May 8, 2012
Just a quick PSA for technical folks: Technical Presentation Workbook: Winning Strategies for Effective Public Speaking is a terrible book. I read the first hundred pages of it, and then simply gave up. Think back to your high school books. Cheese ball humor. Weird cartoons floating off to the sides of the text. Now combine that with the most basic advice possible on how to present written primarily in bullet points. To cap it off, it’s a workbook. So after every gem of wisdom there’s a sheet for you to fill out on how it applies to your talk. Skip this book if you want to learn how to present.
May 5, 2012
Having been thoroughly impressed by Edward Tufte’s first book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, I decided to pick up another, Visual Explanations. Tufte envisions his books fitting together like so: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is about pictures of numbers. Envisioning Information is about pictures of nouns, and Visual Explanations is about pictures of verbs. I was not drawn in by Visual Explanations (VE) as I was by The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (VQ). VE felt disjointed, and the lessons learned are less applicable for graduate students. However, there are still two very important lessons I gleaned: be subtle and avoid legends.
In a nutshell, VE states that images should be honest and scientific. Images should lend themselves to easy comparison through similar composition and repetition. Lastly, images alone can make an argument or tell a story through juxtaposition and symbolism.
I want to highlight a couple of these lessons, starting with one that I initially thought was wrong.
Tufte states, “Make all visual distinctions as subtle as possible, but still clear and effective.” I would think you would want to eschew subtly to make sure the point comes across. However, this can be far too overwhelming, as shown above.
I’ve seen this lack of subtlety in lab presentations where the presenter shows a chart with ten or more curves. Every curve is a different color and has different markers for the points. Either a different color or a different set of markers would suffice, but both is excessive. Adding insult to injury, the default Excel colors are garish and unsubtle. To fix my own graphics, I’ve taken to using shades of black and gray to differentiate between each curve.
That same chart had a legend. Imagine trying to look at the legend, then the curves, then the legend, then the curves, then the . . . I simply gave up. You might think I give up too easily or that I am nit picking, so I’ll let you experience the difference between a legend and direct labeling for yourself.
In light of this striking difference, I always label my curves directly. To do so in Excel, do not use a text box. Use a data label. You can overwrite the label and move it anywhere in the graph, so it is just like a text box. However, unlike a text box the label will stay in the same relative place on the graph and rescale along with the graph.
The most important message for me is the same message Tufte stressed in his previous book. Graphics should be honest and scientific. To make a graphic honest, there must be a sense of scale and orientation for the viewer. If time-averaging or area-averaging has been applied, it should be done carefully as it can easily obscure important trends. The graphic to the right illustrates how area-averaging may doomed the residents of Broad Street. To make a graphic scientific entails quantification, comparison, and investigation of cause-and-effect. Quantification means applying a scale and going further to assign numbers to seemingly qualitative data. Comparison means plotting similar graphs on the same scale so that when they are put side-by-side, a line falling an inch in one means the same thing in the other. Investigation of cause-and-effect is the most difficult, but it means always plotting the suspected cause on the X-axis and the effect on the Y-axis, rather than plotting both against time.
Tufte does a fantastic job illustrating his message through the Challenger explosion. This is definitely a favorite case-study of his as it shows up in at least three of his books. Here he shows the actual set of slides the engineers sent to NASA the night before trying to persuade them not to launch. Tufte dissects the slides to show why they failed to persuade. The slides omitted many critical data points, failed to quantify the extent of damage to the O-rings, and presented important comparisons with many slides in between. At the end of the dissection, he shows the graphic below.
By creating a damage-index, Tufte quantifies the data that was previously only qualitative. By plotting this data against temperature, Tufte makes a case for cold temperatures causing damage. I think that if this graphic had been shown to NASA, the launch would have been postponed.
While not all design decisions involve life or death, design can make or break the viewer’s comprehension of your argument. Taking the time to make your graphs easy to read will lead to better questions from the audience. Better questions will push your research along more quickly. Or maybe good design will help a grant-reviewer understand your argument and see why it is significant. In any case, this is not a small matter. While content is definitely king, it must be presented in an intelligible manner for it to take over the kingdom of the viewer’s mind.
April 23, 2012
For our first graduate engineering math class, our professor had us introduce ourselves. We stated our name, undergraduate institution, and an interesting fact. As the introductions wended about the room, it became apparent that we are either all have the same interest or we cannot think on our feet. “I like to cook,” or “… and I guess I also like cooking,” kept being repeated. Why do so many people think this is an interesting fact? Is cooking really a hobby now?
This “cooking as a hobby” phenomena has to be linked to foodie culture and the Food Network nightly programming. Like an evil twins, these have transformed cooking from a ho-hum everyday experience into a hobby or art. Granted cooking can be an art that transcends the everyday experience, but I think that few people are capable of this wonder.
Hold on. Wait. Since when did cooking immediately conjure thoughts of exquisitely refined food art? Whenever I think of cooking, I think of simple meals that my mother made. Rice, broccoli, and cheese casserole. Spaghetti and meatballs. BLT sandwiches. I believe that the Food Network is particularly to blame for making cooking seem out of reach to people.
It is now a fact that the average American spends more time watching someone cook than actually cooking. The rise of Food Network has led to people watching, no ogling chefs and fetishizing food. Or maybe the two events coincided. Either way, cooking as an everyday activity is dying out. You may be thinking that Food Network would be slowing this decline, but their prime time programming is all entertainment. Trying to learn cooking from Chopped, Iron Chef, Cupcake Wars, etc is like trying to learn driving from watching Nascar.
Actually, the best way to learn how to cook is to learn from someone else. Sadly, parents neglect cooking the skill lapses in our current generation. Without this handing down of customs, we risk cooking dying out. People should be alarmed as this is culturally equivalent to saying that music is dying out.
That seems sensational, but think about how much custom and culture surrounds food. We go out for drinks with friends. We have dinner, hold a potluck, grill out, do coffee, hell even going to a movie usually involves food. I’ve been cooking from different cultures, and many of the cook books tie the cuisine back to the history of the culture. I’d hate for a future cookbook to say something extremely lame like, “Macaroni and Cheese became a real hit when Kraft introduced individual microwaveable bowls.”
Equally culpable is the foodie culture. “Foodie”. What an ugly word. Foodie culture seems needlessly pretentious and snobbish. Rather than reconnecting people to simple cooking, it is needlessly distancing people from cooking. In this groundbreaking clip, Tim Allen (who hosts “Chopped”) mocks the movement. Clearly, I am not alone in thinking foodie culture is annoying.
Some food blogs counteract these evil twins of Food Network and foodie pretentiousness. Food blogs are usually run by amateurs who are cooking to enjoy cooking. They efface the food as unreachable art by showing photos of cooking in progress. Often a narrative is interwoven with the recipe, effectively recombining the food and culture. For this reason, I applaud food blogs.
So to end this shambling post, cooking should not be relegated to hobby status like photography or numismatics. Rather, it should be just another everyday activity that we take for granted. People think cooking is a hobby or an interesting fact because cooking has become a rarity. Foodie culture and Food Network have done their fair share of discouraging cooking while food blogs have encouraged cooking. Cooking is very culturally significant, and we should enjoy it for its history. Annnd for the delicious food.
March 28, 2012
For a while now, I’ve considered myself a good writer. I keep a daily journal, this blog, and used to write short stories and scripts for fun. Many of my favorite classes in undergrad were paper based. In the field of engineering, my love for writing is a rarity. I adopted the technical writing style taught in my class, and thought it was good. Well, having read Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information“, I now know that class was a only start.
Edward Tufte is professor emeritus of statistics, political science, and computer science at Yale University. He’s been very active and outspoken about his ideas for communicating statistics and other technical data since 1975. I mentioned Tufte before when I discussed his hatred for Powerpoint. There his major gripe was the low resolution, so you can rightly expect him to prize high resolution graphics.
The Book in a Nutshell
The book is split into two parts. Part 1, Graphical Practice, gives examples of great graphics that communicate an extraordinary amount of information concisely and not-so-great graphics that lie to the reader or render the data unintelligible. This sets up the second part of the book, Theory of Data Graphics. Here, Tufte goes to the fundamentals. He disparages chartjunk, praises data-ink maximization, and explains data density. (You might not know these terms now, but once you learn them you’ll find yourself using them. I know I have started to think in terms of them.)
To talk about graphical integrity, Tufte introduces the concept of the lie-factor. The lie-factor is equal to the size of the effect shown in the graphic divided by the size of effect in data. So in the image above, it is the change in the size of the line divided by the change in the number the line should represent. In this example, the decision to use perspective corrupts the display and results in a lie-factor of 14.8. The lines simply grow far too fast.
While this makes for a more dramatic graphic, it misleads the reader. As a reader, you simply look at how the lines have grown and conclude that the fuel economy is not only improving but improving more and more rapidly as the lines get bigger and bigger faster. Tufte replotted the data more truthfully below.
It is much easier to see the trend now, and you realize that the fuel economy improvement is slowing down. Clearly, the first graphic failed in that it misrepresented the data, made drawing comparisons difficult, and uses a large space to show a small amount of data.
Theory of Data Graphics
Having given an abundance of examples, Tufte moves onto the logical question of what makes a good graphic. I’ll quote his principles and then explain them.
“Above all else show the data. Maximize the data-ink ratio. Erase non-data ink. Erase redundant data-ink. Revise and edit.’’ The first and last sentences are obvious. To understand the middle three, you need to know that data-ink is literally ink used to display data as opposed to such things as the axes, the labels, the title, and the border. For example, data-ink would be the dots and lines connecting them in the redone fuel economy graphic above. Looking more closely at it, you see that there is no border on the plot. In fact, there is no y-axis. This minimalist design is what Tufte means by erasing non-data ink (the border) and redundant data-ink (the y-axis).
“ Forgo chartjunk, including moiré vibration, the grid, and the duck.’’ Chartjunk is any decoration that does not add to the graphic. It includes the obnoxious patterns in bar charts, the obfuscating grid , and excessive use of color. Particularly troublesome are the patterns, as they often give rise to moiré vibrations. You can simply use different shades of gray instead of the hatching. If you use too much chartjunk and let decoration overwhelm the data, you end up with a duck. A duck is Tufte’s odd term for a graphic that tells you nothing because the decoration has so corrupted the data.
“Maximize data density and the size of the data matrix, within reason. Graphics can be shrunk way down. Use small multiples.’’ The first principle arises from the earlier idea of maximizing data-ink and erasing non data-ink. Data density is defined as the number of entries in the data matrix dived by the area of the data graphic. This feeds right into the second principle of shrinking graphics down. Using these two principles, you should communicate a large amount of data in a very small space. The last principle seems like the odd man out. Small multiples are like the pages of a flip book. By laying out these pages next to each other, you can see how a process evolves over time. Since these are small, the data density is high. Furthermore, they invite comparison and are inherently multivariate. Thus, they always carry a high data density and should be used if possible.
“If the nature of the data suggests the shape of the graphic, follow that suggestion. Otherwise, move toward horizaontal graphics about 50 percent wider than tall.’’ This is pure aesthetics and pulls from the whole Golden Ratio idea. This is easily the weakest section of the whole book, but even here Tufte measured many graphics and found that almost all are wider rather than taller. As for the 50%, that is a very rough rule of thumb.
Taken together, these principles will make your graphics tell a dramatic story concisely.
Why Are There So Many Bad Graphics?
As I read through the book, I was surprised to see Tufte find fault with The New York Times, Time, the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and other authoritative publications. These are respectable names, and you would expect them to be getting it right. Tufte thinks that graphical designers lack quantative reasoning skills. Thus, they cannot do justice to the data. They don’t know what decoration is acceptable and what distorts the data. That is exactly what the New York Times did in the above fuel economy road graphic.
I think Tufte is really onto something here. At first, I thought that maybe the text was outdated here, but then I saw a TED talk by the current Data Artist in Residence at the New York Times, Jer Thorp. He creates graphics that are ducks, that fail at being data-dense, and probably have a high lie-factor.
The point is, with an abundance of graphics that misrepresent the data whether intentionally or unintentionally, you should always be on your guard. Don’t just judge things on how they look, but read the numbers and if necessary replot the data.
I’ll have another post up in the coming weeks about how we engineers can make use of these ideas as well as more presentation advice from Tufte.
March 11, 2012
It seems today that the only heroes are soldiers and superheroes. I’m going to say that a hero is anyone who can serve as a rolemodel. People often talk about rolemodels, but I never really understood what a rolemodel was nor have I ever had one. I don’t know any of my friends who have a rolemodel. My recent readings have taught me that I should have a rolemodel or personal hero. I’d like to run my reasoning by you and see if you agree.
The only times in my life that I have been asked about my heroes or rolemodels have been on college applications and as class assignments. Way back in seventh grade for my computer science class, I chose the Red Baron as my superhero because my family would buy Red Baron brand pizza. What a stupid reason! I remember giving his name and then furiously hoping that he wasn’t a Nazi. That’s how little I “my hero”. While the assignment did teach me about computers, it did not impress the importance of having a hero.
What has bridged that communication gap has been looking at what people with heroes have accomplished. In “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey”, Kevin Clash clearly idolizes Jim Henson and the other puppeteers. He really does seek to emulate them in his life. His success as Elmo is partially due to this drive. Cal Newport in his book “How to Be a High School Superstar” sets out an excellent method to deconstruct a hero’s success. Cal helped me understand how to look at a successful person and see their journey. He has a series of blog posts about defeating procrastination by fixing on a role model. Finally, Ramit Sethi wrote about meeting people whom you look up to and learning from them. As per his usual style, Ramit implored me to make a list of ten people I want to meet. This caught me as off guard as that assignment back in seventh grade.
Well, I think it is about damn time I make a list of great people and use them to mark my journey to success. By having a rolemodel, I can effectively give myself a target to aim for in my own life. Furthermore, searching for rolemodels means that I will contact people and maybe find myself a mentor as Kevin found in Kermit Love, who introduced Kevin to Jim Henson.
To that end, I’m going to lay into my libraries’ biography section. I’m planning on picking up books on scientists, engineers, and any other people who inspire me. I’ll report back to y’all on the progress. Speaking of reports, I finished “Visualizing Quantitative Information” by Edward Tufte and am working on post about it.
February 12, 2012
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.
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.
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.
January 22, 2012
I didn’t mean to pick up an other collection of short stories. I went to the library to study for qualifiers three weeks ago, and when I got up to leave I figured I couldn’t leave the library empty handed. I walked up and down the aisles searching for something. I tried to think of author names and unsuccessfully looked for a few. Then I found it. A David Foster Wallace book! Huzzah! Ever since I read his “Consider the Lobster” review of the Maine lobster festival a year ago, I have wanted to read more. I left with my copy of “Oblivion”.
Now, I did mention I was studying for qualifiers, so I have only read the first story. Thing is, I read it twice it was so interesting. His writing style fits the subject matter. I don’t want to summarize the story here. I want to write down what I have thought about it. Reader be warned that the following assumes you are familiar with the story.
“Mr. Squishy” is loaded with details. In typical DFW style, there are excessively drawn out asides and sentences. This fits the story as our protagonist Terrence Schmidt works for Team Delta y, a market research firm. Their job is to sift through the mounds of data generated from their TFG (targeted focus groups) and properly weight the data to give it significance. I feel that this is exactly what the reader needs to do with this story.
After mulling things over for a few runs in the gym, I have decided that the story is about dehumanization. Terry often views the people in his focus groups as being simply data points. The executives view the workers as being confounding variables in their studies. The urban daredevil draws a crowd due to his free spirit and individuality, but ultimately its a sham as he really is just a marketing stunt.
At the center of the story, we have Terry Schmidt leading a focus group on autopilot [Terry, that is]. We are treated to what he is actually thinking about as he gives them the 20 minute spiel. Slowly, we learn that he has been doing the same thing for 8 years, that he loves a co-worker Darlene but is too cowardly to pick up the phone and call her. He simply agonizes over it each night before masturbating himself to sleep. We learn that he feels utterly stuck in life, a cog in a machine. Even worse is that the machine is meaningless. Team Delta y works on snack foods. Terry realizes that all the data they collect is simply finagled into supporting the marketing plan already being inexorably rolled out. How depressing and true. I really empathize with Terry, and I must admit that that is a fear of mine to work endlessly on something that is devoid of significance. (Hence my goal of a PhD.)
Through the sheer number of details and asides, Terry becomes so vividly real. I started to really hope that he would go through with his plan to destroy the snack cake industry by poisoning. However, we know that his elaborate preparations will never come to fruition. Just as he can never pick up the phone to call Darlene, he will never go through with the poisoning. What is heartbreaking is that Terry himself is aware of this on some level and this is why he berates himself and insulting refers to himself as “Mr. Squishy”. He knows that he will simply keep on keeping on, just a reluctant cog.
Now, Terry is the protagonist, but there are another couple of major characters. Scott Laleman joined Team Delta y a mere two and a half years ago and already he has outpaced Terry. Laleman is in with the executives and tends to hobnob with them outside of work. Little does Laleman know that his executive friend, Alan Britton, is manipulating him just as one manipulates a variable in the lab. (In a paranoid turn, Britton is also being manipulated by another executive.) It’s interesting that while Terry is horribly depressed over how meaningless the data they collect is, Britton is determined to eliminate every last variable to ensure the data is as unadulterated as possible. To that end Britton okayed an experiment to stress the TFG leaders. He had male supervisor sexually harass Darlene, Terry’s secret love.
What lousy ethics! To make someone’s life hellacious to simply extract data! However, we cannot overlook the fact that both Terry and Darlene did exactly that for a study on laundry detergent. They selected women who felt inadequate as mothers and then subjected them to a questionnaire designed to specifically heighten that feeling so much so that many of the women were weeping and visibly distraught. Thus, we must look at the whole system as being rotten and dehumanizing all those involved.
We are given a viewpoint outside of the system. Literally, as on the outside of the skyscraper where Team Delta y toils, an urban daredevil is free climbing. Up and up he goes in a specially made suit. After a while, he pauses and puts a costume on. He places an automatic rifle across his back. The whole time he is climbing, a crowd is speculating below that it is a media stunt, or that he is planning to spray them with bullets. This would seem to be a definitive free-spirited gesture. Climbing up a building in total disregard of the laws of physics, personal safety, and the criminal system. However, as we stand with the crowd and look way up we see the daredevil transform into a giant Mr. Squishy. Thus, our one hope of a person untouched by the corrupting forces of market research for snack cake is dashed as it is revealed that the daredevil is simply a publicity stunt.
In short, “Mr. Squishy” is short story that illustrates how people can lose track of what is moral in their day-to-day machinations. While we can judge them all and find them to be reprehensible, we really must examine our own lives and see if we are falling into the trap of looking at people as mere data points. Particularly in this election season, where everyone is put into a box and their probability of voting this way and that is measured and predicted by all sorts of survey teams.
December 19, 2011
I love films. Just like I love reading. By love, I mean rarely do I get a chance to do them. However, I am working on doing both more (currently in the middle of Lady Vengeance and Borges on those fronts). Anyway, I went to visit some friends in Houston a few weeks ago, and we watched the movie Limitless. What a disappointment. They had such a great premise and then they frittered it away on trivial things. It’s like they couldn’t really follow through on their thoughts to a good conclusion. If only they had that damn pill.
For those of you who have not seen the movie, the premise is that this loser gets a magic pill that allows him to use all of his brain. I want to state that this guy really is a loser. He’s a slob who is a struggling writer, by which I mean drinker. He gets dumped by his girlfriend that he has been mooching off of in the first few minutes to show just what a shmuck he is. Anyway, he gets this magic pill, and he immediately changes. He cleans his pig sty apartment and writes his novel in two days. The novel is amazing and everything is totally rosy. Then there’s this whole intrigue about the drug maker and drug user and yadda-yadda-yadda.
The whole time we were watching the film my friends and I were yelling at the guy to take the drug to a chemist and get it synthesized. The film goes to great lengths to make the scarcity of the pills a big plot point, but using the pills our loser makes oodles of money. To their credit, he eventually gets a chemist to start making the pills. Anyway, I don’t want to keep summarizing the plot as it just fails miserably.
Let’s go back to their excellent premise. A pill that allows you to recall everything you have ever been exposed to and makes you super observant and able to instantly recall everything relevant. Imagine a Google search for your brain where everything you have every even glance at or overheard has been neatly tagged and indexed. Amazing! Absolutely incredible! And what does the director, Neil Burger who did The Illusionist, do with this? He churns out a lame action flick that raises so many questions that it fails to answer. I’ll point out the holes in the plot.
First off, why does this loser become the top dog? The pill enhances your innate ability, so why does this guy manage to outcompete everyone else on it? Furthermore, if all the users were so damn smart why didn’t they just do what our protagonist ends up doing and fix the pill? Why didn’t the pill makers (who are never identified despite our protagonist’s near omniscience) fix the pill themselves?
Second off, what does our loser decide to dedicate his life too? He junks writing and replaces his drinking with copious sex. He murders someone, and it is never addressed. Seriously, you kill a person for the first time and you have no worries about it aside from getting caught? It seems like the only logical explanation is that the pill does not just enhance innate ability, but it also alters what is inside of you. Our wannabe writer sets his sights on presidency, but we are never told why he wants to do that. The movie makes it a point that he has found a mission, and then totally fails to explore this. Wouldn’t you want to know what the world’s smartest man wants to do? I know I do, and this is why this movie so disappoints.
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.”
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.