Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Advising First-Year Students

I'm trying to remember how scared I was as a first-year graduate student. How I suffered from information overload and yet how I wanted to know everything. I also remember how stupid I was to worry only about courses my first two years, how long it took me to finally begin research, and how far back it set me to change advisors my eighth semester. I wish that someone as mean and pragmatic as me would have helped me back then.

Act I

Nameless student 1. "Professor Z e-mailed me about a research assistantship, but I'm not sure..."
FCSGS. "Professor Z is one of the strongest professors in that area. I hear she's a good advisor to her students, and if she's willing to fund you, that's really great news. I suggest you take it."
Nameless student 1. "Yes. But I heard she pushes her students really hard."
FCSGS. "Dude. You are at a top-ten university. Everybody is going to push you really hard."

Act II

FCSGS. "Who are you interested in being your advisor?"
Nameless student 2. "I dunno, his name escapes me...but I'm interested in Formal Methods, Security, and Systems."
FCSGS. "Good luck with that."


Nameless student 3. "I'm a TA for this course. How much work do I have to do?"
FCSGS. "You are supposed to do 20 hours of work per week. It's a tough balance between research and teaching, but you will have to manage."
Nameless student 3. "Right, but how much grading will I have to do?"
FCSGS. "I don't know, you need to ask your professor about duties. I never TA'd that course."
Nameless student 3. "But how much work is it going to be?"
FCSGS. "I don't know."
Nameless student 3. "How many classes do I have to teach?"
FCSGS. [eyes wide] "I DON'T know."

Well, I tried.

I need to go vacuum the car. Dad gets here on Thursday.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Mutual Respect

I have the privilege of working with a professor in another department at my university. I respect him very much, for he has done excellent work, and still he regards his colleagues both with consideration and respect. Moreover, he treats his students as colleagues, rather than as students. During a recent teleconference with an important funding partner, he said to the caller, "Let me introduce you to everyone in the room." He proceeded to introduce each graduate student one at a time, making sure to emphasize his or her strength and contribution to the project.

I compare this to the treatment that I get in many of my own meetings with the seven or so professors that I work with in my own department. In multiple meetings, I see a number of examples of poor courtesy. A few weeks back, I was in another teleconference, this time with just computer science faculty. The lead professor introduced only the principle investigators, pronounced all their names incorrectly, and ended with, "Oh and there are some graduate students." I've seen graduate students give presentations and when a question is asked from the audience, without hesitation, their advisor will answer it FOR them. I've seen faculty members say, "My graduate student did this work, but I will present it," all while that graduate student is in the room. I've seen faculty members complain to each other about their personal lives during professional meetings. I've seen thousands of occasions in which people simply interrupt each other. It becomes a game of who can talk the loudest, or who can talk the longest without stopping for breath. I am trying to remember the last time I saw someone actually finish a sentence. It reminds me of the Black Burst wireless protocol in which higher priority nodes are allowed to jam the channel until the lower priority nodes give up. Certainly not all the faculty behave in this manner, but it's certainly the typical behaviour, rather than the exception.

The faculty in our department wonder at the mystery of the "Graduate Students Who Don't Speak Up." There are often large department seminars, and during the presentations, perhaps one or two faculty will ask a question, but the audience is silent otherwise. Graduate students have been chided again and again by various faculty for not speaking up. For the majority of graduate students who are offered no respect, who are nameless technicians just implementing their advisor's visions, why would it occur to them to say anything at all?

As for me, I have the "disability" of being opinionated and snarky. This lack of mutual respect does not silence me, but it does have a detrimental affect on my own morale. Moreover, this lack causes me to wonder if other "top schools" have a similar environment, and if that's really where I want to be once I move on from this place.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The clearing

There's a hike I used to do in Oregon. It was 20.5 miles around Waldo Lake in the Willamette National Forest. If you follow the link, it will take you to a satellite photo, and you can see the scar in the forest. From so far up, it looks like a shiny pink scar on the human body. But it wasn't a terrible radio flyer accident that caused this. It was a forest fire caused by some moron who needed a smoke.

I generally took three days to do the hike. I would start at the southern tip of the lake, and I would reach the scar by the evening of the second day. The first five miles of the third day took me through that scar. It was fascinating to see the forest year by year as it began to recover. At 5500 feet, the hike was already moderately difficult for my little asthmatic lungs, but without the cover of shade, the challenge increased. Gradually, then quickly, evergreen trees would appear on the horizon, and then there's just 8 miles to go. It's still a reasonable distance more with all the climbs and the pack, but I know one of the most difficult distances is over.

Thinking of that hike now, I feel like I just came out of the, well, un-woods. I've mentioned here a "side-project" that's been eating up much of my sanity and my time, and today was a big milestone completion. My colleague and I enjoyed some celebratory hamburgers and shakes, and I watched two hours of television.