Thursday, December 9, 2010

The ECE Hallows

Speech at HKN Dinner – December 5, 2010

The ECE Hallows, by Brian T. Cunningham

It is 1950.  The new ECE building is only one year old, and William Everitt is now the Dean of the College of Engineering after having served as the Department Head since 1944.

Three ECE seniors have been staying up late every night for the past two weeks to complete their final project before the end of the semester.  Nothing seems to have gone right, and as a result they are tired, frustrated, and by ~2AM they are considering giving up. 

Unexpectedly, Prof. Everitt walks into the laboratory.  He says, “I have noticed how hard you have been working, since I have been seeing the lights on in this lab every night for the past two weeks.  I just wanted to stop by and see what you are up to.”

One of the students said, “Well Prof. Everitt, to tell you the truth, we have only been here so much because we can’t seem to get our project to work at all.  In fact, we were just discussing whether we would give up on the whole thing, and we were wondering whether we are really cut out for being engineers at all!”

Prof. Everitt replied, “I can see how dedicated you are, and I want to help.  It is within my power to grant each of you one wish.  However, consider what you wish for carefully.”

The first student thought for ~5 seconds and said “Prof. Everitt, this project has made me worried that maybe I am not a truly great engineer, so my wish is to never be fired from my job.” 

Prof. Everitt reached into his briefcase, and took out a pair of bright orange Illini boxer shorts.  Presenting them to the first student, he said “these are the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility.  As long as you wear them, you can never be fired or laid off from your job. 

The second student said “Prof. Everitt, you would not believe how much time I spend studying for exams and working on my homework assignments, but I still get B’s in some of my classes.  I wish that I could be like one of those genius students who can get everything right without studying.”

Prof. Everitt reached into his briefcase again, and took out an orange Illini pencil.  Presenting it to the student, he said “this is the Pencil of Infallibility.  As long as you use it, every answer that you write with it will be 100% correct.  Immediately recognizing the enormous value of such an artifact, the student gratefully accepted it.

The third student said “Prof. Everitt, I think that my biggest problem is that I do not have the energy to do all the things that I want to do.  Sometimes I try hard and fail, and that makes it hard to keep going the next time.  I just wish that I never get tired or discouraged.”

Looking into his briefcase once more, Prof. Everitt took out an Illini rubber duck.  Giving it to the third student, he said “this is the Duck of Willpower.  If you take a nice hot bubble bath with it, you will find that you will have a positive outlook on all your problems the next day, and the energy to work on them”  The third student took the duck, and thanked Prof. Everitt, thinking that she got the lousiest gift of the three, especially because she did not like taking baths.

Prof. Everitt turned to go home, saying, “good luck with your project!” 

The students could not believe what just happened, and really just thought that Prof. Everitt was playing a joke on them, since he was known for having a great sense of humor. 

However, just out of curiosity, the second student sharpened his new Pencil of Infallibility, and tried again to analyze the problem that they were trying so hard to solve just a few minutes ago.

 Miraculously, he suddenly knew exactly what formula to write down, and even somehow clearly understood what his equation meant.  Excited now, he continued solving equations, recalling concepts that he somehow knew despite never having studied them.  It was as if, as long as he wrote with the Pencil, he was an incredible genius without even trying. 

Within an hour, he completely understood what they had been doing wrong, and could see how to make the project work perfectly.  It was amazing.

The two other students were equally amazed.  They could see that the Pencil had incredible powers, and they now took their own gifts seriously.  The three students made a promise to never discuss this night ever again with anyone, as long as they lived!  They finished their project, and went their separate ways.

Student #1 (the one with the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility) graduated that year, and got a job as a design engineer with a big government defense contractor.  Even though he did not think he really needed the Boxer Shorts on his first day of work, he wore them anyway, and got into the habit of wearing them every Monday through Friday.

Things at the company were actually pretty good for 4 years or so, since the company was growing and hiring like crazy.  Profits were at record levels and everyone was getting stock options and bonuses every year.  He thought that he probably wasted his wish, and stopped wearing the boxer shorts since his wife (a Purdue graduate) thought they were unattractive. 

However, after the fifth year, the economy was bad, defense spending was down, and the company president retired.  The new management team was known mostly for their skill in “downsizing” at their previous company. 

Before long, there was a round of layoffs, and ~15% of the employees at the student’s department were let go.  He made sure to wear the boxer shorts to work each day without fail. 

The company reorganized, and 50% of his department was let go, while the rest were combined with another department.  The department was sold off to be managed by a hedge fund based in Sweden, and suddenly he did not even know who his boss was anymore.  He started wearing the boxer shorts on weekends just to be safe. 

Nothing was ever good anymore at his company after that.  However, no matter what happened, he always seemed to end up with a job somewhere in the company.

As a result, he started to believe that he really was invincible.  He started coming into the office later and later in the morning, and leaving earlier in the afternoon.  If there was a project deadline, he did not worry about it. 

He had seen so many of his projects scrapped, dropped, or changed over the years that he did not see the point anymore.  He started taking longer lunch hours, and sat around complaining about the crappy management of the company and endlessly trying to figure out what the next calamity was going to be, based on cryptic comments made by the management in the newspapers. 

One year, a few people at the company left to form a new startup, but he was never considered. 

Dissatisfied with the company, he tried to interview for a job at other companies, but the Boxer Shorts offered no aid in getting a new job, only enabling him to keep his current one.  Former managers and coworkers did not write very strong recommendation letters for him, so new employers stayed away. 

On the positive side, the boxer shorts allowed him to devote plenty of time to his outside interests, so he had plenty of hobbies, traveled a lot, volunteered in his community, and spent a lot of time with his family.  So it wasn’t all bad, as long as the company itself never went out of business…

The student with the Pencil of Infallibility finished his senior year with amazing success.  Every homework assignment was absolutely perfect, and he got perfect scores on every exam. 

Finishing his senior year with all A+ grades allowed him to get several job offers with high salaries, and he took a job that would allow him to do a lot of hard core engineering problem solving and analysis. 

His bosses were amazed, and soon started throwing every hard problem at him. 

The student was starting to get a little worried though.  He had to use the pencil as sparingly as possible because it got shorter every time he sharpened it.  He realized that once it ran out, his magic streak of easy infinite knowledge would end! 

The Pencil had other shortcomings.  Even though he would always be right when he used the pencil, he could not explain what he wrote to someone else, unless it was about something that he actually understood. 

Further, he found that all the “big” problems at the company were actually worked on by teams of people, and that no one person could possibly do everything themselves.  Since people soon realized that he was not a “team player” he got assignments that allowed him to analyze small aspects of problems, and he was never put in charge of a group. 

He also found that many problems could not be solved by mathematical analysis alone, and that success of the company’s products depended on things like whether or not the customers actually liked them, the needs of the market, and other human factors.

He started to fear the day that his pencil would run out, and people would discover that he did not really know anything. 

In fact, because the pencil was so good, he did not put a lot of effort into keep current in the quickly changing engineering world, and his actual knowledge was getting out of date. 

With only ¼ of the pencil remaining, he decided that he needed to take drastic action soon.  Wisely, he put the pencil away and starting studying and solving problems on his own.  He read scientific journals in several fields and took classes whenever he could in both engineering topics and management. 

He worked on developing his people skills, and gradually gained more and more responsibility, getting raises and promotions every few years.  He only took the pencil out once a year to do his taxes.

The student with the Duck of Willpower also put her gift to good use during the rest of senior year.  It seemed to give her the extra drive that she needed to study a little longer and to figure out homework problems without asking the TA for help every time she got frustrated. 

The Duck also seemed to get her to take on challenges and opportunities that she previously felt too flustered to take on.  She did an undergraduate research project with one of her professors, who recommended that she attend graduate school. 

She took on leadership roles in the student chapter of IEEE. 

In fact, her Willpower seemed to be infectious, since it seemed like other students would get interested in activities like mentoring and technical seminars only after she started organizing them. 

She soon got used to the baths, and used the time to relax and to plan what she would devote her energy to next. 

Once in graduate school, the Duck of Willpower was also very useful.  She took the initiative to read the scientific literature in her research field, and tried to understand what the key problems were that needed to be solved. 

Instead of waiting for her advisor to tell her exactly what to do every week, she would go into the lab and do what she thought was needed, and report back with her results.  Many of her experiments failed, some several times, but eventually she could always identify the problems and get things to work correctly.

The Willpower seemed to extend to life outside of work, so she could pursue any outside interest with equal energy, so she took up playing the guitar and ballroom dancing. 

In her first job after graduate school, it was not long before she was supervising a group of employees leading to the development of their leading product.  When she and a few co-workers saw an opportunity to spin out a new company, she jumped at the chance, and was soon convincing venture capital investors to put millions of dollars into her idea.  Needless to say, she was enormously successful both personally and professionally.

This story is a fable, but the point is to ask you to think about what you want out of yourself, your life, and your career. 

What is the best attribute to have, and to develop within yourself? 

Is it to be “safe?” 

Is it to be a “genius?” 

One point of my story is that, especially now, safety is an illusion.  Companies come and go.  Departments reorganize.  Economies go up and down.  Safety is actually attained by being the best you can be, and by making yourself valuable through your knowledge, attitude, skills, and effort. 

A second point of my story is that genius is a gift that VERY few people have. 

As a student, it seemed to me like there were always a few people to whom everything came easily, and that little effort was needed to get the highest grades.  I found that, even though I was far from being the smartest student, if I tried hard enough, I could get myself to understand almost anything. 

Most people who we think of as brilliant actually are very dedicated to developing their skill over time.  The more you work at being good at something, the better you get at it. 

This applies to writing, engineering, playing a musical instrument, sports, and many other areas of life. 

Certainly a little ability and the opportunity to learn from excellent teachers helps.  You all have that ability, and I would argue that your education at Illinois is among the best engineering education institutions that exists in the world today.

Through circumstances that I am not at liberty to divulge, I have come to possess all three of the magical items that Prof. Everitt gave to those students in 1950, including a renewed Pencil of Infallibility. 

Since I was granted tenure three years ago, I no longer need the Boxer Shorts of Invincibility. 

Since I am a professor, of course now I am never wrong, so I do not use the Pencil of Infallibility either. 

If you would like to borrow either of these for a while, let me know. 

I will, however, hold on to the Rubber Duck of Willpower, since even for professors, that is useful from time to time especially at the end of the semester!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Industry and Academia – What are the Differences?

When I graduated with my PhD in 1990 and searched for my first job, becoming a professor was one of the furthest things from my mind.  It’s hard for me to remember now why I did not consider life as a professor as an option – but I had an idea that I wanted to get out into the “real” world and to have a role in making products that people would actually use, rather than just publishing papers in scientific journals.  Also, even though I had published papers in some of the top journals, worked for a very famous advisor, and came from one of the best university-based research groups in the world in my field (compound semiconductors) I somehow did not feel qualified to be a professor on my own.  It just seemed that there was a huge gap between what my advisor and other professors were able to do, and my perceptions of my own capabilities.  Could I teach?  Could I raise money?  Could I do a decent job advising someone else, when I hardly knew what to do myself?

Also, at the time that I was ready to hold a job, there were several great alternatives to academia within industry for someone who was interested in doing basic research.  Big industrial research laboratories such as Bell Labs, IBM TJ Watson Research Center, and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center all operated world-class research centers that promised great facilities, top-notch collaborators, higher-than-academic salaries, and a streamlined path to commercializing ideas.  Many large semiconductor, automotive and defense companies had research laboratories that followed the Bell Labs model, including Raytheon, General Motors, Ford, TRW, Texas Instruments, Hewlett Packard, and Hughes.  Rather than pursuing an academic career, many of the brightest students were heavily recruited by these organizations, which offered a highly attractive combination of stability (without having to obtain outside funding support), the ability to publish and patent extensively, and no requirement to teach classes.  National laboratories such as Sandia National Laboratory, Lincoln Laboratory, Draper Laboratory, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Lawrence Livermore offered very similar research experiences, but often with requirements to work on projects with a “secret” classification that would make it harder to publish.

Through the course of several economic recessions that occurred since the late 1980’s, most of the corporate research laboratories that I mentioned have been either completely eliminated or folded into the manufacturing parts of the company.  In some cases, “research” could be more accurately described as incremental product development, with the goal of more quickly delivering product enhancements to existing product lines, rather than developing fundamentally new products that the company might bring to market 5-10 years down the road.  While business executives can rightfully point to increased efficiencies that are realized through operating in this way (due to elimination of projects that might consume millions of  research dollars per year, and yet generate no revenue), there are now fewer opportunities for young engineers to develop the skills and resume that would help them make a transition to academia later in their careers.  As a result, in my opinion, the most innovative research now takes place at universities, startup companies, and national laboratories – but that will be the topic of a later blog entry.

Since I have worked at a big industry research laboratory (Raytheon Company’s Research Division – now closed), two government laboratories (Sandia National Laboratory and Draper Laboratory – both still open), a startup company (SRU Biosystems – also still open), and most currently at a university (University of Illinois – still going strong since opening its doors in 1868), students sometimes ask me about the advantages and disadvantages of each.  The following list is only my opinion, based upon only my own experiences and those gathered from friends and colleagues over the last 20 years.  There are exceptions to every rule, and your own experiences may differ.  I will start with corporate research labs of big companies.

Corporate Lab Advantages
·      Strong focus on translating R&D projects into something that makes an impact on the marketplace in the short term.  If you want to see your work “out there” right away, then this is the place for you.  The best labs are tied in pretty closely with marketing and manufacturing, and are highly focused on developing new features that are sought by customers of that can address a niche that might give some advantage over a competitor that is offering something similar. 
·      Can be an exciting environment since product development cycles are now very fast in some industries.  Trade shows at conferences can be filled with intrigue (what are the competitors going to unveil this time?) high stakes business deals, and the experience of being part of a big team (i.e. everyone wearing the same shirt to trade shows).
·      If you like to be told what to do or assigned tasks by your manager, then this is the place to go for a new graduate.  Especially at the beginning, a new PhD or MS engineer will not have much autonomy, with tasks or projects being assigned according to needs.
·      The pay can be good.  In some companies more than others, there are opportunities to earn performance bonuses, based upon the market success of your project or meeting some performance objectives.
·      There is a perception of job stability, but this can be an illusion (see “Disadvantages” below).
·      Despite a (sometimes) short-term focus, there can still be opportunities for performing more fundamental research and proposing new ideas if the topic is directly related to a company’s core strengths.
·      If you don’t like writing research grant proposals or raising money from investors, then this is the place for you.  You might still need to convince internal managers to fund projects that you support, so you are not totally off the hook.
·      A lot of people work 8AM-5PM, but there can be periods of longer hours near deadlines.  People who want to be seen as ambitious will consistently work longer hours.  Overall, it is not impossible to have outside interests and a family life.

Corporate Laboratory Disadvantages
·      At a really big place, it can feel like your own personal contribution to the success of the company is extremely small or nonexistent.  When I worked at Raytheon, the company’s annual sales were in the billions.  When a new idea would be proposed for some new semiconductor component, managers would ask: “what is the size of the market that we could generate with this product?”  If the answer was “0.01 billion dollars per year” the whole effort would be “in the noise” in the context of the whole company’s sales.  The same idea might be considered as a more substantial opportunity somewhere else.
·      Even if your company is large, job stability is an illusion.  Companies of all sizes are constantly going through re-organizations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies, etc.  For every merger or acquisition that happens, there are probably at least 10 that “almost” happen but that don’t go forward for some reason.  Regardless, each transition results in disruption to your potential job function, who you work for, whether your job will be sent elsewhere (another state or country), and whether you will still have a seat after the music stops in the game of corporate musical chairs.  Each of these events can present new opportunities, but can also lead to much hand-wringing and rumors, as people try to guess what is going to happen to their job.  In my opinion, your only source of stability is to perform excellent work at all times and to maintain the highest ethical standards at all times.  When your boss’s boss is looking to lay off some percentage  of the division, you want to be the most valuable person – the one they would never consider letting go.
·      Big companies can have big bureaucracy.  Decisions about anything important can take layers of management approval, hours of meetings, committees, and consultants.  This can especially be a problem if the company is considering doing something new.  It is much easier to come up with excuses to kill an idea than it is to take a risk on advocating a new idea, which results in, very often, new technologies getting killed at a big company before they get a chance to become a product.
·      You will not get much vacation time – all least at first.  Two weeks of vacation  per year for the first few years at a big company are standard.
·      You may not get much opportunity to publish.  If you think that you would like be become a faculty member someday, it is important to establish a publication trail.  Some positions will provide more opportunity than others to publish research results.  Often, if the R&D project is comprised of incremental advances, scientific journal submissions may not be reviewed very favorably or the company will suppress publication in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
·      In my experience, some (but certainly not all) managers seemed to be promoted for odd reasons.  The people with greatest ability were often passed over in favor of those with the most obvious ambition, in a process that is far from rigorous.  This resulted in management positions being occupied by those with the best ability to please their bosses, rather than those with the best technical understanding, organization skills, or people-management skills.  While some managers were outstanding, I was puzzled by how others got their position.

Government Laboratory Advantages
·      Since my time at Sandia National Laboratory was a relatively short 9-month  postdoc, my comments here are drawn from my experience as a scientist in the MEMS group at Draper Laboratory.
·      Because they offer a research environment with good funding, strong laboratory facilities and good job stability, you will find that government labs have some of the brightest people working at them.  Many people have risen to become highly respected world leaders in their technical specialty in this environment.  Government laboratories tend to focus on big problems of national importance that do not have solutions that can be solved in one quarter. 
·      Because the national laboratories address tough problems, it is possible for your work to make a fundamental impact on the environment, space exploration, energy, fundamental physics, national defense capabilities, transportation, and many others.
·      Funding for these priorities goes through up/down cycles that are not as rapid as those within companies, but can shift due to the whims of Congress.  Despite this, I cannot think of any national laboratories that have gone out of business.  Many engineers have enough flexibility to shift to different projects as the priorities change.  In general, there is more job stability than at a company.
·      Some research at national laboratories may be classified as “secret” and therefore impossible to pubish.  However, this is not strictly the case.  At Draper Laboratory, I worked on non-classified projects in parallel with my classified projects.  Even though I had to fill out long forms and obtain several signatures to obtain publication permission, it would generally be granted it I could convince all concerned that no government secrets would be revealed.
·      National laboratories have funding and flexibility to explore new research areas and some funding to go after them in a meaningful way.  Many labs are getting into “hot” research fields such as nanotechnology, life science technologies, energy transduction, sensor networks, autonomous systems, and many others.  Researchers generally do not write grant applications to NIH or NSF, but may write internal research proposals or proposals to other government agencies (such as DARPA) where political connections of your managers make a big difference in your chances for getting funding.
·      At Draper Laboratory, I found the environment to be very conducive to proposing new research directions, especially if it could lead to getting outside funding.  The lab sponsored internal proposal contest to help foster new ideas and to encourage development of proposal-writing skills.
·      If the lab is affiliated with a university, there can be opportunities to continue your education through taking classes, earning a degree, teaching a class, or mentoring graduate students.  There is no expectation that scientists at a national lab will teach, but there can be opportunities for teaching if you actively seek them out.
·      You can come into work at 8AM and leave at 5PM if you want to, without being thought of as lazy.  A few people work longer hours when needed, but generally the parking lot was getting emptied out by 6PM.

Government Laboratory Disadvantages
·      Salary is generally on par with that of industry, but without the opportunity for stock options and bonuses.
·      Government laboratories can have similar bureaucracy to corporations in terms of management layers, meetings, and big-decision making.  At the level of a scientist working in the lab, I hardly experienced bureaucracy at all, however.
·      If your goal is to develop a technology into a commercial product or a spin-out company, doing it from a national lab is possible, but making the transition can be a challenge.  Some laboratories have technology transfer offices, but I have not seen these be as effective at starting successful companies as independent entrepreneurs.
·      There is little incentive for people to work together, resulting in a substantial degree of politics to obtain people and resources for a project.  Entrenched people can sometimes simply refuse to cooperate with others and focus instead on their own narrow interests.  In one case at Draper Laboratory, a senior scientist was being verbally abusive and insulting to one of the junior female engineers on my team – in front of many witnesses.  Since I was the project leader, I removed the offending senior person from the team, who howled in protest to every senior manager who would listen to him.  I don’t know how many hours of meetings I had to endure to deal with this jerk, but at a small company I could have simply fired him.  Higher level managers simply wanted to smooth over problems and to protect the ego of a prima-donna.
·      People are managed on a very strict accounting system for reporting the use of your time (in 6-minute increments – I am not kidding) so that the correct budget can be charged for your time.  This leads to every engineer, scientist, secretary, and technician scrounging for “charge numbers” for performing even the smallest task.  This has a stifling effect on trying to get traction for any new idea that does not have a large existing budget.
·      People cost a lot.  The overhead rates at national labs are very high, resulting in a cost of >$200-250K/year to support a single engineer.  Even a project with a few people working on it needs a great deal of financial support.

Startup Company Advantages
·      Starting your own company is an experience like no other – but I will try to write from the perspective of someone who is thinking about joining an existing small company.
·      Your work will have a strong impact on the success (or failure!) of the company.
·      There is a greater sense of teamwork than in any other type of organization, since everyone is in the same boat, and everyone will swim or sink together.  There is less tolerance for people who cannot get along or who want to do their own thing.  They will be asked to leave before their attitude spreads far.  That is not to say there is no conflict – quite the contrary.  People feel passionately about the company, and will argue passionately for defining the path that they believe will be successful.
·      A startup offers the best potential to substantially benefit financially, IF the company proves to be successful.  We all know stories of people with stock in startups who became millionaires after the company was sold or after it went public.  There is also the possibility that the company will fail, or that the venture capital investors will capture most of the financial benefit before employees get much money.
·      At a startup, there are opportunities to gain experience with a wide variety of roles and tasks.  For example, I’ve taken part in marketing, creating the web site, designing a company logo, business negotiations, manufacturing process development, fundraising, hiring, and business planning.  Some of the tasks are definitely non-glamorous (fixing the copy machine, setting up the internal wireless network, ordering/unpacking office furniture, finding leaks in the roof, shoveling the snow…) but they build character, I am told.
·      You will find a different style of engineer at a startup company.  I was fortunate to work with people with impressive technical skills, a get-it-done attitude, and dedication to excellence.  There is no time to study something for two years before trying to implement it, so there is more of a “just build it, test it, and we’ll understand it all later” mentality that helps move projects along quickly.
·      A startup has the ability to adapt to new market opportunities and customer preferences very quickly, resulting in a big advantage against larger rivals.  The skills of the management team, scientists, and engineers have a direct impact on the ability of the company to become and stay profitable.  The Darwinian effect of this kind of pressure for survival results in, I believe, a prevalence of more effective managers and leaders at startup companies than at large companies.  The bad ones simply do not get to stay at the job very long before someone forces them out.
·      If you work for a startup company that grows, it is possible to move up the management ranks much more quickly than you could at a big company, resulting in greater authority and salary at an earlier age. 

Disadvantages of a Startup Company
·      Of all the working environments, a startup is perhaps the least stable, because they can fail for so many reasons – not all of which are directly under your control.   The world is not exactly kind to startups, with big companies trying to keep them out of established markets, the challenges of obtaining funding, and many others.  Some people prefer the action/adventure, while others find it very stressful to wonder whether their organization will still exist in one month or one year.
·      By necessity, a startup must be highly focused on the product, requiring all elements of the team to pull together.  As a result, a startup may not be the right place to start your own separate new idea.  However, successful startup companies will continue to introduce new products, so opportunities for developing a new idea are certainly possible.
·      Work hours at a startup can be very demanding.  There are many milestones (imposed by investors, business partners, customers, trade shows) that simply must be met if the company is going to survive (or at least it always seems that way).  Expect to work nights and weekends – sometimes for a long period.  However, there are often compensations (like bonuses, time off, company recognition awards) for these efforts.
·      Even if the startup company consumes your life, hardly anybody else has heard of you!  There is an implicit assumption that you are just out to make a buck that results in some scientists looking down on you.  You will find yourself always explaining what your company does – even several years after it was founded – to people who have not heard of your products.
·      Universities de-value time spent at a startup compared to national laboratories, perhaps because of the low-prestige effect mentioned in the last point.  For example, even though I had dozens of patents, many publications, and started a successful company, the University of Illinois would only hire me as an associate professor without tenure, compared to younger faculty with Bell Labs experience or faculty experience who were made full professors nearly 5 years before I was. 

Advantages of Being a Professor
·      One of the best things about being a faculty member is the freedom to work on whatever ideas you are excited about, and to NOT spend your time on ideas that you believe are a waste of time.  You can work on any idea that you can get financial support for, which provides the opportunity to explore new ideas, to be creative, and to try things out that nobody has done before.  This is part of the excitement of being a scientist, and one of the things that I enjoy the most. 
·      Many people outside academia consider the obligation to teach to be a disadvantage, but I consider it to be a very strong advantage.  By teaching, not only are you contributing to the development of a new generation of students, but you also have to keep your own engineering skills very sharp.  When I taught undergraduate electromagnetics for the first time, I had to re-study Maxwell’s equations all over again – something I had not done in many years.  By understanding the fundamental concepts well enough to be able to teach them (and to teach them over and over again) actually results in a deeper understanding which in turn results in better research.
·      Having the opportunity to help young people get their careers off to a great start is highly motivating and personally rewarding.  I recall the teachers in my life who had the most positive impact on my outlook and education – it is great to have the opportunity to “pay it forward” to the next generation of students.
·      My colleagues are each, in their own area of expertise, among the best in the world.  This means that no matter what topic I am interested in, I directly talk with and work with people who are at the top of their field.  So much research is interdisciplinary, that this is a critical advantage.
·      I don’t really have a boss.  There is nobody who I report to every day, who checks up on my weekly or monthly progress, or who tells me exactly what I must do.  (see the topic under “Disadvantages: Everybody is my boss.”)  I am actually SUPPOSED to spend some of my time reading, writing, and thinking.  I am actually SUPPOSED to travel around the world to scientific conferences and universities in cool places and share my research results by giving presentations and meeting people.  I am actually EXPECTED to organize new initiatives to help educate students more effectively, and to meet with people across the country to figure out how to do it.  I am highly ENCOURAGED to participate in meeting with faculty colleagues from around the country to discuss and to evaluate the best research proposals in fields like nanotechnology, medical imaging, genomics technologies, and many others.
·      Being a faculty member results in development of strong and lasting interpersonal relationships with students, faculty, administrators, company representatives, and even parents.  I get to work with and interact with a much wider variety of people from different cultural and educational backgrounds that in any other job I have had.  I even teach a middle-school class on Electromagnetics, basically because I wanted to.
·      People have a lot of respect for professors.  Even though I am still basically the same person who I was before I was a faculty member, I have observed that people are more respectful to me now.   Not only students and parents, but also scientists, lawyers, business people, investors who I meet anywhere.  Nobody was this nice to me when I was a startup company CTO.  I think that there is a general recognition that faculty members put in extra time and effort for the benefit of students, at the expense of maximizing their salaries.  Since faculty are experts in their fields, their impartial expertise is highly sought after, where faculty may serve as consultants.
·      Working with students helps you keep a youthful attitude.  I have met many middle-aged engineers and scientists who have become highly cynical in their careers, but that trait is very rare in faculty members.  Students have such optimism and personal drive that even when asked to take on a very challenging task, they can do it extremely well, without even really knowing why the task was supposed to be difficult.  When I ask students what they would like to do in their careers, some say things like “get a job and make money,” but many others want to improve human life, develop exciting new technology, and make a positive impact on the world.  It’s really refreshing to hear that!

Disadvantages of Being a Professor
·      Being a professor is not so much of a job, as it is a way of life.  It can occupy much more of your time than any other job, even compared to founding a startup company.  Many of the responsibilities are very pleasant (award ceremonies, entertaining campus visitors), others are tedious (grading 80 midterm exams), and others just come with the territory (writing graduate school recommendation letters, faculty meetings, committees).  However, there are many separate groups of people who need your time, and there is only so much of it to give out.  Evening exams, banquets, faculty meetings, conference calls, meetings with graduate students, grant progress reports, answering ~100 emails/day, teaching, preparing to teach, generating homework problems, interviewing faculty candidates…) all take time.  I find that I work for ~2 hours every weekday evening and 8-12 hours on the weekends to keep up during the semester.
·      Everyone is my boss!  I find that I am constantly doing things for other people.  This includes multiple department heads, deans, lab directors, grant agency program managers, proposal team leaders, proposal review panel leaders, and committee chairpeople.  While it is true that you do not have a very invasive boss, you will find that you are serving many different groups and leaders at the same time.  Of course, none of these “bosses” coordinate with each other, so it is possible to have many reports, meetings, proposals, and reviews to work on, that are all due at approximately the same time.
·      Students think that they work pretty hard, but most of them accomplish only a fraction of the work of a good full time engineer – at least until they get near the end of their PhD.  Students are constantly distracted by homework assignments, midterm exams, small bumps in their personal lives, a million hobbies, and travelling around the world.  It still amazes me how long it takes for a new student to accomplish simple tasks.  Students seem to get sick with amazing frequency and duration compared to adult engineers who I have worked with.  Perhaps they do not get enough sleep or maintain a good diet!  Once focused on a goal, however, students are capable of working much longer hours than a non-student engineer, but this tends to happen in short bursts of activity. 
·      Achieving full-time professor status and tenure at a major research university is a big-time career challenge.  Even though your boss does not tell you what to do, there will be a promotion/tenure review committee that will closely study your record of accomplishments.  So even though nobody is watching you, people really ARE watching you.  Developing a record of excellent publications, successful proposals, service to your professional societies, excellent teaching reviews, and successful mentoring of graduate students takes a sustained commitment to developing your skills.  I am not sure whether this is a disadvantage or not, but it is a constant source of stress.  You are effectively being evaluated by all the senior faculty in your department and by many of the senior people (worldwide) in your research field who will be asked to provide external recommendation letters for your promotion.
·      Writing research grant applications can be a major time commitment and a mentally agonizing process.  Actually, the proposal writing is not the hard part for me anymore.  Rather, it is reading the review comments.  Sometimes, reviewers have some excellent insights and suggestions that would help to make a proposal stronger, but often the comments are totally incorrect, or indicate that the reviewer completely missed something that was written in the proposal.  Some funding agencies (NIH) provide an opportunity to respond to reviewer comments, while others (NSF) do not.  Regardless, there is a large time lag (perhaps 2 years) between the conception of an idea, preparing preliminary data to “prove” that the idea will work, proposing the idea, and getting outside funding for the idea.
·      Students seem obsessed with “points.”  Of course, students take classes to earn a grade, and their GPA’s are important to them.  When I was a student, I wanted to earn as many points on homework assignments and exams as I could, but I don’t recall trying to beg the professors for extra points or easier grading.  In the greater scheme of things, the “points” seem so trivial, but it drives me nuts at the end of the semester when students beg for a higher grade than they earned because they “need” it.  There is at least one student who does this every semester.  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Candid Advice on Taking the PhD Qualifying Exam

One of the rites of passage for earning a PhD in engineering is taking an exam that determines, at an early stage, whether a student will be allowed to continue in graduate school.  The goal is to determine whether the student has the necessary background knowledge, research capabilities, and communication skills to be successful as a PhD candidate before the student spends years of his/her life working on a research project, by testing whether the student displays the characteristics that typically “qualify” successful PhD candidates.  Usually, the qualifying exams are called “quals” for short.  Students who do not pass the quals generally leave the university with a Masters degree, and are often very successful as they move ahead with their careers.  You might say, in the cases where a student fails, the exam saves the student years of frustration and poverty, while at the same time saving their advisor from financially supporting someone who would have a difficult struggle with thesis research and publication.

Before giving advice on taking the qual in the Illinois ECE department, I should relate a little bit of history.

Every university and department has its own process for administering a PhD qualifying exam.  Some departments require the students to take a long written exam with topics selected from a set of core undergraduate and graduate courses.  Other departments require the students to give a short presentation on a research topic.  Yet other qual exams involve a panel of 4-5 faculty asking the student to answer verbal questions by solving equations on a chalkboard.  In many cases, an exam may have components of all three methods!  In ~2007, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign made a transition from a 6-hour written qualifying exam to a ~1-hour oral exam.  In the previous written exam, the first 3-hour section was taken by every student, with questions all derived from core undergraduate classes.  In the second 3-hour section, students could select from a menu of technology areas, to receive questions close to their area of research.  The area-specific questions were typically difficult ones drawn from graduate level classes. 

The score from the exam was just one component of all the things that the department faculty would consider when determining whether a student would pass or fail.  After all the exams were taken and scored, the faculty would hold an evening meeting (lasting several hours) to discuss every student who took the test, going in alphabetical order.  A student’s class grades, exam score, and research progress (based on verbal comments from the thesis advisor) were all considered, and each faculty member would vote to either pass or fail the student.  While the exam score was not all-determining, a student in the bottom third of the scores would be at risk of failing, since the low score would lead to a discussion about whether the student truly had strong fundamental knowledge.  Although no set number or percentage of students were designated to pass or fail the exam, competition was always very fierce, because no students wanted to end up in the bottom third of the scores.  For this reason, students would spend several weeks (in some cases the majority of a semester) doing nothing but studying for the quals.  Some advisors would allow their students to take the time to study by giving them little or no research responsibilities during the qual semester, but other advisors would not.  Regardless, the time that students would spend rehashing material from their previous classes was seen by the faculty as a drag on productivity, since students who were doing nothing but studying were still being paid their research assistantships from grant sponsors.  One safety net that was (and still is) in place was that a student could have up to, but no more than, two chances at taking the qual.  If a student did not perform well on the first try, the faculty did not feel too bad about failing them and making them prepare better the next time.  If a student did not do well on the second try, there would be much more discussion to determine whether failing them would serve the best interests of the student and the department.  On the downside, students who did not pass on the first try would end up studying twice, resulting in almost an entire year of research being lost.

After several years of discussion and debate, the ECE faculty came to a decision to change the qual exam format from a written exam to an oral exam.  The thoughts behind this decision were that we already measure students’ fundamental knowledge through the grades that they earned in their classes, and that the written qualifying exam was redundant.  Also, the time that students spent studying was seen as a drag on their research productivity, but that students who were given time to focus on study had an unfair advantage.  Finally, because the purpose of the qual was to determine whether the student had the necessary abilities to succeed as an independent researcher, it was felt that a research presentation (in which the student prepared a written paper, gave a short presentation, and answered questions from a panel of faculty) would more accurately measure the students’ research capability.  I am not trying to make a statement about whether the new method is better than the old way – I am just trying to explain how the faculty arrived at this method and to give background that will help students to focus their preparation efforts.

The verbal qualifying exam is not without its problems.  Students with poor English language capabilities (or speaking/presentation skills in general) faced a new challenge.  Because the panel of faculty examining a student would be different for each student, there could not be absolute uniformity of verbal questioning.  Some faculty would be much more rigorous than others, so some students would get asked a greater number of more challenging questions than others.  While some students had some experience with a research project by the time they took the qual, others did not.  Students with more thorough research experience could draw upon material that they had developed through working with their advisor, that perhaps they had already had time to polish from a scientific journal article or a conference presentation.  To adjust for these differences between students, the ECE department has been instructing faculty more thoroughly about how to consider students in these different situations, and to provide some guidance (to students and faculty) about the type of knowledge students should come prepared to answer questions about.

What happens after a student gives their qual presentation?  The faculty on the exam committee meets immediately afterwards to discuss the student’s performance, and answers a series of questions about their background knowledge, handling of questions, the clarity of the written report, presentation skills, and specific knowledge relevant to the research.  Each component is scored on a scale of “Excellent,” “Good,” and “Needs Improvement.”  The faculty member who chairs the exam committee writes a consensus evaluation that summarizes the thoughts of all the faculty on the committee, which is reviewed and approved.  All of the written evaluations and scores are entered into a database, and all the information is available when the entire department faculty meets to discuss every student who took the exam.  In addition, the evaluation comments and scores are shared with the student.  As in the old system, the entire faculty meets to discuss each student’s case individually.  At the faculty meeting, the evaluation comments are available along with the grades (and class ranking) from every class taken by the student, and the student’s thesis advisor is required to make a verbal statement about the student’s research progress.

So how should a student navigate this process to maximize their chances of passing on the first try?

The process of preparation actually should begin as soon as a student enters graduate school with the intention of earning a PhD.  A student cannot earn a PhD (or even register to take the PhD qualifying exam) without a research advisor.  This means that a student must find a faculty member who is willing to advise them and (ideally) to provide financial support in the form of a Research Assistantship (RA).  This process is not trivial, and is so important that it should be a new graduate student’s highest priority.  Many graduate students enter the program with a research advisor already lined up, but this is not the case for everyone.  If a student has financial support from a Teaching Assistantship (TA), they will not always have an advisor.  In a later blog, I will write more about the process of finding an advisor, but why is it important to have an advisor for the qual?  The answer is that if a student begins working on a research project and learning the background knowledge to perform the research effectively, they are developing the skills and presentation material that will get them through the qual with flying colors.  If a student is working with a research advisor from the beginning of graduate school, they are effectively preparing for the qual from their first semester of graduate school.  If a student joins a research group in the same semester that they take the qual, they may only have had ~2 months to build this base of knowledge.  If you are a student in this situation, it is still possible to compensate, as I will discuss later.  However, in my opinion, if a student is actively working on a research project before they take the qualifying exam, it provides a tremendous advantage because they have something to write and talk about.

Secondly, I cannot overemphasize the importance of maintaining good grades.  Remember that at the meeting where your case will be discussed, every faculty member in the department will see the grade and class ranking for every class you have taken at Illinois.  Therefore, even if your instructor for graduate-level courses was an easy grader, all the faculty will still know how you performed compared to everyone else.  In graduate level courses, you may find that grading is on a different scale than what you may have been used to.  By graduate school, all of the students are already excellent, so most grades are A’s and B’s.  Earning a C in a class is almost equivalent to a failing grade, reserved for students who clearly were not doing the work or preparing for exams.  It is rare for a student with excellent grades to fail the qualifying exam, but students whose grade point average is 3.5 or below (earning half A’s and half B’s) will be scrutinized more thoroughly.  When a student is up for discussion, faculty generally know how the student performed in their class.  Was the student someone who participated actively and asked a lot of good questions in class, someone who showed good intellectual curiosity at office hours, or was he/she someone who rarely attended?  These types of things always come up, and help paint a picture of the student.  While it is not necessary for a student to have a near-perfect GPA to pass the qual, it is not wise to do poorly in class at the expense of spending every waking moment in the lab.  It is truly important to achieve a balance.

The new written part of the qual, in which the student is required to prepare a short paper describing their research, is your chance to show that you have been studying the background literature surrounding your research topic, and gaining a solid understanding of the important issue that impact your work.  The exam committee members will have read your paper before the oral exam, so the paper serves to introduce yourself to the committee before they even meet you.  The oral presentation will generally follow the outline of the paper, presenting the same information, so the paper serves to help students with poor presentation skills, since there is no time limit on preparing a good paper.  However, there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.  Make sure the paper is logically organized, written with proper English, and that all equations and figures are clearly easy to understand.  Student’s thesis advisors are not really supposed to edit and rewrite the paper, but it occurs occasionally.  Usually the committee can tell when something has been written by a professor rather than by a second year graduate student.  Instead of asking your advisor to edit your paper, ask a senior graduate student in your group, or a student who is a strong writer to proofread your paper.  Remember that some of the faculty in your area will be totally unfamiliar with your research area.  It is extremely important to explain things clearly, as if you are trying to educate someone who is learning about your area for the first time.  Errors such as failure to define variables in equations, using highly specialized jargon, failure to label axis on graphs, and failure to put size scale bars on images will drive your committee crazy, and you will always get negative comments for doing these things.  There is a page limit on length of the paper that should never be exceeded for any reason.  More is definitely NOT better.  You may think that you are showing enthusiasm by having paper that is three times longer than the page limit, but what this really shows is a lack of ability to describe complex concepts in a concise manner, and an inability to follow directions.  Your advisor may be asked how much of the paper is the student’s own work.  I have seen instanced in which the text of a student’s qual paper was lifted directly from journal papers from the thesis advisor’s published papers.  You should avoid doing this – the paper should represent your own words, and any technical descriptions taken from other work should be referenced.

Next, let’s discuss the presentation itself.  Even though this part is what students worry about the most, it is really only ~1/5 of everything that goes into the exam.  Just like the paper, the presentation should be logically organized (with an outline, and sections like “Introduction,” “Background,” “Methods,” “Results,” and “Conclusion.”)  Just like the paper, all the vugraphs should be clear to read (hint – use large fonts – your professors are old and can’t see that well!), all the variables should be defined, all the axis should be labeled, and all the images should have scale bars.  The presentation is meant to take 20 minutes, so you should definitely not try to deliver 60 slides in that amount of time (I have seen some students try).  You should PRACTICE.  A lot.  In front of other people.  If a student has given a conference presentation on their research, they often use the same material in their qualifying exam presentation, but for some students the qual may be the first presentation that they have ever delivered.  The members of your research group are extremely valuable resources because they can serve as your practice audience, and point out areas where your presentation was not clear.  It is also a great idea to have your friends throw questions at you, to give you the opportunity to think and answer on your feet.  Even though your talk should last for 20 minutes when it is not interrupted, the faculty on your committee are definitely going to ask you many questions, resulting in you presentation lasting for approximately 60 minutes.  The committee expects you to know about everything that is in your presentation.  If you present an equation that you do not completely understand (for example how to derive it, or its physical meaning) or if you describe background information that you have not thoroughly studied, you are asking for trouble.  Favorite questions by the faculty might be “tell me more about that technique you that the competing research group is using” or “where does that equation come from” or “what would happen if …”  These types of questions are meant to determine whether you truly understand the material that you are presenting, or whether you just copied it down from somewhere.

A word of advice for students who may have been working with their advisor for only a short time.  It is perfectly acceptable to mention this fact to your committee as you begin your presentation, by way of introducing your self.  You might start your presentation with a statement like: “Hello, my name is Joe Genius.  Thanks for serving on my exam committee.  I started working with my current thesis advisor, Prof. Andrea Wickedsmart, at the start of this semester.  Prof. Wickedsmart’s group does research in the area of fabric based invisibility cloaks, and my project will be to more fully develop the fabrication processes for building optical nanostructures into the fabric.  In my presentation today, I will briefly summarize the current state of knowledge around these invisibility cloaks, and describe the plan that Prof. Wickedsmart and I have developed for fabricating the nanostructures over large surface areas.”  This kind of statement (with the names changed of course) will serve to set the expectations that the committee will have for your presentation.  You have not been working on the research project for long enough to have new results of your own, but you are going to show them that you understand the current state of the art, some of the fundamental theory of operation, and that you have developed a plan for your research going forward.  To prepare, you should be studying journal literature very intensely, and asking your advisor (and senior graduate students in your group) a lot of questions.  Your classwork hopefully would be serving to build your background knowledge to help you understand the literature around your research topic.

The way that you handle questions about your presentation is probably more important than the prepared part of the talk, and this is where the greatest danger lies for failing the qual.  Even though you are giving the presentation about your research project, the committee is going to try to find out how you translate material that you learned from class into your research.  Some of the members of your exam committee will be faculty who know your research area very well, or they may be faculty who taught one of your previous classes.  It is extremely important to be able to show the committee that you retained and can use the most basic principles that you learned in class.  If, for example, a student is working on a project that relies heavily on the use of electromagnetic theory, it is not uncommon for the committee to try to find out how strong the student is in electormagnetism.  You might be asked to write one of Maxwell’s equations on the white board, or to write the equation for a propagating electromagnetic wave.  Anyone who is working with electromagntics should, in principle, be able to do that!  You might be asked how you would analyze a particular situation (such as what happens when an electromagnetic wave encounters a boundary between two dielectrics, or what happens when light is scattered inside a tissue).  The questions are usually tangentially related to the research topic, but emphasize the basics.  It is best to be able to not just wave your arms, but to be prepared to write down from memory some of the basic equations.  Many students fail to do this, and the faculty always shake their heads and say “I can’t believe that students working in this area can’t remember the (fill in the blank) equation.  It is fundamental to everything they are doing!”  Students working on transistors get asked transistor questions, while students working on lasers get asked laser questions.  There is no way to know in advance what question you will be asked, so this is where it is important to study and to be prepared in advance.  Being able to recall and apply even a simple concept from your former instructor’s class will make them incredibly happy.

Often, the committee tries to find the boundaries of your knowledge, to discover what you DON’T know.  In this case, the committee might lead with a simple question, and then start diving into more and more detail.  You should not be nervous about this, but just do the best that you can.  If you don’t know, it is better to say that you don’t know, or to outline how you would approach the problem, rather than to try to fake it.  Usually, the committee will give hints about how to think about it, to see if you can make connections to the next step.   It is definitely not a good idea to say things like “that question is not fair,” or “you can’t be serious” although I have seen that happen.  In one instance, a very senior faculty member asked a large number of questions, starting out with deep ones, and then making the questions simpler and simpler until the student could answer.  I could tell that the student was totally flustered, and was so nervous that he could not think clearly.   Even though the exam seemed like a disaster, after the exam was over the faculty member said “I thought he did pretty well!”  Remember that it is normal to be asked questions that might be beyond what you know.  If you are strong in the fundamentals and can show it, you will fare well in the scoring.

So as you can see, there is unfortunately no magical easy way to pass the quals.  Performing well requires a great deal of preparation, some long-term dedication to your research topic, and the ability to display that you have retained some fundamental principles.  The exam also requires students to work on learning how to write clearly and how to prepare an effective presentation.  I believe that it really focuses students to work on developing the same skills that they will need to be a successful researcher.