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Career advice for PhD students: How to get the most out of your time in the PhD program. Cristian Borcea. Preamble. Why am I doing this? Not many resources to learn how to be a successful PhD student  trying to help you Faculty create new knowledge and next generation of researchers

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career advice for phd students how to get the most out of your time in the phd program

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


  • Why am I doing this?
    • Not many resources to learn how to be a successful PhD student  trying to help you
    • Faculty create new knowledge and next generation of researchers
      • “A professor is as good as his best student”
  • Why now?
    • As every September, we got fresh PhD students
    • I might soon forget my PhD student experiences 
  • Talk applies to any CS PhD student despite influence from personal experiences and systems/networking background
  • Acknowledgment: I admit to “stealing” advices from many successful people (too many to be listed)
  • PhD student stages
    • Thinking about doing a PhD
    • Taking classes and getting involved in some research
    • Choosing research area, topic, and advisor
    • Doing research
    • Writing the thesis
    • Getting a job
  • Slightly different view of these stages
    • Student: “I know everything”; Advisor smiles
    • Student: “I don’t know anything”; Advisor: “Let’s talk”
    • Advisor: “Let’s do X”; Student: “You’re wrong because of Y and Z”
why are you getting a phd
Why are you getting a PhD?
  • Prerequisite to a research career
    • A PhD degree should ensure that the student can later take on independent, long-term research commitments
  • The work required to earn a PhD is not worth the effort if you don’t intend to do research
    • You can do better with an MS degree in such a case
  • How do you know if research is for you?
    • Have inquisitive mind and critical thinking
    • Like to understand how things work
    • Like to identify problems and come up with solutions
    • Did some research during undergraduate studies and liked it
    • More philosophical reasons: dream of changing the world, good way to have a legacy beyond your family
bad reasons for pursuing a phd
Bad reasons for pursuing a PhD
  • Afraid of going out in the real world
    • If you never had a job and not sure about going for a PhD, go and work one-two years
  • Ego
  • Impress your girlfriend/boyfriend/parents
  • Opportunity to work/emigrate in US
    • OK if your goal is to do research in (still) the best place for that in the world
    • Otherwise, working very hard for something that you don’t care much while living on a PhD stipend will soon make you unhappy
  • Money (i.e., amount of money you make is more important than what you do)
    • While starting salaries of CS PhD graduates are good, can reach higher salary if you worked since you got your BS/MS degree
      • Plus money earned during that time
what qualities do you need to be successful in the phd program
What qualities do you need to be successful in the PhD program?
  • Passion and Self-Motivation
    • Doing a PhD is a life changing decision
    • Be sure that this is the path you want to follow in life (yes, it’s normal to have doubts sometimes)
  • Perseverance and Self-Confidence
    • It could be heartbreaking to work hard for one-two years and get your paper rejected
    • Trust yourself (and your ideas) and don’t give up
  • Independence
    • It’s your PhD; you should know what you want to do, how you want to do it, etc.
  • Obviously, you need intelligence
    • Many times you don’t know how smart you are until somebody challenges you
cs department expectations
CS department expectations*
  • Take qualifying exams after first year and pass them all after second year
    • Proves that you are good enough to continue in the program
  • Find advisor and choose thesis topic after second year
  • Defend thesis proposal by the end of third year
    • Not very strict deadline (depends on progress and advisor)
  • Defend thesis by the end of fourth year
    • Can stay longer if necessary if advisor awards you RAship
  • Take a number of courses and maintain a decent GPA (e.g., 3.5) throughout these years

* refer to full time, department-supported students

advisor expectations
Advisor expectations
  • Every PhD student must have thesis/research advisor
  • Advisor decides when student is ready to graduate
    • Process very similar to apprenticeship
    • Thesis committee makes sure advisor’s decision is correct and gives feedback to improve work
  • Each advisor has own requirements, but they can be generalized as:
    • Have enough background in CS and depth in your research area
    • Work on one or multiple projects and publish the results in several good conference/journal papers
    • Be able to clearly present your ideas and results
    • Write a good thesis
  • Your papers and thesis must include your novel ideas
    • Of course, they include your advisor’s ideas as well
first year
First year
  • Get involved in research!
    • Ask professors with research interests matching yours
    • Combine reading with working on a small part of a project
    • “Steal” tricks of the trade from advisor and more senior students
  • Classes and the qualifying exam are required, but don’t spend more time than necessary on them
    • Nobody cares about the grades of someone with a PhD degree
  • Don’t get bogged down with teaching/grading
    • Need to do a decent job, but make sure you don’t work more than the required 20 hours/week (many times you can work a lot less)
taship vs raship
TAship vs. RAship
  • RAship is better
    • Can spend time on you research instead of teaching
    • Being awarded an RAship means you’re doing well
    • Since RAship comes from a grant, the advisor will ask you to work on the project defined by that grant
    • Advisor can ask you to work on demos or robust implementations as required by grant (which are not necessarily research)
  • TAship has some advantages as well
    • Independent to work with several professors before deciding about advisor
    • Teaching experience required if you think of academic career
    • Teaching helps you improve communication skills
    • Every PhD student should teach at least one semester
choosing research area
Choosing research area
  • Don’t celebrate too much passing the qualifying exams
    • You are expected to pass 
  • Choose area based on your research interests
    • Must like it; otherwise, the next few years will be painful
    • Don’t choose it just because you can get an RAship
  • Need to think strategically as well
    • Is this a hot area?
    • Will you get a good job in this area after graduation?
    • Hard to predict if certain areas that are hot now will still be hot in 4 years
choosing advisor
Choosing advisor
  • Should be compatible with advisor/get well together
  • Tenured advisors
    • Have more experience, could have more money, could have more connections
    • Don’t push you hard, don’t have time to work closely with you
  • Tenure-track advisors
    • Will push you hard (their future career depends on your results), but will work with you (i.e., co-authors of thesis)
    • Might have more up-to-date information about job searching
choosing thesis topic
Choosing thesis topic
  • It’s your topic, but the advisor must approve it
  • It’s rare to know the topic from the moment you start working with advisor
    • If work supported by a grant, the general topic is somewhat clearer
  • More common to work on several related topics in your chosen area
    • First ideas might not work, new ideas could come up
    • Some will be more successful than others publication-wise
    • Many times, thesis will define a common framework for topics covered by publications
take ownership of your phd
Take ownership of your PhD
  • No one is responsible for getting your degree but you
    • Faculty set up opportunity, but it’s up to you to leverage it
doing research 1
Doing research (1)
  • Be proactive!
    • Don’t wait for advisor to push you
  • Reading papers
    • Develop critical thinking: identify both strong and weak points
    • Advisor will point you to important papers as well as conferences and journals in your area
    • You responsibility to find more papers starting from these pointers
    • Must read a few papers every week
    • Read outside your area as well
    • Follow technology news to know where the world is going
    • Let advisor/colleagues know about interesting things you read
    • Robin Kravets’s advices for reading/presenting papers
doing research 2
Doing research (2)
  • Identifying important and hard problems
    • Learn to differentiate between cool problems and junk
      • Advisor will offer a lot of guidance
    • By graduation time, acquire good taste for selecting problems
  • Problem solving/design
    • Always ask yourself: “what’s the novelty of my solution?”
      • Also: how is it different from/similar to alternative solutions?
    • Advisor suggests a potential solution
      • Never go back and say “doesn’t work!”
      • Instead, say “X didn’t work, but how about Y or Z?”
    • Don’t get upset/discouraged if advisor points out drawbacks in your solutions – it’s technical, not personal
doing research 3
Doing research (3)
  • Implementation
    • Except for purely theoretical CS, will have to implement your ideas
    • Every successful project goes through this unglamorous, hard phase
      • Design is more fun than implementing it
    • No magic here: work hard!
    • Don’t suffer in silence if you don’t know how to implement something or have troubles with a bug – ask colleagues or advisor for help
  • Evaluation
    • Prove that your solution works as claimed
    • Should know from the design time experiments and metrics
    • Form a hypothesis: what type of results you expect
    • Experiments contradict hypothesis: think of potential reasons and discuss them with advisor
  • Work in the lab a significant amount of time
    • Learn from interactions with colleagues/advisor
mutual trust between student and advisor
Mutual trust between student and advisor
  • Trust advisor and earn his/her trust (e.g., through good work, reliability)
    • Advisors, being human, are not perfect, but try their best to help
  • Almost everyone goes through periods when doubts advisor (the converse holds as well)
    • Papers getting rejected
    • Different opinions on how to proceed with a project
    • Seemingly advisor cares only about his career
  • During these periods, remember the advisor/student symbiosis
    • Advisors work hard to get grants to support your work
    • You work hard to produce results that will enable new grants
    • Typically, what is good for advisor is good for student, and what is good for student is good for advisor
communicating your results
Communicating your results
  • Clear communication separates top students from average
    • An unknown brilliant result is useless
  • Write and publish papers in conferences/journals
    • “If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen”
    • “Publish or perish”
    • Reviewed by peers
    • Hard to get accepted (good publication venues have 10-15% acceptance ratio)
    • Can start small with conference posters or workshop papers
  • Talks
    • Presentations of accepted conference papers (or invited talks)
    • Good chance to convince people that you did great research
  • Successful researchers spend 50% of time writing papers and preparing talks
writing papers
Writing papers
  • A lot harder than you think!
    • Good results are not published due to sloppy writing
  • Ask advisor for models of good papers
  • Get feedback from advisor early and often; then re-write
  • Read Shrunk and White book on writing
  • One idea per paragraph
    • Do paragraphs follow one another in a logical structure?
  • Typical structure: abstract, introduction, related work, design, implementation, evaluation, conclusions
  • Have clear abstract/introduction
    • If vague or poorly written, reviewers will just look for reasons to reject afterwards
  • Don’t claim more than you did
    • Distinguish between “will do” and “have been done”
conference talks
Conference talks
  • Goal is to make audience read your paper and talk with you
    • Emphasize the main idea, skip some details
    • Shouldn’t follow too closely the structure of the paper
    • Pay special attention to motivation
  • The more illustrations, the better
    • “A picture is worth 1000 words”
    • Don’t take this talk as model 
  • The more you practice, the fewer surprises during the actual talk
    • Time management is your responsibility; be prepared to skip slides
  • Show excitement
    • If you are not excited, then why would anyone else be?
  • Be clear, firm, and polite when answering questions
    • Show belief in your work
attending conferences
Attending conferences
  • Typically, you go when have an accepted paper
    • Could ask advisor to pay or get travel grants to go to top conferences even if you don’t have paper there
  • Check technical program ahead of time and identify papers/people of interest
  • Goal is to do networking, not just hear technical talks
    • Take advantage of coffee breaks/lunches/receptions to talk with people
    • Be prepared to initiate conversations and introduce your work (prepare an elevator pitch)
    • Get contact information from people you want to stay in touch
    • Learn how top researchers present their work and answer questions
  • People you meet there can hire you, review your papers, or become future collaborators
summer internships
Summer internships
  • You should go once or twice
    • Get real-world experience, make connections
    • Must do it if plan to work in research labs/industry
    • Go in research oriented places
      • Doing an internship just for money is not worth the time
  • Decide together with advisor when and where to go
    • Advisor can help you go to good places (e.g., IBM Research, Microsoft Research)
    • Better go once you have at least one publication; can select internship that allows you to work on related topics
  • Be aware that they can delay graduation as summers can be very productive research-wise
    • “Can’t have the cake and eat it too”
how much should you work
How much should you work?
  • Work only the number of hours you are paid!
    • Don’t let the master class exploit the workers!
  • Students in high-ranked schools work between 60 and 80 hours per week
    • Faculty spend a similar amount of time
    • Don’t get fooled that you do better than some colleagues while spending a lot less time
    • You will compete for jobs with students form other schools as well
  • Citing my advisor: “school breaks are for undergrad students”
    • Good time to work in case you have teaching duties
    • The advisor has more free time to help you
don t have time to finish all your tasks
Don’t have time to finish all your tasks?
  • Must acquire time management skills
  • Write down your tasks (both work-related and personal), set deadlines, and categorize them function of importance
  • Randy Pausch’s graph for task time management:

Continue with

these tasks


Obviously, finish

these tasks first


more on time management
More on time management
  • Don’t have time for personal life?
      • Some personal tasks must have high importance
      • Family/friends help you avoid “going nuts” 
      • According to previous slide, you might end up not doing “urgent, but not important tasks”; it’s ok, the world goes on
  • Know yourself and manage advisor’s expectations
    • Learn to estimate accurately the time it takes to do certain tasks
    • Learn to say “no” if it’s not possible to do a task before a deadline
    • Try hard to respect deadlines once you agreed to them
    • Inform your advisor as soon as you are getting behind the schedule
when to graduate
When to graduate?
  • Graduating as fast as possible might not be the best idea
    • This is not the Olympics where the best finishes first
    • Should become a well-rounded researcher, not just someone very narrow expertise
    • Working on larger/higher impact project might take longer, but help you become a better researcher and get a better job
    • Taking classes outside your area and attending seminars/talks can improve your overall background
    • Doing paper reviews or helping advisor with grant proposals can take time, but are invaluable learning experiences
    • Job market conditions may delay graduation
  • Taking longer than 6 years not good either
    • Potential employers don’t like it
    • Even advisor might lose interest in you
thesis 1
Thesis (1)
  • Thesis: one sentence to describe your contribution to the progress of humankind
  • Dissertation: the 100s pages that prove the thesis
  • Dissertation is very much a collection of your publications
    • Of course, need to link them well under one clear thesis
    • Also, need extensive related work and potentially more experiments
  • Thesis proposal
    • ~= thesis without a chapter or two
    • Not as important as you may think because early validation of your research comes from good publications
    • Form thesis committee and get feedback from committee members
      • Both student and advisor must agree on committee members
    • Contract between you and committee: agree on content to be added in the final thesis
thesis 2
Thesis (2)
  • Finish writing during your final year
    • In parallel with job searching
    • Models: theses that received ACM awards
  • Thesis defense is reason to celebrate
    • Advisor/committee won’t allow you to defend if not ready
  • Not a good idea to defend if you don’t have a job (especially for foreign students who plan to stay in US)
    • Unless you don’t receive support any longer
  • You could get job before thesis defense
    • Risk: you might never get the drive to finish
  • “Useful things to know about PhD thesis research” by H.T. Kung
job searching
Job searching
  • Once advisor confirms you will be ready to graduate that year, prepare:
    • CV (long, not the typical 2-page resume)
    • Research statement (at least 2 pages) outlining your research contributions and future plans
    • Teaching statement (if applying to academia) outlining your teaching experience, teaching philosophy, etc
    • List of references
    • Have them ready by early December
  • Most academia and research jobs are posted by January
    • Must submit the above-mentioned documents by their deadlines
  • Have your job talk ready by January
  • Learn about research interviews by January
  • Wait for call/email and hope 
job in academia
Job in academia
  • Research universities have similar starting salary with research labs (but doesn’t increase at the same rate)
    • Teaching university have significantly lower salary (and no research)
  • Flexibility to choose research topics
    • Can work on fundamental research and explore higher risk ideas
    • Need to get them funded through grants
  • Can publish and go to conferences more often than in research labs
  • Can make your own schedule
    • In the beginning, you work more than in industry
  • Can influence people directly through education
  • Safer job (after tenure)
job in research lab
Job in research lab
  • Over a number of years, salary will be slightly higher than academia (could go for management positions as well)
  • Can have impact on real world through products incorporating your ideas
  • Research topics need to be in line with company’s goals and approved by managers
    • Short-term profit-oriented research may preclude you from working on fundamental or high risk topics
    • Working in an R&D department is even more about practical research that can quickly turn into profit
    • Still need to worry about funding (convince your managers to invest in your ideas)
  • Can’t publish everything
    • Patents first, publication later (if at all)
  • Job safety depends on company health & market
what do interviewers look for in your cv
What do interviewers look for in your CV?
  • Thesis title, research interests, and name of advisor
    • The advisor’s reputation matters a lot
  • Research contributions
    • Projects you worked on and their main results
    • Software distributions
  • List of papers & talks (& patents if any)
  • Teaching experience (for academia)
  • List of references
    • Reference letters are very important
  • CS community service (e.g., conference/journal reviewer)
  • NO!
    • GPA
    • Programming languages, tools, etc (you have a PhD in CS! You’re supposed to either know or be able to learn everything)
job talk
Job talk
  • Single most important part of your interview
  • Two main purposes
    • Sell yourself
    • Sell your research
  • Write down 3-4 ideas you’re going to say per slide
    • Practice and remember those ideas
  • Do dry runs with advisor, colleagues, friends
  • Videotape yourself and try to improve … after the shock of watching the recording has passed 
  • Practice questions and answers
  • More information on job talks and interviews from Jeanette Wing
one to one interviews
One-to-one interviews
  • Typically, 30 minutes about your research and everything else
  • They look for
    • Creativity
    • Brainpower
    • Independence
    • Technical skills
    • Leadership
    • Energy
    • Fitting in
  • Be prepared, articulated, honest, genuinely curious
    • Ask questions about the person’s research
    • Ask questions about the place to see if it’s right for you
    • OK to engage in less technical discussions (e.g., benefits, housing)
selecting a job
Selecting a job
  • Congratulations, you got several job offers! 
  • Many factors to consider besides money
    • Reputation of the place
    • Can you grow there? Possibilities for promotion?
    • Will you get along well with your colleagues/bosses?
    • Geography
    • Two-body problem
    • Cost of living
    • Quality of schools
    • Are you a city person or more of the outdoor-type?
more readings instead of conclusion
More readings instead of conclusion
  • “How to Be a Good Graduate Student” by Marie desJardins
  • “So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!” by Ronald T. Azuma
  • “You and your research” by Richard Hamming
  • “Technology and courage” by Ivan Sutherland
  • “How to have a bad career in academia” by David Patterson
  • “Paper writing and presentation” by Armando Fox