Advice for the budding theorist
As a Ph.D student, I searched for advice on succeeding in grad school, and often thought that eventually I would repay the favor when I became a professor. I never got around to doing that, but now decided to give it a shot. So, here goes:
Tip #1: Don’t get advice from the Internet.
Grad school, and more generally research life, can differ so widely based on the field, the university, and the personalities involved, that what is a sound strategy for one person can be a terrible idea for another. It’s always better to get advice from a wise and experienced person who knows and cares about you.
Given this advice, I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped reading this blog post at this point. In fact, you probably should. But I will offer some more tips just in case, though keep in mind that they may not be applicable to your situation.
Tip #2: Remember you have other options.
Much of the advice you see online (and maybe even get in person) will include a long list of do’s and don’ts and hoops to jump through on the way to the final goal of becoming a tenured professor. Now, from my personal experience, being a tenured professor is pretty nice, but if you are even considering a career in theoretical computer science, chances are you have the skills and talent for many alternative career paths that have a number of significant advantages over the academic life. The main benefit of the latter is that you get to set your own goals and not jump through other people’s hoops. Don’t lose track of that.
Tip #3: Research is hard.
Research is very hard, or at least it’s very hard for me. Doing research is often not so much about solving a fixed problem given to us, but about setting out goals and revising them as we learn more. As we do so, the pendulum often swings between the states where the current problem we’re trying to solve is trivial, impossible, already known, or not well formed. Most of the time though is spent staring at a brick wall, trying to think of some way to bypass it. (Metaphorically speaking, of course; what you’ll actually be staring at is an empty notepad and a cup of coffee.) An added difficulty is that all this hard work is often invisible, so you get mostly to observe other people’s successes and feel that you are the only one that is having such a hard time.
One of the common fallacies of beginning students is thinking that it’s all about innate talent. When you see people solve mathematical problems in seemingly no time, or hear stories about those geniuses that solved the main question of someone’s Ph.D thesis in a day, you may feel that success in research is out of your control. I have met many highly successful researchers over the years, and while some are insanely quick, others can take time to do even the simplest calculations. Success in research comes in a great many forms and people can have very different styles of work, personalities, types of questions they are interested in, and more. The only common denominator is that, as a rule, successful researchers are passionate about what they do and even those for which success seems to come “easily” actually work very hard at it.
Tip #4: You are your own boss.
As an undergraduate, you are used to getting feedback on how well you’re doing in the form of grades. Many corporations have periodic reviews and evaluations for employees. In the academic world, feedback is quite rare, and can come in varying forms. Part of this is because professors don’t like to have awkward conversations. But fundamentally it is because you are truly the measure of your own success. As a theoretical computer scientist, I don’t need my students to run experiments for me, write code, or even prove theorems. I view my role as truly an advisor to the student as they find out what they are passionate about and great at. The best ones eventually find their own “research compass” and set and pursue their own goals in a unique way.
Tip #5: Be a good boss.
Since you are managing yourself, you should try to do a good job at it. Here I cannot really give any general advice. Some students should be tougher on themselves, and push harder. Others are too hard on themselves, and anxiety and/or depression are quite common in graduate students (and beyond that). As I said, being a researcher, at any career stage, is a hard job. In theoretical studies, maintaining motivation is especially challenging, since one can spend days, months or more with no visible progress – there are no lines of codes being written, no data being collected. I would also caution against measuring progress by publications. My philosophy is that any day in which you learned something is a good day. Such learning can take many forms, including thinking about a problem, learning some new or not so new cool ideas by attending a seminar or talking to a colleague, reinventing old ideas, reading a paper, figuring out why some approach doesn’t work, and more. I’ve heard a talk by Sanjay Gupta in which he gave the following advice — “try to do every day one thing that scares you” – I think this applies to research as well.
Just try to spend a good amount of your time on the things that truly matter to you, and less time worrying about the job market, who got published where, or reading advice blogs from some random professors on the Internet.