Thursday, March 17, 2016

What The Bachelor Teaches Us About Choosing a PhD Advisor

This post was an experiment in simultaneous co-writing with Claire Le Goues, fellow CMU Computer Science professor, fellow undergraduate alumna of advisor Greg Morrisett from the time he was at Harvard University, and fellow reality TV enthusiast.


In academia, many PhD students are lucky enough to receive offers of admission from several different programs, and thus the opportunity to work with a handful of different advisors. During the decision-making process, the prospective advisors engage in Skype calls and often a recruitment open house filled with meetings and fun social events to compete for the favor of each PhD student. The end goal is the PhD student’s decision to work with the advisor.

 A couple of months is a short time to decide to be someone’s student for up to ten years. Especially when you only see each person briefly--and at their best. Especially when you’re trying to make a decision between so many people. Especially when you might not even be sure what you want. Especially when you’re tired from all the travel.

That’s right: the PhD student recruitment process is like The Bachelor.* On the popular reality show The Bachelor, a couple dozen eligible bachelorettes go on dates around the world over the course of twelve weeks to compete for the “final rose,” usually accompanied by a proposal of marriage, from the protagonist bachelor. In our world, the PhD student is the protagonist, and the potential advisers are the bachelorettes. (For those concerned about the gender asymmetry: there is also an inverse show, The Bachelorette.**)

It is not surprising that both on The Bachelor and in PhD-land, there are mistakes. On the 14th season of The Bachelor, Jake Pavelka famously chose Vienna Girardi despite the warnings of all other contestants. While Jake saw only the fun side of Vienna, the other contestants saw how self-centered and unpleasant she could really be. Many contestants were sent home for trying to warn Jake that Vienna “may not be here for the right reasons.” Similarly, on the 16th season, Ben Flajnik was so dazzled by Courtney Robertson’s beauty that he dismissed all hints that she was “different in the house than she is with you.” Viewers across America watched as Courtney charmed Ben while bullying the other contestants, telling them that she was “not here to make friends.”

It is interesting that both on The Bachelor and in academia, the multiple suitors often have access to information that the protagonist does not. The suitors all live together and interact with one another without the protagonist; professors are part of a wide social/professional network and often know one another from graduate school, conferences, and the like. In both cases, however, the person in a position of choice has plenty of reason to doubt the motivations of one suitor saying something negative about another.

Indeed, the smart suitors typically avoid saying negative things about competitors, as doing so typically results in a swift diminishment of their own prospects. Similarly, you will not hear much that is negative from your potential advisors during the PhD recruitment process. All other potential advisors are “brilliant researchers” who “do great work.” But if there’s anything we can learn from The Bachelor, it’s that it pays to pay attention to red flags. There is no such thing as an abusive advisor, only an “incompatible advising style.” The advisor who requires students to work weekends becomes “hands-on”, or someone who “drives students hard.” The advisor who only pays attention to students after they’ve proven themselves becomes “hands-off.” The advisor who barely pays any attention at all to students becomes someone who “gives students a lot of freedom to find themselves.” These ways of describing potential advisors can certainly be confusing. On the one hand, a potential advisor and their students may not have the potential student’s best interests in mind. On the other hand, potentially coded words may actually be the truth.

Fortunately, a key difference between PhD recruitment and The Bachelor is that PhD students are allowed to talk to whomever they want about potential advisors. This means they can talk to current students (which may be like talking to the family of potential bachelorettes in that they have a conflict of interest), graduated students, and former students who ended the advisor-advisee relationship before or without graduating. Though the tabloids do not cover prematurely terminated advisor-advisee relationships the way they covered the breakups of Jake and Vienna or Ben and Courtney, it is possible--and often very productive--to find out about these situations if you ask around. (We also strongly recommend asking a trusted mentor for what should be considered a red flag in a potential advising situation--there are more than we can list!)

When doing due diligence, it’s helpful to ask for concrete facts. How was Ben Flajnik supposed to know that “one way with you, but another way in the house” really meant “Courtney walks past us creepily when we’re having fun and berates us?” Besides, one person’s nightmare might be another person’s ideal. Maybe Ben wants a partner to do these kinds of activities with. (Though apparently not, since he broke things off with Courtney after watching footage of his season.) Similarly, when asking about potential advisors, it is helpful to know whether “hands-on” means “they give me guidance whenever I want it” or “they check in every day” or “they require me to work weekends whether I like it or not.” Daily checkins might be perfect for one student and terrible for another. Asking concretely about requirements and availability can go a long way in resolving possible confusion. Plus, concrete details are much more difficult to fabricate believably.

It’s also important to trust, but verify. On the most recent season, Leah lied to Ben Higgins by saying that obvious frontrunner Lauren B was different in the house than with him. But Leah was the only person who said this, Lauren’s shocked reaction when confronted was very believable, and all other available evidence suggested that Lauren was as warm and friendly with the other women in the competition as she appeared to Ben. Ben sent Leah home and ultimately proposed to Lauren. The lesson is that if you do hear something negative about a potential advisor, asking them--or their students--directly about it, as well as observing the other evidence at hand, are good ways to see if the rumor is true.

We can also learn from Bachelor history that the success of the whirlwind matching process is not sufficient to ensure a successful future. The handful of successful bachelor couples probably succeeded because they actually dated/got to know each other after the final rose and before getting married. Similarly, it is helpful for PhD students to take as much time as they can within the parameters of their program before confirming an advisor. This may mean Skyping with the advisor after the open house or rotating with the advisor’s group before deciding to join. It is also important to remember that the final rose doesn’t determine your fate forever. Just as Jason Mesnick ended up marrying his second choice from The Bachelor season 13 after the show ended, many successful researchers switched advisors at least once during their PhDs***.

Finally, remember that JoJo could, after a couple of months, reflect on her unexpected breakup with Ben Higgins with detached but understanding affection and is now going on to star on her own season of The Bachelorette. Similarly, your potential but ultimately unsuccessful advisors will generally understand---even if not in the moment---that the process works in mysterious and unpredictable ways. Just like the Bachelor alums who are now friends in real life, feel free to approach and talk to your rejected advisers at conferences and in other settings, and consider collaborating with them in the future. After all, you already know you have interests in common.

* We consider this analogy uncreepy only because we do not actually advocate professors developing romantic relationships with their students.
** We acknowledge the problematic nature of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette along lines of heteronormativity, race, gender roles. But so many lessons.
*** Our undergraduate advisor Greg Morrisett has said that when he first went to Carnegie Mellon University, he thought he was going to work with a professor who ended up going to Brown. Then he wanted to work with another professor, who ultimately had too many students at the time to take on another. He worked for a while with a professor who did not ultimately end up advising his Ph.D. thesis. Greg did not end up with his final advisor until late in his graduate career. He has since had an illustrious, award-winning research career and is now the Dean of CIS at Cornell.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Women's Voices: A Reading List

While I have mixed feelings about celebrating the fact that women are often so underappreciated we need to set aside a day for honoring women, I'll use International Women's  Day as an excuse to put together a partial list of my favorite books with a strong female voice. This list contains a mix of memoir, manifesto, and fiction and is in alphabetical order by author.
  • Kate Bolick, Spinster. Bolick examines the lives of several women, including herself, who put off the traditional path of marriage and children to pursue other interests. Many of these "spinsters" go on to marry and have more traditional lives, but most do it on their own terms, and not until they have gotten what they want out of their single years.
  • Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (and the rest of the series). The novel My Brilliant Friend, translated from Italian, is the best depiction of a friendship--and the admiration and jealousy that comes with a close friendship--that I have ever read. I especially like that the book focuses on the friendship between the two main characters and their academic competition rather than a love story, as coming-of-age books about young women tend to do. The later books are beautiful portrayals of the ups and downs of navigating career success, romances, and relationships with family.
  • Estelle Freedman, The Essential Feminist Reader. Fantastic collection of essays by authors from Mary Wollstonecraft to Audre Lorde.
  • Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch. Possibly my favorite feminist classic. Greer writes powerfully about the repression that comes from the traditional nuclear family. From the forward of the 21st anniversary edition, by way of Wikipedia: "The freedom I pleaded for twenty years ago was freedom to be a person, with dignity, integrity, nobility, passion, pride that constitute personhood. Freedom to run, shout, talk loudly and sit with your knees apart. Freedom to know and love the earth and all that swims, lies, and crawls upon it... most of the women in the world are still afraid, still hungry, still mute and loaded by religion with all kinds of fetters, masked, muzzled, mutilated and beaten."
  • Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be. I love the way Heti experiments with different modes of writing to capture the existential angst, friendships, of being a twenty-something artistic person in what seems like a semi-autobiographical work
  • Belle De Jour, Secret Diary of a Call Girl. Well written and surprisingly relatable, Secret Diary might change the way you view sex workers and sexual empowerment. Fun fact: during the period that this book describes, the author was concurrently pursuing a science PhD in the UK.
  • Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? I really like what comedienne Kaling has to say about her relationship with her work, how her work gives her confidence, and how she maintains this confidence while the rest of the world pays attention to things that should matter less than the quality of her work.
  • Beryl Markham, West With the Night. Markham was not just a famous beauty who had love affairs with talented men (including Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry), but also one of the first bush pilots in Africa and a fantastic writer. As she writes about her work flying in Kenya and her love of the land, she comes across as such a strong, resourceful, and brave woman.
  • Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman. I love Moran's voice and wisdom as she talks about growing into a woman and navigating womanhood.
  • Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things. Strayed opens up about her own struggles and triumphs through the "Dear Sugar" advice column she writes. Beautifully written and emotionally powerful.
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own. Woolf is one of my favorite writers in the English language and this short book makes some of the best arguments for gender equality that I have ever read or heard. One of my favorite lines, about why women need to be allowed to earn a comfortable income: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes."
Would love to hear your recommendations!

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The Angst Overhead

In high school, our crew coach often reminded us to relax our faces. Crew is a sport based on precision and pain. Though frowning is often the natural response, holding on to tension while rowing simply wastes energy.

Recently I have been wondering when this advice applies to to creative processes, especially as many believe that tension is necessary for producing great work. One of the stories in Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler features two writers, an untroubled one who produces best-sellers with ease and a tortured one pursuing an elusive truth. Each is envious of the other: the first of the second's facility of creation, and the second of the first's depth of pursuit. In the story, each writer tries to be more like the other and becomes less effective than before. This dichotomy between between productivity and depth is one many of us believe in.

There is evidence that believing creation should be difficult can slow the process of creation. In her memoir The Art of Asking, singer Amanda Palmer talks about how public perceptions of artists, as well as artists' romanticization of their own processes, can hold creation back. Amanda presents the image of the artist as solitary, locked in an attic, brooding, and probably wearing a scarf. She then describes once breaking her own rules--not going on Twitter while writing a song, because artists are solitary--and producing one of her best pieces.

Still, many of us cling to the association between creation and masochism. I've seen it in myself and among my peers in academia. We want to produce good work in the world, so we produce pain in ourselves. Perhaps subconsciously, we deny ourselves that break from our desk, that conversation with a friend, because we believe that this might somehow get in the way of the creative process. The weight of what we want to achieve overwhelms us. It is difficult not to obsess until we have brought our abstract idea into the world of the concrete. But we fail to realize that this angst, while often a product of creation, does not produce creation.

Much of my development as a researcher has involved reducing this angst. Early in my PhD, I had an internship with a researcher who, after listening to me talk about my ideas, would say, "Just go do it." I would watch in amazement as he executed on difficult tasks of uncertain outcome with little apparent angst. Similarly, I learned from my advisor the power of calmly writing things on a whiteboard to process both ideas unfamiliar to us and ideas no one has ever presented before. It is not necessary to feel the weight of the entire project with each forward step. Allowing work-angst to absorb us--or worse, believing that the angst is what makes the work good--often only wastes energy.

Computer Scientists often think in terms of "overheads," how much a process slows down the time required to achieve the desired task. Angst often incurs significant overhead with little gain. Thus, to better pursue elusive truths, I am now pursuing minimal angst overhead.