Ph.D. Advising Statement

Last Revision Date: 30 October 2020

This living document is a reflection of my philosophy on Ph.D. advising. I hope it clarifies my expectations and helps you judge whether I am a good fit for you.

What is Advising

When you are my Ph.D. student, I will evaluate you (as a supervisor) and guide you (as a mentor). Once you graduate, we will likely interact on an equal term (except recommendation letters). I will also promote you and your work before and after your degree. Your advisor has a significant long-term impact on your academic life, and you should choose it wisely. Many people use marriage as an analogy.

It is crucial to find an advisor who is an expert in your areas and a person who you like working with. Too many people underestimate the importance of personality match.

My Evaluation Criterion

I believe every researcher should have the following three skill sets:

  1. Technical/mathematical skills
  2. Presentational skills
  3. Social skills

Here is my standard on (good) Ph.D. graduates:

  1. Technical/mathematical skills: You should be able to defend every methodological choice in your research. For example, why are you using a particular tool, not another? It is best if you have made every decision carefully and can defend it. To achieve this, you need extensive knowledge about alternative approaches in all related areas.
  2. Presentational skills: You should be able to convey your ideas clearly, especially in a style appreciated by the research community. (The standard is neither culture nor language neutral.) This includes paper writings and in-person oral presentations, but we are also doing Zoom now due to COVID-19. In general, you should pull the audience and maximize the signal to noise ratio.
  3. Social skills: You do not have to be a celebrity, but most researchers in your area(s) should recognize you as an expert and feel happy to work with you. (It is okay if a few hate you.) This means you have to attend conferences or workshops and at least say hi. I will introduce you, but it is your job to maintain the connections.

My focus is to help you master these three skill sets. Although you need to fulfill administrative requirements (such as coursework, written and oral preliminary examinations, TOEFL tests if required, etc.) and work on your résumé for your future jobs, they are secondary to these skills. I do not care about formality and many other aspects many people might value. For example, you would not please me by appearing to work hard in the lab, staying on campus during holidays, or showing extra politeness to me. I do not care about absolute numbers of your publications, either, as long as your curriculum vitae is not barren. You should focus on the research quality, with the understanding that many people in computer science still care about the numbers.

We will adjust our plan as we go. There is no particular timeline that you have to follow. However, I will use the department’s default path as a baseline, adjusted by the extra time you might need to familiarize yourself with logic, type theory, or programming language theory. It is common in my areas to spend additional time studying these before doing “real” research, which is different from many other subfields in computer science. The evaluations will be highly personal and situational. Again, the important thing is to make sure you are making good progress on learning the above skills.

You need to practise. A LOT. I will be relatively hand-on to make sure you start practicing them early so that I can provide more feedback. You might begin with carefully set exercises (e.g., a literature review of a particular topic) and then gradually move to independent activities (e.g., your thesis). Actual tasks will depend on what you want to do and how much progress you have made.

For me, WPE and OPE are to check your presentational skills. The written and oral preliminary examinations (usually abbreviated as WPE/OPE) are to check your research and presentational skills in the middle of your Ph.D. Each member in your WPE/OPE committee would have their own criterion, and mine would focus on whether you can present your thesis once you have done your thesis work.

My Research Preferences

I am extremely detail-oriented. I can often provide interesting, novel recommendations after careful analysis. The downside is that I might be stuck in details and theoretical principles that have zero impact in practice. You can, however, use me as an extremely careful reader/checker of your plans, papers, or whatever.

It will work best if your attitude is similar. My research is to make software and mathematical proofs more reliable, motivated by my detail-oriented personality. I thus appreciate all research that pays great attention to details and logical soundness. On the other hand, I do not like statements that seem to be vague or imprecise. Therefore, it will work best if you deeply share these concerns.

My projects are most likely individual. It is expected that most of my students will work on different theorems or problems (even if they are supported by the same grant). This is different from many areas of computer science where team projects are common.

My Communication Style

I am direct. Despite my cultural background (I grew up in Taiwan and know some East Asian cultures) and what you might have heard about “Minnesota Nice,” I strongly prefer direct communication. If you sense there is a difficult (often emotionally charged) issue, I strongly recommend expressing your opinions explicitly; otherwise, I might miss the cues. For example, if you get tired of your current research project, and you signal it through sighing, body language, or indirect phrases such as “we should have more varieties,” it might take me months to pick it up. It is best to say “I want to work on other things” if you can.

I am more task-oriented than relation-oriented. I tend to show you my respect by doing my job—attending to your research needs, meeting with you, checking your well-being, and giving you advice. In return, you can show your respect via your dedication to work and your steady improvement in your skills. There is no need to build relationship before we start working. In fact, you are encouraged to discuss research or work in our first meeting. Relatedly, I usually do not actively ask you personal questions other than checking your wellness. That said, if you feel comfortable, I am happy to chat with you about stuff totally unrelated to work, and we (as a group) might hang out occasionally.

This may be culture shock to you if you came from a more relation-oriented culture where building trust is a prerequisite to doing business. If so, remember that it is important to meet agreed deadlines and that the lack of certain social aspects is not a sign of being rude or unfriendly. For example, the on-boarding process would focus more on getting you ready to work than knowing your peers, and I will start talking about the research projects without engaging in social events first. You should still know your labmates, but we will talk about work from day one.

We will meet weekly. In the beginning, we should meet at least once a week. Over time, we may adjust the frequency depending on the need. You should treat our regular meetings as opportunities to ask for advice, not your obligation to show me progress. It is not recommended to skip a meeting only because you feel you make no progress. In fact, you probably need my advice most when you are stuck.

You should feel free to write me emails any time. You can also ask for additional meetings. There is no reason to wait for regular meetings to bring up an issue. If I am swamped, I will just delay my response, and I usually finish reading your emails way before sending you a reply. It is my job to give you advice, and regular meetings are a minimum commitment that a portion of my time is dedicated to you.

You will play an active role in meetings and decision-making. You should feel free to express your opinions. During our sessions, I often make suggestions, explain the pros and cons, check your understanding, etc. But, you are the focus of our meetings. You do not have to follow my suggestions, but I would then ask you why your counterproposal will improve your skills. (See the evaluation criteria above.) In most cases, I will not make decisions for you.

I will be annoyed by careless attitudes, unnecessary vagueness, and misinformation. For someone who has less power in a relationship, the natural inclination is to “appear good” by minimizing problems or exaggerating progress. This should be avoided for two reasons: (1) you would be wasting our time, and (2) I do not like this.

Here is a conversation that would annoy me:

I would also be annoyed by this conversation:

On the other hand, this is a conversation that would impress me:

I would also be happy with the following interaction:

The actual subject of the discussion is irrelevant. The main reasons that the first two hypothetical students annoyed me are (1) the students seemed to falsely claim that they read or had been reading the paper, and (2) the students made a judgment without a mathematical basis or careful thinking. There is no actual technical content in their answers. Such a careless and arguably dishonest attitude will definitely be frowned upon. Moreover, because I will check lots of detail, it would be challenging to fool me within my expertise. It is better to simply admit you have not achieved anything if you indeed did not. We can and will frequently make new plans, but the planning must be based on reality.

It is crucial to understand the source of your self-esteem (why you think you are worthy). This is one of the most important steps to have a fruitful and direct conversation without being hurt (too much). Everything that you are proud of is also your weakness. It will be tricky if your self-esteem is based on your work because I will undoubtedly criticize your work at some point, no matter how good you are, and your pride can make you feel I am criticizing you as a person. It is better to base your self-worth on other things (hard) or liberate your mind from the concept of self and self-worthiness (extremely difficult), but you should at least know your emotional triggers (easier).

Feel free to drop my titles. You can freely drop titles such as “Dr.” or “Professor” when addressing me. That said, I understand that the hierarchy based on ages or positions is critical in many cultures. If using the titles would make you more comfortable, feel free to do so. Just keep in mind that they make little or no difference to how I would interact with you. “Hi Favonia” is equivalent to “Dear Professor Favonia.”

Miscellaneous Issues

Funding

You are encouraged to apply for distinguished fellowships as they will be great items on your résumé, but it is my job to find the funding for you during your Ph.D. In the “worst” case, you have to be a teaching assistant, but it is impossible to get even worse than that.

Paper Authorship

I should not be a co-author unless I offer something intellectual to the paper, significantly help its presentation, or write parts of it. I will explicitly tell you when I feel I have contributed enough to kill my guilt. Unfortunately, due to the power imbalance between us, you can only rely on my self-control. (Sorry!) You can also invite me to be a co-author, as you should to all your collaborators, and I will respond accordingly.

Should I Be a Teaching Assistant (TA)?

Being a teaching assistant for a few courses will sharpen your teaching skills and prepare yourself for many faculty jobs. The downside is that a teaching assistantship will eat up your time, just like any other activity. In the genuinely desperate cases where my research funding is running out, you might have to be a teaching assistant. Other than the unlikely funding crisis, it should be your decision.

Paper Draft Deadline

You should give me your first draft at least 10 days before the deadline. Chances are it would take several rounds to revise the draft.

Lab Space

It is expected that all of my Ph.D. students will share the lab with students supervised by Professor Van Wyk and Professor Gopalan Nadathur.


Changes Since 25 June 2020


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