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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 Cristian Borcea * * * * * * * * * * * * * Job talk Single most important part ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: 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
  • Cristian Borcea

  • 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

  • PhD student stages
  • Thinking about doing a PhD
  • Taking classes and getting involved in some
  • 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 dont know anything Advisor Lets
  • Advisor Lets do X Student Youre wrong
    because of Y and Z

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
  • The work required to earn a PhD is not worth the
    effort if you dont intend to do research
  • You can do better with an MS degree in such a
  • 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
  • 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

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 dont 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?
  • 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, its normal to have doubts
  • 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 dont give up
  • Independence
  • Its your PhD you should know what you want to
    do, how you want to do it, etc.
  • Obviously, you need intelligence
  • Many times you dont know how smart you are until
    somebody challenges you

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
  • Defend thesis proposal by the end of third year
  • Not very strict deadline (depends on progress and
  • 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

Advisor expectations
  • Every PhD student must have thesis/research
  • Advisor decides when student is ready to graduate
  • Process very similar to apprenticeship
  • Thesis committee makes sure advisors 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
  • Of course, they include your advisors ideas as

First year
  • Get involved in research!
  • Ask professors with research interests matching
  • Combine reading with working on a small part of a
  • Steal tricks of the trade from advisor and more
    senior students
  • Classes and the qualifying exam are required, but
    dont spend more time than necessary on them
  • Nobody cares about the grades of someone with a
    PhD degree
  • Dont get bogged down with teaching/grading
  • Need to do a decent job, but make sure you dont
    work more than the required 20 hours/week (many
    times you can work a lot less)

TAship vs. RAship
  • RAship is better
  • Can spend time on you research instead of
  • Being awarded an RAship means youre doing well
  • Since RAship comes from a grant, the advisor will
    ask you to work on the project defined by that
  • 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

Choosing research area
  • Dont celebrate too much passing the qualifying
  • You are expected to pass ?
  • Choose area based on your research interests
  • Must like it otherwise, the next few years will
    be painful
  • Dont choose it just because you can get an
  • Need to think strategically as well
  • Is this a hot area?
  • Will you get a good job in this area after
  • Hard to predict if certain areas that are hot now
    will still be hot in 4 years

Choosing advisor
  • Should be compatible with advisor/get well
  • Tenured advisors
  • Have more experience, could have more money,
    could have more connections
  • Dont push you hard, dont 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

Choosing thesis topic
  • Its your topic, but the advisor must approve it
  • Its 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
  • Some will be more successful than others
  • Many times, thesis will define a common framework
    for topics covered by publications

Take ownership of your PhD
  • No one is responsible for getting your degree but
  • Faculty set up opportunity, but its up to you to
    leverage it

Doing research (1)
  • Be proactive!
  • Dont 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
  • Let advisor/colleagues know about interesting
    things you read
  • Robin Kravetss advices for reading/presenting
  • http//

Doing research (2)
  • Identifying important and hard problems
  • Learn to differentiate between cool problems and
  • Advisor will offer a lot of guidance
  • By graduation time, acquire good taste for
    selecting problems
  • Problem solving/design
  • Always ask yourself whats the novelty of my
  • Also how is it different from/similar to
    alternative solutions?
  • Advisor suggests a potential solution
  • Never go back and say doesnt work!
  • Instead, say X didnt work, but how about Y or
  • Dont get upset/discouraged if advisor points out
    drawbacks in your solutions its technical, not

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!
  • Dont suffer in silence if you dont 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
  • Form a hypothesis what type of results you
  • 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
  • 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
  • Seemingly advisor cares only about his career
  • During these periods, remember the
    advisor/student symbiosis
  • Advisors work hard to get grants to support your
  • 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

Communicating your results
  • Clear communication separates top students from
  • An unknown brilliant result is useless
  • Write and publish papers in conferences/journals
  • If you didnt write it down, it didnt 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
  • Successful researchers spend 50 of time writing
    papers and preparing talks

Writing papers
  • A lot harder than you think!
  • Good results are not published due to sloppy
  • Ask advisor for models of good papers
  • Get feedback from advisor early and often then
  • Read Shrunk and White book on writing
  • One idea per paragraph
  • Do paragraphs follow one another in a logical
  • Typical structure abstract, introduction,
    related work, design, implementation, evaluation,
  • Have clear abstract/introduction
  • If vague or poorly written, reviewers will just
    look for reasons to reject afterwards
  • Dont claim more than you did
  • Distinguish between will do and have been done

Conference talks
  • Goal is to make audience read your paper and talk
    with you
  • Emphasize the main idea, skip some details
  • Shouldnt follow too closely the structure of the
  • Pay special attention to motivation
  • The more illustrations, the better
  • A picture is worth 1000 words
  • Dont 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
  • Show belief in your work

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 dont have
    paper there
  • Check technical program ahead of time and
    identify papers/people of interest
  • Goal is to do networking, not just hear technical
  • 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
  • You should go once or twice
  • Get real-world experience, make connections
  • Must do it if plan to work in research
  • 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
  • Cant have the cake and eat it too

How much should you work?
  • Work only the number of hours you are paid!
  • Dont 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
  • Dont 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
  • The advisor has more free time to help you

Dont 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 Pauschs graph for task time management

More on time management
  • Dont 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 its ok,
    the world goes on
  • Know yourself and manage advisors expectations
  • Learn to estimate accurately the time it takes to
    do certain tasks
  • Learn to say no if its not possible to do a
    task before a deadline
  • Try hard to respect deadlines once you agreed to
  • Inform your advisor as soon as you are getting
    behind the schedule

When to graduate?
  • Graduating as fast as possible might not be the
    best idea
  • This is not the Olympics where the best finishes
  • 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
  • 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 dont like it
  • Even advisor might lose interest in you

Thesis (1)
  • Thesis one sentence to describe your
    contribution to the progress of humankind
  • Dissertation the 100s pages that prove the
  • Dissertation is very much a collection of your
  • Of course, need to link them well under one clear
  • 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
  • Form thesis committee and get feedback from
    committee members
  • Both student and advisor must agree on committee
  • Contract between you and committee agree on
    content to be added in the final thesis

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 wont allow you to defend if
    not ready
  • Not a good idea to defend if you dont have a job
    (especially for foreign students who plan to stay
    in US)
  • Unless you dont 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
  • http//

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
  • 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
  • Research universities have similar starting
    salary with research labs (but doesnt 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
  • 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 companys
    goals and approved by managers
  • Short-term profit-oriented research may preclude
    you from working on fundamental or high risk
  • Working in an RD department is even more about
    practical research that can quickly turn into
  • Still need to worry about funding (convince your
    managers to invest in your ideas)
  • Cant publish everything
  • Patents first, publication later (if at all)
  • Job safety depends on company health market

What do interviewers look for in your CV?
  • Thesis title, research interests, and name of
  • The advisors 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
  • NO!
  • GPA
  • Programming languages, tools, etc (you have a PhD
    in CS! Youre supposed to either know or be able
    to learn everything)

Job talk
  • Single most important part of your interview
  • Two main purposes
  • Sell yourself
  • Sell your research
  • Write down 3-4 ideas youre going to say per
  • 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
  • http//

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
  • Ask questions about the persons research
  • Ask questions about the place to see if its
    right for you
  • OK to engage in less technical discussions (e.g.,
    benefits, housing)

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
  • 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
  • How to Be a Good Graduate Student by Marie
  • http//
  • So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.! by Ronald T.
  • http//
  • You and your research by Richard Hamming
  • http//
  • Technology and courage by Ivan Sutherland
  • http//
  • How to have a bad career in academia by David
  • http//
  • Paper writing and presentation by Armando Fox
  • http//

  • Your time in the PhD program is a unique
    experience Enjoy it!
  • Good luck and make us proud!
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