Advice for grad students

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In this post, I would like to offer some (unsolicited) advice to graduate students and perhaps to recent graduates about how to further their careers. Some of this is based on personal experience as a student and as someone who has been involved in the hiring process, some of it is advice I’ve received from others, and some of it is conjecture. The advice is both tactical and strategic: I would like to cover things that people should do on a regular basis, and more long-term planning as well. While this advice is aimed at people in HCI and related disciplines, most of it should be broadly applicable.

First, some generalizations: as graduate students, your job is to learn something, to advance the field, and then to prepare for the rest of your career. This last point requires you to interact with others, to build social networks, and to promote yourself. These steps form a useful foundation on which to build your CV and to increase your chances of getting the job you want, whether in academia or industry.

Here, then, is the digest version of my advice: go to conferences, bring business cards, talk to people, write a blog, give talks, arrange to visit other institutions, do summer internships. The details follow:

Networking

One or more people whom you meet during your graduate career will be in a position to hire you. You may not know in advance who they are, but you can make some educated guesses. Your job is to make sure that they know who you are and what you do. There are many ways to achieve this, but interacting with people at conferences is by far the easiest.

Go to conferences, even if you have to spend some of your own money. Most conferences offer discounted student rates and student volunteer opportunities. Sharing hotel rooms can save on costs, as can buying rooms through Priceline. As a student volunteer, try to arrange being assigned to workshops or tutorials that will be attended by people you’re interested in. These more intimate settings give you more opportunities to listen and to participate even while working. They also give you more time to do what you’d like during the conference proper.

Always bring business cards with you to conferences, and don’t leave them in your hotel room. Give them out liberally.

Figure out who your “targets” are and try to find opportunities to seek them out. Sometimes this means hanging out after a talk and asking questions of presenters; sometimes you can approach people in the hall during a break with a question about their work. If you want to get to know a professor at a different university (with whom, perhaps, you’re considering applying for a PhD or a post-doc), you can try to get an introduction through one of his students. If you’re uncomfortable talking to someone you don’t know, try to identify a small group through which you can talk to the person. And, of course, ask your adviser for introductions and for recommendations of whom you should get to know.

If you can, ask questions following paper presentations. Always introduce yourself first by stating your name and affiliation, and don’t forget to enunciate clearly. The point is for the speaker and for the audience to hear your name and to remember it. After stating your name, complement the speaker on the presentation, and then ask your question. Try to be brief and to the point, and make sure there is a question in what you say. Sometimes it helps to jot down a key idea or phrasing to help you remember what to say once you get your turn at the microphone. If the speaker doesn’t understand the question after one or two tries, thank him and say you’ll talk after the end of the session.

Before you attend a conference, search Twitter for some plausible hashtags related to the conference (e.g., #sxsw#chi2010, etc.). Use them to find other people who may share interests with you, and use Twitter to report on your reactions to things you learn at the conference. And don’t forget the business cards.

Publishing

Write a blog. Publishing is a required aspect of graduate and post-graduate work. A typical thesis will include work already published in one or more papers. Similarly, each paper you consider writing could be broken down into a series of smaller pieces suitable for a blog. When writing up related work, or when you read articles for courses or for reading groups, you can write about each theme or aspect  on your blog. This not only helps you remember and understand the literature, but also establishes your point of view with respect to your topic. Since these days many people conduct literature reviews  (at least initially) through the web, your blogs about a particular topic will make your own papers more findable.

When you have a paper or poster accepted for publication, blog about that too. Make sure that a pre-print of your article is available online as soon as the camera-ready copy is sent to the publisher, rather than waiting for ACM to add it to the digital library. In the blog, write about things that complement the paper. Include graphs, screenshots, or explanations that you didn’t have room to include. Make a YouTube video and link to that. Explain how this paper fits with other things you’ve done, or how it relates to other work in the field. These discussions can be split into multiple posts, as needed.

If people comment on your posts, reply to them. Having engaging or thought-provoking discussions increases the value of the blog, and makes the blog more findable. If you come across other blog posts on topics you’re interested in, comment on those. One effective strategy in response to finding an interesting or controversial blog post is to write your own post, and then comment on the original one with a link to your take on the subject.

Talks and visits

One effective way to increase your visibility is to visit other institutions and to give talks. One opportunity to do this occurs in conjunction with conferences. Once you know that you will be attending a conference in some city, try to find organizations—universities or research labs—that you can visit. Contact people you know (or would like to know) there, and ask if you can visit before or after the conference. If you can, arrange to give a talk, even if it is the same one you’ll be giving at the conference. Giving talks will help you become a better presenter, will allow you to reach a broader audience,  will generate more feedback on your work, and will create opportunities to form useful and rewarding social connections.

For example, when visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, you may contact people at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, IBM Almaden, Google, Yahoo! Research, Microsoft Research, PARC, Adobe Labs, Ricoh, Nokia, HP, SRI, and of course, FXPAL. There are undoubtedly other organizations with an interest in hearing about research developments; the exercise of finding them is left to the reader. Note that many of these institutions have multiple research groups or departments, and you’ll have to figure out whom to contact based on your interests. Look through conference proceedings to find people, and ask your your adviser for ideas about which group to contact. And don’t forget to bring your business cards.

Internships and visiting positions

During the course of your graduate work, try to do two or three internships, and don’t keep going back to the same place. Look for opportunities to do something different, something complementary to your thesis, something that will expand your skill set while providing the host organization with the benefits of your expertise. Think of an internship as a three-month interview. Try to get to know people other than your host because you need to demonstrate not only creativity and technical competence, but also the ability and willingness to work in teams.

Make sure when accepting an internship that your host expects the work done during the internship to be publishable, and make sure that part of your duties will include writing up the work  for publication. Having a finished submission at the end of the internship is often the best way to own the idea. It may be difficult to obtain rights to the code you write as an intern, although organizations may be more willing to allow you to keep the data that was collected.

If your home university permits this, try to find a way to spend some time during your PhD at a different university or research institute as a visiting researcher. This will not only increase your social network, but will also broaden your expertise. Furthermore, if the institution you’re visiting just happened to be in some exotic place (e.g., California, Canada, UK, Europe, Japan, etc., if you are in the US; California, New York, Texas, etc., if you’re elsewhere), you’ll get a great opportunity to travel and learn about other cultures. During my graduate work, I had the opportunity to spend some time at GMD-IPSI (now part of Fraunhoffer Institute) in Germany. The experience was rewarding in a number of ways: I got to meet people I would never have met otherwise, I learned about new ideas and technologies that I would not have been exposed to at my University, and of course, I was only six hours by train from Paris!

When considering where to go, you should strike a balance between doing work “on the path” to your thesis topic with being a good place where you’ll be exposed to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Just as with internships, look for opportunities to co-author papers with people whom you are visiting. And don’t forget to bring your business cards.

In summary

Updating your Facebook profile is not a substitute for interacting with people. Be prepared! Think about what you want to achieve in the long run, and whose help you need to get there. Talk to people, share ideas, and broaden your horizons. And comment here (or on your own blogs) with your thoughts and ideas so that others can benefit as well.

And don’t forget your business cards!

18 Comments

  1. Excellent post Gene! Being on the job market now has made me realize how important networking, publishing, and attending conferences is. And these should be done throughout the PhD, not just towards the end when you’re looking for a job.

    A couple of points I’d like to add: the utility of social network tools to maintain professional networks and the benefit of maintaining a Web page. I have found it useful to keep in touch with professional contacts, i.e. people I meet at conferences, through Facebook and Twitter. And it is a good idea to maintain a Web page (in addition to the blog you mentioned) about your research and current accomplishments.

  2. Gene, thanks for this post! I would like to add that internships and visiting positions are extremely valuable for both – those seeking industry jobs and for those seeking academic careers. I have noticed that many Ph.D. students end up staying back in school in summer, thinking they would get research done or publish several papers (which happens sometimes, but not as much as one would like).

  3. Great advice, and I hope grad students take it to heart! Not just grad student, for that matter–I think that many computer scientists undervalue and neglect their career development beyond fulfilling the expectations set by their professors / advisors / managers. Now that technology makes it much easier to network (and particularly to maintain professional / social relationships with people you only occasionally meet face-to-face), there’s no excuse for such neglect.

  4. Thanks for the comments and the re-tweets!

    There will be a quiz on this at the next conference :-)

  5. Great advice for an incoming grad student in HCI :) Thanks!

  6. Great advice. Thanks! I had one question. Do you have any advice about blogging about research as you are doing it? I’ve heard advice to blog while doing research and also to wait until it is published in at least a tech report to protect your intellectual property.

  7. I think it’s a judgment call — in some cases you should be able to blog about the problem and the methodology before you publish the results; in other cases, you may need to wait to protect intellectual property.

    But you can always blog about the related work — writing up analyses of papers is a good way to generate prose (or at least ideas) for including the background or related work sections of papers you will write later. The trick is to be sufficiently balanced. No point trashing a paper that everyone knows is not correct; it’s more constructive to look at interesting work and point out what’s interesting about it, and how it could be improved or extended.

  8. Twitter Comment


    will be reading Conference Reports ([link to post]) on tuesday 03/11/09

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  9. Twitter Comment


    @informor On the same topic, but somewhat broader, check out my post “Advice for grad students” [link to post]

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  10. Ablimit Aji says:

    Great advice for a graduate student !

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    Advice for grad students: [link to post] via @addthis

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    인터넷 시대에 맞추어진 대학원생들에 대한 조언. 꼭 블로그 하라는군요. RT @aliceoh: Advice for grad students: [link to post] via @addthis

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    RT @aliceoh: Advice for grad students: [link to post] via @addthis

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    “연구실에만 박혀있지말고 적극적으로 오지랇좀!!” 으로 한줄요약 ㅋㅋ 좋은글 감사합니다:) RT @aliceoh: Advice for grad students: [link to post] via @addthis

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    RT @Changhun: “연구실에만 박혀있지말고 적극적으로 오지랇좀!!” 으로 한줄요약 ㅋㅋ 좋은글 감사합니다:) RT @aliceoh: Advice for grad students: [link to post] …

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    Agree! RT @aliceoh: Advice for grad students: [link to post] via @addthis (via @sioum)

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  17. Aaron says:

    Gene, great advice. As a masters student looking to apply to an HCI Ph. D. program I am hoping to get your advice on which universities would be worth while to investigate. Thank you in advance.

  18. There are a range of good HCI programs, many with their own specializations. The answer to your question depends in part on your interests, and in part on what opportunities exist in specific programs. I would encourage you to attend the CHI conference (coming up in April, early registration deadline today!) and try to talk to students and faculty who are doing work you find interesting.

    Also, when deciding which program to attend, make sure they will pay your way with a scholarship or TA-ship. It’s not a good idea to have to work outside of your area when doing a PhD, as it makes it much harder to accomplish anything before you get sick of the topic!

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