I’m laid up with a sprained ankle the size of a tennis ball from messing up a foot switch on a rock climbing problem. So, trying to look on the bright side of things, this means I can write a blog entry I have put off for far too long.
I like digging into software. I’ve learned that if I think there should be a better way to do something, someone has already thought of that and done it. When I switched from using a Mac as my primary computer to using a PC, I had to adjust to the user-unfriendlyness of it.

The following pieces of software have helped me in my first year of graduate school. Oh and they’re all free.

Read the rest of this entry »

I have been to many presentations, and I am sure you have too. How many of them have been bad? For me, that number is somewhere around 80%. All of the presentations I have been to have used PowerPoint (PP).  Is this PP and badness a coincidence? No.

As part of my curricula, I have to attend a seminar and listen to the third-year students present their work. Often times, they are rehearsing for a more important presentation. We are provided with comment sheets to give feedback. To be honest, most of them receive the equivalent of a “C” grade from me. I’m sick of watching bad presentations and have decided that a feed foward mechanism is needed. I’m going to talk about two very different views on presentations and then offer some really basic advice at the end of this post.

First up is marketing guru Seth Godin who put together a booklet called “Really Bad PowerPoint (and how to avoid it)”. In it he takes an unorthodox view on PP that actually brings it more in line with traditional talks. He speaks about making an emotional connection with your audience. Every speaker seeks to connect on the emotional level with the audience. Having worked in a theater, I can tell you that I have felt and seen how powerful this connection can be. If you can forge this connection, people will want to listen to you.

Clearly, this is from a marketing perspective, with Godin going so far as to equate the talk with selling. While this is true to an extent, a technical presentation requires copious amounts of data. Scientists, like most people, don’t want to be sold. My advisor prefers to look at a graph or table and draw his own conclusions rather than having the speaker interpret it for him. I’d argue that many scientists are this way because of the level of critical thinking displayed by technical minded people. For a technical audience, you must give them all the facts. To this end, Godin suggests distributing a handout with all the details at the end of your talk.

Pravda or PowerPoint? You decide.

The handout can convey all of your data in a much more powerful and condensed form than PP slides. This view is bolstered by the careful comparison done by Edward Tufte, a pioneer of data visualization. In his booklet, “The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint”, he cites countless examples of the paucity of information in PP. In one table, he shows that the median number of data entries in a table in PP (12) is not much higher than Pravda’s propaganda (5). The picture above could easily be from a PP given today. Tufte rails against the cognitive style of PP with its bulleted lists, low information density, and thoughts chopped into slides. Tufte clearly has a more technical outlook and makes a compelling case by showing how the communication deficiencies of PP cost lives in the Columbia space shuttle disaster. He makes a compelling case that PP actually detracts from your ability to communicate.

While I agree with Tufte, I feel that he is overlooking what Godin prizes: the speaker. Tufte talks exclusively about the slides and how poor they are. When Tufte  mentions that speech is about 100 to 160 words per minute whereas the median word count for slides is 15 words, I figured he would start to address the speaker. Alas, he continues to focus exclusively on the slides. This is not to say that his advice is unsound, rather that in order to give a good presentation you must take Godin’s emotional connection between the speaker and the audience and couple it with Tufte’s methods visualizing data.

Going forward, I’m planning on picking up Tufte’s book tomorrow. By reading up on good examples, watching excellent speakers, and practicing I intend to get top marks when I present in two years.

Two Tips

If I am giving a speaker low marks, they have failed to do these two incredibly basic things:

1. Breathe. Slow down.

Speak slowly and effectively. If you have too much to say, cut it down. If you are nervous, practice and make a conscious effort. Videotape yourself presenting and watch it. It will be eye-opening.

2. Properly use a mic.

First, check if you really need a mic. If you do, show up early to your talk and see what type of mic you have. Try it on and adjust it. If it is a clip-on mic, clip it in the middle. Otherwise, your voice will fade in and out every time you turn your head. Nothing is worse than your audience wincing every few minutes as your hair makes the mic boom.

Hodge Podge

December 4, 2011

It is now the last week of classes. This semester has absolutely flown by me. Easily the most difficult aspects have been breaking out of my old mental habits. For instance, I did undergraduate research. My mindset as an undergrad was classwork first and research second. So there were some weeks where I would barely touch my research due to exams or projects. Graduate school is not like this. My first priority is no longer classes but research. Or rather, that is what it will be once I pass my qualifying exams.

For those of you unfamiliar, the quals (as they are affectionately called) are exams that all graduate students take to prove that they are ready to begin studying for a PhD. The quals prove that you are qualified, by which I mean that you learned everything you needed to learn in your undergrad. Well, the kicker is that what your undergraduate institution thought was important may not be thought of as important by your graduate institution. In studying for the qualifiers, I realize how rusty I have become at some problems. My thermodynamics was particularly poor thanks to a totally non-standard course I received. In order to shore up my deficiencies, I have been reading and working problems. I never thought of myself as an autodidact, and I still think that it is a poor learning method. But sometimes you only have yourself and your books to teach yourself from. This can be particularly frustrating when you become “stuck”. Now that quals are getting nearer, I have formed a group of people to study with and this is proving very helpful.

Another mental habit that I had to kick was turning off my brain after a day of class for about an hour. I’d just watch something and while it was relaxing, it was not really rewarding. In order to break this habit, I simply put in the time to make good, rewarding content readily available. If you follow my twitter (logisticmiasma), you’ve been seeing some of the articles I read. Well, I’m going to just make this post ramble even more by doing a bit of a link round-up. My browser tabs slowly build up with interesting articles that I want to talk about but never get a chance to.

  • How a collapsing scientific hypothesis led to a lawsuit and arrest This article should help demystify science for people. There are often high stakes riding on a theory, and that is why every one tries to disprove theories. This article shows just how messy this process can be especially when someone becomes wedded to a theory. Then that person feels personally attacked when their theory comes under fire. Divisions can form and relationships and careers can get ruined. If you think I am exaggerating, Dr. Dan Shectman, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry this year, faced huge opposition to the idea of quasicrystals. (For more watch this video. Cut to around 6:05 for the ridicule he faced. Shectman was mocked, called a disgrace, and forced out of the lab.)
  • We are running out of time to prevent drastic climate change! Two interesting studies looked at this: one focused on California, the other was global in scope. Both reached the same conclusion that there are huge, but not insurmountable obstacles to dealing with climate change. The problem is that the more we delay, the more we will have to pay. “For every $1 of investment in the power sector avoided before 2020,” the IEA concludes, “an additional $4.3 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the higher emissions.”

Career Opportunities

October 20, 2011

I keep trying to mark when I am an official graduate student. Now that I have been assigned to a professor, I feel more official. But I am still not a candidate for the PhD. You have to pass prelims for that, which is not until the end of my second year. Anyway, I am very happy about who I will be working with.

Let me back up and explain how I chose my professor. At UT, after all of the faculty talk to you, you get about a month to figure out who your top three are. Then you list them, and write a paragraph about why you you ranked them as you did. (Other schools have you list more, or require you to talk to X many profs, or rotate with profs, etc.) So, you are totally on your own for how to screen the profs. You are basically picking your boss and your work for the next 5 years.

Naturally, I needed some guidance. I first read “A PhD is Not Enough”, which had a lot of good advice. For one, it really convinced me to steer clear of any assistant profs. Suffice it to say they their need to get tenure runs counter to your need to graduate. Next, I remembered the advice I heard on recruiting weekends. “Pick the person, not the project. Your project will change.” So, I drafted a sheet of questions I wanted answered and set out to talk to three professors. Naturally, they all wanted to only talk about their research and sell you on it. It is not appropriate to ask them about their managerial style. For this reason, I highly recommend talking to the students first. They will tell you what it is like day-to-day. They can tell you all about where grads go, how close-knit the group is, and all sorts of other critical things.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when picking a professor is what you want to do afterwards. It is critical that you decide if you want to go for a faculty position as early as possible. This decision will shape everything you do in order to prepare you for the fierce competition. If a professor tells you that this is not important to decide right away, this should raise a red flag.

So with all this in mind, I picked a professor who I feel will be a really great boss. He’s easy to work with, is established, and has interesting research. Apparently, profs like him are an anomaly. I’ve been reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, which has had some articles on profs not wanting to acknowledge the reality that is the current job market. This article talks about how someone is selling her career advising services. She is doing very well. (If you want more, she digs into the criticisms of her article on her blog.) For a different point of view, this article by a fifth-year grad. student talks about how we should not be as concerned with our career prospects. Personally, I always think it comes down to balance. You need to keep an eye on your future, but you need to live in the present.

Lastly, I found this article on why graduate degrees are being dragged out to up to a dozen years to be very informative. Take it with a grain of salt though.

Getting Busy

October 8, 2011

Inevitably, as the semester progresses, I become busier and busier. All my time starts to shift towards doing classwork. A typical day over the summer would have me exercising for an hour and a half, practicing piano for thirty minutes, cooking, reading, and simply playing games. At the beginning of the semester, a typical day would have me in class for two and a half hours, home work for a couple of hours tops, add in an hour for meetings and one more for exercise, and I still had time to practice piano and cook and relax.

Now the semester has started in earnest. The vicious cycle of exams is how I like to think of it. I fall behind in one class as I make a push to solidify my knowledge for another class’s exam. Sure, you can fault me for not starting my studying soon enough. You can say that I should have been reviewing all along. Well, I want to say that I certainly have tried all of that. Obviously my study techniques are good enough, but I am always looking to refine them. By refine them, I mean working smarter not harder.

Enough of that though; this post is about what happens when I get busy. As you can tell, I pour all my time into my studies when I get busy. I let everything else slide in my effort to know everything I need to know. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit. What I have come to realize is that it is important to spend time on the big wins. The best saying I have ever heard from a professor is, “Do not let perfection get in the way of good enough.”

In light of this, I have been really consciously tracking my time. I keep my Google calendar updated to accurately reflect what I studied, when I went to the gym, cooked, bused about, and all sorts of other things. When you are consciously counting the minutes in every day, you really think about whether you really need to check Facebook or not. The small things fall away in light of the more important matters. I’m going to reflect on how I spend my time tomorrow, and try to come up with a more effective system. When I get busy, I want to not have to let anything slide in order to excel.

Having gone through the whole process of picking out and applying to graduate school I figured I could write a decent guide. I recall looking around for one, and only finding a few not-so-helpful guides. This is obviously tailored towards chemical engineers, but it should apply well to anyone in the sciences. (Sorry humanities and art folk!)

I have the major points listed below, and they are fully elaborated later on.

1. Determine your long term career goals. This will help you decide whether you want a MS or PhD and in what field.

2. Learn what graduate school is like by talking to current graduate students and professors.

3. Start early. You need to give your LOR writers at least 3 weeks notice, and GRE scores take about that long to get to their destination.

4. Apply to fellowships. These will give you more money and greater freedom in graduate school.

5. Research universities and individual professors. Use NRC and US News rankings, and look at departments faculty lists.

6. Take notes and organize as you go. This will speed up your essay writing and make sure you do not forget a crucial part of applying.

7. Create a checklist for yourself and your LOR writers. The requirements at each school differ just enough to throw you off.

8. Ask questions!

1. Determine Your Long Term Career Goals

Sooo, you’re thinking about graduate school are you? The very first thing you should do is figure out what you want to do with your life. This is an incredibly hard question that I think we all wrestle with, but at least wrestle with it enough to make up your mind. For example, if you want a high-paying job and a family in the next few years, grad. school is probably not for you. As an engineer, you could be earning triple the stipend that you will receive as a grad student.

However, without a Masters or PhD, your options will be limited. Sure, you can get your PE and that will open things up a bit. Or you can go into the business side of things. However, you can never be involved in research without a graduate degree. Keep in mind your end goals and whether you will be happy. Once you have an idea of what you want, chart a course to get there.

2. Learn What Graduate School Is Like

So you now know that you really need graduate school. What the heck is “graduate school”? First off, recognize that it means vastly different things for every field. It even varies from school to school. Unlike undergrad where there is a set curriculum, grad is all about research. Because research is new, it is impossible to set uniform standards. Keep this in mind as you talk to people.

You should talk to current graduate students and any professors you are close to. If you are still struggling with your long term goals, ask them about their motivation. Ask them about the whole process.

An even better way to know if you want to go to grad school is to do research. Doing research is what grad school is all about, so doing it now is very wise for two reasons. One, you will quickly decide if you enjoy research. Two, having undergraduate research is damn near a requirement to being admitted to grad school.

3. Start Early

This should go without saying as this applies to everything in life. For grad school specifically, it means start thinking about it when you are a freshman. I did an REU after my freshman year, and that turned me on to research.

If you are a senior, this creating a schedule. You need to look at the deadlines and allow time to alert your LOR writers and have all of your materials submitted. The earliest deadlines are at the end of October, NSF is in November, and most schools are somewhere between end of Nov. and start of Jan.

4. Apply to Fellowships

A fellowship is external funding. Basically, you impress an organization enough that they agree to fund you for a few years while you pursue your degree. This makes professors love you, as you are a free employee. It also makes your life easier as you have a secure stipend and some nice perks. At the very least look into Hertz, NSF GRFP, DOE, and DOD. There are many more, and I recommend looking around online. Often you will find a great list for your field on your school’s site or another institution’s site.

Applying for fellowships will ensure that you get all of your application materials in order well in advance. You get used to the whole process of sending in your transcript, GRE scores, LORs, and essays.

A brief aside on Letters of Recommendation writers. You want someone famous in the field to recommend you. I have heard that faculty on the admissions panel will look at who wrote the letter first, and if they have heard of him will have a huge bearing on how much weight the letter carries. You are going to need three LORs. I recommend your research advisor, your academic advisor, and a third professor who is very well known in the field.

When you ask them for an LOR, be sure you give them an out if they do not want to write you one. Ask them at least 3 weeks in advance. Give them a detailed schedule telling them exactly how to submit things and when. Email them to remind them when the deadlines are approaching. Thank them profusely throughout. Your LORs can make or break you.

5. Research Universities and Professors

Remember that you will be at the university for at least five years. Keep in mind how the university is as well as if it is trending upwards or downwards! Your professors will have an especially good feel for this as they frequently collaborate and talk to their colleagues.

The professor you work with is the absolute most important thing from an academic/career standpoint. However, being happy is the absolute most important thing from any standpoint. Do not pick somewhere and say to yourself, “It’s only five years.” Five years of unhappiness is far too long. (Note: One of my LOR writers tried to convince me be unhappy for five years as I would then have my pick of places. Don’t fall for this!)

To make sure you are happy, watch out for culture shock. You might think it will be awesome to live in a city or to move out to the country, but you may quickly discover that it is not what you expected. I recommend google mapping the school and going for a virtual walk around town using the streetview function. Ask yourself if you will be able to keep doing the things you love. As much as people joke about it, weather really does affect your mood. If you hate winter, don’t go to Minnesota despite their awesome ranking.

Returning to the academics, look at the professor’s research and people skills. Every professor knows their field really, really well. To differentiate between profs, look at how many papers their students write, and where their students go after they graduate. You can find this information on their group websites or in their CVs. While it is important to have one great professor, make sure you have other options. Your interests could change, that professor may not be taking any students, or you may not be able to work with him.

Lastly, look at the school overall. While grad school departments are like fiefdoms, they are still a part of the university. Make sure the university is financial sound and will be for your stay. Look at their rankings in US News as well as the NRC data. The NRC data is particularly fine grained and will help you get a much better picture of the school.

6. Take Notes and Organize

When you are scoping out the schools, note down anyone who looks interesting. Note down anything really awesome about the location. Just write a few things down that are unique. These notes will help you when the schools start to blur, and you need to write that essay about why you want to go to that school. If nothing is really standing out for you, you may be burned out or that place may not be a good fit.

When you have decided where you want to apply, create an application data file and a spreadsheet for checking things off. Paste the schedule of deadlines that you made and gave to your LOR writers into the file. Then simply expand your file into sections for each fellowship and school. Put your notes from doing your research into this file. In the spreadsheet, build a checklist for each school so you can be certain that you have sent your: GRE scores, transcript (most schools want 2 copies), three LORs, personal statement, statement of intent, other essays, and anything else they throw at you. Oh and lest we forget, include a column for those app fees. Expect each school to run you between $50 and $100 for the app fee, plus GRE fees, and lastly transcript fees.

Additionally, you should include your login and password for each school. I highly recommend using the same password and login whenever possible. This is not always possible as some schools will assign you a login or make your password conform to their rules (annoyingly you will run across things like “Include a special character, but only use the following ones: . . .”)

By now, you should be getting a feel for the sheer number of things that goes into each application. For this reason, I recommend creating  separate directories for your application materials. In each directory store: essay versions, receipts for payment, receipts for sending test scores, and receipts for sending in your transcript. This might seem excessive, but I have had to write the following essays: diversity statement, career goals, professor choices, research interests, research experience, as well as my resume and a list of classes and books used.

While there are a couple of common application systems in usage, many schools decide to go with an in-house system. These are often idiosyncratic and frustrating.  While you must send in official transcripts, many schools want electronic versions as well. Pro Tip: Make your transcript a pdf that is as small of a file as possible. You will run across some absurdly low file size limits.

8. Ask questions!

This guide is nowhere near comprehensive. It leaves out lots of information that may be very useful. If there is something you want to know ask me, ask your professors, and ask your friends. Don’t be afraid to ask potential professors questions.

Here is one question that I had when I was applying: How many schools should I apply to? I asked around and heard answers ranging from as low as 3 to as high as a dozen or more! I also received the vague answer of “as few as you are comfortable with”. My advice is to treat it like undergrad applications. Apply to some reach, some probable, and a couple of safeties. This can be hard to gauge, but as a rule of thumb anything department in the top ten will be a reach.

Other good questions are how applications are read, who reads them, what weight each part receives, and so forth.

Professor Talks

September 12, 2011

The first full week of classes felt very long. This was not due to the actual classes, but rather the faculty talks given afterwards. From 1 to 3:30 everyday we had professors trying to persuaded us to join their lab. The classroom was full of the thirty of us first years. Off to the side were terribly bland turkey croissant sandwiches, tuna salad sandwiches, and cold bottled water. Each day brought new professors, but the exact same bland sandwiches. This blandness was a theme for the talks.

During some of the worse talks, I took notes on what the presentations tended to be about.

What They Say

  • All about my research, including those projects that I am not taking students for.
  • How I am funded, but not my funding stability.
  • “Here’s an old photo of the group.”

All, save one, of the presentations were done in powerpoint. Rarely did the speaker get up and move. Coming from the theatre, I expect a presenter to grab the audience’s attention. There were three speakers who accomplished this. One did not use powerpoint and instead simply spoke to us. One used humor and really expressed his enthusiasm. Instead of saying, “I have one opening in project X.” he pleaded, “We need your help!” (He also did not say how many students he wants to take, which was a wise tactical maneuver.) The last one was actually not taking students, but he tended to simply tell stories. These presenters all moved around and made eye contact with the crowd. They also tended to say much more of what I wanted to hear.

What I Wanted to Hear

  • My approach to research is hands-on/hands-off.
  • My students tend to take courses in X.
  • We have X type of meetings every Y days.

That first bullet is huge. Because only one person described his approach to managing students, I have had to talk to students to figure it out. My approach to picking an advisor is very focused on their managerial skills as opposed to their technical skills. I know that every professor has good research going on, but I want a professor who knows how to manage. Having had bad and good managers before makes me well aware of the pains of mismanagement.

Furthermore, a good manager tends to have good business sense. Thus, they will understand things like networking. This will make a huge difference in terms of getting a career that I really want. Sadly, professors really are caught off-guard if they are asked any type of business question. They relish rhapsodizing about their research, and so really want questions about it. Ask them how many hours they expect you to put in per week or how many weeks vacation, and they start to wonder if you are really passionate. I had one meeting go sour for this very reason.

I have till the end of September to make up my mind. This is one of the most important decisions in my life. It will define my next five years and shape the opportunities to follow. So, yeah, no pressure or anything. ^_~

Starting Graduate School

August 28, 2011

The first week of classes are over, and I have already learned so much. Let me get my cynicism out of the way first. Chemical engineering graduate students are not business savvy. Most graduate students are not. Would you sign on to work with a company for five or maybe more years and not know your vacation hours? Or leave parts of your job description undefined? You would be very stupid to do so, and I should know as I have just done so. I’m regretting it right now. I skimmed the only few sheets of paper I signed, and no where is it spelled out what my job is. Thus, when my TA hours increased 50% from two classes to three classes, I have no recourse. I am simply at the mercy of the university.

When the graduate director broke the news to us, he was sure to impress upon us how much the university is spending on us. He wants us to realize that we are an investment on the part of the university, and so we should feel an obligation to do all of our work with the utmost diligence. However, I am still unclear what my work is. I will be taking three courses, and I will be making straight A’s. I will be taking and passing three qualifying exams come January (So yeah, good bye Christmas break!). I do not know when I will begin my research. This is frustrating, as the PhD is at its root a research degree.

In this first week, I have learned that boldness is rewarded. The single greatest lesson I learned from my brief stint editing Wikipedia is that their motto, “Be Bold!” is a great motto. Being bold in graduate school means introducing yourself and making friends with your fellow classmates. It means emailing the professors you are interested in and knocking on their lab doors. Sure, there will be missteps, but the end result will be getting to know if you mesh with a group. Being bold means—above all things—not to hesitate.

In this spirit, before classes started I knocked on four professors doors. Only one was in at the time, and he was not taking students this year. However, the conversation that followed was very helpful. He recommended reading “A PhD is Not Enough” by James Feibelman. It goes over all aspects of post-graduate education. I highly recommend it to anyone considering graduate school or wanting to understand what host of benefits and problems a graduate degree confers. For me, it cemented my desire not to work for an assistant professor.

Now that my cynicism has run its course, I must say that I am truly excited by what I will be learning. The courses I am taking are going to force me to come to grips with my weaknesses. In fact, I’ve already had to shore up some of my mathematical deficiencies. The research I will be involved in will force me to think critically and impart me with vision. I mean vision in the sense that leaders have a vision for a future. With this vision, I will see problems and their solutions. I will solve those problems, and the world will be a better place for it. How could someone not get excited at that prospect?