Sunday, August 31, 2014

PhD Grind Part 1 of N: advisor picking

Philip Guo posted a great guide called The PhD Grind, a memoir of his computer science grad school experience. Mostly just "here's what I did", not so much advice, but there's a bit of both. It was really helpful for me, as one more data point of what grad school can be like. I'd love it if I could publish a similar thing, and further help people who are going into this path.

(I'd have to preface it with a bunch of disclaimers, and the biggest one would be this: grad schools vary A LOT. Everything I say will be very relevant if you go to get a PhD at CMU in the HCII. If you're going to other schools in HCI or related fields, this will be about 90% relevant and accurate. If you're going to other schools in CS (non-HCI), this will be maybe 60% relevant. If you're going to grad school in another field, maybe 10%. Seriously, I have no idea what grad school in other fields are like, besides that a lot of them are broken and terrible and you should not go to them. Grad school in CS, particularly HCI, is one of the least broken types of grad school.)

Picking Advisors

Anyway, one thing I realized I've gained a lot of insight into is picking advisors. At CMU HCII, we got the first few weeks to meet with different advisors before we had to decide. (I think, if you're going to PhD school, especially in HCI/CS, you should have at least a pretty good idea of who your advisor will be before you accept an offer, considering how important it is. But anyway, CMU let us choose.)

When I was picking advisors, I didn't really know the questions to ask. I mostly asked, "I don't know, are they good? What are their pluses and minuses?" Most people would say yes, they're good, tell me a couple obvious pros/cons, and then say something about whether they're "hands on" or "hands off." This is mildly helpful, but imprecise; it lumps together a lot of different factors. It's also not very distinguishing, because most professors (at least here) are "mostly hands off". You'll also get some platitudes about how they're very supportive, and they care about their students, and etc. These are true too, but also not very distinguishing, because all our professors here are pretty great.

You want to ask questions that will distinguish between profs who are right for you and who are not! And you want to know more dimensions than good/bad, hands-on/hands-off. Here are things you should ask. Try to ask these in ways that don't imply a value judgment, because if there's a "good" and a "bad" option, people will almost always tell you the good one, because most advisor/student relationships are good. (if they're bad, they usually don't last very long.)

Ask the prof

  • What grants do you have, or what project will I work on? (unless you have a fellowship.) Whether they tell you immediately or not, you will have to be officially working on one main project, and they will have to fund that somehow. If you can avoid it, don't go in with a vague area of focus (like "ubiquitous computing") and plan to figure out the project later.
  • How big is your lab? By asking this, what you really want to figure out is: how much time do they have for you? And it can be fine if they have only a little time - depends on your style. Some people like to do their work and be left alone; if the advisor only meets with you once a week and rarely responds to emails, that can be enough. But some people like to work more collaboratively and meet/discuss/email more often. This is one segment of the hands-on/hands-off distinction. And I'd say having like 3-5 PhD students, plus a handful of Masters/undergrads/postdocs, so like 8-10 people total, seems like a medium sized lab.
  • How much do they like/dislike collaboration with other students? I get the sense that most profs like collaboration, but maybe they'll give you a clue: some really like it, and others are kind of "meh, it's okay" about it.
  • Do you anticipate any big life changes in the next 6ish years? They'll probably have a sabbatical year sometime in there. If they're pre-tenure, that review may come up halfway through your career; unlikely to be a problem, but if you're 3 years in and your prof doesn't get tenure (which means they get more or less fired), that might be tricky. Are they considering moving schools? (they probably won't tell you if they are, but worth a shot) Are they considering retiring?
  • How intimidating are you? Okay, don't ask this, but get a sense of it. Some profs (usually older ones) are more intimidating than others. You should probably feel a healthy respect, but not fear; that will hamper your work and life. Take note of this feeling, because it's not likely to change a lot.
  • Industry or academia? I mean, if you already know which path you want, ask the prof if they will be good at helping you get to that path. They will be pretty honest about this.

Ask the prof's current PhD students

  • How much will the prof shield you from funding? Profs all try to do that, but sometimes it works out better than others. Good way to ask it: "Have you ever had to work on a project you weren't super into, because of funding? Tell me how that went." If none of the students have, that's pretty good/lucky; if they all have, take note of that.
  • How often does the prof ask you for work-related things? (this is part of the hands-on/hands-off thing too.) Some profs bug you every day or two for something, big or small. Some are fine if you don't give them anything for a month. The micro-managey prof can be good if that motivates you to work better.
  • How much will they ask you to do other stuff besides your research? Group meetings, mentoring students, maintaining servers, organizing stuff, meeting with funders, etc.
  • How much do they take your feelings into account? (you might be able to tell this from interacting with the professor too) Some profs have a very academic, businesslike "let's not sugarcoat it, let's just argue to find the truth" kind of demeanor. Some profs are more, well, friendly. Again, not a good/bad; some students like to just talk shop and not be all touchy feely and can deal with blunt criticism. (it's okay if you don't like blunt criticism; make sure you find a more friendly professor then.) This goes along with, and is less important than, the "intimidating" thing above; the reason to ask the students too is just to see if they have mood shifts that makes them affable most days but terrifying on days when there's bad news or something.
  • Related: what's the filter you have to put on this prof's speech? I've had profs that got waaaaay easier to work with after I applied the following filters:
    • Prof. A sounds like they think everything that comes out of your mouth is really dumb. They don't think that. Prof. A is really on your side, it's just the way Prof. A talks.
    • Prof. B will always sound a little disappointed in you. Prof. B is not actually disappointed in you, they just sound that way.
    • Prof. C thinks everything is a great idea. You'll come out of meetings with Prof. C thinking you can do everything and solve the world! Furthermore, that you should do everything! This isn't true; Prof. C is just very optimistic and really doesn't want to crush your ideas.
    • Prof. D is very friendly and easy to talk to, except Prof. D is always giving you advice, so you think that Prof. D thinks you are a fool or a small child. This isn't true; Prof. D doesn't actually think you are a fool, they're just trying to help.
    • Prof. E is never satisfied. If Prof. E says "eh, that's ok", you basically cured cancer. If Prof. E says "that's a terrible idea and you've accomplished nothing", you're doing fine.
    • This is just a sampling. Because your advisor is so critical to your work, it helps to figure out the little tiny nuances of how they communicate.
  • How available is the prof, if you need help? Will they answer an email within a day? A couple days? Will they meet with you more than your once a week meeting if you need it? Can they help you to find other help if you need it?
  • How much does the prof like/dislike collaboration with other students? Do they push collaboration? (this can be good or bad depending on how you like to work) Do they discourage collaboration? (it happens) Do they really try hard to build up a group dynamic in their lab, or is it all a bunch of people working more or less individually? (either can be good.)

Not sure who to ask, but it's good to figure it out

  • How ambitious are they? You'll probably have to determine for yourself if you're on the "ambitious" side (want a professor job at a top tier university, want to be in the news, want to be in TR35, etc) or the "balanced life" side (want an industry or a prof-at-a-not-so-big-name-school job, have other interests you want to continue pursuing outside school, like the 9-5ish life, have other constraints like you have to finish in N years due to some visa thing, etc). Your profs are all going to be super successful, but if they're in the news all the time or getting big fancy awards or on track to do so, they might be on the "ambitious" side. Also, if they're pre-tenure, they're likely to be more ambitious. Also: it's okay to be "balanced life." I am.

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