question marks on a purple background

What are you doing with your life? Why?

Last year, I took a seminar for Media Lab PhD students. During one class, we pondered what questions we ought to be asking as we began our journey toward seemingly distant proposals and dissertations.

We asked questions about ourselves. About our research. Why we do what we do. How we can do what we do better. Who we care about. Our visions. Our passions.

We were given a handout with the following list to start us off:

13 Questions Every PhD Student Should Ask

compiled by Prof. Judy Olson, University of Michigan, for HCI graduate students.

  • What is the problem? What are you going to solve?
  • Who cares? Why do people care about this problem?
  • What have other people done about it?
  • Why is that not sufficient? What are the gaps and unanswered questions?
  • What are you going to do about it? (Approach)
  • What are you really going to do about it? (Methods)
  • What do you expect to find?
  • What did you find? (Findings)
  • What does this mean? (Conclusions)
  • So what? (Implications)
  • What are you going to do next?
  • Where are you going to publish?
  • What are you going to be doing in 5 years?

Then we had to brainstorm our own lists of questions. Here's what my seminar class came up with:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2014

  • How are you going to use it in the real world?
  • How are you going to change people's lives?
  • Will other people use it?
  • What is the question or opportunity? Where have we not gone yet - where are the new frontiers?
  • What does your advisor think you should do?
  • Why is it not incremental? How are you changing the conversation?
  • What did you learn?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • Why would the world (or your grandmother) be excited about it?
  • How can other people build on your work?
  • How could you fail?
  • How do you define success?
  • What other skills should you be learning now?
  • How do you take in the right amount of criticism?
  • How do you work with others and collaborate?
  • Who do you want to share your work with?
  • Who should you interact with to learn more about your field?
  • What's the best way to share your research?
  • What's the best way to get media attention?

Then we got to see the questions brainstormed by students in previous years. Here's what they asked:

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2012

  • What am I interested in?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • How do I want to learn those things?
  • Why am I here?
  • Why me? What is my uniqueness to solve this problem?)
  • What special skills do I bring to this?
  • Why do this in an academic environment?
  • What is the solution (not the problem)?
  • What is my vision?
  • What is my passion?
  • Why now?
  • What are my "bets"?
  • Who do I want to work with?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2011

  • Does a PhD enable me to accomplish my dreams? Is this what I want?
  • What am I passionate about?
  • How can I leverage resources around me?
  • What new activities can I enable (rather than problems I can solve)?
  • How can I most effectively impact the world?
  • Who should I choose as collaborators?

Questions from Media Lab PhD students in 2010

  • What is my field?
  • How can I balance my research with the rest of my life?
  • How do my strengths contribute to my chosen field?
  • Am I happy?
  • Do I have the right advisor to accomplish what I want?
  • Can I get this done in time? (Scope of work)
  • Do I have the right background for this - should I take additional courses?

Additional questions from Mitch Resnick

  • How will my work expand possibilities and opportunities for others?
  • What principles and values will guide my work?
  • Can I create a map showing how my work relates to what others have done/
  • Who could I collaborate with?
  • What are some compelling examples that highlight the important of this work?
  • What community do I want to be a part of?
  • Can I make progress on this problem through an iterative process?

A lot to think about.

Can you answer them all?


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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.


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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

and

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.


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Cambridge in spring: white cherry blossoms, gray cloudy skies

A brief life update

I may have mentioned that I was applying for admission to various graduate programs this year.

Well, I was admitted. So I visited universities, I talked to professors and students, I read papers published by the labs. I had several fantastic options.

My decision:

I'll be attending MIT next year as a student in the Media Lab, working in Cynthia Breazeal's Personal Robotics Group.


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_large conference hall at GHC 2010 filled with rows of empty chairs_

A lot of advice

Words of wisdom were being traded as often as poken high-fours at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, which I recently attended. Academics and professors shared their knowledge of navigating grad school; current grad students explained how not to do what they're doing; women in industry and government labs elucidated how they got there and why they enjoy their jobs.

These are a few nuggets I found to be particularly applicable. This list focuses on advice for current undergrads or early grad students -- I'll be following up soon with a list of more general advice!

  1. One of the women on the Imposter Plenary Panel, Fran Berman, said, "You were not born as an undergrad, and you were not born as an intern." The skills you used to get to be an undergrad or intern will help you get to the next step, too - whether that's grad school or your first full-time job.

  2. During the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session, it was suggested that when investigating grad schools, talk to the students. Ask the students about advisors. How often do you meet? What's it like working with them, writing with them, and writing for them?

  3. From the "How do I become a Researcher?" session: If you apply to grad school without knowing exactly what your focus will be, when you write your application essay, pick one thing you're interested in and write about that.. Even if that's not the only thing that interests you. You can change your mind later. The admissions folks are looking passion, interest, and focus.

  4. Both the "How do I become a Researcher?" session and the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session mentioned the following: When contacting potential grad schools, be conscious of professors' time. Professors are very busy people. Schedule meetings well in advance when visiting their schools. Show you've done your research: read their papers and ask questions about their work. You're not just finding out if these professors want you in their labs - you're finding out if you want to be in their labs! Oh, and if you send your resume to a professor, send it plain text, not as an attachment.

  5. Erika Shehan Poole, during the "How do I enjoy and succeed in grad school?" session, suggested that students keep a research journal. Any ideas you have, good or bad - write them down. Questions you have. Later on, when you're planning your thesis (or any other time you need ideas), you can look back. Maybe there's a theme. Maybe some of those idea - even if they sounded dumb at the time - are actually good. Maybe they'll spark new ideas.

  6. Duy-Loan T. Le, Thursday's keynote speaker, told all the students in the audience, "If you want to be the top of your class, don't fall in love." This speaks, I think, to the notion that time is finite. You cannot put all your time and energy into your coursework if you also want to put some time and energy into your relationships with the people you care about. As I've oft been told, it's a matter of balance.


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