wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

So, what do new grad students need to know?

I'm a new graduate student.

As such, I just spent the past week being properly oriented for the journey I'm about to undertake. It'll be (in the words of various orientation presenters) amazing, hard, depressing, enlightening, enriching ... basically, a grab bag of adjectives! In between the heartwarming-if-cliche welcome speeches, excited conversations with fellow newbies, and getting lost in the tunnels under MIT, I'd like to think I picked up some useful tidbits of information.

Expectations and communication

The biggest thing is to communicate. Surprise! Who would've thought that the key to successfully working with your colleagues, classmates, labmates, and advisor would be to communicate with them? The top three pieces of advice:

  1. Tell your advisor/classmates/colleagues what to expect of you.
  2. Ask what to expect of your advisor/classmates/colleagues.
  3. Be your own advocate.

For example, if you run marathons and thus go for a long run every day at noon, tell your advisor and labmates this. That way, they don't expect to find you in the lab when you're out running. They might tell you that they have three kids and leave work every day at 6pm sharp -- so don't schedule meetings after 5pm. Or that they're so not a morning person, so never expect to see them working before noon -- but if you need something at 3am, they're the person to contact.

It's not just about when to expect to see people in the lab. Ask about communication styles. Does this person like emails? Phone calls? Meetings? Texts? Some people prefer a quick five-minute conversation in person to a lengthy email exchange. Ask what this person's expectations are about you. Does your advisor expect to see you in the lab eight hours a day? Does your labmate expect you to help out on project XYZ? Ask questions whenever you're unsure of something. After all, every relationship is different. So what works for this relationship?

The key is to share enough relevant information with each other to know what to expect. Be up front about who you are, what you do with your time, and what you want to get out of the situation or the relationship. This way, no one's left wondering. If everyone knows what to expect, you won't get into a situation where someone's upset because they didn't get what they were expecting.

a large pumpkin-shaped, translucent balloon

Communicate both when things are going well and when they're not. If you're working on a project with someone, give regular updates on your progress -- whether you've achieved awesome results, or are stuck in a rut. Sometimes, the person you're working with can help you out of the rut. I worked with someone once who said, if you don't update me, I'll assume you're not working. While that's not true of everyone, make sure the relevant people know what you're up to.

If you remember one thing, remember this: People assume too much. People will build up their own image of you whether or not you tell them anything. So be proactive. Be your own advocate. Make sure they build up an image that correctly reflects reality.

Other advice

  • Leave your lab. Make a point of getting out of your lab, out of your department, and meeting people. Meet people from everywhere! You can meet people through campus-wide events, lectures, your classes, clubs, outside activities... pretty much anywhere there are people, really.

  • Leave your comfort zone. Try new things. Try hard things. Learn.

  • It'll be hard, but that's okay. The orientation events I attended had a common theme -- grad school is hard. Grad school is supposed to be hard. You may not be motivated every step of the way. The key is persistence and perseverance. Find ways of keeping yourself on track. And:

  • Take care of yourself. Don't put the rest of your life on hold. Leave the lab once in a while. Do outside activities -- whether that's walking your dog, spending time with your family, or backpacking in Kenya. What do you enjoy besides your research? Make time for it. It'll help keep you sane.


What are you doing?

A feeling common among senior undergraduates (and senior high school students, and junior undergrads, etc) is the your-life's-about-to-start-what-are-you-going-to-do pressure. The common questions one faces include but are not limited to: What are you doing post-college? Are you getting a job? Where are you going to live? What about grad school? Will you stay in academia? What about high-paying tech/business/etc jobs?

pairs of question marks on a purple background

Surprise: That feeling of uncertainty doesn't always go away after graduation, or even after a year. Probably not even after five, but I haven't gotten that far yet. I may be more on track than some. I've set my sights on a career in science and research, the next step of which will, for me, be grad school. But I'm sure I'm more uncertain than others.

So, from a student who's been there, here are some thoughts on...

College, Internships, and Figuring Out What the **** You Want To Do With Your Life

You already know that there are a lot of questions to answer.

For example:

four computers in a row on a table

If you're considering a STEM career, like me, then a lot of people will say you have two options -- academia or industry. Even before you try to tackle which of these you might like, though, you may need to figure out what specific area you want to enter -- if you're a computer scientist, would you want to develop algorithms? Would you rather work on security applications, or distributed networks, or use your CS knowledge to program laser space robots, or any of thousands of other options?

Some programs of study prepare you for specific careers; others leave you with a remarkably open-ended future.

So... how might you even start figuring out your life?

The most important thing to know

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

That's important, so I'll say it again:

You do not have to do the same thing forever.

If you pick a career direction now, you aren't stuck with it for the next forty years. People change jobs. People change careers. I had a particularly good role model in this regard: my father has owned a sailing school, consulted for small businesses, recorded punk bands, and then there was this thing in Africa... Point is, you can do whatever cool things you want. You don't have to do the same thing forever.

Granted, knowing that you can do something else later doesn't necessarily help at all with figuring out what to do now. On to the next section:

wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

The "Figure My Life Out" Toolkit

Your two best resources are

  1. yourself
  2. other people

By this, I mean that you should (1) try new things as a way of figuring out what kinds of things you like doing, and you should (2) talk to other people about their experiences in doing different kinds of things. Gather information about what makes you happy, what kind of work you find worthwhile, what kind of jobs sound just plain cool, and so on.

Try new things

There are several ways to proceed.

Three of my favorites:

1. Classes.

The reason I took my first computer science class was because one day, I looked at my laptop and thought to myself, I don't know how you work at all. I signed up for CS101, vaguely hoping that I'd learn something about the Magical Innards of Computers. I didn't -- instead, I learned some Magical Incantations and Rituals for making little Java applications. I also learned that programming was fun, and that I'd probably enjoy further classes in that area. Now? The graduate program I'm entering has a heavy CS component, and most of the other programs I'd applied to were CS programs.

The point of this story: Take classes in novel areas. Either in person, at school, or via one of the increasing number of free online courses. It's one of the best ways to explore new subjects. If, after the first couple class sessions, you really hate it? Drop the class. It's worthwhile to remember that you may love a subject but dislike a professor, or love a professor enough to make any subject taught interesting. Regardless, it's a nice, easy, safe way to explore new stuff. You never know what you might find.

2. Independent learning.

My personal favorite here is reading books on all sorts of cool non-fiction topics. Pick up a book at the library on a topic you know nothing about, read it, see if it interests you. Other options include taking free online courses (see point 1), joining clubs to try out new activities, volunteering for new programs, ... lots of potential here. Spend time thinking about what activities you find worthwhile and important -- helping people or animals in need? Engineering solutions to problems in the world? Making a lot of money so you can live the life you want?

3. Internships etc.

The best time for this, if you're in school, is those warm summer months between semesters. Summer internships. Summer research programs. If you're interested in cognitive science or computer science, I have a fantastic list of resources for you. A lot of Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs exist across the sciences; lots of government agencies and national labs have programs as well, not to mention a myriad of companies!

Semesters are good, too: A relative of mine took a semester off for the NASA USRP program; friends have spent semesters interning at or just plain working for software companies. You don't have to leave school, though -- while studying abroad, I nabbed an internship in a psychology research lab as a part of Sydney Uni's Study Abroad Internship Program. Many schools have field work programs or internship programs -- does yours?

Two pieces of Important Advice:

Don't do the same thing every summer


It's okay if you don't like your internship/job/field work/etc.

Spend a summer or two doing research on a university campus. See what it's like working in at a government facility. Try out an internship with a company. Test out different environments and see what you like. See what you don't like. Discovering that you don't like some particular kind of work is as helpful -- if not more so! -- than finding that you do like something. You'll be able to rule out jobs that make you do that.

I admit, I didn't strictly follow this advice. I spent two summers on a research project at my home college, then two summers at different NASA facilities -- again, research projects, not with a company. I dabbled in research during semesters as well.

What I did do, however, was vary the kind of research I was exposed to. Working on autonomous learning in robots at Vassar was science; the laser space robots at NASA last summer and the Autonomous Vehicle Lab the summer prior were very much engineering projects. The emotions group I work with now, among others, exposed me to psychology and cognitive science research methods.

... okay, so that's all well and good. How do you actually find a good internship opportunity?

Google is your best friend. So are people you know -- see the following section. I've been invited to apply, but I've also spent weeks or months searching online for intriguing opportunities. Search for lists of internships (e.g., in cognitive science and computer science) or lists of databases of internships, and search all these. If your university has a Career Development Office or the like, go talk to them; they have even more resources.

My advice: Start early. Deadlines for summer internship applications tend to be in January and February; sometimes, they may be as late as March or as early as October. You'll need time to find the opportunities to apply for, and you'll need time to collect the materials (such as an updated resume) for your application.

a group of people around computers

Talk to people

This point sounds relatively straightfoward. Okay, have conversations with people. But there are several ways to get the most out of those conversations...

1. Listen to advice.

You know all those other people who want to give you advice? Let them. These people may be your grandparents, your professors, other relatives, older students, current professionals ... anyone, really. Let them talk. Listen to what they all have to say. You don't have to take their advice -- not a word of it -- but now and then, they say useful things. And you won't hear those useful things unless you're listening.

2. Use your resources wisely.

You probably know a lot of people. These people probably know a lot of people. Some of those people might be working jobs you're interested in. Some of those people might know people who are looking for people to work for them. Get the gist?

A further couple points:

Tell people what you're looking for. If they don't know, they can't help you or hook you up with opportunities they find.

If you're in school, your school probably has a Career Development Office or the like. Talk to the people there. Tell them what you're hoping to find -- whether it's a specific internship, information about a particular field, or just that you're hopelessly confused and would like their help. They have resources for you. It's their job to have resources for you.

See if you can set up informational interviews with people in fields you might be interested in, to get the scoop on what it's like to work that kind of job.

Attend job fairs -- a lot of schools host them; does yours? -- and even if you're not looking for any particular job yet, it's a great opportunity to talk to recruiters about the kinds of jobs out there.

3. Ask a whole bunch of questions.

The best thing to remember is that, in general, people really like talking about themselves. Use this to your advantage. Even simple questions like "So, what's your job like?" and "Can you tell me more about what it's like to do X?" can lead to worthwhile information.

pastel beach and ocean with the glowing morning sun

Then what?

The next step is pretty simple. (Do recall, simple does not necessarily mean easy.)

You've learned about your options. You've learned about what you like doing. You've learned about what you find worthwhile. It's time to stop evaluating possible directions to go in and actually go in a direction.

Maybe now, you know exactly what you want to do with your life. Great -- do that! Or maybe now you've concluded that no job will ever make you content. That one's a bit tougher. Try to find something at least tolerable, or, like some people joke, marry rich? Or maybe you like everything, and the sheer number of options is still overwhelming. Your best option here: find a reasonable job in a reasonable location near people you like. Go in some direction, at least for a while. If you love it, great. If you don't, move on.

Still have questions? Post a comment below! Maybe I, or someone else, will have helpful advice for you specifically.

And no matter what, remember: You don't have to do the same thing forever.


wood bridge with rope railing stretched over a green ravine

Learning is awesome

My favorite part of just living is how much I learn. Here are some pieces of advice you might find useful, some cool skills I've acquired (maybe you'll be inspired), and a couple other things, too:

Because lists are awesome, too...

  • A GPS is only helpful in localizing large vehicles, particularly when you're trying to use the GPS to direct navigation. When your vehicle is smaller than the error margin of plus or minus two meters (e.g., an RC car), it doesn't work so well! (This from last summer, at NASA Langley.)
  • Pens with lights attached are a fantastic invention. I got a combo flashlight-pen at GHC last year. It writes. It lights up. This pen lives next to the pad of sticky notes by my bed. Now all my middle-of-the-night ideas are legible!
  • If you're working on a big important project, always work on it, every day. Could be a thesis. Could be a novel, or a software project. Even on the days when you really don't want to work on it and you're entirely unmotivated, work on it anyway. Do a tiny little bit, then do a tiny little bit more, and maybe you'll convince yourself that you are in the mood to work on it after all. If not, at least you did a little bit, right?
  • Just how cool people think NASA is. Specifically, how cool people think it is when they find out I interned there, twice. I continue to be surprised. Quite seriously. Are my standards for what counts as super awesome too high? Do I just expect everyone else to be similarly awesome, making my accomplishments average on the scale of awesomeness? Maybe I do ... everyone has the capacity for brilliance. Maybe not everyone fulfills that capacity, but I think you're suppose to take this as your cue to go be brilliant.
  • I earned my Amateur Radio Technician's license. I am now qualified to talk on the HAM radio bands! I know more than I used to about electronics, antennae, and radio frequencies. I'm still working on learning Morse Code.
  • Philosophy of mind. I know a decent amount on the subject from my cognitive science background, but there's always more to learn! A friend and I have delved into some fun readings: Aristotle's conception of matter and form, Aquinas on the immateriality of mind, Lawrence Shapiro on embodiment and reductionism, and many more. I'm re-reading Shapiro's The Mind Incarnate, which I initially read in my second cognitive science class ever, some three and a half years ago.
  • How to successfully relocate to a new city in a new state. Yeah, I did that. It involved a lot of talking to people, a lot of driving, and a lot of paperwork and standing in lines.
  • Just how flexible my sleep schedule can be. I used to be a stickler for getting my full eight hours every single night of the week. I realized over the summer that I can function just fine on a weird schedule of eight hours, then three hours, then seven hours, then maybe five, followed by nine or ten hours to catch up... I'll write more on this sometime. Carol Worthman wrote a particularly relevant chapter on sleep for Evolutionary Medicine and Health that I plan to outline for you.
  • The rudiments of tae kwon do. According to the instructors at the Goddard Tae Kwon Do club, I have a decent roundhouse kick. I'd like to learn more -- I'm still very much the beginner white belt.

And a whole slew of technology-related items:

  • Octave, essentially an open-source Matlab.
  • R, a statistical computing language and environment.
  • The rudiments of time series analysis
  • ROS, an open-source platform for robotics work
  • Mobile Robotics Programming Toolkit (MRPT) libraries
  • PCL, the point cloud library and useful for feature detection in point clouds
  • Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) algorithms, as well as other common mapping and path planning algorithms.
  • How to use subversion.
  • Random little things about Ubuntu, including the "alt-f9" shortcut to minimize the current window
  • How to use the Tobii T60 eye tracker.
  • And so much more ...

I wonder if I can double this list by this time next year..?


me, at a desk, in the lab, working on documentation at a computer

As my undergrad years draw to a close, I've compiled a list of internships and related opportunities for students in Cognitive Science and Computer Science. Most programs are also open to students in other engineering and technology fields and are not limited to undergraduate students!

Take a look! Pass along the page to anyone you know who may find it useful. Although deadlines for some summer 2011 programs have passed, many have March or April deadlines, and many of the semester or year-round programs have later deadlines.


Panels & presentations

_large conference room, stage lit up at the front with one of the grace hopper conference speakers_

One more about the Grace Hopper conference! This one's a critical look at presentations, since I attended a bunch of panels and some speakers were better than others.

The right way

One of the keynote speakers, Duy-Loan T. Le, was a brilliant orator. She held the audience captive. She had no powerpoint, no slides, nothing but a microphone. Her speech reminded me that far too often, presentations of one's work or ideas are focused on the text and images lit up on the screen. The right way to do it: focus on you, explaining and selling your work. A display is great for diagrams and supporting pictures. It's a bonus for clarifying points. But that's all it should be: support. Not the focus.

The wrong way: what not to do & how to fix it

The general approach to presentations these days assumes that the focus is on the slides, not the person talking. Personally, I watch the speaker. I'll glance over at the screen now and then. If I can't understand the talk because I'm not reading along on the slides, there's a serious problem.

  1. Never, ever read sentences directly off the slides. If you do, it means you have too much text on your slides. You can read directly from your notes. Your notes should not be posted on your slides.

  2. Talk slower than you think you should. Everyone in the audience appreciates an intelligible speaker.

  3. Make clean slides, both in terms of amount of content on any one slide and the content's format. This topic could fill a book; I've touched on it before. Use a font large enough for people to read from the back row. Use easy-to-read colors. Don't cram text and graphics into every empty space. If you're just going to gloss over a topic, you don't need paragraphs about it on your slides - particularly when you flip through your slides more quickly than people can read your paragraphs. What's the point of having so many words if no one is going to read them?

  4. Don't have paragraphs on your slides, period. If I want the novel, I'll email you for it, thanks. A presentation involves you and it involves you, presenting. I once sat through a presentation in which the speaker used a gimmick of little cartoon fishies with whom she "conversed" and who "helped explain" her topic. The fishies even made noise - yup, she found a garbled, irritating bubbling audio track. Multiple times, she told the audience, "I'll let my fish friends explain," and proceeded to stand quietly on the side of the stage as the audio track played. We, as the audience, were expected to sit there reading the slides.

  5. Proof-read your slides. At GHC, I saw the phrase "If you don't, know one else will."

  6. Unless you specifically know your audience will be full of programmers, don't put huge chunks of Java pseudocode in your slides. Even if you're giving a talk for an audience that is mostly technical women, your presentation needs to understandable by the non-programmers, at least on a general level. Similarly, if you're going to include technical details, don't gloss over them using unexplained technical terminology to "give the flavor," because all the audience learns is that they don't know the jargon.

  7. Insist on a mobile microphone and/or a laser pointer. Sometimes you don't have a choice, such as at GHC this year. Tied to a specific location on the stage, you're unable to gesture at your slides or point to them except in a vague, flailing manner, and unable to be heard unless you're rigidly standing in one spot. A laser pointer and and a mobile mic add flexibility and allow you to more easily incorporate your slides into your talk.