour the solicitation for words like “must” and “should” and  “required” and make those sentences into a checklist.   Before you  submit your proposal, confirm that every item on your checklist is in the proposal.
  2.  Get outside reviewers.  The common practice among corporate research   proposers is to use a “pink team” and a “red team”.  A pink team  reads the solicitation and an outline of your proposal about 6 weeks  before it is due and tells you where it sees intellectual or practical  gaps in the outline.  It is an early chance to find problems.  A red team reads the proposal (preferably with your checklist and the solicitation  as supporting material) about a week before it is due and gives you a list  of problems that need to be fixed before submission.”

Time Management Tactics for Academics

A distinguishing feature of a research career—particularly in academia—is the unstructured nature of the job.  Graduate students, research scientists, professors, and postdocs are generally masters of their own time.  Although this autonomy can be liberating, it can also result in tremendous inefficiency if one does not develop effective time-management tactics.  There are countless books on time management, and it is impossible to provide a comprehensive compendium of time-management tactics in a single post.  Hence, what I aim to do in this post is identify specific time management tactics that may be useful for academics (or anyone who works in an unstructured environment).  The tactics I have compiled below are the result of much reading on this topic over many years, as well as empirically determining what works for me.  Some of these tips are adapted from other readings, but most are simply tactics I’ve devised that seem to work well for me and I think might be useful for other academics and people in jobs where time is unstructured (and potentially unbounded).

Perhaps the most important characteristic of time that underscores the need for effective time management is that time is an asset that you are always spending, and it can never be replenished or replaced.  You have plenty of other assets: possessions, money, and so forth, but other assets can be replaced and replenished.  It is possible to save money or reduce spending; unfortunately, we have not yet figured out how to stop time, so we are always spending it,regardless of whether we want to or not.  It is always possible to make more money or acquire more possessions—but time that is spent can never be regained.   Thus, given that you are always spending time, the best you can hope to do is to always be making the best use of your time.  A question to repeatedly ask yourself is: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” By continually asking yourself this question, you can often correct course and spend your time in the best possible way.

Strategy: Make a plan and prioritize

The cliched metaphor that “time is money” turns out to be extremely useful for thinking about time management.  In planning how we spend our time, we can draw an analogy to financial goals.  In the same way that you might have a financial goal that requires financial strategic action (e.g., buying a house requires a savings plan), you might have a personal or career goal that requires strategic planning (e.g., obtaining a faculty job requires achieving various subgoals, each of which require a particular investment of time).  You may have multiple goals: in the same way that you may want to save enough money to buy a house and go on vacation, you might also want to have enough time to write the conference paper and spend time with your family.  Achieving (and balancing) these goals requires careful, meticulous prioritization and planning.  Given a plan, it is much easier to budget time and make strategic decisions.  Continuing the financial analogy: without a budget, it can be difficult to know whether you can afford the expensive dinner and a weekend away, but a budget makes these questions easy to answer.  Similarly, without a time budget, it may be difficult to determine whether accepting an invitation to review a paper is the best use of your time (and whether you have the time to do it in the first place).  With a plan in place, these decisions become much easier.

Priorities are an important part of any time management plan.  Decide what’s important in your life.  What will be your top priorities?  Some academics may make regular publication in the top conference the utmost priority.  Others may place higher emphasis on technology transfer and entrepreneurship.  Still others may place more value on teaching.  Likewise, you may have career goals, such as landing a faculty position, or attaining a coveted fellowship.  What is important to you?  How important is it to you?  Make some decisions and use those priorities to help you formulate a time plan.  Although priorities naturally will differ from person to person, I might suggest one thing: Personal health, well-being, family, and friends should come above all other goals.  Without these things in life, you will not be successful, nor will you be able to enjoy your successes.  There’s no point to becoming wildly successful if your health deteriorates and you become unhappy or ineffective mid-career.  Likewise, your family and friends count on you for support, and you will need their support when the going gets tough, as well.  Without this support network, you will never be successful.  Thus, above all else, take care of yourself and make personal interrupts a top priority.  With that said, I’ll offer some tactics that I’ve found to be really effective for implementing my time management plans.

Tactics: Apply the “Five Bs”

Having a plan in place is helpful, but you also need tactics to help you execute your plan.  This is where I find that there are certain time-management tactics that are particularly helpful in the academic environment.  I call my tactics the “five Bs”: bits, budgets, buffers, bounds, and barriers.  

Bits.  Time is fluid and continuous and should be treated as such.  Unfortunately, most of us have a tendency to schedule tasks into fixed, discrete time blocks that are generally too rigid and too large.  For example, a common practice might be to schedule a meeting, lunch, or some other activity for an hour.  Most of these activities don’t take an hour, so time is wasted “ramping up” and “winding down”, since activities tend to fill the time allotted for them, regardless of how much time they actually require.  If something happens to end early or take less time,  we end up wasting the extra allotted time.  For example, if a meeting ends “early”, we might use the extra found time to get a coffee, browse Slashdot, or otherwise spend time in a way that is not the best use of our time (thus violating the main criteria).   To solve this problem, I recommend viewing time as a much more fluid resource, or at least one that can be spent in smaller bits.

  • Maintain a list of tasks that can be accomplished in short time “bits”. Most tasks do not take an hour, and often significant progress can be made in a very small amount of time.  When you find that you have a bit of time (e.g., ten minutes), use the time to knock something off your list.  Note that bit tasks need not be insignificant: You can take a larger task and divide it into bits.  For example, instead of having a task on your to-do list such as “write the conference paper” or even “write the introduction to the conference paper”, you might have a task like “write a paragraph for the introduction of the conference paper”.  These bit tasks are less daunting (thus, easier to get started on), and you can do them in the little bits of found time throughout the day.  You will be surprised how many “time bits” you have during the day and how much you can accomplish by breaking tasks into these bits.
  • Before taking a break, use a time bit to start a new task.  One of the most difficult aspects of getting things done is getting started.  I find it can be incredibly difficult to get back “into the zone” after taking a break, or when shifting from one task to another.  Therefore, I try not to align my tasks on discrete boundaries like hours.  Rather, I use my time bits to start a new significant task.  Consider the following: You have ten minutes before your next meeting.  You could take a break, talk to your colleague, get a coffee, etc.—or you could use the ten minutes to get started on your next task.  If you have a smaller task on your “time bits list” that involves getting started on a bigger task (e.g., writing the first paragraph of the paper intro), then you can use the time to get started on a task, which is often the hardest part.  When you come back later (e.g., at the top of the hour, after your meeting ends), you’re already started!  I find that using time bits to make a concrete (however small) start on a larger task almost eliminates the cost of context switching later.

Budgets.  Spend your time well.  This does not mean that you have to work nonstop (see below on “barriers”, for example).  What it does mean is that you should be purposeful in how you are spending your time.  Your purpose may be to make progress on a conference paper, a piece of code, or some other task; or, your purpose might actually be leisure or relaxation.  The point isn’t to work yourself into the ground, but rather to always have a purpose with how you are spending your time.  With this in mind, I apply two specific tactics:

  • Have a purpose.  Always have a goal, and spend your time with that goal in mind.  You need long-term goals and short-term goals.  For example, a long-term goal might be to finish a conference paper, achieve a promotion, or train for a marathon.  A short-term goal (e.g., for an afternoon) might be to finish an assignment, piece of code, or section of a paper; or, it might be to drop work entirely and recharge.  Have a goal and be purposeful about how you spend time in pursuit of that goal.
  • When it comes to meetings, demand an agenda. This tactic is almost the same as having a purpose, but it is particularly useful for graduate students and faculty members.  I now refuse to attend meetings for which there is no set agenda in advance.  An agenda gives clarity of purpose to a meeting, and it is also a plan for how the time will be spent.  It makes the need for the meeting clear, it allows for immediate and efficient use of meeting time, and—most importantly—it makes it clear when the meeting is over.  Once the agenda is complete, the meeting is over.  If it takes an hour, that’s fine.  If it takes ten minutes, that’s also fine.  Without an agenda, a meeting can drag on to fill the time allotted; this steals time away from your opportunity to accomplish tasks with time bits.  Use agendas to make efficient use of meeting time.

Buffers.  It can be tempting to pack meetings back-to-back, one after another on hourly boundaries.  This is, in my opinion, an awful way to schedule time.  Instead, I try to use time buffers to make better use of my time:

  • Create time buffers in between scheduled activities.  I recommend scheduling a 50% time buffer for any activity.  If you think a meeting will take 20 minutes, schedule 30.  If you think an activity will require 60 minutes, schedule 90.  This rule applies to pretty much everything: meetings, dentist appointments, dinner engagements, etc.  We can sometimes have a tendency to pack engagements tightly, but this often results in stress, lateness, and frantic thought and action.  There may be some apprehension about scheduling time buffers: one might think, for example, that if a 90-minute slot is scheduled for a meeting that only goes 60 minutes, then the extra time is “wasted”.  To the contrary!  Applying the time bits strategy above can make these extra found times in the time buffers incredibly useful for accomplishing important tasks.
  • Show up early.  If you have time buffers in between activities, you can actually be early to your next activity, rather than frantically running from one thing to the next.  This ensures that you are composed and focused for your next activity, rather than frazzled and behind.  Showing up early also need not involve “wasting” time if you have useful items on your time bits list that accomplish if you happen to be five or ten minutes early.

From a personal perspective, having a time buffer is also a good idea: it can take a bit of time to “change modes” at the end of the work day (or work week); your family will appreciate it much more if you buffer some time to change modes.

Bounds.  Creating time bounds is perhaps one of the most important time management tasks that an academic can learn.  The academic lifestyle can go unbounded.  It is always possible to write another paper, perfect the lecture notes further, write another proposal, and so forth.  The sky is the limit, and the sky is boundless.  It can be tempting to continue to say yes, to keep working after diminishing returns have set in, and so forth.  It is critical to set bounds.  Here are some tactics that I use for setting bounds:

  • Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the timely.  I encounter this problem regularly and I am guilty of violating this principle myself.  An example where this creeps up in academic life is paper reviewing.  It’s possible to write ultra-thorough, thoughtful reviews and spend hours fine-tuning and perfecting your feedback.  But, at some point you hit diminishing returns.  And, if you don’t manage your time wisely, you will be late with your reviews and annoy the people who are counting on you.  I have been guilty of this myself.  Try to keep in mind that sometimes it’s more important to be timely than it is to be perfect.  Plus, being perfect is not attainable, but being timely is.
  • Use a deadline as a bound for declaring victory; create a deadline if one doesn’t exist.  Sometimes deadlines are explicit (e.g., review deadlines, paper deadlines).  If you are working on a task that does not have a bound (e.g., a journal paper), make one.  Declare a date or time by which you will be done and stick to it.  This will ensure that you do not over-optimize.  There is a definitely 80-20 phenomenon in research.  Setting deadlines will help you ensure that you are not stuck in the realm of diminishing returns.  Set deadlines and bounds on the lengths of meetings, how much time you will spend on an email thread, etc.  Do not be afraid to declare victory once the time is up.
  • Beware of time thieves, particularly those that masquerade as “productive activities”.  Many interrupt-driven activities steal our time in fits and spurts.  Email is perhaps the most notorious of these thieves.  Of course, sometimes an email thread is useful: correspondence with a colleague can result in refinement of an idea, clarity of thought, and so forth.   But, this is the exception.  Most of the time, replying to email is a Sisyphean task that simply generates more email.  By the end of the day, we’ve done nothing but reply to email, sometimes to limited effect. Be particularly wary of email threads without a clear purpose, and look out for email threads that will resolve themselves without your involvement.  I make it a point to identify whether an email might resolve itself.  If there’s even a small chance the issue will resolve itself, I will wait to reply.   (We’ve all seen this phenomenon: Someone sends you a frantic email about some issue that has to be solved now, only to send you an email 30 minutes later letting you know that it was all a mistake or that they’ve figured out the problem themselves.  I clear these threads from my deck with one stroke of the delete key!)  I also try to identify whether email is the most efficient mode for resolving the problem.  Just because someone contacts you by email does not mean you have to reply, and just because someone contacts you by email does not mean you need to reply by email.  For example, sometimes a phone call, IM, or in-person chat is faster and more effective.  Also, I recommend only replying to email at certain times (e.g., morning, lunchtime, and end-of-day).   You might think that people “expect you to reply right away”.  Don’t worry—when you stop replying immediately, people stop expecting an immediate reply.  If something is truly urgent (i.e., can’t wait a couple of hours), people will find another way to contact you.  Most things are not that urgent anyway and can wait a few hours for a reply.
  • Be purposeful about online (and other passive) “leisure” activities.  Sure, we all like to browse the web from time to time.  But, even for these types of “leisure”, it helps to be purposeful.  Leisurely is not the same as aimless.  Social media sites like Facebook are particularly amenable to aimless time-wasting.  Track your time on these sites using tools like StayFocusd, TimeStats, and so forth.   Upon more careful accounting, you might end up finding that the cost of the time wasted far outstrips any “benefit” that these sites might provide.  If there are sites where you find yourself spending lots of aimless time, consider blocking them or canceling your account entirely.   Similarly, be wary of other passive leisure activities such as watching television.  This is not to say that you should never watch television, although that might be a safe bet; rather, have a purpose (watch a particular show, sporting event, etc.).  Shut the television off when you’ve achieved your goal (by the way, even “vegging out” might be a reasonable short-term goal, but you should still be purposeful about how long you want to do that for!).

Barriers.  Establish times for specific activities, and be ruthless about enforcing the barriers between those activities.

  • Unless there is an emergency, ruthlessly protect your scheduled time.  Students or colleagues will sometimes ask me if I “have a minute”.  The first thing to recognize is that nothing ever takes a minute.  Even if something actually only takes a minute (which it almost never does), it creates a context switch and interrupt that can disrupt your flow and actually cost you 10-15 minutes (an entire time bit, during which you could have knocked off a task).  I used to think that saying “no” was rude; however, it is a perfectly reasonable answer.  On the contrary, if you let someone encroach on a planned meeting or activity, it is unfair to whatever or whomever you had previously scheduled for that time block.  Do not let people encroach on activities that you’ve planned unless there is a real emergency.
  • Ruthlessly protect your personal time.  This is effectively the same rule as above, but re-stated and re-emphasized for your personal time.  During non-work time, devote your complete attention and energy to not doing work. I make it a point to avoid looking at my phone when I am spending time with my family.  Nothing ruins a family picnic in the park and raises one’s blood pressure like an email from your colleague on a Saturday afternoon telling you that the introduction you wrote for the paper is “all wrong” and, by the way, your text has been chucked out and can we meet “ASAP” to discuss it.  Do yourself a favor and compartmentalize.  Not much needs to happen on a Saturday, in particular, and if you don’t get back to your colleague, department chair or whomever before Saturday night or Sunday or even Monday morning (presuming there’s no immediate deadline, of course), life will go on just fine.  On the contrary, you can’t have the family picnic on Sunday night or Monday morning.
  • Ruthlessly protect your personal space.  I now establish spaces in the house for working, and spaces where work is off limits.  This also helps me establish time barriers.  I make it a point to leave electronics out of the bedroom, for example, to reduce the temptation to “work” (i.e., which is never real work anyhow but rather checking email…see above) when the purposeful use of my time should be getting rest or sleep.  Creating these physical barriers helps ensure that there are barriers to protect your personal time, as well.  Another place I enforce barriers on personal space is when I go running: I go for long runs as part of marathon training (sometimes for hours at a time) with absolutely no electronics.  Nobody can bother me for a work-related request during these times.  I am simply not reachable; that time is mine.  The personal space I have created helps me enforce the barrier on my use of that time.
  • Learn how to say “no”.  I admit, this is incredibly hard for me.  It’s also incredibly hard for many assistant professors or junior faculty seeking promotion.  With muddy bars like “tenure”, it can be incredibly difficult to determine how much one needs to do to clear the bar, and what tasks are enriching versus superfluous.  Additionally, overachievers may tend to have difficulty saying “no” and quickly find themselves overcommitting.   Overcommitment is a potential catastrophe, because no matter how well you manage your time, there will be no way to fit all of the tasks into a fixed number of hours (using the financial metaphor, you may reach a point of bankruptcy if you over-spend).  I am not quite sure of the best way to learn how to say no, but I am currently trying two different strategies.  The first (which I’ve been using for awhile) is to find several colleagues whom I trust and ask them if it’s OK to say no to something.  Getting multiple opinions is useful here—certain people may have biases or ulterior motives, even the people you trust.  Calibrated, trusted opinions from senior colleagues and mentors are invaluable.  The second approach I have started to use is an accountability and reward system for saying “no”.  Every week, I catalog the opportunities that I have declined.  I make sure that this list has several items every week.  If I’m not saying “no” enough, I re-evaluate.  For the ambitious overachiever, I find that this tactic is useful—actively documenting activities to decline can become a game or a challenge.  How long is your list?

As I mentioned, there are countless books on time management and in some ways, this post represents “yet another list”.  However, I find that many of the tactics above are specifically useful for academics or those who work in environments where time is unstructured and working hours can potentially go unbounded.  Many of these techniques have worked well for me, and they’ve taken me years to learn and refine.  Hopefully some of the tactics in this point will save you some time in the future!

Industry or Academia? A Counterpoint

The past several years have seen a few blog posts concerning careers in academia and industry; much of the debate has been colored by high-profile departures of university professors for a home in industry.  Notably, various former professors have bemoaned the difficulty of obtaining funding, the difficulty of doing large-scale systems research, quixotic panels and program committees, the lower salaries, and so forth.

Although there is always some truth to the complaints you may have read about, I also feel that these previous posts paint a somewhat one-sided view of the nature of academic life.  These posts are often enough to send a graduate student running for industry, thinking that the academic life is not for them.  I believe that the picture between industry and academia is a bit more nuanced.

I should provide some context for my comments, which will hopefully also lend some credibility.  I’ve now spent about seven years as a university faculty member.  I have also worked in at a small startup, large industrial research labs, and at several universities (as an undergraduate, grad student, postdoc, and now as a professor).  One of my first jobs was as a programmer for LookSmart, a directory-based search company that was eventually bought by AltaVista; I wrote LookSmart’s first web crawler, back when it was a lot easier to crawl the web.  I’ve also spent time at both Hewlett-Packard Labs (where I wrote my first research paper), and I spent a summer at Bell Labs, as well.

Ph.D. students and mid-career researchers alike may wonder about the choice between academia or industry.  Here are some of my thoughts on the tradeoffs, based on having spent a reasonable amount of time in both places.  First, let’s have a look at some of the things that academia has to offer:

  • Freedom.  Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of a job in academia is the freedom that the position offers.  A professor sets out the day’s agenda and generally has complete control over how to spend the day.  For example, I can determine exactly how much time I want to spend meeting students, writing papers, preparing classes, sleeping, and so forth.  I don’t typically have to answer to anyone for how I’m spending my time.  This is an extraordinary advantage, because it means that I can allocate my time based on the tasks where I believe that I can derive the most value (and happiness).  Of course, this freedom also means that a professor needs to become an expert at time management (more on that in a later post).  Another advantage of this flexibility that some professors take advantage of, too, is that they can determine when they want to work; it’s not necessary to work 9-to-5, so if it’s necessary to run an errand during the day, that type of thing is generally completely possible.
  • Working with students. One of the biggest differences between industry and academia is the opportunity to work with students, of all stripes.  I very much enjoy teaching—one of the main reasons I wanted to become a professor was that I deeply admired my own university professors and wanted to emulate them.  Working with students is probably one of the most awesome things about being a professor that is hard to replicate in other jobs.  As a classroom instructor, you have the opportunity to interact with a large number of incredibly bright people, who are continually asking questions that shed new light on problems you’ve been teaching for years.  Recently, with the opportunity to teach online classes, the opportunity to reach a large number of students has presented itself, which is even more amazing—we now have the opportunity to teach (and influence) an entirely new demographic on a massive scale.  As an advisor of Ph.D. students, a professor can shape the professional (and research) development of many students over multiple years.  Perhaps even more rewarding is that a professor can learn regularly from students; I have learned many things about a variety of different areas (e.g., statistics, machine learning, software engineering, networking, operating systems) directly from my students; learning from one’s students turns out to be a really exciting (and efficient) way to learn.  Working with students and helping them develop research taste, presentation skills, and life skills is simply one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.  An industrial researcher may offer that they have the opportunity to work with summer interns—sorry, but it’s not the same.  Industrial researchers typically work with a summer intern for a short number of months, not a span of many years (and certainly not continuously over many years).  The relationship with the student is not as deep, and (as I have observed many times when my own students take internships) an industrial researcher is typically not as invested in a student’s success or overall career path.  There are exceptions—my mentor at one summer internship became a second advisor to me and ultimately became my postdoc advisor, but it stands to reason that the relationship that a professor can have with students cannot be replicated in any other profession, and it is one of the most awesome aspects of the job.
  • Easy interaction with experts from other fields.  The university makes it incredibly easy to approach experts in other areas.  Most universities will not hire an army of experts in a single area, which means that the faculty member down the hall from you (or even right next door) might be an expert in a completely different subject matter.  This environment creates an extraordinary opportunity for learning, cross-disciplinary thinking and research, and general enrichment.  While it’s always fun to talk to people in your same research area, often the best ideas come from applying ideas across disciplines.  The university environment makes this type of interaction much more natural than other environments do.
  • Opportunity for long-term impact.  As a professor, you do not have quarterly deadlines to meet, monthly reports to file, or a boss that you are regularly accountable for.  (In truth, a few funding contracts do have monthly reports, but those are few and far between and generally they are pretty lightweight.)   Professors generally have to report to their funding agencies about progress on research projects on an annual basis, but even these reports are typically fairly lightweight and involve describing the research that was carried out over the course of the year—there is very little pressure to meet a specific target or make a particular deadline.  Faculty drive themselves to excel (the flip side of this, of course, is that to be a good professor, you really have to have initiative and be a self-starter, because nobody is going to crack the whip on you).  Freedom from the constraints of short-term deadlines and having to answer to others who are setting the agenda really presents the possibility of thinking about the “right” solution to a problem (or the right problem to work on), rather than simply hacking together something that just works well enough to get the job done.  In my opinion, this aspect of being a professor presents the greatest opportunity for adding value: people working in industry often do not have the time (or interest) in stepping back and thinking about completely new ways of solving a problem, and they may also not be able to bring in completely new perspectives to problem solving.  They are often way too busy “fighting fires”.  I have found many of my research problems by visiting people who work in industry, asking them about “pain points”, and thinking about solutions to the problems that they face that they simply cannot implement because they don’t have the time to step back and think about a completely new approach.
  • Relative stability.  It almost goes without saying that tenure is unique to academia; that level of stability offers both peace of mind and the freedom to take risks (something I have taken advantage of; for example, post-tenure, I have taken on much bigger systems-building projects that have taken several years to produce papers). Industry labs are typically not around forever.  Many of the industrial research lab “giants” of the past are shadows of their former selves.  Even if a research lab does not disappear completely, it can be realigned with a business unit to the point where the “research” becomes advanced development and the employees of that unit lose their relative autonomy.  Even in my relatively short research career, I have seen several research labs disappear, often with very little warning.   Although one of the oft-stated benefits of working in a research lab is that there is no need to raise funding, the flip side of this feature is that when the funding disappears, you lose the perks that you once enjoyed. Regardless of whether you are in industry or academia, you are always at the mercy of your funders.  Personally, I would at least rather hold the pursestrings myself, so that I can determine my own research agenda, the scale of the research program that I would like to pursue, and so forth.
  • Bridge-building.  A professor is not beholden to any particular person, dogma, ideology, company, or other alliance.  This stands in contrast to industrial researchers, who have a mission to contribute to the company’s overall value and also have some amount of loyalty (and ties) to that company.  As a professor, I have no such ties.  I’ve had meetings with Microsoft in the morning, Google in the afternoon, and Amazon in the evening in a single day.    In these meetings, a professor can learn amazing things about industry’s view on problems.  It may be difficult for an industrial researcher to get the same perspective: it’s unlikely, for example, that an employee from one company will get to hear about its competitor’s approach to a problem. In contrast, if they seize the opportunities, professors can learn an incredible amount from a diverse body of knowledge and have the opportunity to synthesize that knowledge in ways that others can’t.
  • Outreach.  Activities that transfer research results to the broader society are part of a professor’s mission.  A professor has the opportunity to give tutorials, develop online courses, write blog posts, teach at local high schools, organize and run workshops, and so forth.  This is not to say that the same opportunities wouldn’t exist in other research positions, but outreach is often not as central to the mission of other jobs as it is to being a professor.  For example, every National Science Foundation grant that I write explicitly asks how I will transfer the results of the research to society; this type of outreach is thus very explicitly part of my mission, and I truly enjoy the opportunity for outreach.
  • Summers. Someone once told me that the top four reasons to become a professor are May, June, July, and August.  Summer offers huge chunks of unstructured time to pursue larger projects and independent interests.  For example, over the past summer, I escaped Georgia Tech for several months, ensconced myself in Cape Town, and used the focused (and relaxed) time away to prepare a massive, open online course on Software Defined Networking, a topic that I had long been yearning to dive into the details on.

I cannot speak as much to the benefits of working in an industrial research lab, as I have less experience, but from my limited experience, I have observed that an industrial research lab has the following benefits:

  • Structure.  In contrast to a professor’s day, which is completely self-determined, time in an industrial research lab is more structured, typically because interaction with peers (as opposed to students) is more common, and as a researcher you are less of an independent actor.  You may have specific team meetings that are set up without your control that occur at the same time every day, for example, or regular meetings with your manager.  For some people, this type of structure can be extremely helpful for their productivity.
  • Money (when it exists). When times are good, there is no place like a research lab—money flows like honey, and equipment, travel, interns and so forth seem to spring from an infinite well.  Unlike professors, industrial researchers do not have to interrupt their rhythm to write grants, visit funding agencies, attend “principal investigator (PI)” meetings, and so forth.  Although I personally enjoy the process of writing grants, as it gives me the opportunity to think about the big picture of my research agenda, it certainly does interrupt the flow of work, and it can be distracting, since the scheduling of funding deadlines is beyond my control, and they can certainly come at convenient times.  Of course, when money dries up, there is probably no more frustrating place to work than a research lab; when funding disappears to the point where your company won’t send you to a conference to present your paper and you have to travel on your own dime, the once-good life can start to look pretty dire.
  • Direct and tangible impact.  Professors can often struggle to have their ideas adopted in practice; in fact, I find that I spend a lot of time “evangelizing” my ideas to industry to try to transfer them into practice, where they can have a more lasting impact.  Industrial researchers do not face this problem: the problems that that industrial researchers work on are often directly motivated by business units.  Although this does remove some autonomy, the positive aspect of the lost autonomy is that the research results are often immediately and directly useful.  Researchers at industrial labs such as Microsoft and AT&T can regularly cite examples of the algorithms or methods they invented finding their way into products that thousands (or millions) of people use everyday.  It is much more difficult to have that kind of impact as a professor; it is not impossible, but it requires a lot more will, and a lot more initiative.
  • Problem focus. Professors often work on many different problems at once.  I find this breadth refreshing and invigorating, but it certainly comes at the cost of depth.  A researcher in an industrial lab typically has much more time to think deeply about a problem, hack on code, and directly contribute to the solutions that find their way into published papers.  Typically, as a professor, the great insights, code, and so forth that find their way into papers are the work of students, not the work of the professor.  A professor often simply does not have the time to be as deeply involved in the details of solutions.  This, of course, can vary depending on the style of the professor: some professors, for example, advise only one or two students at a time and work very deeply on problems with their students.  But, typically, this is not the norm, and even in these cases the student still has more time for focused work.  In contrast, an industrial research does have the opportunity to spend many focused hours on a single problem, working with much the same level of focus as a graduate student might.
  • Time to do technical work. Professors are distracted with many different tasks—teaching, committees, fundraising, advising, and so forth.  Although these activities are often extremely rewarding, they are certainly often non-technical.  They are a far cry from hacking on code, for example.  Some people appreciate the opportunity to spend countless focused hours on technical work.  For a professor, that kind of time is an incredible luxury: it presents itself from time-to-time, but it is certainly not the norm.

Ultimately, the choice between academia and an industrial research lab involves many tradeoffs, and the best “fit” often depends on individual preferences and working style.  I personally think that being a professor is perhaps the best job one can have.  There are certainly drawbacks, and other jobs certainly offer different benefits and perks that jobs in academia do not offer, but the job is far better than one might otherwise be led to believe from recent posts on academic departures.  One can observe that, although there have been several loud departures for industry, there still remains a very large cadre of extremely happy university professors.

Why Get a Ph.D.?

Occasionally professors wear suits on the job.

Someone once told me that he got his Ph.D. so that his job would never involve having to wear a suit or being at work by 9 a.m.  The statement is interesting for a couple of reasons.  On the one hand, the statement captures the career autonomy that having a Ph.D. can afford.  On the other, in my experience, the statement appears to be false.  Since finishing my Ph.D., I have sometimes needed to arrive at work well before 9 a.m., and below is a photo of me in a suit as proof that I didn’t manage to avoid that fate, either (in fairness, I don’t have to wear a suit very often, but the need sometimes arises).

What is a Ph.D.?

As new students arrive on campus this week, it’s a good time to discuss the nature of the journey that many Ph.D. students are about to begin.  It is not really possible to describe exactly what the Ph.D. experience will be like, since every Ph.D. program is different and, more importantly, everyone’s Ph.D. experience is quite personal.  Nevertheless, I wanted to write a little bit about what the Ph.D. is, some good reasons to get a Ph.D., and some good reasons not to get a Ph.D.

  • A degree signifying expertise (and experience). The Ph.D. acts as a signal to others that you have been through the particular process of writing a dissertation.  The process of creating knowledge and codifying it so that others can learn from your discoveries is something that every Ph.D. graduate goes through.  It signifies that you have acquired a particular skill set, hopefully involving the ability to identify important problems that are worth solving, a particular set problem solving skills, creativity, and the ability to clearly communicate your ideas.  It signifies that you have been through a unique process of creating new knowledge (see below).  If you wonder why certain employers favor Ph.D. graduates even when the job description does not involve research, this is one particular reason why.
  • An opportunity for a certain lifestyle. When I was a graduate student, I always thought that I had the best job in the world (the pay notwithstanding).  Perhaps being a postdoc is the best job in the world, because it has all of the perks of being a Ph.D. student, with considerably better pay.  As a graduate student (or postdoc), you have a unique opportunity to work on whatever problems you find interesting.  And, unlike your advisor, you can work on only one or two things at once and dive deep into those problems, hopefully unearthing new discoveries.  The autonomy that a life in research brings and the ability to work at the limits of your own creativity and ambition are rare privileges that many people do not enjoy in life.  Throughout life, you will meet many people who are unhappy in their jobs.  I can honestly say that I have never dreaded a day of work, and even though professors work very hard, you will be hard-pressed to find a professor who does not like his or her job.  I’m not sure I’ve met one.  I believe the reason for this is that we have jobs that never get boring, and if we are bored, we really have only ourselves to blame, since we can work on whatever we choose.  Being a professor carries certain perks over being a postdoc (e.g., more cachet, more autonomy, more pay), but it also brings with it more responsibility, more committees, and more work that can distract from research.  Despite the fact that professors often have three or more jobs (e.g., teaching, research, committees, and other service work), we are generally a very happy bunch.
  • A process.  As I mentioned above, the Ph.D. is a process of creating knowledge.  For the first time in your life, you have a chance to work on a problem that nobody has ever worked on before.  The answers are certainly not in a textbook, and the problem itself may not even be written down anywhere.  You are working at the frontier of human knowledge and understanding and trying to bump that frontier just a little bit further out.  The process of creating knowledge can be lonely and frightening, but many people (myself included) find it very exciting.  When you embark on a new project, you often have no idea what you will find, or whether what you are doing will even work.  The only thing you can be reasonably sure of is that you will learn something.  If that sounds exciting to you, you will probably enjoy the Ph.D.  If working outside the lines without someone telling you what to do and without a clear path to a known end goal makes you uncomfortable, you may find that the Ph.D. is not for you.

What can you do with a Ph.D.?

Academia. Although many people might assume that the main career path after gaining a Ph.D. is to become a professor, the truth of the matter is that most Ph.D. graduates do not become professors.  Yet, having a Ph.D. opens a wealth of opportunities.  Having been through the process I described above gives you an important set of skills that not many other people have acquired through such a long process.  Thus, a tenure-track faculty position is really only one possibility for post-graduate employment.  Many other employers are looking for the skill set that a Ph.D. graduate has acquired.  As a Ph.D. graduate, you have the unique opportunity to become research faculty, or faculty at a teaching university or college.  In fact, the main reason I decided to get my Ph.D. was because I deeply admired my undergraduate university professors and I wanted to emulate them—I thought I would like teaching, and I wanted to teach at the university level.  As I went down the path of getting my Ph.D., I discovered that I loved research as much, if not more, than teaching.  (In fact, I believe that research and teaching are extremely closely related to one another.  More on that in a later post.)

Industrial research labs. In addition to ensconcing yourself in the ivory tower, you can get a job at an industrial research lab (e.g., Microsoft Research).  A job at an industrial research lab often affords much of the autonomy of being a researcher in academia, although there are a few important differences.  One of the main differences is that you are not teaching courses on a regular basis.  Some consider this to be a bonus, as teaching is a significant time commitment; some believe that it disrupts their ability to do research.  On the other hand, I love teaching and I believe that the process of teaching (transferring knowledge) has an important feedback loop with research (creating knowledge), and I think I would really miss teaching if I were in a research lab.  Another important difference is that you are mainly working with your peers (other Ph.D. graduates, often within your own discipline), as opposed to working with a group of apprentices (i.e., your own students) and peers from other areas of computer science and even other disciplines.  Finally, another difference is that you typically do not have to apply for funding when you are working in an industrial research lab.  Many people do not like writing proposals and consider this a bonus.  I personally like writing proposals and consider it part of the research process—writing a proposal is the “planning” stage of research, where you outline a multi-year story and try to convince others that what you want to work on is a frontier of knowledge worth pursuing.  I view proposal writing as a useful tool to make sure that I’m not gaining tunnel vision and merely working “paper to paper”.  Others may find this process burdensome and find a job in an industrial lab more appealing.  Still, it is worth remembering that autonomy does not come for free: someone is paying for it.  If you are not writing the proposals to bring in the funding to determine what you are working on, someone else is bringing in that funding and ultimately may have some sway over what you can work on.  Many times, I have seen industrial research labs having to align their research projects with business units; sometimes the research labs are ultimately swallowed by the business units entirely (or worse, eliminated).  This is less of a danger at well-established research labs, but it can happen even there.

Government research labs. In addition to research jobs, another track you can pursue is a job at national government labs, which are like industrial research labs in some sense but receive their funding from the government, rather than the private sector.  Sometimes, government research work ends up being classified and difficult to publish, but sometimes it is not.  And, many people can find it exciting to work on classified projects.  I wouldn’t know much about this, as I don’t have a security clearance, although we have collaborated on one classified project before (which was an interesting process, since we were contributing to a classified project without being privy to the classified information).

A company of your own. In addition, you can start a company. Google began from Stanford’s Digital Library research project, for example.  Of course, Sergey Brin and Larry Page never finished their Ph.D.  You may find that this path turns out to be right for you.  Sometimes people say that you should work on your second-best idea for your Ph.D. and save the best one for your startup.  I think you should always be working on your best idea, for better ones are probably yet to come.  Needless to say, many startup ideas have come out of the Ph.D. process, and many of the skills acquired during the Ph.D. (creativity, working with uncertainty, communicating ideas, etc.) do transfer well to entrepreneurship.

What a Ph.D. is Not

A chance to take more classes. Some people enter the Ph.D. program as a chance to take more classes.  I have heard of cases of students getting bachelor’s degrees in other areas while completing their Ph.D. in computer science.  This is ridiculous; it is not what you come for, and if your advisor finds out you are doing this, he or she will likely not be pleased.  If you want to take more classes and get another degree, you should just go do that.  The research will be a distraction from your main goal.  I tend to encourage my students to complete their coursework as quickly as possible so that they can focus on research.

A “meanwhile” activity. If you enter a Ph.D. program simply because you do not like the “real world” or the thought of having a “real job”, or because you liked school but can’t figure out what you’d like to do with your life, you will almost certainly strongly dislike your Ph.D. experience, and you will probably not succeed.  A Ph.D. is not well defined.  There are no assignments and checklists.  There is no “homework” in the traditional sense.  Although you have an advisor whose job it is to guide you along your path, the path you take in your Ph.D. is ultimately deeply personal, and it is driven by your passions and interests (or lack thereof).  If you do not have a strong passion or the initiative to carry through your Ph.D. to completion, you will find the process to be very painful.  Your success (or failure) ultimately rests on your shoulders.

It is worth mentioning that obtaining the Ph.D. presents a serious financial opportunity cost.  For five (or more) years, you will be making about 20% of what your peers are making in industry out of college.  Furthermore, you will miss out of five years of raises and promotions on top of that higher salary that you could have been already making.  Ultimately, fifteen or twenty years later, you might close this gap, when you become a tenured professor and consulting and startup opportunities present themselves in abundance (should you decide that you want to spend your time on that).  Until then, unless you happen to be one of the fortunate few whose Ph.D. leads to the next breakthrough startup, you should plan on being financially set back from your friends and acquaintances who are in industry.  That is not to say that you will experience those setbacks, but if your goal is to become wealthy quickly, a Ph.D. is probably not the right career path for you.

A Personal Choice

Obtaining a Ph.D. is a deeply personal experience.  Your advisor will make sure that you are making progress (if he or she is doing the job well), but ultimately it is up to you to shape your experience.  To do well in the Ph.D. program, you need the passion for creating new knowledge and the tenacity to push your visions through to conclusions when the going gets tough.  Many people love the Ph.D. process.  For me, it was one of the best experiences in my life, and it has certainly shaped everything I’ve done going forward.  I would recommend it to anyone who shares many of the same attributes and goals that I have.  But, it’s also important to realize that the Ph.D. is not for everyone.  It might even take you some time and experience going through the process to realize that the Ph.D. is not for you; that is also perfectly alright.  There is absolutely no stigma in avoiding further sunk costs; at any time, you should be setting yourself on a path that gives you the best opportunities for success and happiness.  I hope these thoughts have helped you determine whether the Ph.D. is that path for you, but ultimately, it is difficult to know for sure until you have been through (or at least tried) the process yourself.

Managing Your Advisor

With the new academic term almost upon us, several of my students started to put together a list of practical advice for incoming students—including various niceties such as how to gain access to the lab, how to get accounts, how to submit reimbursements, and so forth.  I wanted to contribute to the list of advice, and I figured I could offer some value by giving advice to new students about how to gain traction on their research as quickly as possible.  This post is the first in a series of a few posts on that topic; in this post, I will cover the topic of managing your advisor.

The notion of an advisor is an interesting concept for many new Ph.D. students.  Incoming graduate students typically have one of two backgrounds: some come straight from undergraduate studies (and, hence, may have never had a manager or a boss overseeing their career); others have spent some time in the workforce and have decided to return to the university and begin a career in research (and, hence, have some notion of what it is like to have a manager).  An advisor-student relationship is unique, though, and will be a new experience for both types of incoming students.  The relationship is similar to a manager relationship, but has several differentiating features.  First, your advisor is often a collaborator on equal footing.  Although an incoming Ph.D. student is not (yet) a peer of his or her advisor, the goal is that by the end of the Ph.D. process, the student and advisor will be peers.  In this sense, the Ph.D. is a true apprenticeship.  My students don’t work for me; they work with me.  Second, your advisor is not a manager in the strict sense, but is literally an advisor: You are in control of shaping your own graduate career, from what you choose to work on to who you work with.  Your advisor should be a catalyst and facilitator for your success and should not be treating you as an employee or “hired labor”.  Although some research contracts have deliverables, you should be suspicious of any advisor who wants to constantly hold you to tight deliverables, as it will constrain your autonomy and creativity; that type of advisor will ultimately be more like a manager, and you can find plenty of managers in industry who will pay you a much higher salary.  If you find that your advisor is bossing you around or restricting your autonomy or creativity, change advisors as soon as possible.

In any advisor or managerial context, it is important to recognize the importance of “managing up”.  While there may be strategic reasons to do this in any context, the most important reason to learn how to manage your advisor is to make the most of your graduate career.  Many things compete for your advisor’s attention—papers, grants, proposals, teaching, committees, other students, outside opportunities, etc.  At the same time, everyone’s Ph.D. experience is unique, and it is incumbent on you to work with your advisor to help you define your own trajectory and also to create a working relationship that works for both of you.

In my seven years as an advisor, I have learned a few things about my working style.  Here is some of the advice I have offered my students about how to manage me.  Many of these tips may be useful in general for other Ph.D. students who want to help build a better relationship with their advisor and help get the most out of their graduate careers:

  • Ask your advisor for what you need.  Want to attend a conference, get an introduction to a senior colleague in the field, buy a book or other equipment, find an internship, get a travel grant, or something else?  Be proactive.  The answer will be “yes” more often than you think .
  • Scheduling meetings. I have a Google calendar that I share with all of my students.  If a meeting or event is not on my calendar, the student should assume that the meeting is not happening, even if the meeting has been discussed (and agreed on!) in the hallway.  There is no way to keep track of hallway discussions for scheduling and they are quickly forgotten.  Though it’s not strictly necessary, I advise my students to consider sending a reminder/minutes/confirmation before the meeting; this relates to the point below on making meetings count.  Scheduling meetings sometimes can generate an explosion of email—this is a recipe for disaster and ensuring that you never get to meet your advisor (see below on email); if scheduling is proceeding slowly, limit the email thread to 1-2 emails before suggesting a meeting invitation by Google calendar.  If all else fails, send a meeting invitation during an open slot; in the worst case, your advisor will react by moving it to a time that works (it is on the calendar and thus can no longer be deferred indefinitely).

  • Try to meet your advisor once a week, even if you think you have nothing to talk about.  Make an effort to schedule a meeting once a week, even if the meeting is short; in my experience, I have found that sometimes even a ten-minute meeting with a student can make a huge difference for working around a mental block or changing an approach to a problem.  Do not assume that a meeting cannot happen simply because your advisor is not in town.  Short meetings by Google hangout are often very handy.  In fact, throughout the summer of 2013, I was rarely at Georgia Tech; many of my students actually found it easier to meet me when I was traveling because I wasn’t being constantly bombarded by things related to the daily drumbeat at the university (e.g., committee meetings, interruptions from admins, teaching, etc.).  Consider having a meeting even if you think there’s nothing to report.  You may find you are stuck in a rathole, and you may not even realize it.  You should be particularly worried if you have spent 2-3 weeks “debugging” or on some “implementation” without getting any feedback.  Chances are, you are ratholing on something that probably isn’t getting you any closer to a publication.  Seek help immediately!

  • Attend every single group meeting.  Do not miss group meetings.  These are one of the most important structural elements of your graduate career that actually relates to your research.  Group meetings are important for several reasons: (1) You learn about what others in the group are doing, which may be a useful resource (or, you may find out you can be a resource to someone else).  This all helps with collaborating across the group. (2) You find out what your advisor has been up to and why he or she has not been replying to your emails immediately. (3) You can quickly identify if you need to have a longer meeting with your advisor, with other students in the group, etc.  This can be a huge timesaver.  (4) Group meetings mark the passage of time.  It is useful to hold yourself accountable and make sure that weeks and months don’t slip away without progress.  I have group meetings with my students three times a week; initially, I thought that this might be excessive, but it turns out to work pretty well.  Three short group meetings can often be a lot better than one extended group meeting.  I will expand on this more in a later post.

  • If you need more of your advisor’s time, ask for it.  Students are often confused or concerned that an advisor spends more time with some students than with others and may even (wrongly) think that the advisor is either less excited about a particular project or (worse) doesn’t like some students as much as others.  (I remember comparing notes with my fellow Ph.D. students in grad school about how much time our advisor was spending with each of us.)  Yet, it is important to remember that good advisors don’t play favorites.  The time that an advisor spends with a student (or on a project) is typically determined by the advisor’s perception of how much time is needed; the required time can vary dramatically according to both the stage of the project and the stage of the student’s development.  Students who are early in their careers typically need (and should be asking for) a lot of guidance and “closed loop” feedback.  Students who are close to graduating also tend to need more attention of a different sort—help with building their professional network, seeking out job prospects, practicing job talks, and generally landing on their feet.  Similarly, nascent research projects or projects with substantial coordination components (e.g., large systems-building efforts) often need a lot of advisor attention, since they have lots of moving parts and can involve coordination between multiple sub-projects and students. Do not be overly concerned about strict time accounting.  If you feel you need more time, simply ask for it—or, better yet, just try to take more time (walk into your advisor’s office, approach him or her on IM, send regular email updates…whatever it takes).  Advisors tend to spend more time with students who demand more of their time.
  • Keep your emails short and to the point.  Here is a simple rule of thumb: If the email is longer than one paragraph, it probably won’t get read right away, particularly if there is no summary at the beginning of it.  It almost certainly won’t get an immediate response.  Additionally, consider whether email is the fastest way to resolve something, or whether it’s quicker to have a 5-10 minute meeting, hangout, IM chat, phone call, or whatever.  Use the right communication mode for the job.

  • Do not assume that if your email doesn’t get a reply, it hasn’t been read.  I read everything in my inbox, almost always on the same day that it arrives.  Unfortunately, I also receive 300-500 emails per day in my inbox (not mailing lists), many of which are actionable.  Suppose that half of those emails required action, and that each one required one minute to process and respond to—that’s already six or seven hours a day just to process email.  That is insane and can kill anyone’s productivity.  I am convinced that it is possible for a professor to do nothing else in life except reply to email.  To control this insanity, I often process emails “in batch mode”—leaving email to (mostly) pile up for a few days and then responding to a bunch at once.  I tell my students that if they do not receive a reply right away, “retransmission” after a few days is fine. I do not consider this to be rude, nagging, or pestering behavior; most likely I have simply just forgotten (I have found that it’s surprisingly difficult to even keep a to do list for all of these things that students ask professors to do, as doing so becomes a monster mega-task in and of itself).  Before sending a retransmission (or initial email), however, consider whether you have chosen the best medium for your message. Sometimes an in-person meeting or IM follow up to a an email will get the response you want/need.

  • Make the meetings count.  Many meetings are wasted by not asking yourself simple “does this make sense?” questions before presenting a plot/result.  I ask my students to read Jon Bentley’s “Programming Pearls”, particularly the chapter on back of the envelope calculations.  Also, I advise my students to read Vern Paxson’s “Strategies for Sound Internet Measurement”. Your advisor has almost certainly seen a ton of plots/experiments/data and is pretty good at quickly determining whether a graph that you spent two days producing makes any sense at all.  You can have a more productive meeting if you do some simple debugging of plots before hand.  On this note, bringing specific, concrete things that your advisor can react to is helpful.  “I ran some experiments and things seem to look OK.” is a report I have heard many times from students.  Such a report is utterly useless.  Even if it were true (often things may not be OK), it is impossible to give feedback on or brainstorm based on vague statements.  You are likely to get a “sounds good!” in response, which is equally useless for you.  Bring something concrete to discuss.  You can present anything: A performance number, a paragraph of writing, a plot, … something to react to and figure out next steps.  Even a plot that appears buggy or inexplicable is sometimes a good topic for a meeting, too, presuming you’ve recognized the discrepancies and can’t figure out the problem.  Sometimes what appears to be a bug might in fact be an interesting artifact, or even the spark for a new paper or discovery.

  • Take notes and organize them. The students who make the best use of meetings tend to have: (1) an agenda beforehand; (2) minutes afterwards; (3) something focused and concrete to discuss/think about/talk about; (4) a consolidated place to keep minutes.  Your advisor can read these minutes to prepare for the upcoming meeting, think about problems offline, review/think about the problem outside of meetings, and guide progress.  Sometimes your advisor may take notes, sometimes not.  Don’t count on it.  Even if your advisor is taking notes, your notes will complement and fill in gaps.  Different people remember different things.  Taking notes is also an important opportunity to practice writing—and students need to practice writing at every opportunity (more on that in a later post).

  • Do not wait until the last minute to write your paper.  Most graduate students are working on one or at most two papers or projects at any given time.  It can thus be easy to overlook the fact  that your advisor is involved in many more things (albeit at a higher level) and, from a purely practical standpoint, might be submitting two or three papers to the same conference deadline. Thus, waiting until the last minute to write a paper draft (or complete a project) is an invitation for scattered, distracted, and superficial feedback (and severely diminished chances of a strong paper submission).   Can you write a good paper or think clearly while doing four things at once?  If not, consider your poor advisor, whose aging brain is no longer as agile as yours.  Write early, write often.  Writing is not a task that happens after the research is done; rather, it is part of the research and thinking process, not something that is done when the research is done.  Writing is part of the research.  I ask my students to have a complete paper draft at least one week before the deadline.  Nobody ever follows this advice, and I think that we can recognize that it is idealistic.  I’ve periodically threatened to ban paper submissions if there is no draft a week before; I don’t have the will to do that, although I know at least one of my collaborators who enforces this rule.  Still, the point remains: early attention == focused attention == good attention.

  • Do not ask for a recommendation letter with less than one week’s notice.  A letter takes at least an hour to write—longer if there is no earlier draft from another instance.  Short notice makes for letters that will probably not be as strong as they could be, because a good letter takes time to polish.  Consider writing the first draft yourself, or at least putting some points into bullet form or providing an up-to-date CV, for quick reference.  All of this stuff makes the letter stronger and easier to write.

This list is mostly based on tips and tricks that I have found work for me.  I refined this list of advice after a discussion with Professor Jennifer Rexford, who is also full of useful advice.  Jen’s advice for new graduate students is particularly useful; I am in strong agreement with her thoughts on the benefits of regularly coming to the lab and integrating with a research group.  I’m interested to hear what other tips and tricks people have for managing their advisor(s), or thoughts from other faculty members about tips they find that work well.  In the coming weeks and months, I will follow up with specific posts on advice for writing, preparing talks, and managing time.


Welcome!  We (Professors Nick Feamster and Alexander Gray) have created this site as a resource for advice on research and creativity methods and techniques for Ph.D. students.  Our intended audience is Ph.D. students in computer science programs, but many of the concepts that we present on this site may also apply to other disciplines.

The material we have provided will prepare you to perform great research in computer science, regardless of the area you ultimately choose to pursue for your Ph.D. The material should:

  • Teach you many skills that you will keep in your “research toolbox” for the rest of your career:
    • time management
    • productivity and (selective) procrastination
    • how to read a research paper
    • how to review a research paper
    • how to write a research paper (technical writing)
    • how to generate ideas, creativity, sources of problems
    • information management (research notebooks, etc.)
    • how to give a good talk
    • how to write a proposal
    • how to be a good TA
  • Find some inspiration regarding open problems and big ideas
  • Offer general tips for life in graduate school and beyond

The material that we have provided on this site is based on a class that was designed by Professors Nick Feamster and Alex Gray from Fall 2006 through Fall 2010 at Georgia Tech and is now being revamped in Fall 2013 by Professor Nick Feamster.

This project started in Fall 2006, when the two of us were asked to prepare a course for incoming Ph.D. students at Georgia Tech to help them become exposed to research methods early in their career.  After agreeing to take on the preparation of this new course, we quickly discovered that, while there is a wealth of knowledge about research techniques and methods, and many thoughts on skills for creative and critical thinking, this material had not been aggregated or distilled into a single document or course.  We spent the next five years developing a course at Georgia Tech, “CS 7001: Introduction to Graduate Studies”, refining the concepts, methods, and assignments each year.

We have learned a lot from these course offerings.  We have distilled many of our insights and lessons from teaching this course in a an ACM SIGCSE paper.  On this site, we will codify the modules from the course.  We have also made our course notes available on this site, for the benefit of both other Ph.D. students and for faculty at other universities who may choose to use this course as a model for similar courses at their institutions.

Various aspects of this course have been replicated at other universities.  We have made the material from the course available to others for the benefit of both computer science Ph.D. students and others who might wish to teach a similar course.

With Fall 2013 upon us, we are now planning to add material to the site on a weekly basis, as students take the course at Georgia Tech this fall.  By the end of fall term 2013, we will have amassed a full set of resources for graduate students as they embark on their graduate careers.

We are working on adding all of the content to this site.  Meanwhile, please also feel free to peruse some of the previous course offerings (e.g., 20082009).

We will welcome feedback on the material as we post it.


Nick FeamsterPrinceton University
Alexander GraySkyTree, Inc.