Archive for August, 2011

Why I insist that graduate students call me by my first name

August 30, 2011 Leave a comment

I insist that graduate students call me by my first name in an effort to facilitate communication. If I am wrong, I would rather hear this from a graduate student than from a reviewer who rejects my paper or proposal. In fact, I find learning that some of my ideas or assumptions are wrong quite stimulating intellectually; it impels learning and growth. When I learn that I am wrong from a graduate student, I can learn and grow without incurring the costs of rejected papers and proposals.

As a professor, I consider graduate students to be my colleagues in the research endeavor. My only advantage over graduate students is that I have more experience doing research. On the other hand, their technical skills may be more current than mine. The point is that we are in it together in search for the truth. Effective communication is the catalyst for good research progress. Thus, I want to remove any artificial boundaries on the way of effective communication between graduate students and me.

Some graduate students feel extremely uncomfortable calling professors by their first names. They tell me that this practice goes against the customary notion of respect afforded to teachers and figures of authority in their cultures. I am all for respect, but I consider calling someone “Doctor X” or “Professor X” a very superficial way of bestowing respect on a professor.  In my book, working hard to derive strong research results shows respect much more effectively.

Finally, what about undergraduate students? Well, that’s where I draw the line for a very simple reason. I want to avoid a situation when the inmates run the asylum. When interacting with undergraduates, our roles are clear: I am the teacher, and they are the students. I maintain this strict delineation for their own good. I am not interested in hearing from students, for example, that a programming assignment is too hard, and as such may be inappropriate for a class of that level. What happens when undergraduate students get involved in research? This can be a difficult change of roles, particularly if a student took my classes in the past. For cases like that, I have found the middle ground by having students call me “Dr. T.” If, however, these students enter our graduate program, I’d insist that they call me by my first name.



Smart Career Move

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

The Research Grants Administrator in our department has recently resigned her job. She’s drastically changing her career path. Instead of working with faculty on research grant applications, she is going back to school with the ultimate goal of becoming a nurse practitioner. I will certainly miss her as she has carried out her job responsibilities with high competency and professionalism. I am also certain that she’ll do well in any career path she chooses.

Also, in this political and economic climes, moving from research to healthcare makes perfect economic sense for any ambitious young person who wants to make a successful and lucrative career. Let’s look at some numbers. According to a report from the US Department of Health & Human Services, “By 2020, national health spending is expected to reach $4.6 trillion and comprise 19.8 percent of GDP.” No matter what you think of the recent healthcare reform, its outcome is that the total healthcare expenditure is expected to increase, possibly surpassing 20% of the GDP in the next decade. In contrast, the US spends less than 3% on scientific research and development. Universities are mainly concerned with general science and basic research, which constitutes less than 1% of GDP. In particular, in 2008, the overall spending on basic research reached only 0.3% of GDP. As recently as in 2009, the Obama administration pledged to increase R&D expenditure to 3% of the revenue, but due to the current bipartisan consensus that federal spending be cut, we’d be lucky if the current R&D expenditure is not cut precipitously .

Now, if you were choosing a career path, would you pick an industry that constitutes almost 1/5 the of the GDP and growing or an industry that does not reach even 3% of the GDP and is expected to decline?

Learning from Grad School Mistakes

August 25, 2011 1 comment

When Your Record Never Speaks for Itself

August 24, 2011 1 comment

In academia, a researcher’s record almost never speaks for itself. Recommendation letters must accompany all academic applications.  To obtain an academic position, an applicant must have enthusiastic recommendation letters, whether applying for admission to graduate school or interviewing to become a university president. It is no secret that recommendation letter writers are busy people and may ask an applicant for a rough draft. Thus, writing effective recommendation letters is an important skill for every academic researcher. As a professor, I write dozens of recommendation letters every year.

This semester, I am teaching a graduate class on Research Methods in CS, and I have structured the first assignment around recommendation letters. I asked students to write their own recommendation letter for their dream job after graduation. This assignment will not only introduce students to one of the cornerstones of academia, but will also help them determine their goals, so that they can better plan their graduate school careers. I specified the assignment as follows:

In this assignment, you’ll write your own recommendation letter for a dream job you hope to get after graduation. Address the letter as coming from your advisor who would write it a couple of months before you graduate. If you have not chosen an advisor yet, use a faculty member who could potentially become your advisor. Your audience should be the hiring committee of your dream university, research lab, company, etc.

Your letter should help persuade your potential employer to interview you for the job. To write a persuasive letter, make sure to list all the accomplishments you hope to achieve by the time you graduate. Be creative–do not be afraid to use your imagination.

The letter can be of any length. However, if it is too short, you may not have a chance to convince the reader why you should be hired. If it is too long, the reader is likely to get bored and not finish reading your letter. Thus, you have to strike the right balance between descriptiveness and conciseness.

You will be evaluated on two main criteria: (1) persuasiveness (i.e., how likely is this letter to convince the reader to interview you?), (2) quality of writing (i.e., how suitable is your text for this manuscript?).

Proving That Time is Not Money

August 20, 2011 Leave a comment

I have long realized that Benjamin Franklin must have been wrong when he stated that time is money. After all, money is a replaceable resource while time is not. However, I could not find convincing life examples that would demonstrate this point.

And then I realized that I have known personally or read about plenty of people who have lost financial fortunes but were able not only to restore but often to increase them. However, I have never met or known of a single successful person who has wasted massive amounts of time.

Recently, I have learned a fascinating story about a very successful individual whose prior business adventure collapsed after his business partner stole 1 Million US Dollars from their joint investment. Nevertheless, that individual was not bitter about his former business partner. Instead, he thought of his ex-partner as having taught him an important life lesson about how to be a better judge of character and place his trust in people more wisely. In other words, losing a large amount of money turned out to be an invaluable learning experience for him that enabled him to make much more money in his next business venture.

At the same time, I see how wasting time brings about bitterness. My definition of wasted time is paying a large opportunity cost, and in return not only failing to gain any tangible assets, but also failing to learn anything in the process. For example, spending a large amount of time and effort on writing a funding proposal incurs a significant opportunity cost. This time could have been better spent working on research or on developing teaching materials. If the proposal is not funded, it is frustrating; however, the time and efforts expended on it are not wasted if the reviews help you improve your proposal writing skills, thus learning valuable lessons. Therefore, to minimize waste in research proposal writing, one should not write an unsolicited proposal to an agency that does not provide reviews to the proposers.

Time and money are different ontological entities. It is important to allocate one’s pursuits wisely. Because time cannot be replaced, each of our pursuits must at least serve as a valuable learning experience.

Categories: Uncategorized

End of Summer Academic Blues

August 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Although the summer is supposed to be the period when the faculty can focus on research without the distractions of teaching, I invariably find it more difficult to find new research ideas during the summer than during the main school year. One explanation for that would be that teaching must provide some inspiration for research. However, I remember how even back as a graduate student when I did not teach, I’d always get depressed as the summer progressed. Then, the beginning of the Fall semester would invariably provide the much needed spur of inspiration.

Perhaps there is something depressing about college campuses being devoid of students. The absence of students seems to sap creative energy. As a result, I find summers a good time for doing brunt work that does not require much creativity. Writing reports, reviewing papers, updating a CV, etc.

Now that the students are coming back, I actually find walking through our beautiful campus energizing and inspiring. Whenever I see freshman students, I realize that most of them are about to experience what they will later remember as the four best years of their lives. And realizing that as a professor I will play an important role in that experience snaps me into creative action. Well, for now I have resumed blogging after a long hiatus.