Saturday, October 27, 2012

How to Give a Talk Where I Stay Awake

I fall asleep during lectures. I have even fallen asleep during one-on-one meetings. While I am not proud of my poor attention span, it has made me think about what makes a speaker compelling. Here are some actionable items from my observations.

Develop rapport with your audience. If your audience can identify with you as a human being, they will have an easier time listening to you. There are many ways to establish rapport: for instance, by making eye contact, by making jokes, and by identifying things you have in common with the audience. Anecdotes--especially those from your struggle in coming up with the solution--are great. Treat the audience as potential supporters rather than potential detractors. Avoid being defensive.

Address your audience’s interests. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie says you should prioritize the other person’s desires and interests in conversation. For instance, the standard advice for technical talks is motivate the talk with respect to the questions the audience is interested in. There are also other dimensions of audience interest. For instance, some audiences may be interested in having everyone understanding all parts of a talk, whereas others may prefer talks with an obscure section that only a few experts understand. The interests need not be relevant to the topic at hand: for instance, internet kittens in addition to operating systems.

At least pretend you are having a two-way conversation. Speak at a reasonable pace.  Make eye contact.  Pause before and after the important points to give the audience time to process. The most engaging talks I have seen involve the audience without derailing the talk. This is done through asking questions the audience already knows, asking the audience to solve small problems, or asking the audience for questions. Strategically injecting opportunities for audience questions is the most lightweight way of achieving this. Skilled speakers may even moderate some amount of discussion.

Keep things interesting. Give a talk you would want to attend. Entertain. Tell a good story. Make slides that someone would want to look at (as little text as possible, with text as large possible). Make a cool interactive demo. Be outrageous.

Convey passion. If even you do not feel strongly, why should we care? Show this by putting energy into your speaking and/or by saying why you find something interesting.

In summary: focus on what the audience wants to hear rather than what you want to say. This is easier to achieve if you are comfortable with what you want to say. Prepare well. It is not uncommon for among my peers to run through a 20-minute talk at least five times. Being comfortable with your talk allows you to focus on establishing a connection with the audience and paying attention to their needs.

I hope to take some of this advice in my upcoming lectures and talks. Perhaps then I will not have to resort to throwing candy at those who have fallen asleep.

Monday, October 22, 2012

FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science

Over the years, I have gotten various e-mails asking me about what it is like to be a graduate student at MIT and how to apply.  I have compiled this list of frequently asked questions.


Q: What is the best school for studying computer science in the United States?  Where should I apply?
A: The top-ranked schools are MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Berkeley but the best school for you depends on many factors, including the area(s) you are interested in, the professor(s) you would work with, the size of the school, the size of the department, the location of the school, etc.  I would recommend applying to all schools you may be interested in and then talking to potential professors and their groups once you are admitted.

My personal notes from visit weekends at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Washington can be found here.


Q: Can you tell me about the work in research group X?
A: The best way before applying to get a sense of what is current in group X is to look at the websites of the professors and  the graduate students.  The group itself may also have a website.  After you are admitted, you will have plenty of opportunity to talk with professors and students to determine what is the best fit, either through the visit weekend or over the phone.


Q: How much work is the Computer Science Ph.D. program at MIT?
A: The course requirements tend to be lighter than other Ph.D. programs: I had four required courses and two additional for a non-CS minor.  (They may be changing this.)  The focus is on your research: as long as your advisor thinks you are doing good work and a couple of other professors can confirm this, there is not too much bureaucracy to deal with.

As for research, you are technically expected to do at least 20 hours of work for your advisor and 20 hours for coursework/your own interests.  I would say the average student should expect to work 40-60 hours a week, depending on how well they use their time and how demanding their advisor is.  The number of expected hours varies by student and by group.  I work on average 40 hours a week if there is no deadline, 50 hours a week the month before a deadline, and 60 hours right before a deadline.  I would imagine the amount of work expected of MIT students is comparable to that at other top computer science Ph.D. programs.

My blog posts Reasons to Pursue a Ph.D. and The Life of an Academic, Explained may also give you insights as to what life at MIT may be like.


Q: Could you look over my personal statement?
A: Unless I know you personally, I probably do not have time to look over your statement.  Here is some good advice, most of which was given to me by others:

  • Your personal statement should be an answer to the question "why should we admit you and what would it be like to have you here?"  You should argue convincingly for the first point while also giving an idea of your research interests and research personality.
  • Someone should be able to read your statement quickly to answer the question above.  Reading the first sentence of each paragraph should give someone a pretty good idea of what your statement says.
  • Leave out unnecessary details from your statement, especially if someone can find those details on your resume.
  • Be as concise as possible.
  • Don't use excessively flowery language.
  • Start early and revise often.  Show your statement to anyone who will read it and ask for their feedback.
I have posted one of my personal statements here.


Q: What advice do you have for me on my resume?
A: Here is some good advice for resumes:

  • Try to be as concise as possible.  If you are applying straight from undergraduate, there is little reason why your resume should exceed one page.
  • Use action verbs, state your achievements clearly--all that standard advice.  People should be able to quickly be able to evaluate the contributions you made in each role.  I prefer having 2-3 bullet points per role to clearly communicate this.
  • Ask other people who have graduated from your institution and/or people you have worked with to look over your resume.  They will have the best idea of what people expect and how it will be evaluated.

This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.

  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Glitter is How I Fell in Love with San Francisco

The mid-twenties women of my peer group all have one question on our minds.  Especially if we are in tech.  Should we move to San Francisco?

I had been living in San Francisco for a few weeks (during an internship) when a friend asked if I was in love with it.  "No" was my immediate response.  Not yet and maybe not ever.  People are so laid back, I said.  All I do is work and commute (from the southern Mission to Menlo Park, 45 minutes, twice each day).  Where are the intellectuals?  Where are the Europeans?  Why is everyone so outdoorsy? And why is it so cold?

I subsequently had several conversations about why I was not in love.  Try to like it more, my other friends said.  You of all people can figure out how to enjoy yourself there.

And so I started spending more time in the city: wearing scarves and finding the flat places to bike.  I went into the uniquely American natural beauty of California's mountains and redwood groves.  I went on hilly runs with breathtaking views of the city and the water.  I ate sushi; I ate pork belly; I ate everything.

One night I acquired loose glitter to wear to what a new friend and I thought was a theme party, what but turned out to be a play party.  (Only in San Francisco...)  The next night I asked the friend if it was okay to continue wearing the glitter.  She laughed and said, this is San Francisco.  You will never be the weirdest person on the street.

One day I acquired a metallic blue cape.  When I asked the woman at the store if it was okay to wear it "right now," she laughed and said, this is San Francisco.

What a good way to describe the attitude of the city, where you can do whatever you feel inspired to do without judgment.  People describe their lives in terms of projects rather than professions.  The CTO of a high-profile tech company is also a yoga instructor.  You can wear a suit or patterned pajamas.  Men, at least in the Castro, are equally likely to be naked or wearing nun costumes.   You can have conversations with strangers on the street.  This is San Francisco.

I remember when I first realized I was falling in love.  After a night out and little sleep after, I biked from the Mission to the Sunset for a leisurely few hours with old friends.  I felt so alive biking back through Golden Gate Park in the sunshine: satiated by an incredible Mexican brunch, wearing a newly-acquired thrift-shop jacket, still covered in last night's glitter.

Glitter is how I fell in love with San Francisco.  I still do not know if I should move there--but what a beautiful affair.


Note: My descriptions do not apply to the South Bay/Silicon Valley.  I am in love with neither the South Bay nor the commute to and from there from the city.