Last weekend, I attended a senior clarinet recital given by a student at the Department of Music. As a former professional clarinetist, I continue to have a deep and unabated interest in this instrument and in classical music in general, even though I switched careers into computing more than 20 years ago. Having spent my youth practicing clarinet obsessively, I am always intrigued to see how young clarinetists today fare against what I and my colleagues used to be at the same age. I won’t disclose my opinion on this topic, as this is not the point of this blog post at all.
Listening to this recital as a CS professor, I was struck by how authentic this academic exercise was. The recital was not just realistic but real with all the required attributes: a concert hall, an accompanist, a diverse audience, a concert dress, program notes, etc. This recital did not differ in any noticeable way from the recitals of famed instrumentalists I’ve attended in places such as the Weill Recital Hall in NYC.
The student giving the recital had to deal with all the stress and unpredictability of playing a solo recital in front of a live audience. Some of this required dealing with purely technical issues, such as not forgetting to tune the instrument after a couple of pieces. (Wind instruments tend to get sharp after they are played for a while, so on a clarinet a barrel has to be pulled out to stay in tune with the piano.) Other factors were less predictable. For example, some members of the audience suddenly started clapping after each part of a three part concerto rather than waiting until the piece’s end, even though this goes against the concert etiquette. These kinds of unexpected interruptions cannot derail the performance. The recitalist had to handle all these issues completely independently without any help from anyone. The student’s clarinet instructor was in the audience, but only as a passive listener. Overall, I find senior recitals an excellent avenue for music students to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen field of study.
This experience got me thinking that in the CS curriculum we never quite expose our students to a situation when they have to perform independently to show the level of mastery of their discipline they have achieved in their studies. This is true that our students get summer internships when they apply their CS knowledge and skills in real world environments, but for that they have to leave campus. Besides, internships are not required to get a degree in CS. Even in our capstone classes, in which it is recommended that students accomplish a project for an external client, professors are always present ready to step in to help students deal with any issues that may arise.
I am curious how we can create an experience for CS majors similar to the senior recital. For example, this would require a capstone project in which faculty take a seriously hands off approach, so that student teams take full responsibility for the project, and an external client’s level of satisfaction serves as the only criteria for success. The most ironic part is that nowadays the probability of a music major becoming a solo concert musician (musicians who give solo recitals as their primary occupation) is minuscule. There is probably only half a dozen of solo clarinetists in the world. While the majority of CS majors go into productive careers in IT. Perhaps we do just fine without any senior recitals.
My recent post has generated quite a lot of traffic to my blog and a good number of comments, expressed both publicly and privately. In that post, I expressed my take that if the purpose of Ph.D. training is to prepare individuals for unforgiving careers in research, the strategy of breaking down Ph.D. trainees and building them back up stronger, more determined and thick skinned seems like a reasonable one. The purpose of this follow-up blog is to reply to some of the common themes I have seen in the comments.
- Research is fun, so your argument is baseless. At first, I was wondering if I should even merit such a facetious comment with an answer. However, since this issue keeps coming up, I may as well address it. I agree with Einstein, who said that “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” I do not find the word “fun” appropriate for describing the essence of a professional research career. However, I agree with Philip Guo in that research is fulfilling, despite all the frustrations of dealing with the research enterprise.
- Isn’t the research enterprise itself due for a major revamping? As an admirer of the Hegelian philosophy, I subscribe to its central notion that only a crisis can precipitate a major change. What would a crisis in academic research in Computer Science look like? It would take nothing short of CS faculty leaving academia in droves for jobs in industry. It is just not happening. The few occasions when it does happen (see references 1 and 2) receive that much attention only because they are so exceptional.
- I am in denial about the need to improve the specific problems with the current Ph.D. production system (e.g., low pay, lack of structure, advisor advisee relationship, poor graduation rates). All of these issues are real, but they won’t change unless precipitated by a crisis. U.S. grad schools keep receiving hundreds and hundreds of Ph.D. applications, most of them from oversees. Faculty searches for the Assistant Professor positions receive hundreds of applications from newly minted Ph.D.s, a good portion of whom are well-qualified for the advertised positions. Let’s look at the specific problems mentioned, one at a time.
- Wouldn’t it be nice to pay graduate students better? Of course, but the issues of compensations are determined by the market (i.e., supply and demand). Until there are enough applicants willing to compete for the meager Ph.D. stipends, the compensation will not increase. There are some positives here as well. From my personal experience, six and half years of making a typical Ph.D. student wage, which amounted to about the minimum wage when divided by the number of hours put in, has instilled in me the virtue of frugality probably for the rest of my life.
- Shouldn’t Ph.D. training be more structured? I am afraid it is impossible when you need to produce a substantial body of new knowledge for a dissertation by engaging in research. There are no well-structured milestones students can set for themselves and meet with any degree of predictability.
- Don’t Ph.D. advisors have too much power over their advisees? You can always switch advisors if things don’t work out. Choose carefully, but remember that your relationship is not that of indentured servitude.
- Isn’t it a shame that every other person never finishes their Ph.D. studies? It is probably not a good use of scarce research funding, but when one engages in a long process with hard-to-foresee outcomes, this dropout rate is almost inevitable.
- The Ph.D. training process should encourage more communal support, primarily from fellow students. No argument here. However, it does not contradict anything I have said about not changing the way Ph.D. training is conducted. Even if the process remains long and rigorous, Ph.D. students should get as much support as they can from whatever resources available to them. In that light, universities should encourage informal groups whose aim is to support Ph.D. students in their difficult journeys.
- Well, is there anything you would change in the way Ph.D. training is currently conducted?! In fact, I have done something to that end in my own department. In the last couple of years, I have taught a course that introduces graduate students to research in CS. Because knowledge is power, I strongly believe in informing Ph.D. students about what will be expected from them early on. In one of the first assignments in my class, I ask students to learn about their advisors’ expectations for them. In other words, students get a clear statement from their advisors as to what they will be expected to accomplish (e.g., external publications, research artifacts built and evaluated, etc.) to be granted their degree. Thus far, I received very positive feedback both from my students and their advisors regarding this and other aspects of my course.