April 21, 2014

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Advice for New Graduate Students

[Ed Felten says: This is the time of year when professors offer advice to new students. My colleague Prof. Jennifer Rexford gave a great talk to a group of our incoming engineering Ph.D. students, about how to make the most of graduate school. Here's what she said: ]

Those of you who know me, know that I collect quotations as a hobby. (The short version of the story is that I moved around a lot as a kid. Quotations are small and very portable, making them a good hobby.) Anyway, two eminent scientists, Albert Einstein and Lewis Thomas, who were at Princeton the 1930s both have something interesting (and seemingly contradictory) to say about the role of the individual:

Albert Einstein (physics): “All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.”

Lewis Thomas (medicine, biology, Princeton class of ’33): “There is really no such creature as a single individual; he has no more life of his own than a cast-off cell marooned from the surface of your skin.”

These two quotations embody so much of what graduate school is all about.

Individual Development

First, graduate school is a highly individual experience. Compared to the somewhat anonymous experience of college — where you sit in large classes, do the same homeworks, and take the same tests with many other students — graduate school is a highly personal. Nobody else is doing quite the same research you are doing (or at least you hope they are not), and you get direct (sometimes pointed) feedback on your individual work — from your advisor, from your peers, and from reviewers of the papers you submit and the talks you give. And when your work is good but not great, you don’t just take the A- and move on to the next assignment — you keep plugging away and get more feedback and, eventually, you nail it. This is an amazingly efficient way to learn, grow, and create great scholarship.

Yet, there is a downside. The critique of your work, however well-meaning and “good for you,” will sometimes feel relentless. It requires some toughening of the skin, and a delicate little dance to simultaneously be in love with your work (so you have the tenacity you need to always dig deeper) and yet have enough emotional distance to be able to take constructive criticism of how your work looks in its early stages. It’s not an easy balance to strike, and I’m sure all of us who do research still struggle with it. I know I do. This is one of the many ways in which grad school is as much as emotional challenge as it is an intellectual one.

Another important aspect of the “individual” in graduate school is to learn your research “taste.” You may not know it yet, but you are weird. You come to research problems with some peculiar sensibility that nobody else has. You are attracted to a certain kind of research problem — maybe a messy practical problem, or a sharply formulated (but very hard) theoretical problem, or something in between. You notice a certain kind of weakness or gap in other people’s research. You have a particular set of techniques or approaches to solving problems. Graduate school is a wonderful time to figure out what your “taste” is, so you can craft your own agenda for the technical problems you pursue in the years ahead.

So, then, graduate school really is the epitome of what Einstein called the “development of the individual.” And I hope during your time here, you get the kind of opportunities for individual development that you deserve. Experiences that will let you produce deeper scholarship that expands the base of knowledge in your fields, and become more accomplished at conveying new and sometimes complex ideas to others.

Part of a Group

Yet, for all of my blathering on about the individual, graduate school is also a collective experience. You are part of a research group, a department, a discipline, (for many of you) an engineering school, a graduate school, and student groups like GWISE.

I want to say a few words about your research group, because it is so important. Your officemates, and the other graduate students around you, are such an important part of your graduate school experience. Not only do they provide a sense of community, and a community that truly understands your experiences, though that is certainly important. But they also mentor you on topics small and large.

I had a great officemate, Jim, in graduate school. He took ten years to graduate, and had already been there seven years when I arrived. So, Jim knew everything about everything. He taught me an important lesson I value to this day — how to be efficient. He would sit at the next desk and admonishingly say, “Jen, I hear the sounds of repetitive keystrokes. Today you will learn Perl.” To be honest, it was kind of creepy at first, but Jim would watch out for me out of the corner of his eye. He taught me things that would save me time, leaving me with the time and energy I needed to tackle bigger and more interesting problems.

Your classmates will also provide wonderful moments of professional serendipity, random encounters over coffee or foosball that make you aware of a body of work you didn’t know about, or recognize a previously unappreciated connection between two disciplines. You may even become the match-maker for the faculty, bringing two professors together to collaborate because you see a connection in their research that they were unable to see. The chance encounters, the candid feedback on your research, the unplanned discussions about research taste and philosophy — these are all a great part of interacting with your group mates.

I must caution you, though, about an important enemy against this kind of informal interactions. The Internet. Okay, so my research focuses on the Internet, so it may seem strange for me to be so negative about it, but this is important so I’ll make an exception. The Internet makes it far too easy to work from home, or a cafe, or on the train, rather than in your office or lab with your peers. Your choice to work away from the office is, in fact, perfectly rational. Coming into the office has a defined cost, in terms of your time and (perhaps) having to get out of your pajamas and take a shower. And, all of this is in exchange for some vague, speculative benefit — that you might have a chance encounter that truly changes your research. And, frankly, in any one day, you probably won’t have a profound experience in your office, and your officemates may not even be in the same scholarly mood as you. But, I entreat you to go anyway.

And, I encourage you to have a broader sense of community with each other, whether in your departments, or the school of engineering, or in groups like this one. Not only for the professional serendipity — though that will happen. But for the friendship and support. Graduate school is fun but it is also hard, and sometimes frustrating, and having some balance in your life will make the whole experience more worthwhile.

In fact, for what it’s worth, I find the students in my group who are more engaged with other students and student groups often graduate sooner than the other students. They often are better at managing their time, working intensely and efficiently to leave space in their lives for their other pursuits. And, they are more comfortable reaching out to other students for help, whether for feedback on a paper or guidance on an analytical technique or a software tool. They know more about the peculiarities of the faculty, and how to work around them. And, for the students who are not native English speakers, the social interactions also have a side benefit of sharpening their English skills. Mastering a language is, frankly, pretty boring work. Socializing in English is a much more enjoyable way to learn the language than any formal study could ever be.

So, in closing, I do think that graduate school is an unusual experience, both highly individual (in your training and professional development) and highly collective (in how you are part of a research group, a discipline, and a larger community). I hope you find both aspects of your time here at Princeton rewarding, and that you also make time to give back to the next group of students who arrive at Princeton after you.