Career advice for PhD students:
How to get the most out of your
time in the PhD program
Cristian Borcea
Preamble
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Why am I doing this?
– Not many resources to learn how to be a successful PhD student 
trying to help you
– Faculty create new knowledge and next generation of researchers
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“A professor is as good as his best student”
Why now?
– As every September, we got fresh PhD students
– I might soon forget my PhD student experiences 
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Talk applies to any CS PhD student despite influence from
personal experiences and systems/networking background
Acknowledgment: I admit to “stealing” advices from many
successful people (too many to be listed)
2
Outline
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PhD student stages
– Thinking about doing a PhD
– Taking classes and getting involved in some research
– Choosing research area, topic, and advisor
– Doing research
– Writing the thesis
– Getting a job
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Slightly different view of these stages
1.
Student: “I know everything”; Advisor smiles
2. Student: “I don’t know anything”; Advisor: “Let’s talk”
3. Advisor: “Let’s do X”; Student: “You’re wrong because of Y and Z”
3
Why are you getting a PhD?
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Prerequisite to a research career
– A PhD degree should ensure that the student can later take on
independent, long-term research commitments
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The work required to earn a PhD is not worth the effort
if you don’t intend to do research
– You can do better with an MS degree in such a case
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How do you know if research is for you?
– Have inquisitive mind and critical thinking
– Like to understand how things work
– Like to identify problems and come up with solutions
– Did some research during undergraduate studies and liked it
– More philosophical reasons: dream of changing the world, good
way to have a legacy beyond your family
4
Bad reasons for pursuing a PhD
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Afraid of going out in the real world
– If you never had a job and not sure about going for a PhD, go and
work one-two years
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Ego
Impress your girlfriend/boyfriend/parents
Opportunity to work/emigrate in US
– OK if your goal is to do research in (still) the best place for that
in the world
– Otherwise, working very hard for something that you don’t care
much while living on a PhD stipend will soon make you unhappy
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Money (i.e., amount of money you make is more important
than what you do)
– While starting salaries of CS PhD graduates are good, can reach
higher salary if you worked since you got your BS/MS degree
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Plus money earned during that time
5
What qualities do you need to be
successful in the PhD program?
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Passion and Self-Motivation
– Doing a PhD is a life changing decision
– Be sure that this is the path you want to follow in life (yes, it’s
normal to have doubts sometimes)
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Perseverance and Self-Confidence
– It could be heartbreaking to work hard for one-two years and get
your paper rejected
– Trust yourself (and your ideas) and don’t give up
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Independence
– It’s your PhD; you should know what you want to do, how you want
to do it, etc.
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Obviously, you need intelligence
– Many times you don’t know how smart you are until somebody
challenges you
6
CS department expectations*
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Take qualifying exams after first year and pass them all
after second year
– Proves that you are good enough to continue in the program
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Find advisor and choose thesis topic after second year
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Defend thesis proposal by the end of third year
– Not very strict deadline (depends on progress and advisor)
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Defend thesis by the end of fourth year
– Can stay longer if necessary if advisor awards you RAship
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Take a number of courses and maintain a decent GPA (e.g.,
3.5) throughout these years
* refer to full time, department-supported students
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Advisor expectations
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Every PhD student must have thesis/research advisor
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Advisor decides when student is ready to graduate
– Process very similar to apprenticeship
– Thesis committee makes sure advisor’s decision is correct and gives
feedback to improve work
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Each advisor has own requirements, but they can be
generalized as:
– Have enough background in CS and depth in your research area
– Work on one or multiple projects and publish the results in several
good conference/journal papers
– Be able to clearly present your ideas and results
– Write a good thesis
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Your papers and thesis must include your novel ideas
– Of course, they include your advisor’s ideas as well
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First year
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Get involved in research!
– Ask professors with research interests matching yours
– Combine reading with working on a small part of a project
– “Steal” tricks of the trade from advisor and more senior students
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Classes and the qualifying exam are required, but don’t
spend more time than necessary on them
– Nobody cares about the grades of someone with a PhD degree
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Don’t get bogged down with teaching/grading
– Need to do a decent job, but make sure you don’t work more than
the required 20 hours/week (many times you can work a lot less)
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TAship vs. RAship
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RAship is better
– Can spend time on you research instead of teaching
– Being awarded an RAship means you’re doing well
– Since RAship comes from a grant, the advisor will ask you to work
on the project defined by that grant
– Advisor can ask you to work on demos or robust implementations as
required by grant (which are not necessarily research)
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TAship has some advantages as well
– Independent to work with several professors before deciding about
advisor
– Teaching experience required if you think of academic career
– Teaching helps you improve communication skills
– Every PhD student should teach at least one semester
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Choosing research area
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Don’t celebrate too much passing the qualifying exams
– You are expected to pass 
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Choose area based on your research interests
– Must like it; otherwise, the next few years will be painful
– Don’t choose it just because you can get an RAship
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Need to think strategically as well
– Is this a hot area?
– Will you get a good job in this area after graduation?
– Hard to predict if certain areas that are hot now will still be hot
in 4 years
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Choosing advisor
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Should be compatible with advisor/get well together
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Tenured advisors
– Have more experience, could have more money, could have more
connections
– Don’t push you hard, don’t have time to work closely with you
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Tenure-track advisors
– Will push you hard (their future career depends on your results),
but will work with you (i.e., co-authors of thesis)
– Might have more up-to-date information about job searching
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Choosing thesis topic
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It’s your topic, but the advisor must approve it
It’s rare to know the topic from the moment you start
working with advisor
– If work supported by a grant, the general topic is somewhat clearer
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More common to work on several related topics in your
chosen area
– First ideas might not work, new ideas could come up
– Some will be more successful than others publication-wise
– Many times, thesis will define a common framework for topics
covered by publications
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Take ownership of your PhD
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No one is responsible for getting your degree but you
– Faculty set up opportunity, but it’s up to you to leverage it
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Doing research (1)
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Be proactive!
– Don’t wait for advisor to push you
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Reading papers
– Develop critical thinking: identify both strong and weak points
– Advisor will point you to important papers as well as conferences
and journals in your area
– You responsibility to find more papers starting from these pointers
– Must read a few papers every week
– Read outside your area as well
– Follow technology news to know where the world is going
– Let advisor/colleagues know about interesting things you read
– Robin Kravets’s advices for reading/presenting papers
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http://www.cs.njit.edu/~borcea/reading-papers-talk.pdf
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Doing research (2)
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Identifying important and hard problems
– Learn to differentiate between cool problems and junk
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Advisor will offer a lot of guidance
– By graduation time, acquire good taste for selecting problems
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Problem solving/design
– Always ask yourself: “what’s the novelty of my solution?”
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Also: how is it different from/similar to alternative solutions?
– Advisor suggests a potential solution
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Never go back and say “doesn’t work!”
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Instead, say “X didn’t work, but how about Y or Z?”
– Don’t get upset/discouraged if advisor points out drawbacks in your
solutions – it’s technical, not personal
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Doing research (3)
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Implementation
– Except for purely theoretical CS, will have to implement your ideas
– Every successful project goes through this unglamorous, hard phase
 Design is more fun than implementing it
– No magic here: work hard!
– Don’t suffer in silence if you don’t know how to implement something
or have troubles with a bug – ask colleagues or advisor for help
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Evaluation
–
–
–
–
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Prove that your solution works as claimed
Should know from the design time experiments and metrics
Form a hypothesis: what type of results you expect
Experiments contradict hypothesis: think of potential reasons and
discuss them with advisor
Work in the lab a significant amount of time
– Learn from interactions with colleagues/advisor
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Mutual trust between student and advisor
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Trust advisor and earn his/her trust (e.g., through good
work, reliability)
– Advisors, being human, are not perfect, but try their best to help
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Almost everyone goes through periods when doubts advisor
(the converse holds as well)
– Papers getting rejected
– Different opinions on how to proceed with a project
– Seemingly advisor cares only about his career
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During these periods, remember the advisor/student
symbiosis
– Advisors work hard to get grants to support your work
– You work hard to produce results that will enable new grants
– Typically, what is good for advisor is good for student, and what is
good for student is good for advisor
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Communicating your results
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Clear communication separates top students from average
– An unknown brilliant result is useless
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Write and publish papers in conferences/journals
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–
–
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“If you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen”
“Publish or perish”
Reviewed by peers
Hard to get accepted (good publication venues have 10-15%
acceptance ratio)
– Can start small with conference posters or workshop papers
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Talks
– Presentations of accepted conference papers (or invited talks)
– Good chance to convince people that you did great research
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Successful researchers spend 50% of time writing papers
and preparing talks
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Writing papers
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A lot harder than you think!
– Good results are not published due to sloppy writing
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Ask advisor for models of good papers
Get feedback from advisor early and often; then re-write
Read Shrunk and White book on writing
One idea per paragraph
– Do paragraphs follow one another in a logical structure?
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Typical structure: abstract, introduction, related work,
design, implementation, evaluation, conclusions
Have clear abstract/introduction
– If vague or poorly written, reviewers will just look for reasons to
reject afterwards
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Don’t claim more than you did
– Distinguish between “will do” and “have been done”
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Conference talks
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Goal is to make audience read your paper and talk with you
– Emphasize the main idea, skip some details
– Shouldn’t follow too closely the structure of the paper
– Pay special attention to motivation
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The more illustrations, the better
– “A picture is worth 1000 words”
– Don’t take this talk as model 
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The more you practice, the fewer surprises during the
actual talk
– Time management is your responsibility; be prepared to skip slides
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Show excitement
– If you are not excited, then why would anyone else be?
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Be clear, firm, and polite when answering questions
– Show belief in your work
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Attending conferences
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Typically, you go when have an accepted paper
– Could ask advisor to pay or get travel grants to go to top
conferences even if you don’t have paper there
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Check technical program ahead of time and identify
papers/people of interest
Goal is to do networking, not just hear technical talks
– Take advantage of coffee breaks/lunches/receptions to talk with
people
– Be prepared to initiate conversations and introduce your work
(prepare an elevator pitch)
– Get contact information from people you want to stay in touch
– Learn how top researchers present their work and answer questions
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People you meet there can hire you, review your papers, or
become future collaborators
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Summer internships
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You should go once or twice
– Get real-world experience, make connections
– Must do it if plan to work in research labs/industry
– Go in research oriented places
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Doing an internship just for money is not worth the time
Decide together with advisor when and where to go
– Advisor can help you go to good places (e.g., IBM Research,
Microsoft Research)
– Better go once you have at least one publication; can select
internship that allows you to work on related topics
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Be aware that they can delay graduation as summers can be
very productive research-wise
– “Can’t have the cake and eat it too”
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How much should you work?
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Work only the number of hours you are paid!
–
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Don’t let the master class exploit the workers!
Students in high-ranked schools work between 60 and 80
hours per week
– Faculty spend a similar amount of time
– Don’t get fooled that you do better than some colleagues while
spending a lot less time
– You will compete for jobs with students form other schools as well
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Citing my advisor: “school breaks are for undergrad
students”
– Good time to work in case you have teaching duties
– The advisor has more free time to help you
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Don’t have time to finish all your tasks?
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Must acquire time management skills
Write down your tasks (both work-related and personal),
set deadlines, and categorize them function of importance
Randy Pausch’s graph for task time management:
Importance
Continue with
these tasks
Obviously, finish
these tasks first
Urgency
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More on time management
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Don’t have time for personal life?
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Some personal tasks must have high importance
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Family/friends help you avoid “going nuts” 
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According to previous slide, you might end up not doing “urgent, but
not important tasks”; it’s ok, the world goes on
Know yourself and manage advisor’s expectations
– Learn to estimate accurately the time it takes to do certain tasks
– Learn to say “no” if it’s not possible to do a task before a deadline
– Try hard to respect deadlines once you agreed to them
– Inform your advisor as soon as you are getting behind the schedule
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When to graduate?
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Graduating as fast as possible might not be the best idea
– This is not the Olympics where the best finishes first
– Should become a well-rounded researcher, not just someone very
narrow expertise
– Working on larger/higher impact project might take longer, but help
you become a better researcher and get a better job
– Taking classes outside your area and attending seminars/talks can
improve your overall background
– Doing paper reviews or helping advisor with grant proposals can take
time, but are invaluable learning experiences
– Job market conditions may delay graduation
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Taking longer than 6 years not good either
– Potential employers don’t like it
– Even advisor might lose interest in you
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Thesis (1)
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Thesis: one sentence to describe your contribution to the
progress of humankind
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Dissertation: the 100s pages that prove the thesis
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Dissertation is very much a collection of your publications
– Of course, need to link them well under one clear thesis
– Also, need extensive related work and potentially more experiments
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Thesis proposal
– ~= thesis without a chapter or two
– Not as important as you may think because early validation of your
research comes from good publications
– Form thesis committee and get feedback from committee members
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Both student and advisor must agree on committee members
– Contract between you and committee: agree on content to be added
in the final thesis
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Thesis (2)
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Finish writing during your final year
– In parallel with job searching
– Models: theses that received ACM awards
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Thesis defense is reason to celebrate
– Advisor/committee won’t allow you to defend if not ready
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Not a good idea to defend if you don’t have a job
(especially for foreign students who plan to stay in US)
– Unless you don’t receive support any longer
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You could get job before thesis defense
– Risk: you might never get the drive to finish
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“Useful things to know about PhD thesis research” by H.T.
Kung
– http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~htk/thesis.htm
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Job searching
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Once advisor confirms you will be ready to graduate that
year, prepare:
– CV (long, not the typical 2-page resume)
– Research statement (at least 2 pages) outlining your research
contributions and future plans
– Teaching statement (if applying to academia) outlining your
teaching experience, teaching philosophy, etc
– List of references
– Have them ready by early December
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Most academia and research jobs are posted by January
– Must submit the above-mentioned documents by their deadlines
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Have your job talk ready by January
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Learn about research interviews by January
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Wait for call/email and hope 
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Job in academia
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Research universities have similar starting salary with
research labs (but doesn’t increase at the same rate)
– Teaching university have significantly lower salary (and no
research)
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Flexibility to choose research topics
– Can work on fundamental research and explore higher risk ideas
– Need to get them funded through grants
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Can publish and go to conferences more often than in
research labs
Can make your own schedule
– In the beginning, you work more than in industry
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Can influence people directly through education
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Safer job (after tenure)
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Job in research lab
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Over a number of years, salary will be slightly higher than
academia (could go for management positions as well)
Can have impact on real world through products
incorporating your ideas
Research topics need to be in line with company’s goals
and approved by managers
– Short-term profit-oriented research may preclude you from
working on fundamental or high risk topics
– Working in an R&D department is even more about practical
research that can quickly turn into profit
– Still need to worry about funding (convince your managers to
invest in your ideas)
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Can’t publish everything
– Patents first, publication later (if at all)
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Job safety depends on company health & market
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What do interviewers look for in your CV?
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Thesis title, research interests, and name of advisor
– The advisor’s reputation matters a lot
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Research contributions
– Projects you worked on and their main results
– Software distributions
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List of papers & talks (& patents if any)
Teaching experience (for academia)
List of references
– Reference letters are very important
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CS community service (e.g., conference/journal reviewer)
NO!
– GPA
– Programming languages, tools, etc (you have a PhD in CS! You’re
supposed to either know or be able to learn everything)
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Job talk
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Single most important part of your interview
Two main purposes
– Sell yourself
– Sell your research
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Write down 3-4 ideas you’re going to say per slide
– Practice and remember those ideas
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Do dry runs with advisor, colleagues, friends
Videotape yourself and try to improve … after the shock
of watching the recording has passed 
Practice questions and answers
More information on job talks and interviews from
Jeanette Wing
– http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs/usr/wing/www/tips.pdf
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One-to-one interviews
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Typically, 30 minutes about your research and everything
else
They look for
– Creativity
– Brainpower
– Independence
– Technical skills
– Leadership
– Energy
– Fitting in
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Be prepared, articulated, honest, genuinely curious
– Ask questions about the person’s research
– Ask questions about the place to see if it’s right for you
– OK to engage in less technical discussions (e.g., benefits, housing)
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Selecting a job
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Congratulations, you got several job offers! 
Many factors to consider besides money
– Reputation of the place
– Can you grow there? Possibilities for promotion?
– Will you get along well with your colleagues/bosses?
– Geography
– Two-body problem
– Cost of living
– Quality of schools
– Are you a city person or more of the outdoor-type?
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More readings instead of conclusion
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“How to Be a Good Graduate Student” by Marie desJardins
– http://www.cs.indiana.edu/how.2b/how.2b.html
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“So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!” by Ronald T. Azuma
– http://www.cs.unc.edu/~azuma/hitch4.html
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“You and your research” by Richard Hamming
– http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/YouAndYourResearch.html
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“Technology and courage” by Ivan Sutherland
– http://research.sun.com/techrep/Perspectives/smli_ps-1.pdf
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“How to have a bad career in academia” by David Patterson
– http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~pattrsn/talks/BadCareer.ppt
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“Paper writing and presentation” by Armando Fox
– http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~fox/paper_writing.html
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Your time in the PhD program is a unique
experience: Enjoy it!
Good luck and make us proud!
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