Sunday, June 5, 2011

Galilean Oath

Upon becoming a physician, it is customary to take the Hippocratic Oath. I believe such practice is inappropriately missing from other sciences. I propose that upon becoming a Ph.D., one should consider taking the following oath, which I call the Galilean Oath. (Galileo did not write it, but as Hippocrates is considered the father of modern medicine, Galileo is often considered the father of modern science.)

I invite your criticism, comments, and amendments, before I myself take this oath.

Galilean Oath:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those in whose steps I walk and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of knowledge, all measures required, avoiding twin traps of drawing conclusions without proper support and ignoring those supported conclusions that contradict my hypotheses.
I will remember that there is art to science as well as to engineering, and that awareness of the larger picture of application and impact may outweigh the scientific pursuit of ever expanding knowledge.
I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for an experiment or analysis.
I will respect the privacy of my subjects, for their data are not disclosed to me that the world may know.
I will most especially tread with care in matters that affect life and death. My research may save a life, but it may also be within its power to take one. This awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not overstep the bounds of one human.
I will remember that I do not treat an experiment, a chart, or a slice of data, but rather a hypothesis and the pursuit of knowledge and truth, whose exposure could affect financial, political, and other stabilities. As a scientist, my responsibility includes these related problems.
I will strive for simplicity of explanation, both in my theories and in presentation.
I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to knowledge and to all my fellow human beings.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of exposing previously concealed knowledge and truth.

For reference, here is the Hippocratic Oath:
I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:
I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.
I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures [that] are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.
I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug.
I will not be ashamed to say "I know not," nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient's recovery.
I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given to me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person's family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.
I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.
I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.
If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Uncommon common sense for the late-term graduate

As I fly over Alaska on my way to Tokyo (en route to Hong Kong), I decided that I've amassed a small, but sufficiently dense set of thoughts worthy of augmenting my neglected blog. Today's subject is some advice for last-year graduate students and postdocs looking for an academic career. My advice, without question, is incomplete, and should be read as something a person who has not yet interviewed says. I do, however, foresee my position benefit the advice in some ways, in that many of the not-so-obvious things become very obvious once you go through the process and one may not think to mention them later.

First, you will often be asked what your employment plans are. This is an important question to receive and answer correctly because it can put you in people's minds as a potential hire and it's good to be thought of that way as you may start getting insider information and your name may be suggested to other potential employers that you have not considered. Here's a piece of advice that is rarely given, and one that it took me some time to figure out: When an academic asks you "Where are you planning to apply next year?" what he or she is really asking is "Are you planning to apply for academic or industrial jobs?" It is amazing how many times I answered with various geographic preferences before someone explained this to me and, in retrospect, I can see that after my untargeted answer, the other party tried to steer the conversation to precisely the academia vs. industry issue. Remember, it may be completely intuitive to you that it's going to be academia (e.g., me) or it may be far from the top issue in your mind (e.g., not me), but it most likely is what the other party wants to know.

Second, you've heard the advice "practice makes perfect." This advice applies to interviewing. I've heard several times that there is value in interviewing a year early (e.g., if you are graduating and plan to get a postdoc, you could apply the graduating year, before becoming a postdoc and applying again). Even if you only interview at one place, that experience will be invaluable to you. I have chosen to take a slightly different route; I did not interview early but rather scheduled several (more than half a dozen) visits to universities with a talk and a day worth of one-on-one meetings with professors. It remains to be seen how helpful this is in terms of interviewing, but I'm of the opinion that is may be as useful as actually interviewing, aside from the lack of pressure that one must learn to deal with. One caveat to this advice is that I've heard that interviewing early may make you seem like "spoilt milk" the next year and may hurt your chances. Then again, I have also heard people completely reject that reasoning.

Third, write your research and teaching statements early. I've gotten this advice a lot and am going to force myself to write the first drafts now. Your statement can benefit greatly from being written early, without deadline pressure, and with the ability to be thrown away and rewritten completely. We are all busy and have other things to do, but I believe this to be an important enough task to recommend doing it early. Of course, I have yet to take my own advice, so ask me again in a year what I think of it.

Finally, and this is perhaps the most important thing I've heard from people, academia is a small world and people knowing you is far more important than you think. I've had multiple successful academics tell me that they only got interviews at places where they knew a professor personally (or, in some cases, an advisor knew someone closely enough to sell the interviewee). This isn't about nepotism or about places hiring friends of friends; it's about risk aversion. Academia is competitive enough that someone has to fight for you to give you even a chance at the job. Fighting for you means marrying one's reputation to your abilities. No one will do that unless they know you a bit. However, people are remarkably willing to go out on a limb for you if they've had a conversation with you and feel that you won't embarrass them. Moral of the story: talk to people at conferences; tell them you will be on the job market soon; put yourself on their minds.

Though it goes without saying, I still choose to point out that none of the above advice is a substitute for doing high-quality research on exciting and impactful problems. That is a must and no amount of name recognition is going to help you significantly if you don't. The advice above can be done in addition to high-quality research to increase your chances, but not instead.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

CRA Career Mentoring Workshop notes

I attended the CRA Career Mentoring Workshop this week in Washington, DC. This workshop is aimed at sharing with late-stage PhD students, postdocs, and early-stage assistant professors some advice regarding how to start and succeed in an academic career. The workshop covers topics such as how to select students, how to teach and mentor students, how to get funding, how to establish a research program, etc.

Disclosure: Having been thinking about my academic career for some time, much of what was said was review for me. Below is a summary of either new things I learnt, things I already knew that were said in new light, and things that seemed especially important to me. These are by no means complete notes and will most likely be less useful to others than to myself.


  • Make sure you teach the same course several times. The time savings are astronomical the second and third time around. Ask the chair for this.
  • When teaching a class, set firm rules. For example, be explicit about what your policy is on extensions and stick to that policy. Put all these policies in the syllabus. It's better to have an explicit policy that you later realize was not ideal than to leave ambiguity in the policy.
  • Idea about regrades: don't allow students to discuss regrades for 24 hours after they first see the graded item. The first reaction is anger. In 24 hours, fewer students will feel like they're entitled to argue, and those who do ask for regrades are more likely to have legitimate reasons.
  • Make old exams available. They are out there anyway.
  • Avoid doing things that penalize the organized, honest, and prepared. For example, don't create extensions. Don't take late work. Don't ask students not to look at old exams, etc.
  • Exams should start with easy questions and get harder. Everyone should get at least something right.
  • Return graded assignments and tests promptly. If it takes you two weeks to grade something, chances are you procrastinated for 13 days and then got it all done on the 14th.
  • Asking students to assess how each person in a group contributed to a joint project (by % of work) is surprising reliable and precise.
  • The ratio of preparation time to teaching time, when you start, can easily be 12:1.
  • If possible, use a textbook with slides, tests, homeworks, etc. They do exist. These can reduce the preparation time to 3:1 or 2:1.
  • First time teaching a course, keep the syllabus plan for what you will cover a little vague because you don't know if you'll hit all the topics.

  • Send students to conferences.
  • Make students come back from conferences knowing 1 (then 3) new people. For example, tell them to talk to speakers. Have them return and tell you about these people. Maybe have them follow up with those people.

Getting Tenure:
  • During the first semester as an assistant professor, meet with the chair, talk about the process, ask for written evaluations (at some point).
  • When going up for tenure, your CV must have acceptance rates for conferences.
  • Keep the tenure CV updated through out the career. Every trip you take. Every conference acceptance rate. Every invited talk.
  • Do a pretenure tour. In the final year before tenure review, go around to strategically selected universities and give talks on your work (to potential letter writers).
  • "Good" incoming students don't look like you do now; they look like you did when you entered the PhD program.

Stress Management:
  • Paper deadlines and beginnings of terms are really stressful. You must take advantage of the times that are slower.
  • Pay attention to how long things take and write them down so that you can accurately plan in the future.
  • Spend money on problems to save yourself time. For example, pay someone to clean your house.
  • Exercise, get enough sleep, eat well.

  • Call NSF program managers.
  • Call before submitting to get feedback on how an idea will fly. They may tell you "if you include ..."
  • Call after panel meeting (look up online when the panel meets) and ask how you did. Whereas you could get rejected, if you call, you might get seed funding.
  • Write to program managers asking to be a reviewer for a specific program. Send your credentials. This is the best way to learn how to write proposals.
  • Email program director one month before solicitation deadline to get on a panel.
  • A grad student costs roughly $200 a day. That means buying some equipment / books / etc. is worth it! If it takes a student 3 days to figure something out online that s/he could have learnt from a $100 book in a day, just buy it.
  • Bring in however much money you need to run your program, and not a penny more. Otherwise, you're spending too much time on the wrong things.
  • Be able to answer the George Heilmeier's Catechism questions when talking to program managers, other professors, etc.:
    • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
    • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
    • What's new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
    • Who cares?
    • If you're successful, what difference will it make?
    • What are the risks and the payoffs?
    • How much will it cost?
    • How long will it take?
    • What are the midterm and final "exams" to check for success?

Advice on Getting Advice:
  • If you know the answer to a question but just need some encouragement, keep asking for advice until you get the answer you want.
Also, Dan Grossman had a good first date last week. Wish him luck!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Survivor Bias on Career Advice

I'm blogging from the NSF CRA Career Mentoring Workshop. This workshop is aimed at [very] late term graduate students and postdocs and is supposed to mentor us on how to create an academic career: how to get an academic job, how to start a successful research program, how to mentor students, how to get funding, etc.

The topic that I choose to pick on today is survivor bias in advice on how to be successful. Laura Haas, IBM, just finished giving us a plethora of advice (that she and Dave Patterson, UC Berkeley, compiled). It was good advice. It was logical advice. Having said that, I'm skeptical. I am not just skeptical for one of the two obvious reasons: (1) retrospective advice of successful people often is aimed at the perfect world and may be far more romanticized than would be useful to a young researchers, and (2) most such advice, in my opinion, is extrapolated from a single data point of the success of a particular advice giver (e.g., I wrote a shorter-than-usual research statement and I got 10 job offers, so you should write a short one!). I am skeptical because of the survivor bias, coupled with a special kind of selective memory, that I feel affects such advice.

Such advice typically includes a list of don'ts and a shorter list of dos. For example, don't follow the least publishable units model, don't work on 20-years-out problems, do follow the scientific method to the letter. To justify this advice, the advice givers then typically apply, retrospectively, this advice to their own experience. The interesting phenomenon is that, in all the examples I've encountered, this past experience contains as many dos as don'ts. The dos, especially the noble dos, such as "work with others," and "focus on quality, not quantity in publishing," are regarded as the keys to the person's success. The don'ts, however, especially the "ignoble" don'ts, such as "generate lots of publications from a single idea," get classified as mistakes and dismissed as having put the person where he/she is today.

The real problem is that we rarely hear from unsuccessful academics, who may be able to discuss whether they actually executed more don'ts than dos, as the advice we get today would imply. In fact, it's quite possible that striving to do only the dos destroyed their academic careers. It may also be possible that having the proper ratio of dos to don'ts is what led to the success of the advice givers, and, without the don't, they would not be where they are today. There is no good way to evaluate the advice, except with some sense of morality. It seems noble to work with others, it seems noble to publish quality papers, it seems noble spend your time doing deep, meaningful reviews. It seems less so to try to publish small improvements on your previous work. So our minds have little issue accepting the premise that doing these noble things is good and what will help us succeed in our careers. But that statement is far from "executing as many dos and as few don'ts as one can will lead to success in academia."

Even if the advice givers had done lots of dos and few don't, and we could at least argue correlation, it wouldn't mean causation. (On that note, Margaret Martonosi just said "I was at the original CRA Career Mentoring Workshop, and here I am, so clearly, it works!") But we cannot. There is no evidence that what they call mistakes aren't precisely the actions that brought them success.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Point - Counterppoint

My last entry focused on the differences between UW and USC that favored the former. This post will list some things I miss about USC, though I'll try to keep the list short as to remain happy at my new job.
  • The classrooms (maybe just some) have bells. Even my high school didn't have bells. It's a weird feeling, though perhaps it is part of the reason things start and end on time.
  • No one at UW seems to know that colleges compete against one another in football. (Given the circumstances, that might be welcomed this year.)
  • There is no UW bus. Possibly because there is a public transportation system, but still, no free UW bus to go around campus, housing, etc.
  • People work regular (and standard) working hours. Folks get to work at 8:30 and leave at 5. I have 9:30 AM meetings. Last time I had a 9:30 meeting at USC had to do with getting in line for the 5PM USC / Ohio State game at the Coliseum (OK, fine, that was at 6 AM).
  • Anyone may ask the state of Washington for all my email sent to and from my work address and the state has to produce it. This feels very weird.
  • USC had vast programs to expand the horizons of a student beyond what he or she works on every day. For example, the Voices and Visions programs organized countless theater trips, USC sports (not Football) had free admission for students, countless organizations organized Dodgers / Angels / Lakers / Clippers / Kings / Galaxy trips, etc. I have yet to discover anything like that at UW.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Subtle differences between USC and UW

I started a new job as a postdoc at the University of Washington. I've been here for a week now and have noticed a few subtle differences between UW and USC (at least some of which may be due to the small sample size of my observation). I am particularly focusing on the differences that favor UW in this post, so if you are affiliated with USC, don't get upset. Just remember that I am wearing four layers today, at least one of which is waterproof, and am using the warmest blanket I own at night. And it's only the start of October.
  • Talks:
    • The talks I have attended at UW have been of better quality than those at USC.
    • Faculty attend talks. Numerous faculty.
    • Students attend talks.
    • Talks and meetings start and end when they are supposed to end. I cannot remember the last time I attended a 60-minute meeting for less than 90 minutes at USC.

  • Atmosphere:
    • Where at USC stands a statue of Tommy Trojan, at UW stands a larger-than-life statue of George Washington.
    • Faculty have no problem wearing t-shirts. I don't remember seeing that at USC.
    • I've seen students knit at talks. Also, wearing StarTrek costumes to work doesn't seem to be out of the question.
    • Faculty and staff email other faculty and staff (as in the entire faculty and staff lists) daily with things like "My student got a job," or "Good talk coming up tomorrow," or "Good talk in 20 minutes," or "Good talk starting now," or "Does anyone know of a good plumber in the area?"
    • The campus-alert emails say things like "Male suspects asked the victims for pizza and when refused became agitated," instead of "Shooting on campus." (I kid you not! Pizza! The email's subject was "attempted robbery.")
  • Support:
    • There is ample technical support. If you email them with a problem, they come over and fix it. They set up equipment. They have extra mice, keyboards, speakers, etc. in case yours break.
    • There is ample administrative support. They are fast. They are friendly. They are not nearly as overworked (because there are many of them) at UW as they are at USC, making them both more helpful and happier!
    • Every first-year students gets a department laptop or desktop when s/he arives.
    • There is ample access to printers (b/w, color, duplex, transparency, large-format), fax machines, copy machines, etc.
    • There are supplies easily available to set up your office, mail things, etc.
    • There is free coffee, tea, and microwave and fridge access available to all grad students, staff, and faculty.
    • There are no personalized keys. Faculty keys open all offices (including all other faculty). Student keys open all student offices but not faculty offices.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tom Mitchell's research

Today, I attended Tom Mitchell's talk. This was perhaps the best research I have seen in 6-7 years. If you have a moment, I encourage you to take a look at his paper summarizing this work.

In short, they found that when a person thinks about some noun, some parts of that person's brain get increased blood flow. It turns out that:
1. The parts of YOUR brain that increase blood flow are so similar to the parts of MY brain that increase blood flow, that I can build a machine learner to learn what brain states map to what nouns based on YOUR brain and then be able to predict what nouns I am thinking about based on pictures of MY brain.
2. By looking at what verbs are most commonly used (on the Internet) in combination with a set of nouns, taking proportional linear combinations of brain pictures for certain nouns allows correct predictions of brain pictures for other nouns.