Tag Archive | advice for students

Research project recipe

I came across this article in HuffPo about a new app some students created that can help you identify your most toxic friends. They call it an art project, but I seem to recognize here a common structure for research projects in HCI. So, if you’re my student looking for thesis ideas, read on. 🙂

The recipe goes like this:

  1. Take a problem or issue from the social world (e.g. toxic friendships, collaboration, long-distance family relationships, etc.)
  2. Create a technology that mediates how people deal with that issue – ideally, the technology should improve the human condition or raise critical questions.
  3. Evaluate the technology.
  4. As a result/consequence of evaluating the technology, illuminate some aspect of and contribute knowledge to #1. And/Or, at the very least, derive design implications for this type of technology.

Some examples of papers following this structure:

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Guest post: Advice for succeeding in grad school from Geovon

Geovon graduated with an MS in Technology specializing in Innovation. After a couple of great years with Mongo DB, he is starting a new position at a large company whose name may or may not begin with G. Here is his advice:


Find the right advisor

Grad school is a journey, and you’ll need someone to guide you through it. So quickly and carefully seek out an academic advisor who has the following:

  • a stellar reputation among current and former undergraduate and graduate students
  • a personality and work ethic that aligns with yours—or what you hope to become
  • a schedule that’s focused on student interaction

Treat grad school like it’s a training ground for your dream job

Be self-motivated, work hard at everything you do, and aim to succeed—to be the top of your class, field of research, etc. If you don’t do this in grad school, you likely won’t in your post-grad professional career.

Get involved

Join clubs, attend socials, and take electives in different departments or schools. Use your free time as an opportunity to meet your peers, grow your professional network, and increase your chances of landing a job.

Guest post: Advice for succeeding in grad school from Emma

I’ve asked some of my very successful students who graduated recently to sum up some advice for succeeding in graduate school. The first guest post comes from Zhihua “Emma” Dong. Here is her advice:


I am flattered to be invited to write this blog post. Before you go ahead to read whatever advice I give, probably it is better for you to know who I am and the scope of this post so you can decide how much you buy in.:)

I spent 2011 to 2014 in two graduate programs here at Purdue: Industrial Engineering and Computer Graphics Technology. After graduation, I got a job with Microsoft as a program manager (similar to product manager in other companies). When I thought about “advice” I should give, I included both those made my graduate life smooth and relatively successful, and things I could have done better to be more successful. In addition, I decided to list only 5 most important ones from my point of view, to not look like a grandma. So here you go:

1. Make wiser choices

I say “wiser” because I assume you are here because you made wise decisions.:) This is something I didn’t intentionally train myself doing in graduate school, but just realized its importance recently. It applies to both career and graduate life. I hope you come to graduate school with a relatively clear goal to achieve, whether it is finding a job in certain area, or prepare yourself for PhD study. Let your goal(s) serve as a filter when you make decisions. For example, what course should you take? Check out those dream jobs, find the skill gaps you need to fill, find corresponding courses, and talk to course instructors to verify if it is something you need. Another example, who to hangout with? Find someone who shares similar visions and has a plan. I am not suggesting that your party friends are not important, but redistribute your time to connect with those who are in the same camp, and can inspire and motivate you. Never make random decisions because master study is very short, and you don’t have unlimited bandwidth to try out everything.

2. Don’t procrastinate

After you make decisions, execute well – don’t wait until deadlines hit you. This is much easier said than done, as procrastination is very much like gravity, which is difficult if not impossible to escape from. However, still make honest efforts to overcome it as much as possible. I too, suffer from procrastination sometimes, which really hurts. It hurts your performance, your emotional status, and eventually your physical health. Discipline yourself, do your work with friends in the library, find a time-management technique that works for you (e.g., GTD, and Pomodoro), and prepare to be happy and successful.

3. Talk to your advisor

It’s not difficult to reach out to families and peers if you are in trouble, but your advisor might not in the list while he/she should. Your advisor might be hands-on or hands-off type, but you should always be proactive in communicating with him/her. There are several major things you should be constantly communicating with your advisor:

(1) What are the expectations for each other. It’s crucial to clarify and understand each other’s expectations rather than guessing them. Ask you advisor how he/she defines a good student and constantly check if you are progressing towards it. At the same time, let your advisor know if you need from him/her: wether it is more of his/her time, or his/her coach on certain aspect. Make sure your ask for things you need as it is the most efficient way.

(2) Address his/her feedbacks timely. I found this super important because the mentor/mentee relationship can be prosper only if the mentee takes feedback seriously and react on it.

(3) Discuss any confusions or difficulties you have. Your advisor has much more experience since he/she oversaw many graduate students and himself/herself was one before. Don’t be afraid to expose personal vulnerability because school and advisor might be the last resort…

Whatever topic you have in mind, take the action to schedule regular one-on-one meeting with your advisor – even though they are very busy, if you ask, there is always time for you. Be responsible for your own graduate life and career.

4. Find an internship

If you are job-oriented, find an internship. If you are not job-oriented or plan to do a Ph.D., find an internship. You are all familiar with benefits of an internship: resume builder, industry connections, real-world experience, and much more. What I want to add here is: spend your time research different positions, apply those can help you get closer to your dream job. I interned with Siemens UX group one year before my graduation, which is not exactly my dream job but certainly a step towards one. In addition, it serves as a test for your to re-examine your career goal – you might confirm something is exactly what you want to do, or you might find another practice is your true passion. In any case, give it a try before your land a serious full-time job.

When you find the internship, practice 1~3 during your internship.:)

5. Take graduate-level courses seriously

You might think graduate study is more about research rather than taking courses. I would like to remind you that is simply not true. I benefited a lot from graduate-level courses, especially those project-oriented. Courses loaded with projects are essentially resume- or portfolio-builder for you. Keep detailed notes on the process, deliver good results and presentations, and put them up in your personal site – boom, You have a portfolio ready for job hunting! Treat these mini-internship seriously, also apply 1~3 throughout the process.

I hope you find the above helpful in one way or another. Take this journey mindfully, you might be surprised to find your career passion, friends who speak the same language, and life-long mentors coming out of this 2-year study. That happens to me and I am grateful for the experience.

Feel free to reach out if you have any question! My email address: zhihuaemma.dong@gmail.com.

Lastly, wish you all a happy and successful graduate study.

How to write a Discussion chapter for your thesis or dissertation

WhatDoesItAllMean-300x115I noticed that the Discussion chapter is one of the hardest to write, especially when you are so close to the results and your head is wrapped up in all the data. Writing the Discussion chapter requires taking a few big steps back and seeing the big picture. For that reason, I often write it with my eyes closed, without looking at the results. Or I ask students to imagine they ran into a friend or colleague at a coffee shop. They don’t have the manuscript or slides on them. They just need to explain to the colleague, without using numbers, or tables, or figures – just narrative – the following:

  • what they did (briefly)
  • what they found – what were the significant, memorable findings?
  • what do the findings mean? – what does it mean that X was rated as 4.61 and Y was rated as 3.93?
  • do the best of your knowledge, why do you think that is? what accounts for these results?
  • why are the findings significant/important/useful? how can they be used, and who can use them?

This is the part where you sell your research. But then, a word of caution:

  • what went wrong?
  • what should we keep in mind as we buy into your findings? how do the limitations of your study affect the results? (this is, indeed, the Limitations section)

Think of the Discussion chapter as an executive summary. If it is the only thing I read, I should get a good understanding of what you found and why it matters. You should explain it to me clearly, in a narrative, without restating your results.

And now that we are so close, I might as well address the Conclusion chapter. It should accomplish 2 things:

  1. Summary of the entire project – this can be an extended abstract. What you set out to do (purpose of research), what you did (methods) and what you found out (main results).
  2. Directions for future research. I learned something great about this in a thesis defense yesterday. Think beyond replicating your study and overcoming your limitations. Think beyond better ways of addressing the same research questions. Now that we know what your research results are, what are other interesting questions we should address? What other issues and questions arise?

I’ve said this so many times in the past few weeks that I felt writing a blog post I can refer students to might be helpful. Please feel free to add your advice or questions in the comments below.

Happy discussing,

Dr. V

How to write a statement of purpose

I see many applications to graduate school and 99% of those coming from India follow the same template: They begin with a childhood memory of seeing an animated movie or playing a game and wax poetic about how that became the inspiration for their interest in computer graphics. I don’t know where that template is coming from and why it is that popular, but it is ineffective, and I’m tired of it, and I’m sure there must be better advice out there, but here’s what I would hope to see in a grad school statement of purpose:

  1. What are your long-term goals? Where do you want your career to go?
  2. How can the graduate degree you are applying for help you get there? What are you looking to learn in this graduate degree?
  3. What skills do you bring to the table that will help you succeed in graduate school? (This would also be a good place to explain some of your lower grades, if any – do so gracefully and honestly).

As I read your statement of purpose, I (and I think I speak for some of my colleagues, too) look mainly for fit. We hope to understand if we can help you get where you want to be in life, and if our department offers what you are looking for.

So, you want an assistantship?

doctoralgownI’ve written before my advice on how to be a successful graduate student. But to even get to be a graduate student in the first place, you may need a graduate teaching or research assistantship – especially if you’re an international student not eligible for loans in the U.S.

I get it, I understand how important an assistantship is to you (the ticket to graduate education in the U.S.!) and how much you need it. I’ve been an international graduate student myself. Granted, I didn’t have to ask for assistantships – I always got them, maybe because I was lucky, maybe because my file spoke for itself.

But here you are, you got admitted to Purdue (congratulations!) yet you don’t have funding. What do you do??

The first thing NOT to do is to type (or copy from some website) a letter along the lines of the one below and send it to ALL professors in several departments:

“Dear Professor,

I’ve been admitted to Purdue… I’ve read about your research and I’m very interested… I am highly qualified in… (areas usually not related to the professor’s research). My resume is attached… Will you please consider me for a research assistantship?”

You know what happens to these emails? DELETE. Most of us don’t even bother to answer. Hey, you didn’t bother to look up my research interests – or even spell my name in the opening of the email.

Whoever advised you that you get ahead in life by sending template letters to lots of people was WRONG.

If you want to get my attention and have a chance at being considered for funding, here’s how to go about it:

  • Write a clear, specific subject line that refers to something I do or I’ve worked on (I=me, the professor, not you). This will get my attention and will tell me the email is relevant to me personally.
  • Use my name in the opening of the email. Copy and paste it from my website, to make sure you spell it correctly.
  • DO actually read about my research interests, peruse my list of publications, read one or more of them – or at least spend a few minutes reading my blog.
  • Convince me you are ACTUALLY interested in the research I do. Be specific about what you’re interested in and why. Show me you’ve done the work to learn about my research. A strong interest in my research is the #1 qualification I look for in students. I can teach you the rest.
  • Argue how your skills will actually be applicable to the research I’m doing. Give me some ideas about what you would like to work on.

Yes, this type of letter is more work. You won’t be able to write 500 of them. But the 10 you will be able to write are more likely to get you an assistantship than the other 500.

You should know a few more things about how this process works. If you are admitted as a graduate student in my department, chances are I saw your file. I might have even voted on your admission. If I wanted to offer you an assistantship, I would have done so by now. If you are in another department on campus, I have not seen your file. Although I am more motivated to fund students in my own department, I will consider you if you are a very good fit.

If you’ve applied for admission in my department, don’t send me the form letter above the week before classes start – or ever. If you were REALLY interested in my research, you would have mentioned that on your application to graduate school, and you would have been in touch with me a LONG time ago.

And here’s the last part. Not all my faculty colleagues will work this way, but it may work with me: If you’re just applying to graduate school and you’re VERY interested in working with me, contact me as early as possible – even before you send in your file. Be prepared to explain what about my research you’re interested in and why.

Research is the most valuable skill you need (and will learn) as a graduate student. Show you have potential for it by DOING YOUR RESEARCH before approaching professors and asking them to invest in you.

[Photo credit: http://academicregaliaforpurchase.com]

How to be a successful grad. student

I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.

Here are their posts: Scott S., Stephen W., Jenny S., Zheng Z., Andrew B., Scott K.

A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:

Be self-motivated

You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.

A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.

Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)

Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:

  • work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
  • be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
  • be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
    • “why?”
    • “does it have to be so?”
    • “what/who are we leaving out?”
    • “what’s the downside of that?”
    • “what are the long-term effects?”
  • create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.

Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in

You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:

  • the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
  • the accepted/value format and writing style
  • and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”

A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.

Think long-term

Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.

Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.

As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉

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