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2014 December 23

A long PhD is not a bad thing

In response to http://xykademiqz.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/the-7-year-phd-itch, where she argued in favor of 5-year PhDs, and producing many papers as a grad student, I commented

I spent 8 years on my PhD (of course, I changed fields from pure math to computer science to computer engineering in that time). I only had a few papers when I was done, but I was in a hot new field and got a tenure-track position immediately. Unfortunately, it was not a good fit, and I ended up moving to another institution after 4 years, where it took me 7 more years to get tenure. So my BS-to-tenure time was 19 years. (The second job was a good fit, and I’m still at that university, though in a different field and in a different department.)

I find it difficult to advise students to race through grad school or to write huge numbers of crappy papers. I think that it is more important for students (and researchers in general) to write one or two high-quality papers that might actually make a difference.

Of the papers I wrote in grad school, one has never been cited (probably only one other person ever read it), one is my 6th most-cited paper (350 citations in Google Scholar and 86,600 hits with Google), and one has had very modest citations (85). My thesis itself was one-year throwaway work (only cited 9 times).

Note: I had fellowships for most of grad school, so only worked as an RA for 2 quarters and a TA for one. The highly cited paper was one that was not the result of any funded project, but an idea that another fellowship student came up with on his homemade computer and that we played with for a few years. The idea made over $100,000 in license fees for the campus and is what got me into the hot field that I was later hired for. I think that a lot has been lost by pushing students to be “hands in the lab” for senior researchers.

I’ve been sitting on this comment since March, with the idea of turning it into a full blog post.  I’ve seen a lot of different attitudes on the part of both grad students and faculty about how long a PhD should take and how much should be done for it.

My personal take is that a PhD education should be both broad and deep—one should have enough breadth of knowledge to teach several different undergrad courses and enough depth in one subject to have contributed original work to the field.

Research faculty generally want students to stick around for a fairly long time, so that they get payback in terms of co-authored papers for investment they have made (usually with Federal money) in the students’ initial training. A lot of them see no value to breadth, though, and just want someone to do the tough work in their lab.  They want students to start in research labs right away and see any time spent in coursework as wasted. These faculty often value research much more highly than teaching, doing the bare minimum teaching that the university lets them get away with—they also don’t pursue further education themselves, not attending any research seminars unless the seminar topics are directly tied to their current research projects.  The students they turn out are often very narrow researchers—good in one field, but not adaptable to changes in technology or research funding fads. Although these faculty often have impressive research teams, I’m not impressed with them as professors, as they have too narrow a view of what the role entails—they should be working in a private or national research lab rather than as professors at a university.

A more balanced professorial view sees the role of grad students primarily as students, learning how to be researchers and teachers, rather than as hired hands in the research lab.  As students, they should be continually learning new things, not just getting lab results in a narrow specialty.

Some grad students want to get the PhD certification as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible.  They generally end up in jobs that don’t require a PhD, so I don’t know why they bother—they’d be better off in most cases getting an MS degree (which is much faster) and going to work in industry.

Other grad students end up getting in a rut: not making much progress on their research, not taking any classes, not working on other research projects—basically just marking time.

Others start many projects, but don’t bring any of them to the state of completion needed for a thesis (that was me as a grad student—always busy, always learning, but not wrapping things up). Both the students in a rut and the students flitting from project to project may need to have their funding cut off, to motivate them either to finish theses quickly or give up—my thesis was written in a year after I was told I had only one year of funding left.  I think that there is some benefit to letting productive students have a free rein for a while, though—forcing students into a narrow niche too soon results in narrow researchers.

Some students try to turn their PhD thesis into a life work—as if the thesis is the best thing they’ll ever do.  This is a serious mistake that results in their staying a grad student for much too long. The point of a PhD thesis is to get the student a PhD—it is to establish that the student is capable of original work that contributes to the field and of writing that work up, no more. My own thesis was basically a throw-away research product.  By the time I was done with it, I realized that it was the wrong approach for tackling the design problem.  The only interesting part was a cute NP-completeness proof for a routing problem, all in pictures, but that was a time when new NP-completeness results were basically unpublishable, so I never bothered publishing it anywhere other than my thesis.

Having students do original work is not enough—the check that students can write things up is an important one. I’ve seen more students fail to get PhDs because they couldn’t write up their work than because they couldn’t do the research—that is one reason why our advancement to candidacy requirement consists mostly of writing a long, detailed research proposal, essentially a first draft of the thesis.  Students who can’t write either need to get help or find a job that does not require as much writing as most jobs that require PhDs.  (Incidentally, the problem of writer’s block often hits hardest those students whose writing is the best, when they can get it out—the problem is often one of perfectionism. So the strategy for addressing the problem has to be primarily psychological, not just instruction in writing.)

In recent years there has been considerable pressure on universities to pump students through faster, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The effect has often been to deny students the chance to explore things outside a very narrow field—once undergrads have completed major requirements and university-mandated general education, there is no time left for other interests (and general-education requirements rarely are satisfied by other interests—they are usually mandated to be a bunch of low-level courses distributed across the curriculum to ensure butts in seats for various departments). Grad school pressure to reduce time-to-degree has often resulted in reducing the coursework requirements and getting students into research labs sooner, again reducing the breadth of student education.

Personally, I like “honors” programs, where at least the top students get released from the rigid bureaucratic requirements of general education and are free to shape idiosyncratic programs that get breadth and depth by following multiple interests, rather than by taking large numbers of survey courses.  I had such a program as an undergrad (the Honors College at Michigan State) and my son is currently in such a program (the College of Creative Studies at UCSB). It may not work for all students, but it is a good way to handle the students who are actually interested in learning things, not just in getting a degree.

In addition to my math degree, as an undergraduate I took a variety of other courses, some of which were interesting, some of which turned out to be duds. As a grad student, I continued this practice, and some of the just-for-fun courses turned out to be crucial to my future success.  For example, the computer music class lead to my taking the VLSI design class, in order to make a single-chip implementation of the plucked-string algorithm that Alex Strong and I had developed.  I ended up teaching VLSI design for over a decade, and the plucked-string paper is my 6th most-cited paper (365 citations on Google Scholar). Neither the plucked-string algorithm nor the VLSI design would have happened if Alex and I had followed the more conventional route of joining a professor’s lab and working on the problems that professor was funded for.  I would have finished my degree sooner, but would have developed a much narrower view of what research is worthwhile.  Although I took a long time as a grad student and a long time as an assistant professor, I still made tenure when I was 38, which is (just barely) below the average age for scientists getting tenure (over 39 according to Physics Today).

My son plans currently to take a lot of courses in his major (computer science), in his other academic interests (math, maybe physics and linguistics, maybe computer engineering), and in his recreational interests (acting)—it looks like he’ll only be required to take one or two classes that are of no interest to him.  He has taken more time in his pre-college schooling than I did, so he’ll probably not get his BS until he is 22 (I finished mine at 19), but he probably won’t need as long in grad school as me, because he’ll have had more time and opportunity to explore his interests earlier. (I certainly wasn’t ready to found a company at age 18!) For that matter, he might decide to go into full-time engineering with just a BS, and not go the academic route at all—his entrepreneurial spirit is more like his uncle than like his father.

Perhaps he’ll do what a lot of the students I teach have done: work for several years (or decades) in industry, then come back to grad school when bored with that, wanting a more interesting challenge.  The re-entry grad students generally do not take a long time to the PhD, because they are focused on their research, though they don’t seem to be much better than other grad students on planning what comes after the PhD.

2013 November 28

First college application sent

Last night my son got his first set of college applications sent off: University of California, which has its own idiosyncratic deadline and application form. UC does not ask for transcripts and does not want letters of recommendation—students have to enter all their transcript information into web forms.  The lack of letters of recommendation may be a blessing in disguise, as one of his recommenders has still not been able to get the Common App to accept her letter for him. The UC web forms are set up to be fairly easy (though tedious) for students at California high schools, since UC has a list of all UC-approved courses at each high school, but they are really a pain for a home school student.  We were lucky in that his home-schooling was done under a public-school umbrella (Alternative Family Education) that appeared on the drop-down list.  Otherwise, it would have been difficult even to say where he did his high school education.  The instructions for home-schoolers seem to be non-existent and figuring out where to tuck various bits of information was tough.

He ended up applying to 3 of the UCs (UCB, UCSB, and UCSD), though the only campuses he has visited are UCB, UCLA, and UCSC. Why the change?  Well, UCSC is too close to home—he needs to move to more independent living.  Our visit to UCLA made it very clear that undergrads in computer science there got almost no attention from faculty (unless the students were very strong at self-promotion) and acting was mostly restricted to theater arts majors. UCB was better—much better on the acting opportunities, with an attractive acting minor, but undergrads in computer science still had little research opportunity or interaction with the faculty.

We added UCSB primarily because of the College of Creative Studies (CCS) there, an honors college of about 300 students that (the website claims) has close faculty advising and is expected to do graduate-level research as undergrads. The computer science major within CCS looks quite interesting, and (if it lives up to its advertising) may represent a good compromise between the resources of a large university and the attention and nurturing of a small college. Unfortunately, we don’t have an equivalent of the Common Data Set numbers to know how selective CCS is nor does their web site really tell us what they are looking for.

One interesting point is that CCS has a supplementary application that is circulated among the faculty—we regard it as a good sign when the faculty care enough about their program to be involved in choosing who gets in, and when a university allows the faculty to have some say (most UC admissions keep the faculty completely out of freshman admissions—except for coaches at the sports-mad campuses, who seem able to get jocks in even when they don’t come close to being UC-eligible).  Note: transfer admissions at least at UCSC is different, with faculty in the intended department having final say about whether students can be admitted to the major.

UCSD was added as an afterthought, as having a reasonable engineering program while being easier to get into than UCB (38% instead of 17% for male freshmen—UCSB is even higher at 43%).  It is more of a safety school than a careful choice, but the marginal effort of doing an application to it was small—mainly trying to rank the six colleges there based on the very scanty information on the UCSD web site. If he gets in at UCSB or UCSD, but not one of his top three choices, we’ll probably end up doing another visit to southern California, to see how these two campuses feel to him.

The UC applications cost $70 per campus plus another $11.25 each to send SAT scores for a total of $243.75.  He’ll be applying to another 3–7 colleges, so I expect that application fees will end up costing around $1000.  When the cost of college visits and taking the SAT and AP tests in the first place is included, the cost of the application process rises to around $4000–5000.  That seems like a lot, but is dwarfed by the cost of college itself, which for us will be $120,000 to $240,000, depending on which college he goes to—the amount of financial aid that we qualify for seems to vary enormously from school to school.

UPDATE 2013 Dec 1: A reader just pointed out “You can have your official score report sent to one UC campus, and all campuses you apply to will receive it.” http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/freshman/requirements/examination-requirement/ I wish I’d noticed that buried in the instructions.  (I’d looked for it, but must have skipped over the line that said it.)

My son, like many high school seniors, has been struggling with the college application essays.  The two he produced for UC seem pretty good to me—one concentrates on the data logger project and is an adaptation of the essay he wrote for the Common Application prompt, while the other talks about why he chose to home school and what that has done for him.  Both essays managed to pack in a lot of information about him and his education, without sounding like laundry lists.

But it took him two weeks to write these essays whose combined length was just shy of the 1000-word limit.  He still has a large number of essays to write (1–3 per college application), and his writer’s block seems to get worse the more important the thing he is writing, so he’s been struggling most with the colleges he cares most about. I have the same problem—I can knock off a blog post like this one in an hour or two, but I have research papers still unfinished that should have been published a decade ago.

The huge amount of time each application takes means that there’s no way that he’ll be applying to the 100s of colleges who send brochures and postcards (most of which are getting recycled unread these days).  Occasionally one of the colleges will send a letter to “the parents of …”, and I sometimes read those for the amusement value, as most of them are so far off target as to be ludicrous.

The main limitation on how many colleges he applies to will probably be how many essays he can get done. I suppose that is why each selective college adds a bunch of essay questions to their application—not so much to find out more about the student as to reduce the flood of applicants to just those who are somewhat serious about attending. This selection process may be counterproductive though, as it would be much easier to churn out acceptable essays for schools he cared nothing about than to try to get a really good essay for a school he cares a lot about.

This weekend, I’m hoping he’ll get the essays done for one of his high-priority colleges (Harvey Mudd or Stanford, for example).

2012 November 3

SAT today

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:18
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My 16-year-old son took the SAT exam this morning.  This is the second time he’s taken it—the first time was 4½ years ago, at the end of 6th grade, for a talent search.  At that time, he got excellent scores on the reading and math, but a rather poor score on the writing (worst possible score on the essay).  We were not worried about the essay score then, since he had never been taught to write an essay, but his writer’s block go worse over the years, leading eventually to our home schooling him (see School decisions, part 2).  We’ve been getting him weekly sessions with a writing therapist, trying to improve his ability to overcome his inner censor and write more freely.  He’s always written well, when he has been able to produce output, but writing to a deadline has always been very difficult for him and timed writing nearly impossible.

It seems that the writing therapy paid off on today’s exam.  The essay prompt he was given (which he did not tell us, as he takes the required secrecy of the exams very seriously) was very similar to one he’d been given in a practice session with his writing therapist recently, so he could take the examples he had previously written about and reuse them for this new prompt.  I understand that this approach of reusing  previously crafted arguments is very common among high-school debaters and more common than it should be in college essays. I have some evidence for the essay reuse in college—I reviewed Phi Beta Kappa candidates one year and recommended rejecting one who had used essentially the same final paper in three different classes.  It may have been a fine essay, but reusing it was intellectual laziness that should not characterize Phi Beta Kappa honorees.  (This was some time ago—the more recent transcripts have only grades and not narrative evaluations that include the topics of final papers, so this sort of intellectual laziness is harder to detect now.)

I am a little bothered by how much my son benefited from the coaching by his writing therapist.  He clearly needed the extra help in getting past his writer’s block, and it seems to be helping in his other courses, letting his writing show more of what he is capable of, so I’m not at all sorry we are  buying him the therapy.  But I am concerned that the SAT essay is so coachable—that makes it much less useful as an exam, since it will detect ability to pay for coaching as much as it will detect ability and achievement. I would have been happy if his therapy made it possible for him to write an essay on an unfamiliar prompt despite the time pressure—having the therapy make the prompts familiar seems too much like teaching to the test.

Given the luck he had on getting a prompt close to something he had already thought about, this may be the last time he takes the SAT—we’ll know in a few weeks when we get the scores. Given that home-school GPAs are rather uninterpretable, we’re going to have to rely on SAT scores (and other standard test scores) to show his abilities to college admissions offices. We don’t need to show a 2400, but we do want to see a substantial improvement since 6th grade, when his total was 2050.  I’d like to see something above 2210 (top 1%ile), and if it weren’t for his writer’s block, I think a 2350 would be more representative of his abilities.

Assuming that the SAT is done with, his writing therapy can now focus on other forms of writing he needs to master—ones more like writing he will do in college and beyond.

2012 January 8

Ways to respond to literature using New York Times models

Last November, the NY Times published an article about alternatives to the standard school book report for English classes: Beyond the Book Report: Ways to Respond to Literature Using New York Times Models.  I read the article then, and forwarded the link to my son, my wife (who supervises his humanities education), and my son’s consultant teacher.  I meant to blog about it right away, but it got buried in my over-100 draft posts of things I mean to blog about as soon as I have time.  The pointer just got forwarded to the other home-schoolers at Alternative Family Education, so it is past time for me to write this post.

The article offers 13 alternative assignments for the usual “book report” or “literary analysis” assignment (which I have ranted about before in posts like Death to high school English and Reluctant Writers).  I don’t know that we will use any of them exactly, but they did help spur some thinking about some of the assignments my son has done for his “Alternative Realities” English class so far this year:

  • description of the caste system in Brave New World
  • sociolinguistic analysis of NewSpeak in 1984
  • extra chapter for Alice in Wonderland, describing her adventures in a land that looks a lot like Minecraft
  • map of Gethen, the world (or part of the world) in Left Hand of Darkness
  • travel guide for Arde, the world in Planiverse

He has not been having the huge problems with writer’s block that he had last year.  I think that being able to craft his own style of response to each book (in consultation with his mother, who is choosing the books, discussing them with him, and giving him feedback on his drafts) has helped a lot in allowing him to keep moving on the assignments.  His consultant teacher has indicated that he needs to do six assignments each semester to get full credit for an English class, and he seems to be on track for that.  We’re thinking of a dramatic reading (with sound effects) for the 6th project.

He’s been doing writing in his other classes also.  His time-line for history class requires a lot of one-paragraph summaries, he’s done one lab report for physics (I should require a couple more), and he has been doing fairly detailed write-ups for his calculus homework sets (the Art of Problem Solving faculty provide feedback on the writing, so his math writing has improved enormously since he started precalculus with them last year). His science fair and robotics projects have not generated much writing yet, but he’s been keeping notes in his science-fair lab notebook and has a draft of the general introduction to his science fair project, so I’m hopeful that he’ll produce a decent report this year without too much prodding.  (His previous science fair reports are good, but took a lot prodding to get him to complete.)

Overall, I think that the writing he has done this year has been good for him and has not been much different in quantity than if he had been in school.  He’s felt less pressured about it, because each writing project has been one he has chosen, or at least agreed is a necessary component of something he has chosen.  We’ll see whether he can do the writing needed for the Shakespeare class he is taking this spring (in preparation for a trip to Ashland), or whether the prompts there turn out to be too inflexible for him.

2011 November 12

NY Times homeschooling question

Filed under: home school — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 00:41
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In a NY Times blog post Would You Want to Be Home-Schooled? by Susannah L. Griffee and Katherine Schulten about a reminiscence on home-schooling in the 1970s (“My Parents Were Home-Schooling Anarchists” by Margaret Heidenry, which paints a rather stereotyped view of countercultural homeschooling, though it seems to be more about being poor than about being homeschooled), the authors asked

Students: Tell us about your experiences and thoughts about home-schooling. Do you think this type of education can prepare children for the “real world”? How might it be better than traditional schooling? What might children miss from not attending a regular school? Do you agree with the writer’s mother that working at one’s own pace and following one’s genuine interests is the best way to learn?


Students 13 and older are invited to comment below. Please use only your first name.

My son responded

I am in 10th grade and trying homeschooling for the first time this year. Before, I have attended both public and private school, but none of them have been a very good fit for me.

Many posters here have made the point that homeschooling does not prepare people for the real world, as it does not provide very many socialization opportunities. I believe this to be wrong, as (hopefully) a homeschooler will have the opportunity to seek out as much socialization as they need through other channels (such as clubs, sports, classes, etc.), and not be subjected or restricted in socialization as a normal student would.

In fact, “homeschooling” is a misleading term, as it implies that the student stays at home all the time. I am taking a class at the local community college, and bike there twice a week (fulfilling my P.E. requirement in the bargain). I am also taking theater classes with a local kids & teens theater troupe, which is fun and very social.

Homeschooling seems good for me because I can (for the most part) learn at my own pace, without the busywork and drill of conventional schooling.There are deadlines, however, both from classes I am taking in the community or online and those instituted by my parents for the classes they teach me.

I don’t know if homeschooling will work out for me, and I don’t know if perhaps I should have started it sooner or not at all, but as someone who has experienced a range of different schooling styles, I say, “Try it and see if it works for you.”

I did not prompt this writing—all I did was send him the URL for the NY Times blog post.  It seems that, like me, his writer’s block is selective, with “important” things getting blocked much worse than “minor” things.

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