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Top 10 Things I did Right/Wrong in Graduate School. Greg Morrisett. Goal, Caveats & Background. You should think and plan now how to get the most out of grad school. Where do you want to be when you finish? Take specifics with a large grain of salt Personal history:

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goal caveats background
Goal, Caveats & Background

You should think and plan now how to get the most out of grad school.

  • Where do you want to be when you finish?
  • Take specifics with a large grain of salt
  • Personal history:
    • Small, liberal arts undergrad school [’89]
    • Carnegie Mellon for grad work (PL) [’95]
    • Cornell faculty [‘96-’03]
    • Harvard faculty [‘04-now]
things i did wrong 10
Things I did wrong: #10

Spent the first year isolated from my fellow students.

  • Lived alone
  • Worked alone
  • Went out of town a lot
  • They had fun, I was miserable.

Make the effort to get to know them.

wrong 9
Wrong #9

Assumed I wasn’t good enough.

  • U. of Richmond is no CS powerhouse
  • Fellow students from IIT, Princeton, Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, etc. Yikes!
  • Felt like a fraud.
    • (Still feel like a fraud.)
    • (So does everyone else.)
  • By the end of quals, field was more level.

Everyone admitted can do well!

wrong 8
Wrong #8

Was scared to ask advisor for stuff like books, travel money, equipment, etc.

  • You’re expensive (~$50K)
    • If I can prevent RSI, I’ll spend a lot of money.
  • Equipment is not.
  • Money is renewable, time is not.
  • You need the proper equipment to get the job done.

It never hurts to ask.

wrong 7
Wrong #7

Lots of classes, little homework.

  • (CMU had no course requirements)
  • Better to do few classes well.
  • You’ve got to get your hands dirty to really learn something. (Re-prove that theorem, hack that algorithm, measure that performance, etc.)

Learning by osmosis doesn’t work.

wrong 6
Wrong #6

Was hyper-critical of visitors and talks.

  • It’s easy & fun to be critical.
    • Until you’re the one under the glass.
  • It’s easy to be cynical.
    • Cynics aren’t good researchers. Try to keep an open and receptive mind.
  • Before forming an opinion, ask how you would (realistically) have done and presented the research.
wrong 5
Wrong #5

Never took courses outside of CS

  • I’ll be doing CS for the rest of my life
  • I can learn CS topics on my own
  • I need help with stuff I don’t do well
  • I either won’t or can’t make the time now
  • I wish I had taken:
    • Writing, French, Chinese [communication]
    • Chem, Bio, Psychology, Finance [applications]
    • Even if it had taken another year…

The 12(10) requirement is a lower bound!

wrong 4
Wrong #4

Never took a teaching seminar

  • It’s half my job for God’s sake!
  • But there’s no requirement you actually learn how to teach (much less teach well.)
  • There are real skills to be learned here
    • Time management (stack of 15-min appts.)
    • Assignments, homeworks, exams, etc.
    • Psychology

First year I at Cornell, I spent 90% of my time on teaching.

wrong 3
Wrong #3

Never figured out how funding works.

  • It’s half my job for God’s sake!
  • You shouldn’t care how funding works now. Before you graduate, you might want to learn more about how it works.
  • Writing a proposal is very different from writing a research paper.

Ask your advisor if you can read or even participate in proposals.

wrong 2
Wrong #2

Didn’t keep a research journal.

  • I saw lots of cool talks.
  • I went to lots of cool conferences.
  • I read lots of cool papers, pages, etc.
  • I hacked on lots of cool things.
  • I had great ideas.
  • I don’t remember many of them.

Consider keeping a journal.

wrong 1
Wrong #1

Didn’t buy Microsoft stock when I entered graduate school. :-)

things i did right 10
Things I Did Right: #10

Worked closely with other graduate students.

  • Learned more from them than profs.
    • (they have more time – only 1 job)
  • Proof-read their work & vice versa
    • (good for them, good for you)
  • Only way to do big things (e.g., compiler)
right 9
Right #9

Summer Internships.

  • I went to Bell Labs & DEC CRL
  • $$$
  • Contacts
  • Breadth
  • Research ideas
  • See how a lab works

Do this in your first couple of years, if possible.

right 8
Right #8

Went to conferences & workshops.

  • Most of the real action occurs here.
  • You meet everyone here, and they meet you – it’s a smaller community than you think.
  • You keep up with the area.
  • You get a copy of the proceedings.
  • It’s easier to read a paper after a talk.
  • Organizations have $ for students to travel
  • Ask your advisor for $ -- never hurts.
right 7
Right #7

Got to know lots of faculty.

  • Worked with different people in different areas (PL, compilers, OS, etc.)
  • Invited these people to practice talks.
  • Hiring is an old boys network – people ask me “Who’s good that’s coming out of Harvard”? If I don’t know you, I can’t recommend you.
  • Now they’re my colleagues – an invaluable resource.
right 6
Right #6


  • Moderated
    • Annoying, but the name recognition helped
  • Worked on open source projects
    • Great experience, satisfying
  • Reviewed papers
    • Learned a lot about writing, had people to call upon
  • Cleaned the lounge
    • We had a volunteer requirement at CMU
  • You have to do something to get noticed – why not do something worthwhile?
right 5
Right #5

Lots of practice talks, lots of red ink.

  • Had a great advisor: read everything
    • Marked it up – made me really, really mad
    • Eventually developed a thick skin
    • Learned how to write better
  • Talks at CMU were brutal
    • Every last point was debated
    • You quickly learned how to defend yourself and control the environment
    • Stage presence: Seeing yourself on video helps a lot
    • Learn to anticipate and think like your audience
right 4
Right #4

Bought & read “Bugs in Writing”

(Lynn Dupre)

  • Tailored to CS technical writing
  • I learned so much – writing became faster, less red ink, etc.
  • “Elements of Style” also great
  • Technical writing class might help too.

CS people are rarely good at communicating. But it’s just as important as any technical skills you’re going to pick up here.

right 3
Right #3

Hacked on lots of stuff.

  • What will you do for your thesis?
  • Do you really think it’ll come to you from just reading about ideas or sitting in classes?
  • My thesis came after about 7-8 serious projects (multi-processor, hardware stuff, GC, semantics, etc.)
right 2
Right #2

Didn’t leave before I finished.

  • I’ve known dozens of folks who accepted a job, expecting to finish the last few chapters of their thesis on the job.
  • Bad idea – I’ve only known 1 or 2 people that actually did this.
  • It’s much easier to finish up beforehand. This gives you time to settle in to a new environment.
  • And ideally, take a break.
right 1
Right #1

I had fun!

  • Threw and went to many parties
  • Weekly dinner co-op (no geek talk)
  • Skiing, amusement park trips
  • Softball
  • TGIF’s (= AI seminar at Cornell)
  • Got out of town when I felt down
this seminar
This Seminar
  • Time Management
  • Choosing a Career Path
  • Job Search
  • Presentations
  • Working in the Lab
  • Writing & Reviewing Papers
  • Grants and Writing Proposals
  • Science Discussion
  • Mentoring & Management
  • [your topic here…]