Friday, September 30, 2016

On Avoiding Stress Culture

I've been at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor for a little over a month now, and the students tell me we're approaching "Deep Semester." The glow of summer vacation has worn off. People are skipping classes and skipping meals in pursuit of Excellence. A pall of Seriousness has descended upon the Gates Hillman Complex. (Many days this week, the Seriousness has physically manifested as heavy rain.)

Now is a good time to remind myself that I can stay out of it*. Jim Morris, the former Dean of CMU's School of Computer Science, once told me, "Stress culture is worst among junior faculty. Avoid it." Jim seems to live by this advice. He teaches a course called Campus Stress as a Wicked Problem**. My friend Chinmay, who is in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute with him, tells me Jim is one of the few professors on campus who isn't "so busy" all the time.

At first glance, it may seem difficult to avoid stress culture as a junior faculty member. After all, everyone knows that being junior faculty means working all the time, never sleeping, and having so little of a life outside of work that you can only keep plants alive if they are in the office. But people also seem to think being a PhD student means working all the time, and there are many examples of successful people who did not work all the time as PhD students. Thus I'd like to posit the hypothesis that the idea that one must work "all the time" as junior faculty comes more from a culture of stress than necessity for success.

But why, you might wonder, would this stress culture exist among junior faculty members if it were unnecessary? I speculate below:
  • Your responsibilities are much more divided than they were before and it's difficult to juggle. It's possible to spend all time doing any of the following: teaching, advising, writing grant proposals, and attending committee meetings. Also note that this list does not include the reason you presumably became faculty in the first place: doing research. The solution is not to implode, but to compromise.
  • The closer you get to the top of a hierarchy, the more intense people get. When I go out into the real world people find me to be a total megalomaniac. My academic peers don't seem to think the same thing about me.
  • A lot of people who made it all the way to becoming faculty did get there by working all the time. Though not the only way, this is a legitimate way of working.
  • As humans we're not engineered to say "no" too often, and there are infinite things to say no to as a faculty member. If I said yes to every meeting and answered every email I'd die of not eating and not sleeping very quickly. (This might be a harder thing for women because we're socialized to be agreeable.)

In support of my hypothesis that stress culture is something to be eschewed rather than embraced, I present a list of my role models when it comes to finding space and balance:
  • My undergraduate professor Radhika Nagpal. This recent excellent profile of her talks about how, as junior faculty, she avoided politics and made it a rule not to check email on weekends. She wrote the most-read post on Scientific American's website about her approach to the tenure track called "The Awesomest 7-year Postdoc."
  • Turing Award winning MIT professor Barbara Liskov, who famously worked only 9 to 5 on weekdays, working an evening here and there only if there was a deadline.
  • The aforementioned Jim Morris, and also my friend Chinmay, who seem to make time to do the things they want to do.
  • My postdoc advisor Walter Fontana, who lives by the Goethe quote "Do not hurry; do not rest." He seems to have always found the space to do the science he wants to do. He once told me it is important to have a "strong internal compass" and know when you believe your work to be good so you can avoid pressures to hire more and publish more.
Stress culture might not be bad for everyone***, but it certainly is not productive for me. (My friend Seth once observed that I seem to work best in the complete absence of pressure.) So though I could be doing more work, right now I'm going to go read a book. Good night.

* In Influence, Robert Cialdini says if you want to do something, tell the entire world. Then you'll feel more accountable and be more likely to do it.
** The course focuses on problems at CMU, but in terms of pressure CMU is not so different from the other elite higher-education institutions I've experienced.
*** A student once told me I needed to put more pressure on him so he would get more work done!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Some of My Niceness Role Models

Yesterday my friend Grzegorz asked me if I knew how to prevent promising students from becoming "brilliant jerks," and I opened up this question to the Internet because I didn't know. One theme in the responses is to set a good example, demonstrate that you value niceness, and make visible examples of people who are both brilliant and nice. This made me realize that niceness is high on my list of qualities I appreciate in people, and that I keep in mind a growing list of "niceness role models" who remind me to be not-a-jerk in different ways. Here is a subset of those people.
  • Margo Seltzer, my undergraduate academic advisor at Harvard. Despite being so busy, famous, important, etc., Margo always made time for us. She took meetings with me whenever I asked, responded to my long angsty emails with similarly long emails of advice, and took me to lunch every now and then to make sure I was doing all right. When our robotics team was in the RoboCup World Cup in Germany, she came to Germany to cheer us on (though it probably didn't hurt that the real World Cup was there at the same time) and even brought me German gummy bears, because she knew of my love for candy and bears. And this was not because I was particularly special--other students I've talked to are in awe of how much time and space she makes for us. My friend Diana once said that if Margo is not too busy and important for us, then who are we to ever think we are too busy or important for anybody else.
  • Armando Solar-Lezama, my PhD advisor at MIT. As a PhD student I was something like a research cat, always bringing in random ideas and visitors I had "hunted" into Armando's office to see how he might engage with them. Throughout my PhD Armando was incredibly generous with his time and attention, always engaging with whatever--or whomever--I brought, and never telling me that I had wasted his time, or to stop. Whenever I'm inclined not to listen to an idea or person, I think of how patiently Armando listened to us--and with genuine curiosity.
  • Martin Rinard, my other thesis committee member at MIT. Martin has a reputation in our field for being loud, controversial, and not necessarily the warmest person on the planet, but he also has a reputation among the PhD students for being an incredibly supportive advisor and mentor. Martin goes above and beyond to train students in creative ways. He once made one of his international students practice his speaking skills by "re-lecturing" every one of his morning lectures in the evening for the class he was teaching one semester. Throughout my PhD, Martin felt I needed to learn to fight better, so he put me in situations of needing to defend myself whenever possible (most publicly throughout my entire thesis defense). Whenever I'm inclined not to care about other people's growth, I think about how generous Martin was with his time and advice.
  • Max Krohn, who co-founded Spark Notes, OKCupid, and Keybase. Max did his undergrad at Harvard and his PhD at MIT and is now worth so much money that when I hosted him to speak at MIT I had to meet several times with the handler MIT assigned him because they had identified as a potentially high-impact donor. While many people of Max's profile are too important to be nice to anybody, Max is incredibly nice, and also generous with his time and attention. I had first met Max when my friend (and co-founder of a company that never ended up existing) reached out to Max for advice, and Max has continued to impress me with how unassuming he is, how much he listens, and how much he genuinely tries to be helpful. My interactions with Max reinforce the lesson that I should not ever view myself as too successful to be nice, and to pay it forward when it comes to supporting younger people.
  • My friend Alison Hill. Alison is a brilliant and very successful HIV researcher who, at a fairly early point in her career, received a prestigious Gates Foundation grant to run her own lab. How I've always known her, though, is as the friend I could always count on to say "yes" to fun things, and to be there to talk if I needed it. Most recently, Alison spent over 30 hours designing, choreographing, and organizing the rehearsals for a dance-skit for our friend Adeeti's wedding. Whenever I think I am too busy for my friends (which happens all the time), I think about what Alison would do.
  • Dominic Mazzoni, someone I worked with when I interned at Google in 2007. He was not my mentor, but I interacted with him quite a bit because I used the (very useful and well-engineered) machine learning tools he was developing. I was so impressed with how nice he was in all of his emails and code reviews: he would thank the sender for the correspondence, be complimentary about legitimately good things, and convey what seemed like genuine joy about the interaction. I especially appreciated that he took my questions seriously, even though I was some random intern--and not even his intern. Interacting with Dominic reminded me of how nice it can be when someone tries to make interactions pleasant, and whenever I remember to do so (which is not often enough), I try to be more like him.
  • Einstein. Every time I feel like I am too busy to engage in correspondence to a stranger, I think about Einstein's letter to a young girl interested in science, and how if Einstein wasn't too busy and important changing the world to respond to people, then I shouldn't be either.
I feel grateful that I know so many people who are simultaneously so brilliant and so nice! (And there are so many more nice, brilliant people in my life!) Obviously I would die if I tried to be as nice all of these people combined (and most of the time I forget to try to be nice at all), but it's very useful to have people like these in mind to remind myself to be nicer. And I think that for all communities I'm in, it would improve overall morale to give more credit for niceness and not just brilliance.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Question: "Correcting brilliant students"

A question for all of you.


from:Grzegorz Kossakowski
date:Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 10:51 AM
subject:Correcting brilliant students

Hi Jean,

I know from your tweets you're busy so I'll get right to the point. I'm looking for examples of academic teachers who try to edify brilliant freshmen students in hope to steer them away from the unfortunate path of a brilliant jerk. Based on your blog posts, I thought you might be the right person to ask and you would find the subject interesting.

I'm asking about this in context of a recent conversation with the head of algorithms and datastructure research at University of Warsaw. He's called here in Poland as father of our ongoing successes in ACM competitions. He have heard that University of Warsaw has a reputation of graduating people who are really good but not pleasant to work with and he's looking for ideas to correct that. I promised to try to help hence my email.



from:Jean Yang
to:Grzegorz Kossakowski
date:Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 10:54 AM
subject:Re: Correcting brilliant students

Haha, you mean you can tell from my Tweets that I've been procrastinating work? ;)

This is a very good question. Hm! Could I turn this email into a blog post and solicit suggestions from people? This is indeed an interesting question to me and I don't know the answer.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Five Things More Important About a Research Project Than Being in Love

I recently talked to an early PhD student trying to decide between two projects: one they were in love with, and one with a much longer list of "pros" including "more likely to go somewhere" and "the faculty involved have experience working in the area." I was surprised to learn that I was the only person (out of faculty and students alike!) who told her I would pick the second, more reliable project.

It's not that I'm not a romantic*, but I do believe advice to make decisions based on feelings rather than facts can be dangerous. Apparently my point of view is so much in the minority that I need to write a blog post to elucidate my position.

Like most of you, I am a sucker for stories about people finding meaning, love, etc. When I watched movies as a kid, I would always be so confused when the female lead turned down a proposal from a perfectly eligible paramour**. But they look so good together! But they are in love! As time passed, however, I learned that there is this thing called happiness, that happiness is important, and that happiness depends on many more factors than looking good and being in love.

And as I came to learn that all things in life are the same, I learned that these lessons also apply to research. For me, the following things are as important, if not more important, than the specific dream I am chasing in any given research project:
  1. The day-to-day. I'd love to be a lab scientist for the glamorous photographs of me in my lab (and of course the direct contributions to science, etc.), but I am pretty sure I would die if I had to spend my days doing wet lab experiments. (In high school my "will become" in my senior yearbook was "a better lab partner." This unfortunately never happened. In college I loved studying organic chemistry but I would do things like accidentally shatter our sep funnel and throw it away, leaving my lab partner confused about why we were missing half our experiment.) What I love doing is coding, formalizing things every now and then, and apparently, spending days and days writing grant proposals and Powerpoint presentations. Hence my present set of projects.
  2. Collaborators. For some reason people love this idea of the lone scholar. (Maybe because it's hard enough to imagine one person who wants to work on such obscure stuff??) In reality, most science (and probably all other things in life) moves forward not only through single people sitting alone in their attics, but through conversations between people sitting in attics. It's good to know whether you like working by yourself, with a small handful of collaborators, or on massive collaborations where you can't ever tell how many other people are on the same Skype call. There are tradeoffs to each of these situations: the fewer people you collaborate with, the more "out there" your work can be. The more people you collaborate with, the bigger the project can be (for different senses of "big"). Especially when you are working hard, your collaborator interactions are most of your entire world, so it is important to like both the collaboration format and the collaborators.
  3. Community. People tell you that the PhD is about the relationship between a student and their advisor, but it's really about the student entering into a set of conversations within a community. My happiness certainly depends on my position within a community: how much the community accepts me/my work; how much my community values my work and similar work. I like being part of a research community that shares my values; I like it when my community accepts me as one of them and engages with me about my work. As a young researcher, your community is especially important because these are the people who will shape your values and your ideas about what it means to do research.
  4. Evaluation. I used to think that once work was good enough, it would be universally recognized as good, and then we could all celebrate and move on. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and each community has its own customs about how it evaluates work. The evaluation mechanisms determine what work gets recognized as good and ultimately how people work. I much prefer my work to be evaluated on things that feel more objective than subjective, and I want to believe the evaluation is demonstrating something about a universal truth, rather than being a measurement of a particular artifact. (For these reasons, I prefer to be evaluated on correctness--in the form of theorems--than user studies or performance numbers.) This determines what I choose to work on and what I emphasize when communicating about my results, decisions that play a large role in my work-happiness.
  5. Resources. Behind all things in life there is the question of money. While most people would certainly not like their work to be completed dictated by what funding is available, how much funding there is and where it comes from determines many things about your work: whether you have funding to travel to conferences; whether you have additional funding meetings where you are to present concrete deliverables. There are also other resources besides the financial. How many people at your university could give you feedback on this project? How many other people could contribute to actual work on the project? For young researchers, there is also the question of how much attention the advisor would provide on a project, and also the attention other researchers in the field might provide.
Of course, everyone has their own happiness function. I'm sure many other people value the idea of being in love with their research more, and value some of these less. No matter what your value function, it is important to think about the dimensions of your happiness, and how project decisions fit.

Supplementary reading:

* Hm, people have called me the "least romantic person they have ever met."
** Hey, it's not my fault the movies I watched conformed to heteronormative tropes.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

A Small Reading List for New PhD Students

It's my first semester being on the other side! Giving advice is so fun because it validates all of my life choices! I put together a list of reading for my own students and thought others might find it useful too.
I would also like to reiterate advice from my undergraduate professor Radhika Nagpal that it's important to take all advice with a grain of salt, as  most of it is wishful thinking and highlights. I would like to add that taking productivity advice from other people is about as useful as taking diet advice from fashion magazines. Everyone has different goals and everyone is working with different biology and a different environment. The concept of "productivity" seems to also be subject to various strange fads.

Even so, I would love to hear your recommendations.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Yet Another Blog Post on Industry vs. Academia

I recently had the following chat conversation with a Former Student about the possibility of doing a PhD in Computer Science*.

FS: What's the value of grad school if I don't want to stay in academia (other than "grad school might be fun")?
FS: There, I *think* that's the question I've been trying to ask
Me: Oh
Me: Enrichment
Me: You learn to think differently when you go so deep into one thing
Me: You also learn to execute
Me: It's very challenging to do a project start to finish
Me: Maybe I'll write a blog post for you
FS: That's a good reason, but it isn't something I haven't gotten in industry
FS: In fact actually I thought that one advantage of grad school would be that id get to do a more diverse set of things
FS: Than I do now

So here is the blog post in which I expand on my point and explain what I see as some skills one may develop more while doing a PhD** than working at a company. (I have this other "academia is fun" post about the PhD.)

Commitment. A defining characteristic of a good PhD thesis is that it solves a problem of sufficient scale and initial uncertainty ("a big enough research problem"). This usually involves commitment in at least two dimensions, time and emotion. Especially in non-theory areas of Computer Science, problems worth solving can take years before yielding satisfactory results. This kind of timeline seems quite different from what I've seen in industry. Committing to a research problem also means committing to uncertainty and faith that you will one day find a solution. This often involves believing in ideas that many other people don't believe in--in fact, Great Work is often met with initial disapproval. Learning how to become robust to other's lack of approval is useful for most of life. (And not something companies necessarily train you to do. In fact, it's in their best interest to train you for the opposite.)

Execution on open-ended problems. The point of having a company is to build a product that makes money. A product is more likely to make money if it actually works. Thus, in companies, a lot of the focus seems to be on getting the details right on things we already know we can build. The more time I've spent at a company, the better of an engineer I've become, and the better at Engineering Process. In research groups, much of the focus is on collecting evidence that you could build things you previously weren't sure could really exist. While engineering is certainly a useful skill here, more important skills include prototyping ability, and the ability to deal with significant uncertainty during the research process. (This is perhaps why research code so often does not meet engineers' standards.)

Self-direction. For many, the PhD involves long stretches of time working on one's own. (In the very least, the dissertation is a document that you are expected to write on your own.) Most advisors will not micromanage this time, especially in the later stages of a PhD. As a result, sooner or later PhD students will need to manage the relationship between work and time day-to-day and also month-to-month and even year-to-year. Though my industry internships have all been pretty self-directed, in which I was given a project and told to make as much progress as possible, I've been told this is not usually the case in companies. Self-direction makes you a more independent employee if you want to return to industry. On the one hand, people may feel comfortable giving you more responsibility. On the other hand, you may have trouble working for other people after getting used to working for yourself.

Emotional resilience. There are three parts of most (many? my?) PhD experience(s) that do not seem to be part of most industry experiences: 1) solitary work, 2) long periods of thinking without doing, and 3) long periods of doing without having much to show for it. This leads to many existential crises, as the emotionally difficult nature of the process causes one to Question Everything. I'd like to think that people emerge stronger from these existential crises. One of my college roommates has been getting a PhD in Comparative Literature and during our PhDs we often discussed how our research situations forced us to deal with questions about our values and goals, and how we felt that this process of questioning led to important emotional growth. The existential crises that a PhD exposes you to seem more similar to the experience of starting a company than that of being employed by one.

And on diversity of topics: in graduate school you will get breadth from classes, you will get to see a breadth of work in your field through reading papers, attending talks, and talking to other researchers, but depending on how your PhD is structured you may work on very few different projects. The Computer Science PhD provides a certain kind of intellectual breadth, rather than breadth of work.

I'd like to add that the "graduate school vs. industry" debate is like the "public school vs. private school" debate, or other debates that make no sense in a vacuum. Yes, in principle there are many ideological differences, but there are very applied research groups and very experimental industry groups. In practice, it really depends on the specific circumstances. Even so, one way to look at a PhD is as an investment into having greater access to experimental groups. There may be industry groups now that let you do out-there things, but without a PhD you rely on certain companies continuing to exist.

Anyway, as much as I would like said Former Student to do a PhD (and specifically with me :)) it really depends on FS's particular situation, hopes, and dreams. And since everyone's situation is different, I'm also curious to hear what others think they "get" out of a PhD (other than "fun," and the opportunity to continue on the academic track).

* I wrote this post with programming languages/systems research in mind. I'm curious how well it generalizes.
** What I say definitely applies for students in top CS PhD programs with advisors who give them certain kinds of freedom. I'm not sure how it applies to everyone else.