Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Get a Life!

Get a Life!
The importance of having some interests besides work, even in grad school

When I meet with students for their mandatory undergraduate advisor meeting or with prospective graduate students, I like to ask the question: “What do you do for fun?”  Partly, the question helps students to relax and talk about something that they enjoy and know a lot about.  The question also gives me some insight into someone’s personality.  Are you a bungie-jumper, a novel-reader, a pianist, a soccer player, a nature-lover, or something else entirely?  Are you as passionate about your pastime as you are about your career?  Are you trying to find a way to get your engineering interests and hobby interests to intersect?  What I have found by asking about people’s interests outside the context of school is that a great many talented people are multi-faceted.  They can be great at more than one thing, should they choose to put their energies in a particular direction.  I’ve also found that all people need an escape from the work of their official career, no matter how much they might enjoy their career interests.  Even people who I thought were complete workaholics turn out to have some activities that they enjoy immensely, even if they try to keep them secret to maintain the illusion that all they do is work. 

The challenge in life is to work hard at what you are working at, but to understand that when you have too much of a good thing, the enjoyment of it diminishes.  For research, engineering, and teaching activities, you will actually be better at what you are doing when you can have a positive attitude about it, and not be exhausted.  Even if work is your highest priority, it still makes sense to take some time away from it to do something else you enjoy.

I will use myself as an example.  My students sometimes tell me that they do not want to be a professor, because they look at me and think I work too hard.  Truthfully, most any job with some level of responsibility is going to demand that you work hard, and sometimes put in some periods of long hours, so that’s not a great excuse for not being a professor!  Early in my career, I was afraid of becoming a one-dimensional person who only worked, so I have always put some emphasis on doing things outside of work.  There are not too many things on TV that I like to watch, so I have always looked for something more enjoyable to do.

First, I have a lovely wife and two great daughters, so I have been especially fortunate in life.  Together with my wife, raising children through their stages of infant, baby, toddler, kid, tween, and teenager is not really a hobby, but it has been an endless source of joy, frustration, silliness, seriousness, free entertainment, and expensive expenses.  While it was not easy to have many hobbies while our children were very young, I always made a point of getting some exercise every day (usually at my lunch hour), and I never, ever gave up my love of video games.  My wife was nice enough to let me take time to train for long-distance cycling on weekend mornings, and to put up with many evenings when I was saving the universe from some form of evil via video games.

If video games are not geeky enough for you (as an electrical engineer, I feel it is important to enjoy the fruits of the profession!), I am also a fan of science fiction books.  I usually only get a chance to read entire novels during semester breaks or vacation, but I usually have anthologies of short stories to read when I just have a few minutes.  I have enjoyed photography since I was a photographer for my high school newspaper, where I got to learn how to develop film and to make prints in a darkroom.   I combine my cycling hobby and work travel with photography by bringing my nice camera along on trips where I’m going somewhere cool, and taking city or nature photos.  I print and frame some of the best ones to decorate our house. 

Several years ago, when I started having so many management responsibilities that I could not get into the lab to build things with my own hands, I took up woodworking.  I taught myself how to use a table saw, a band saw, a router, a drill press, … with the purpose of making furniture for my house.  Although it would have been WAY cheaper to just buy furniture, I love making things out of solid wood that will last for generations (hopefully)!  It’s also fun to make a huge amount of noise and big piles of sawdust in the process of turning a pile of wood into a beautiful desk.  I like it because it is the exact opposite of nanotechnology.

Two years ago, during a sabbatical, I decided to take up piano (after having taken lessons in high school, and then quit when I got to college).  Piano is the hardest hobby of all, since my progress is SO SLOW.  However, when I am practicing piano, I cannot really think about anything else, and I like it when eventually a song starts to sound halfway decent.  I do not think I have ever played any song from start to finish without making a mistake, and I know that I drive my family crazy with my repetitive practicing.  I practice nearly every day that I am not traveling, and have a lesson every week to keep me motivated.

So, if you look at me as an example of someone who has been steadily been working pretty hard and having a successful career, you can see that I do a lot of stuff besides work.  Your own interests will be different, but it is important to make the time.  Sometimes some good research ideas occur to me while I am out in the middle of nowhere on my bike, but sometimes I do not think about anything at all.  Maybe the piano playing helps my brain somehow, but all I am really hoping for is to be halfway decent by the time I turn 70. The video games have absolutely no redeeming social value, but I really enjoy the graphics, sounds, and plots of games – especially compared to the old Atari and Nintendo that I had as a kid.  My Xbox Live name is Professor BC and I’ll kick your butt at Halo! 

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Ten Commandments of Graduate School

The Ten Commandments of Graduate School

These were not handed down to me on stone tablets by God, but the following short pieces of advice will serve you well for a successful stint in graduate school.  A few commandments have corollaries, which is a useful feature that was not used in the original Ten Commandments.

1. Focus on your research, even at the expense of your classroom performance.  Employers will care most about your research accomplishments and not your GPA.
Put a very high priority upon getting your journal manuscripts into a state of completion

2. Come well-prepared for all meetings with your advisor and to group meetings.  Be ready to show your data and have some ideas in mind for the next steps.

3. Treat your research as you would treat a full-time job.  Show up at lab every morning, and consistently put in a full day. 
Try not to work from home very often.  Nobody can interact with you there.  Save your time at home for recreation and homework.

4. Share all your results with your advisor – both the experiments that went as expected, and also the areas that are giving you problems.  Your advisor cannot give advice if you hide the things that did not go well.

5. Work hard at developing your writing and speaking skills.  Lack of these skills will hold back your career if you do not improve them now.  Practice is the key.
6. Be respectful of University staff people (laboratory engineers, grants/contracts personnel, administrative assistants, purchasing agents).  The way you treat them gets back to your advisor and other faculty, who will write recommendation letters based on their knowledge of your interpersonal behavior.

7. Make an effort to get to know faculty besides your advisor through co-advising arrangements, your classes, and informal discussions. 

8. Make an effort to be on excellent terms with the other members of your research group.  Be willing to be mentored by the senior students, and be ready to serve as an excellent teacher for new students in the group.
Seek out discussions with other students (outside your group too.  Listen to their ideas and respect their views.  Do not be condescending or dismissive of others.

9. Do not ever find yourself with nothing to work on.  Always have a side project or two to work on, should another project become stalled.
Be self-motivated.  Actively seek out solutions to your problems, rather than expect your advisor to always tell you what to do.

10. Set aside time every day to read journal articles, selected based on your own personal interests, even if the reading is outside your thesis topic.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Characteristics of the Worst Graduate Students

In a previous blog post, I talked about what the characteristics of the best graduate students.  But what about the “bad” ones?  Around the dinner table at home, my wife and children are probably most familiar with stories surrounding the students who cause me the most anxiety, and in fact, if you asked my 15-year-old daughter, she could tell you the names of my three least favorite graduate students of all time!  So in the interest of completeness, I would like to share with you the personality traits and behaviors that lead to a lack of success in graduate school.  I will not give any names or enough information to identify a particular person, but if you are reading this and recognize the characteristics in yourself, you may need to do some self-analysis!
I’ll start by saying how fortunate I have been to work with so many truly outstanding and inspirational graduate students.  These are young people who are innovative, self-starting, hard-working, honest, collaborative, optimistic, aspirational, and hungry for success.  Those characteristics truly describe 90-95% of all the graduate students that I have ever advised.  These are the people who are thoughtful, show up for work every day, get results, communicate their results/problems/questions regularly, get along with others, and in general don’t give me something exciting to talk about at the dinner table when my wife asks me how my day was.  (For example:  Wife: “Brian, how was your day?”  Me: “Oh, pretty good!  Leo got some great results in the lab today, and one of Meng’s papers just got accepted in a really tough journal.”  My Kids (in my dreams): “Dad, how incredible!  Tell us more about how you helped cure cancer today?!?!”  My Kids (in reality): “How boring! Can we change the subject to something besides Dad’s work?!?”)  No.  The really interesting dinner conversations occur when one of outlier students is doing something incredibly annoying.  Over the course of 10 years as a professor, there have probably been ~3 students who failed due to problems they brought upon themselves.  None of them will ever have a PhD thesis with my signature on it.  So, how does a person get on this list?

Don’t come in to work: 
It’s simple.  If you are not at the lab, you cannot get any research done.  I have had students who I would rarely ever see, even though my office door was only 15 feet away from their desk.  During normal work hours, I would never see them in the lab.  If I stopped by the office at night or the weekend, I could not find them either.  When I meet with them every week, and ask what they did, they would have very little to show.  Before long, I would give them a lecture about how they need to treat graduate school like a serious job, and not just a hobby between classes that they dabble in when they feel like it.  Some students have a hard time making the transition from classwork to research, and come up with a lot of excuses not to make it to lab.
Another serious problem is someone who treats graduate school like they work at a bank.  Students in this category come into lab at 10AM, take 90 minutes for lunch, and then go to the gym for a 5PM workout, followed by dinner. It sounds like a lovely day to me, but these students are making progress at an incredibly slow rate.  Really, a person should be trying to work between 8-10 hours per day in graduate school.   Some people will do more than this for some stretches for a critical experiment or a deadline.  The fact is, when you get out into any job in Industry or Academia, you will be working at least this much (but getting paid a lot more), and you need to build good work habits while in graduate school.  Try coming into work at 8AM, working until noon, taking an hour for lunch, and then stay at work until 6PM.  If you are focused while at work, you will get a ton done, and still have time to sleep, eat, exercise, and see your friends. 
While there are some tasks for which you may be more effective somewhere besides the lab (like reading journals, writing, preparing figures…) it is best to try to schedule these activities while you are at work, and to have the philosophy of focusing on work while you are at work.  You can manage your time better by setting some time aside every day when your mind is sharp to do some reading or writing, but avoid doing it at home.  A lot of what happens in research involves interacting with other people, and others (like your advisor) being able to find you for questions and discussion.  My advice is to try avoiding being a nocturnal person (like a vampire) who works from 10PM to 8AM.  My students who tell me that they do this seem to be a lot less productive than those who expose themselves to daylight.

Come into work, but don’t work:
          There was once a student in my group who I would see at his desk very consistently, but he seemed to never get much work done.  Week after week I would meet with him, and it seemed like whatever progress he had to report to me could have been done in just a couple of hours.  One day, out of curiosity, I walked up behind him at his desk to see what he was working on.  Was he reading journal papers, researching some information to help him solve a problem, emailing his mother?  No, it was Facebook!  Basically, every time I saw his computer screen after that, he was spouting nonsense to his friends back in his home country.  He made the mistake of friending me, so I unfortunately got exposed to all the various posts made throughout the day.  My advice: save the video games and social media playtime for outside the office, and focus on work while you are at work.
          In a similar vein, another student always seemed to be on the phone during work.  There may have been some kind of complex family situation, a side business, or something that required a lot of loud arguments.  It seemed impossible to have a 30-minute meeting with this student without his cellphone sounding off several times, and he was constantly running out of group meeting to answer calls (or doing text messages while another student was speaking at group meeting.  Very rude.)  Once again, my advice is to be engaged at work while you are at work, and do not treat the lab as a place to do a lot of personal business.  Sometimes it is necessary, but it should be the exception, and not the rule.

Refuse to work with other people:
          I once had a student whose philosophy was that he should be able to accomplish everything in his thesis work without the input of anybody else.  He felt that asking one of the senior students in the group for advice was a sign of weakness.  This person had such problems interacting with other people that it was necessary for me to hold weekly sub-group meetings in which I had a written matrix of tasks and assigned “finish-by” dates, so he could not agree to do something and then wriggle out of it later.  This person found himself rediscovering things that people in my group already figured out years before, finding out everything the hard way, and not making any real progress.  People also learned that they could never rely on him for lending a hand with anything, and so eventually they stopped asking.  This student found himself completely isolated from the group, and unable to duplicate results that others were able to achieve easily because they took the time to ask questions that enabled them to learn how to build and measure things correctly.

Antagonize your fellow group members, so all of them refuse to work with you:
          An antagonistic personality will also serve to isolate a student from the rest of the group.  I have had a small number of students who had an attitude of superiority that led them to not only question the work of other students, but to belligerently accuse them of being wrong, and to insinuate that their projects were not worthy of serious time.  These students would engage in prolonged and aggressive questioning of other students during group meeting that would extend into heated arguments during the rest of the week.  Interestingly, the students with this attitude were also those who had the least to show in the way of their own accomplishments, and also the least amount of background knowledge.  While a certain amount of questioning and challenging is a good thing, these students could never let things go, and would conduct their questions in a manner that was seen as threatening.  After a while, the senior students and postdocs in the group just stopped listening to them, or offering them any advice that they could have benefited from in their own project.  My advice to students is to ask plenty of questions, but conduct yourself in a gracious manner if you want your fellow group members to be helpful collaborators.  Rudeness and aggressiveness rarely gets you the results you want with your co-workers in any context.

Antagonize students in groups I collaborate with, so their groups refuse to work with my group:
          By now, you might realize that the same people that I was referring to in the last section could not limit their rudeness impulses to people in their own research group, but indiscriminately extended their approach to whomever they encountered.  Unfortunately this also included students from other professors who I collaborated with.  I ended up having to apologize to the offended faculty and student in the other group, and chose other students with more pleasant dispositions to collaborate.  Collaborations are really important to a faculty member, so students should take it upon themselves to try hard to make them work, rather than get into fights that the faculty have to straighten out.

Break things by being stupid, and fail to take part in fixing them:
          In one of the most egregious examples of incompetence that I have ever encountered, a visiting postdoc managed to completely destroy a $750K piece of equipment the very first time he laid hands on it without someone carefully watching his actions.  How did he manage to do this?  He underwent training, and was taught all the ways that he could incur serious damage, but apparently none of the training lodged itself into his brain.  During the first time he was allowed to operate the equipment solo, he encountered an unexpected message.  Rather than stop what he was doing and ask the experienced person what to do, he put the machine into “manual” mode, and just seemed to start pressing buttons.  30 minutes later, the machine was ruined.  What was worse, several other people needed to spend many hours to repair the damage, but this person did not offer his time or assistance in any of the work.  This postdoc’s behavior (in this instance and other related ones related to safety) got him permanently banned from the lab.

Get banned from the lab:
          If you are banned from the lab, it is very hard to make research progress.  The person mentioned above actually got banned from another lab for breaking yet another piece of equipment.  I think he is the only person to ever be permanently banned from two labs at Illinois.  I ended up having to pay for all his damage from my grant funding.  After that, this person spent the rest of his postdoc in his office surfing the internet, and never first-authored a paper with my group.

Blame all your problems on everything except yourself:
          Sometimes, when things are not going well, people seek to identify the source of their problems.  Problems are not hard to find, and some common ones are: 
“My advisor did not tell me exactly what to do.”
“My equipment did not work.”
“I did not get the result I expected.”
“I did not know how to perform a technique.”
“I needed some piece of equipment, and I did not have it.”
“I did not know what other people already knew about this topic.”
“My classes are giving me too much homework this semester.”

One of the most important characteristics of successful researchers is resourcefulness, and this is a very important lesson to learn. 

Your advisor will not likely be able to tell you every single detail of how you will perform your experiment, or give you a bulleted list that will tell you, from start to finish, every step you will need to perform to complete your thesis.  It will be up to you to get input and direction from your advisor, but to use your resourcefulness to fill in the rest.  Not sure what to do?  Then talk with some other members of your group, and develop a written plan that you can review with your advisor.  If a piece of equipment does not work, you may need to get into it, and discover how to fix it or get it repaired.  Don’t know how to perform a technique?  You may need to take a class, attend a workshop, or get someone to show you how to do it correctly.  Need a key piece of equipment?  Try to figure out who might have it on campus, figure out how to get one on loan, or find one for your advisor to buy on EBay.  Not sure how others have approached this problem in the past?  Go to Google Scholar and read up on some published scientific literature.  If you are spending all your time on classwork, your priorities need an adjustment, or you need to structure your day so you can keep making steady research progress.
          Certainly a graduate student cannot solve every problem, but considering that you are among the most intelligent and highly educated people in the entire country, it is expected that you will take initiative to aggressively identify and solve problems on your own.  Science is hard, and this is part of the learning experience!

Fail to draft a paper on your research:
          The most problematic students that I have advised are also those who never completed a project from start to finish with sufficient attention to detail and thorough understanding to prepare a manuscript that was of high enough quality to submit to a peer reviewed scientific journal.  For these students, there was always a lack of understanding of what had been published by others previously, a failure to listen to my suggestions for what experiments would lead to convincing arguments about their hypothesis, or just a failure to follow though on what they started.

Need to know EVERYTHING before you can do ANYTHING:
          This issue can trip up people who are perfectionists.  Sometimes, it is indeed useful, when encountering something that does not meet with the expected result, to revisit the fundamentals, simplify the experiment, and tease out the variable that may have been giving an undesired effect.  However, when it becomes necessary to take this approach for absolutely every element of a project, it becomes an impediment for achieving the goal at hand. For example: I need to completely understand all polymer chemistry and biophysics before I can use this epoxy material in the construction of my device!  Another example:  I need to take the highest level classes in electromagnetics and quantum mechanics before I can consider how to fabricate this device for performing surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy!  One particular student kept finding places and reasons to return to the fundamentals without ever making much practical progress on the stated goal of reproducing and optimizing a device that had already been working in the lab for two years.  Typically, people can gather information on the fundamentals while simultaneously making practical progress in the lab.  It is a parallel process rather than a serial one.

          So, that’s my advice on how to avoid becoming one of the graduate students who your advisor will lament daily at the dinner table.  You will find that a collegial attitude towards your fellow students, a philosophy of treating your lab research like you would treat a “real” job, being careful not to carelessly break expensive stuff, some self-motivation, and ability to make progress despite the lack of perfect conditions will take you a long way in graduate school and in life.  Good luck!!!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Gaining Attention for Your Research - The Art of Self Promotion

Brian T. Cunningham
July, 2013

If you are considering a career in academic research, you should know that competition for the attention of your peers, industry, funding agencies, and the public is fierce.  There are now such a large number of scientific journals, conferences, and other sources for information competing for our time and attention, that nobody can possibly keep up with all of them.  However, when your case comes up for promotion or tenure, your department head is going to be requesting letters of recommendation from senior people in your field, asking how good your work is, and how it compares to other people at the same stage of their career.  How can you increase the chances that people (besides your parents) know about your research?  You can be sure that your department head and Dean care deeply that their faculty are developing reputations as the leaders in their fields of research, since that impacts the reputation (and rankings) of the whole institution.  So, by promoting yourself, you are actually doing an important service to your school – so don’t be shy about it!
However, “self-promotion” sounds so unseemly!  It is like, as researchers, we are snake-oil salesmen/saleswomen from the old American West, except we ourselves are the snakeoil.  Very few faculty have a publicity department, so if we don’t help get the word out about our research, nobody else is going to do it.  Part of doing excellent science is participating in the scientific community, which you cannot do if you simply stay in the lab, never telling anyone about your work.  So what does it mean to “promote” yourself, and how can you do it effectively.  Is it possible to overdo it?
The first and most important aspect of self-promotion is to begin by doing excellent scientific work.  Are you working on a problem that is significant?  Does your work have applications or implications for things that would make it interesting to the public?  Are you doing something unique or demonstrating an exciting capability for the first time?  In your research, can you clearly demonstrate how your approach works, and without a doubt, claim that it is performing in a particular way?  If you were to go to your next big family reunion, and if someone asked you what you do, what is it that you could tell them, so they would understand why your work is exciting?  Working on an important problem and being able to describe why it is important to people who are not experts in your technology is half of the battle.  The other half is getting other people to know what you do.
The most common methods that people use to get the word out about their work is to publish in scientific journals and to give talks at scientific meetings.  If you are consistently targeting the journals in your field with the best impact factors, and giving your talks at both large meetings with a broad range of attendees, and at small conferences that bring in the best experts in a narrow sub-field, there is a good chance that people will start getting familiar with what you do.  However, academic “fame” takes a while to build for most people.   There are so many scientific conferences and so many scientific journals that you cannot expect even every specialist in your field to know about your work right away.  So as you continue your project and continue making new advancements, you may consider publishing in journals that enable you to focus on different aspects of your work, and giving talks at conferences that serve slightly different communities.  In your conference presentations, you should definitely highlight your previously published work, and give references to it.  Your new papers might mention previous work that you did on the same topic, referencing your papers from 1-2 years ago.  This way, people will get a sense that you are building a significant body of work, and you make it easy for them to find your results, even if published in a journal that they do not read regularly.
You should also have a well-organized web site that describes your research, and briefly discussed its importance in terms that a nonscientist can understand.  Include plenty of highlight images, and links to your papers, so readers who find your web site can also find your papers easily.  While this is now common practice for faculty, even graduate students can do this.
One way to get your research noticed by more people is to have it featured on the cover of the scientific journal it is published in.  The secret to getting a “cover article” is not necessarily to have the best or most important paper in the issue.  The key is actually to create an interesting-looking image in the course of the research, that makes use of microscope photos, computer simulation results, or a conceptual diagram.  Sometimes, people use the art department at their organization to make images that are colorful and interesting, if not scientifically informative.  When you receive notification that your paper was accepted for publication, send the journal editor your candidate cover image, and ask if they would consider using it for the issue that your paper will publish in.  Since few people go through all the extra work to create candidate cover images, your image is likely to be selected.  Not only does the cover image give you something nice to frame and put on your office wall, but you can highlight it to your department and colleagues, as if you are the MVP of the Superbowl, and made it to the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I have noticed that a lot more people are aware of papers that we published this way, since many people browse through the journal table of contents, and click on whatever looks interesting.  Being on the cover puts your paper in front of ~20-50 others, and you can feel famous for a week or a month, until the next issue comes out.
When your research group has an important breakthrough and publishes it, it can be a great idea to let your department or college publicity department know about it.   If it looks interesting to them, they might send someone over to interview you and your students, and to write a short article about your work.  These articles find their way to alumni newsletters, and home page highlights – but often a press release issued by a university will be picked up by other news organizations.  The people who write technology sections of major newspapers, technology web sites, and trade journals are constantly trolling for stories about technical developments that are new, interesting, and that have broad potential for the field or for the public.  So even if you don’t know the editors of major newspapers or trade magazines, you can make yourself easier to find through the publicity department of your university.  You should definitely make friends with them, and help their staff writers draft accurate and interesting stories about your work.  This is also a great opportunity for graduate students to get some publicity.  Always include their names in the stories and include them in any photos or videos.  After all, they are the ones doing the lab work and solving all the problems.  I know of instances in which the only person ever mentioned in the lab publicity is the professor, as if he/she is a lone genius who made everything happen, as if by magic.  People notice this, and label the faculty as greedy for publicity.  The same idea about publicity applies if you or one of your students is awarded with some kind of special recognition.  You should definitely let your department know when someone has won a best poster award, best paper award, or a major competitive fellowship. 
Is it possible to promote yourself too much?  It’s a hard question to answer.   I know of faculty whose every journal paper is an act of self-promotion, who put at least as much effort into the photographs and cover art as they put into the scientific data.  I know of faculty who insist on creating a big press release for nearly every paper, and get front-page treatment for every grant award, license agreement, or other routine events.  I have seen examples of faculty to breathlessly claim to be on the path to curing blindness, making Harry Potter invisibility cloaks, and making autonomous nano-robots that will navigate through your arteries, cleaning out the plaque.  I have even seen research centers with goals that seem to imply that they will do away with death itself!  I have seen major faculty who rarely ever mention the contributions of their graduate students and postdocs.  Another trend in recent years has been to take ordinary items, and to make them “smart” by incorporating some technology within them.  Examples include “smart” bandaids, tattoos, surgical gloves, noses, and even bricks!
The temptation to over-exaggerate the importance of one’s research may seem overwhelming, especially since the examples I cited above all come from investigators who have been incredibly successful in winning research grants, chaired professorships, and technical society awards.  At some level, selling themselves as having a big vision, even if several miracles would need to occur in order to make the big vision come true, makes them seem important and farsighted.  On the other hand, I know that many people who recognize such proclamations as empty marketing, and grow annoyed when reality does not come close to matching the rhetoric.  However, I would say that this group is comprised of people who are technically very knowledgeable, and therefore in the minority.  Most people cannot tell when something that sounds spashy and exciting is the real thing.
So my advice on self-promotion is to do it, but to not over-do it.  Save your attempts for garnering publicity for the instances that truly merit it, while making sure to keep performing and communicating excellent science our technical colleagues.  Keep your extrapolations of your technical work to a realistic level, but be mindful of how you might adapt your work to make a contribution to a larger vision.  Hopefully, in this way, you will gain the respect and trust of your colleagues, let the wider world that you are working on something exciting, and to be able to deliver on the promise of your work.