tim: A warning sign with "Danger" in white, superimposed over a red oval on a black rectangle, above text  "MEN EXPLAINING" (mansplaining)
Or: Lessons I Learned From Years Of Flouting Them
Or: Don't Do What I Did

The following is a list of tips derived from what I think has helped me enjoy computer science conferences more (and possibly learn more from them) as time has passed. I don't assume that they will be helpful to anybody else, but perhaps they're worth thinking about! I expect this list will be the most useful for grad students starting out, and other people who haven't gone to conferences before. If you are more experienced, you can always tell me why I'm wrong or whatever.

1. Pace yourself.

Skip talks. No, really. Going to every talk should not be your goal. Most people can't go to every talk and understand everything. (Don't even expect to understand everything in any one talk.)

Try to highlight talks you especially want to go to in the program in advance. You can do this during the first coffee break or during the first talk when you get there halfway through; it's okay :) Be open to adding or dropping talks (adding can be if someone tells you "hey, X's talk is going to be good" or if you happen to see the beginning and are drawn in; dropping can be if you feel tired, want to get some exercise, or get into a good conversation with somebody). I promise you that even if your school or employer is paying, nobody is going to exhaustively quiz you on the contents of every talk when you get home.

2. Pace around.

If it's possible -- not too rude and disruptive given the room layout, and physically possible for you -- try pacing around while you're listening to talks. At ICFP this year, the room had a big space in the back without chairs, which some people used for standing, lying down, doing yoga, and other such things. I don't know if this was intentional, but it worked well. Sitting in the same position all day is not good for most bodies. Don't be afraid to move, stretch, or even sit on the floor or lie down while listening to talks. If you're me (and possibly even if you're not me), this will help you listen better. Just because most people are sitting (too close together, on chairs that are probably uncomfortable) doesn't mean you have to.

Another advantage of standing is that it discourages you from opening your laptop, if that's a compulsion for you.

3. Take notes.

Not everybody focuses better while taking notes, but I certainly do; if my hand isn't moving, my mind checks out. But taking notes does more harm than good unless you do it effectively. it took me years to learn that note-taking isn't about writing down what the speaker says in complete sentences. If you hear something that makes you think, "That's interesting! I wonder...", write it down. If you hear something you want to read more about, write it down. Notes can be illegible to anyone else (so long as you can read them later!), in incomplete sentences, structured as bullet lists, etc. Nobody else gets to see your notes unless you let them.

Sometimes notes are write-only, and that's totally okay. You might never look at them again, but the act of writing will still have helped you remember what you learned.

4. If you don't understand, assume that it's not your fault.

This doesn't mean getting aggro at the speaker because they were unclear. It does mean not bearing all of the blame for every single talk you don't follow. It also means asking questions (sometimes) without thinking it will expose your horrible ignorance. Chances are, if you have a question in mind, ten other people do and won't want to say it. If you ask, you'll be helping all of them.

It's possible that it is your fault, but more often, somebody just didn't put in the time/didn't do practice talks/other things to improve talk quality. At least at the conferences I go to, papers are selected solely based on the quality of the ideas and writing, not the talk (since when the authors submit the paper, they haven't prepared the talk yet!) Someone can write a great paper with a great ideas, but still have no idea how to organize slides visually or structure a talk. The academic system affords very few incentives to learn how to do that, other than an individual's intrinsic motivation and/or peer pressure.

5. If you can't pay attention to the content, critique style -- INSIDE YOUR HEAD.

I mean, it's educational for you to think about what methods do and don't work for slides ("wow, that hot pink background with white text is hard to read..." "wow, I don't like Comic Sans and only SPJ gets a pass"), but just to be clear, nobody else (especially not the speaker) wants to hear your bikeshedding. That said, I find this is a way for me to actually get more out of the talk content, because if I'm noticing how I could have done the talk better from a purely visual POV, I'm not thinking about how much of a doof I am for not understanding the content.

6. If possible, stay physically nearby.

At least at the conferences I go to, the conference is usually at a hotel, and you can also stay at the hotel, though the hotel the conference is in is usually outrageously expensive (not an issue if your research grant or company gives you an unlimited budget, but for grad students, faculty at small schools, and unaffiliated people, that can be a problem). That means you can theoretically travel to an exciting, cosmpolitan city for a conference, and never leave the hotel except to go back and forth to the airport (if you're willing to eat hotel restaurant food). The drawback is that there are usually much cheaper options, but generally a significant distance from the conference. It's up to you to set your own budget priorities, but even though I wish they weren't so exorbitantly priced, there really are advantages to staying in the same hotel as the conference. This is true even in European cities where you can walk or take an easy light rail ride everywhere -- the time it takes will add up, and you're spending enough time attending, going to dinner, and staying out late shooting the breeze that every minute counts (and sleep is crucial to everything else working out).

Staying at the hotel also makes it easier to show up on time for the first talk in the morning, which saves you guilt about missing it (especially if the conference puts invited talks first, which is cruel and unusual punishment if you ask me -- signalling that a talk is expected to be especially good by scheduling it at a time when it's difficult for many of us to be awake). It also makes it a snap to go back to your room for a nap, break, or just some alone time when you need it.

7. Know your limits.

I don't mean alcohol so much as people and new information. It's okay to tell yourself that your brain is full and go take a break. (Taking notes makes this easier, since you know you'll be able to resume easily.) This is true whether you're an introvert, extrovert, or the (probably-majority of us) who don't fit neatly into one of those categories. The limits may vary wildly for different people, but almost everyone has them. When you hit your limit, you'll know.

8. Ask questions.

Many conferences have a few people who seem to dominate the Q&A sessions for almost every talk. Session chairs usually know this, and some will try to call on less familiar faces. But for that to work, people have to step up. So every question you ask -- as an outsider, newcomer, or whatever -- means that many more fresh perspectives that the whole conference gets to hear.

Often, not everybody gets to talk in a given Q&A session, but it's okay and encouraged to approach a speaker later and say you liked their talk and are wondering about ____. This is also totally okay if you're just too intimidated to ask a question in front of a large group. Personally, when I've given talks and no one has said a word to me about it later -- or if all anyone says is the equivalent of "great talk!" -- I worry.

9. Know how talks get selected.

At least at the academic conferences I go to, program committees don't select talks based on presentation quality, because they don't get to see the talks first or figure out how good a speaker the presenter is (in fact, often they don't know who will speak, because papers usually have multiple authors and only one will give the talk.) They select talks based on their assessment of the quality of the papers that go with them. Selection also isn't an objective process; political, messy, human one (just ask anyone who's been on a PC). Inclusion in a given conference, even a conference with a good reputation, doesn't imply lasting value. Rejection doesn't imply absence of value.

I'm saying this to encourage you to go easy on yourself if you miss talks or don't get much out of one or many talks. It doesn't necessarily mean that you had a great opportunity to learn something, and you (and only you) squandered it. When choosing talks to go to -- or choosing how hard to listen! -- trust your own judgment and don't assume everything is a pearl of wisdom.

10. Know that sometimes a great idea is buried in a bad talk.

Even if a talk leaves you reeling and not in a good way, maybe it just means you should read the paper. Different people learn differently, but for many of us, it's easier to understand something when we can go back and read the same sentence six times before continuing. You can achieve something similar by re-watching the video (if you're at a conference that records talks) later, which also has the advantage that you can rewind parts you want to listen to again and fast-forward through parts you don't. All of this only applies if the idea actually interests you. There's no obligation. In my experience, the most common scenario is a terrible talk based on an alternately lucid and confusing paper about a cool idea.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
How To Fail Out Of Grad School Without Really Trying

by Tim, Aged 29 3/4 (10th-year grad student if you count the time since I started my first Ph.D, which I don't)

There's a saying that you should never take advice from the survivors, and I felt that way reading this list of reasons Ph.D students fail. If I interpret this article as advice, it's good advice. But if I interpret it as a compendium of reasons why students fail, it doesn't really capture my experience or that of other people I know who left grad school. One reason why is that the author attributes failure only to individual students, ignoring the important role that unsupportive faculty members and indifferent institutions can play in encouraging failure. As Barbara Lovitts shows in her book _Leaving the Ivory Tower_, there are disciplinary and institutional patterns to grad student attrition, suggesting structural reasons for why Ph.D students fail that cannot be reduced to random individual variations in character.

I thought it might be interesting for a person who has failed a Ph.D -- namely, moi -- to compile a list of reasons why people in general might do the same. If you're also excellent at failure, feel free to contribute your own reasons too.

Most of the reasons on this list are probably specific to grad school in science, math, or engineering, just so you know.

  1. Be a member of a minority group that's underrepresented among faculty in your department.

    For maximal effectiveness, be a woman in a math or hard science field. In fact, you don't actually have to be a woman -- you just have to be perceived as one. When failure is your goal, being a woman has many advantages. Male grad students will either spend all their time hitting on you if you're single -- thus sapping the energy you need to save for reading papers and waiting in line at the bursar's office -- or ignore you totally if you're in a relationship, thus denying you the social support you need to survive emotionally and gain tacit knowledge about your program. Male professors will pay less attention to you and decline to take an active role in making sure you're getting what you need in order to progress -- and good luck finding any female professors. The little signs you're not really welcome are what clinches it, like faculty members who won't close their office doors to block out the corridor noise because they see you as a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen rather than as a person.

    I've heard that being a person of color -- in some fields, specifically being a person of color who was born and raised within the country you're attending school in -- also helps, but I have less experience with that; I also can't speak to the experiences of my fellow grad students who were domestic-born people of color, because there weren't any.

    This is a particularly useful item because graduate programs need to boost their admissions numbers for people in underrepresented minorities, but don't always need to boost their retention rates similarly. So they have a strong incentive to admit members of minority groups and then just not bother to support them. Everybody wins! At failure, that is.

  2. Attend the wrong undergraduate institution

    Who knew that you could potentially determine your own success in grad school at age 17 when you decide which undergrad institutions to apply to? Everyone loves to talk about well-roundedness, but if you don't attend an undergrad school that made sure you did 85% of your coursework in your major subject (and the rest in math), expect to spend all of your energy just catching up with the other kids. Nothing says that failure is on its way like being a grad student having to take an undergrad class where you get warned about how simply being absent for the final exam will not ensure that you will receive an F in the class. So don't go to a liberal arts college unless you want to get a Ph.D in half-caf venti soy lattes.

  3. Attend the wrong graduate institution.

    For best results, pick your graduate program based on: location; weather; proximity to a school that your significant other(s) is/are attending; proximity to family; progressive political environment; likelihood that you will be beaten in exchange for walking down the street; overall institutional prestige; overall departmental prestige; or simply "it was the best school that I got into." Best results if you want to fail, that is. A school that has faculty who will commit to your success if you're admitted, and who share research interests with you, is far less likely to set you up for failure than is an on-paper prestigious school where the prevailing attitude is that students are so lucky to be admitted that they would be wrong to ask for any support after that point (sort of like the theory of human life that says it ends at birth). But who tells that to undergrads?

  4. Have social anxiety

    It doesn't really matter whether your social anxiety is clinically diagnosed; all that matters is whether you have deep-seated issues that stop you from attending faculty office hours, choosing to do class projects as a group with other students rather than individually, and talking to your advisor other than when it's time to fill out the once-a-term paperwork. It's easy to be fooled into thinking that just because you can graduate from a very good undergraduate institution with a good academic record, and be accepted to numerous graduate programs, without learning how to seek out help when you need it, that you can get through a Ph.D program that way as well. It's so easy that you just might fail based on that quality alone! A related characteristic is love for working on your own, which is generally just another shape that fear of working with others takes. You might be able to pull this off if you're a genius, but let's face it, if you were one, you probably wouldn't go to grad school.

  5. Pick the wrong advisor

    Choosing an advisor is sort of like proposing to a potential spouse, or at least that's what my first grad school advisor told me back when I was a newly married first-year grad student. Eight years later, I'm divorced and attending a different grad school. What was pertinent about the advice is that in both personal and professional relationships, the opposite of love is indifference. Picking an advisor who says they'll let you do whatever you want but they won't think about it in their spare time, and will serve merely to sign your paperwork, may seem like a great idea at the time, and it is -- if you want to fail. Of course, in this case, it takes two to fail. Advisors are supposed to advise; to learn how to be a researcher, you need to be able to observe people who already know how to do it. These people don't have to be your advisor, but if you're the sort of person who picks an advisor you don't have to talk to and doesn't talk to anyone you aren't being forced to talk to, you're in the high-occupancy-vehicle lane on the freeway to failure.

  6. Attend a school that doesn't evaluate Ph.D students on research ability

    Ph.D programs are meant to prepare you to do research, so some schools evaluate your research when deciding whether to let you make progress towards the degree. Other schools do things like distributing a list of 50 papers in your subdiscipline and doing a closed-door oral exam on any papers that are either on or not on the list. It's an excellent way to fail if your aptitude for original research exceeds your ability to stay poised and understand spoken information without succumbing to anxiety, or if somebody just doesn't want you around. Being a member of a minority group can also help, since it's likely to mean that you haven't learned the aggressive communication style that benefits takers of such exams. For extra failure points, attend a school where if you fail the aforementioned exams, faculty will tell you that you shouldn't even bother applying to other schools, because if you were smart enough to get a Ph.D, you wouldn't have failed. A lucky grad student who aspires to fail will find themself a student in a program that prioritizes ability to pass specific kinds of tests over motivation to succeed at research -- tests that they happen to be bad at, of course.

  7. Lack both confidence in yourself, and the confidence needed to seek out support from others

    This one is pretty self-explanatory, but if you never really believed you were smart enough to finish grad school in the first place, and you're in the categories mentioned above that make it unlikely that anybody will bother to tell you otherwise, failure is more or less a given. You don't *have* to be a member of an underrepresented minority for this one to apply to you, but it sure does help. This ties in with most of the other items on the list too, since if you pick the right school, you'll be studiously ignored as long as you don't arrive already in possession of all the preparation and confidence you need. If your lack of confidence extends far enough to stop you from admitting to other people -- even other students -- that you don't know everything, that's even better, because tacit knowledge of the sort that can only be learned from other grad students in your program is essential to learning the unofficial rules you have to follow in order to make progress, and if you're afraid to talk to them, that's all for the better!

  8. Have a personal life

    If you don't know how to have a personal life, then congratulations, you will probably succeed in grad school. But if you need ideas, consider being married or otherwise being in one or more committed relationships -- spouses are likely to finish sooner than later than you are, interfering with the absolute mobility that's necessary to finish your degree on schedule and cope with institution-hopping advisors, as well as providing a tempting alternative to departmental socializing. Another effective tactic is developing a chronic illness. Sleeping through lectures not only prevents you from absorbing the material therein -- it's demoralizing and makes you question your own ability to ever learn anything. For bonus points, develop an illness that everyone else will believe is fake, suggesting you're just a lazy malingerer -- anything that's generally categorized as a "mental illness" is a good bet. The great thing about getting sick is that even though many chronic illnesses can be treated with medication that allows you to function like a normal person (or at least one who can stay awake long enough to read a paper abstract), there's no cure for being blacklisted due to your consolation master's degree.

  9. Have an external fellowship

    You'd think that free money for doing nothing -- excuse me, I meant doing whatever you feel is necessary to further your own education -- would be a good thing. It is, if you want to fail. Being employed as a research assistant for a specific professor or research group integrates you socially and binds you to a commitment to deliver a particular kind of results -- a commitment that motivates you to finish your task by any means necessary, including collaborating with others. Having a fellowship empowers you to fuck around for almost three years and never get called on your shit. This is great if you came into grad school knowing exactly what your research agenda is and what you need to do to carry it out, but let's face it, if you were that smart, you would probably start a company or something instead.

    (Note: This is actually true; Lovitts's book presents evidence.)

  10. Be too accustomed to success

    Sounds paradoxical, right? The only way to avoid failure is to have failed before. If your academic life until grad school has been a series of unqualified successes, if you graduated cum laude without much effort and wrote most of your papers in a single Earl-Grey-tea-fueled night, you're a great candidate to fail out of a Ph.D program. If on the other hand you've tried to learn material that didn't come easily for you and eventually succeeded, if you've been in situations where you could not succeed without learning how to ask other people for what you need, and you've occasionally gotten less than a C on an exam, you might just end up with the patience to keep trying even when your experiment or code or proof doesn't work the first time. And then, you might just not fail.

    But wouldn't that be boring?

tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 21


Suppose you are a researcher and you collaborate with your husband, wife, domestic partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, lover, mistress, gigolo, inamorat{o|a}, sweetie, fuckbuddy, or baby mama. Suppose you are giving an academic talk. Which of the following do you consider reasonable ways to refer to your joint work with your collaborator (named, say, Dana Q. Zygomorphism), when used more than once in the same talk?

View Answers

"In work with my wife..."
3 (14.3%)

"In work with my husband..."
3 (14.3%)

"In work with Dr. Zygomorphism..."
16 (76.2%)

"In work with {Mr.|Ms.} Zygomorphism..."
6 (28.6%)

"In work with Zygomorphism..."
11 (52.4%)

"In work with Dana..."
18 (85.7%)

"In work with my collaborator..." [when credit is given by name in a slide]
17 (81.0%)

Something else
2 (9.5%)

None of the above.
0 (0.0%)

Which of the following phrases would you consider unprofessional to use one or more times during an academic talk (assuming it was true)?

View Answers

"In work with my wife..." [speaker is male]
13 (68.4%)

"In work with my husband..." [speaker is female]
13 (68.4%)

"In work with my wife..." [speaker is female]
13 (68.4%)

"In work with my husband..." [speaker is male]
13 (68.4%)

"In work with my partner..."
10 (52.6%)

"In work with my significant other..."
14 (73.7%)

"In work with my boyfriend..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with my girlfriend..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with my girlfriend's other boyfriend..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with my friend with benefits..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with my gay lover..."
17 (89.5%)

"In work with the mother of my children..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with the person with whom I have sexual intercourse on a regular basis..."
18 (94.7%)

"In work with my partner in a full-time BDSM relationship..."
17 (89.5%)

"In work with your mom..."
13 (68.4%)

None of the above
0 (0.0%)

Yep.

Mar. 13th, 2010 12:09 am
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A quotation that more or less summarizes why I want to institute mandatory social science education (you know, when I get to be in charge of all academia):

"...the sociologist is the annoying bugger who always asks "Says who?"

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

December 2014

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