Ph.D. Advising Statement

Version: March 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 your progress (as a supervisor) and guide you (as a mentor). Once you graduate, we will likely continue interacting with each other in academia, more on an equal term, for I no longer have direct power over you except recommendation letters. The point is that your advisor has a significant long-term impact on your academic life, and you should choose it wisely. Many people thus use marriage as an analogy.

My Evaluation Criterion

I care about the following three core skill sets that I believe every researcher should have:

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

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

  1. For 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 wisely and can defend it. This also means you need extensive knowledge about alternative approaches in all related areas.
  2. For presentational skills, you should be able to convey your ideas clearly and appropriately to different audiences. This currently means paper writings and oral presentations. You should pull the audience and maximize the signal to noise ratio.
  3. For social skills, while you do not have to be a celebrity, 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. There are some administrative requirements to fulfill (courses, TOEFL if required, etc.) and some minor considerations to polish your resume, but they are secondary. I do not care about formality and many other aspects you might consider. In particular, 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 the absolute number 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 CS still care about the quantities.

There is no particular timeline that you have to follow. Still, I will use the path recommended by the department as a baseline, adjusted by the extra time you might need to familiarize yourself with logic, type theory, or programming language theory. 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.

Because these skills need repeated practice to perfect, I will be relatively hand-on to make sure you start practicing them early so that I can provide more feedback. You might start 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.

My Communication Style

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 these meetings as your opportunities to ask for advice. One common mistake of beginners is to “appear good” during these meetings by hiding or minimizing problems; I can easily sense that there is an issue but cannot help you, and our precious meeting time will be wasted. It is human nature to avoid showing problems, but it hurts the effectiveness of communication in a long-term relationship.

In addition to regular meetings, ideally, you should feel free to write me emails or ask for additional sessions. There is no reason to wait for regular meetings to bring up an issue. It is my job to give you advice, and regular meetings are only my commitment that a portion of my time will be dedicated to you.

During the meetings, I will make suggestions or explain the pros and cons for you to consider, and ideally, you should feel free to express your opinions. You should, however, try to explain why your counterproposal will help you improve your skills. Such open discussion needs deep trust and advanced communication skills from both of us, and thus it might take us some time to build rapport.

It is impossible to summarize the advanced communication skills in this document, but one critical step is to understand yourself better by answering this question: why do you think you are a worthy person? Is it because you got straight As? Is it because you can create a 10-language multiquine? Is it because you are a considerate person who volunteers in three NPOs? Knowing the basis of your self-esteem will help a lot, and you will know the answer only by careful and honest reflection.

My Strengths and Preferred Research Methodology

I am a detail-oriented person who 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, your papers, or whatever.

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. It will work best if you share these concerns.

Miscellaneous Issues

Funding

You are encouraged to apply for distinguished fellowships, but it is my job to find the funding for you during your Ph.D. In the worst case, you might have to be a TA, but it is impossible to get even worse.

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, just like what you should do to all your collaborators, and I will respond accordingly.

Should I Be a TA?

Being a TA for a few courses will help you sharpen your teaching skills and polish your resume for many academic jobs. In the genuinely desperate cases where my research funding is running out, you might have to be a TA. The downside is that a TAship will eat up your time, just like any other activity. Other than the funding issue, 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, currently with students supervised by other professors.


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