Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Women and non-Asian minority CS faculty and PhD student populations (in 2006)

Well, people can say what they like about the NRC rankings, but just looking at the data for the CS departments, I see some pretty graphs here, and some potentially promising correlations.

(See that outlier on the right? Three cheers for Tufts! 56% female faculty, baby.)

(I'm not pleased with that huge cluster of 0% non-Asian minority faculty. But three cheers for FIU, Iowa, and Auburn!)

I haven't yet started removing outliers or doing anything fancy, but for kicks I ran some correlations on these four variables of interest:

For anyone not used to reading ugly SPSS outputs, we find a significant correlation between non-Asian minority CS faculty and non-Asian minority CS PhD students, r = .308, p < .01. We also find a sig. correlation between female CS faculty and female CS PhD students, r = .281, p < .01. And, it turns out if there are non-Asian minority PhD CS students there is also a high likelihood of female PhD CS students, r = .247, p  < .01.

These are not super-huge correlations, and it's likely the outliers are conflating things, but it's still promising just from the graphs. If I have time over the weekend I'll play with the data a bit more formally and see what turns up.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

For grad students who want a research career

Following my last post regarding how to get invited to give talks as a graduate student, a commenter asked:
How many days-spent-at-seminar talks+conferences/year is a good number for a grad student interested in a career in research? Obviously it depends on a whole bunch of factors, but just wondering what your best generalized estimate would be.
This is a great question. I may even rephrase it to be, "If I want a research career, what are some good ways to spend my time as a graduate student?"

I have some colleagues who get ideas just sitting in their office, alone, reading papers and thinking. This strategy sometimes works for me, but the truth is, I get more ideas from attending seminars/workshops/conferences and from talking with other people. A recent paper I wrote came entirely from seeing something wild at a conference a few years ago coupled with a recent talk I attended given by someone in a different department at my university. Somehow, these two very different things clicked in my brain, and off I went.

Coming up with research ideas is only half of the problem, though. You also need support to turn them into reality. For this recent project, I consulted with the person from the other department for tips on how to use some specialized equipment which was new to me. I then consulted with another person in his department for ideas on how to formulate my research questions. I ended up with a really solid paper having had these consultations.

So from an idea generation and cultivation perspective, I think spending time attending talks and conferences and chatting with people is a great use of your time(*).

But attending these events are also a great use of your time if you want to get employed some day. :) As I alluded to in the last post, I think being a superstar / having a superstar advisor is rare, and even if you are a superstar, a little extra insurance doesn't hurt. So the other advantage to spending time attending talks and conferences is being able to meet other people.

In many fields, the research world is a small one. That person you chatted with at the coffee break may one day be reviewing your paper/grant proposal, or may one day be offering you a chance to come give a talk at their lab, or even could one day be on the other side of the hiring table. This doesn't mean every interaction with someone matters, it just means more doors may open for you if you put yourself out there.

The goal of attending these things is not to go up to every person you meet and say, "HI GIVE ME A JOB PLEEEEZE". It's a way to casually chat with people and show them that you are a friendly person with good ideas. You form relationships that last throughout your research career. Your advisor may be able to help start you on this path of building these connections, but at some point you need to take initiative yourself. And I think it's good to start building these connections as early on in your career as possible, not two months before you go on the job market.

This all being said, you of course don't want to spend your life on the road. I suppose I did spend a lot of time attending seminars/workshops early on in graduate school, but I was geographically selective. A few times I traveled far, but usually I just went to seminars at my university or at other local universities, or workshops/conferences that were < 5 hours away. Pretty much everything turned out to be useful in one way or another. Even one conference which was a total dud introduced me to a great collaborator who I still work with today, as well as an invitation to give a talk.

(*) I should note, some departments will only fund attendance at conferences/workshops if you have a paper accepted. And if you're a first or second year graduate student, you may not have had any time to do anything publishable yet. However, it's super easy to get a short ideas-only paper accepted at a workshop so long as you can write coherently.  (e.g., a 2-4 pager like - "Here's an idea on X. Here's some background which makes us think X is true. We're going to implement and test X in the coming months"). Also, many big conferences have doctoral consortia, poster submissions, works in progress, etc. These are also definitely worth trying for, because it gets you a plane ticket. Most university accountants aren't going to realize/care that the poster acceptance rate was 99% while the conference acceptance rate was 12%. :-)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How to get invited to give talks

It's good to give talks at other institutions as a graduate student. You get to meet new people, learn about new research areas, swap ideas, get feedback on your work, get practice giving talks, etc. And it looks nice on your CV.

As far as I can tell, there are about four ways to get invited to give talks:

Photo by Husky
1) Be a superstar, and people will just invite you to give talks all the time

This is pretty unlikely as a graduate student, unless you're like my friend Hedy, who seems to get talk invitations all the time. She also is often asked to serve on program committees, submit journal papers, etc. Her research is just that smoking.

2) Have an advisor who is good at networking

I'm sorry to say odds are stacked against you if you're a Computer Scientist, because we all know how the joke goes: "The introverted Computer Scientist looks at their own shoes while talking, and the extroverted Computer Scientist looks at yours." Lots of truth there.

Some people get lucky, and if they don't get advisors who are good at networking they at least get ones who are superstar researchers. What happens in this case is the superstar advisor is so busy being awesome they have no time to accept all the invitations they get, thus passing them on to you.

For those of us who are (not yet) superstars, and/or have shy advisors, how do you get talk invitations? Well, I've found two tricks to work pretty well -

3) Talk swap

The idea here is you know someone who is doing neat research, and they either live close to your institution or they will be visiting some time soon. So you invite them to come give a talk. Often times, they will return the invitation. A colleague and I did this once recently. His institution is an hour away from me. So he gave a talk in my research group, and a few weeks later I traveled to give a talk at his research group.

4) Invite yourself

Academics, at least Computer Scientists, love to be entertained. So when we have someone who says, "Hi, I'm doing research in area X. I'm going to be in town the last week of November, can I come give a talk?" most places are very happy to have you. Especially if you come on someone else's dime. I've never done this cold - I've always at least known someone who knew someone - but I know people who have and I think it's perfectly acceptable.

You can do this if you're traveling for academic reasons (e.g., conference, project meeting), but you can also do it when you're going somewhere for a vacation. Though do keep in mind you're more likely to receive a "yes" if you offer to come during the fall or spring semester. Winter break and summer are usually not the best time to go give talks, at least at my university, because many people are away.

If you are shy yourself, it can be a bit nerve wracking to invite yourself somewhere, but it's worth doing. The worst that happens is someone will say "No thank you," but it's really a small risk and can pay off handsomely. I've made a lot of fantastic contacts and met quite a few collaborators due to giving talks at their institutions, and learned about new areas of research which later fed into my own work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

For all the Gleeks out there

This interactive video, 8-bit Glee, is absolutely brilliant, and will bring back memories if you enjoyed playing Zelda back in the 80s. :)

Monday, September 20, 2010

More "levity"

Lately I've been reading some papers within a particular humanities discipline due to a very tiny bit of crossover with a new research area I am exploring. I read one paper where the author used quotation marks like they were going out of style. It was something like this:
The "green" tree was in the "park", as was the "balloon". This raises "interesting questions" for "park management".
I thought this was really funny, because as far as I'm aware, in Computer Science we only use non-quotation quotes when we want to be sarcastic. So for us it would be like this:
Compared to Linux, the Blackberry OS's "memory management" is like a herd of lemmings running into a tar pit.
So with this bouncing around my head, you can imagine my delight yesterday as I passed a new sign in front of a local restaurant which said:
Now serving "Authentic Indian Cuisine".
Ah, pseudo-food. Yum!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Academic titles for women, take two!

A male colleague and I once wrote a paper for a journal. I was first author, he was second author. We are both (still) PhD students, though he is perhaps slightly closer to finishing than I am. We mutually agreed he would be second author because I did the lion's share of the idea generation, research, paper writing, etc. Our websites both clearly indicate we are PhD students, as do our bios in the article.

Recently, one of the journal's editors contacted each of us individually to review a newly submitted article.

Here's the invitation to me:
Dear Ms. Ada Lovelace,
The following paper has been submitted for publication at Our Fantabulous Journal. Can you review it?
Thank you,
Journal Editor
Yet, here is the invitation to my fellow grad student:
Dear Dr. Charles Babbage, 
The following paper has been submitted for publication at Our Fantabulous Journal. Can you review it?
Thank you,
Journal Editor
I am intrigued. Why am I a "Ms." but he's a "Dr."? Is this one of those cases where the editor saw my colleague's name as second author and assumed he was the "senior author"? Even still, for a two-author publication, I'm not sure one can automatically assume the first author is PhD-less and the second author is PhD-full.

I guess this is better than the editor assuming I'm male.

Funny thing, though - a different (female) editor at the journal recently corresponded with us on another matter, and addressed me as "Professor Lovelace," and didn't address my co-author at all. We both found this highly amusing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What research pond do you swim in?

The funding / job fairies have come down from the sky and offered you a choice. You can be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond. Which would you choose? (It's not rhetorical - feel free to answer in the comments if you feel like)
Wasted Talent #473: Limitations of Modern
, Angela Melick

I have been contemplating this question for awhile. An unusual opportunity presented itself where I'd basically be a bright orange fish in a big pond of purple octopuses. On the one hand, there's a few octopuses who have a *tiny* bit of overlap to my research area, but, really, we're talking seriously different species. I'd definitely be the only vertebrate in the whole pond. (Yes, those other researchers are spineless! har).

On the one hand, you never really have to prove that you're an independent researcher when there is just no other option. But on the other hand, you seriously have to work extra hard to find the other fishies. Which helps you build networking skills, but can be seriously exhausting.

And I suppose it could be fun to get to know the octopuses. Perhaps we will be united by a shared love of Science which transcends the need to be working on similar genres of problems.

But I am unsure. I feel uneasy because in some ways my chosen research area already makes me an outsider within my current pond, but we at least have our fishiness to unite us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday funnies

Don't want to be all doom and gloom around here, so here's some levity for Sunday. :)

1) In case you missed the link in this week's Chronicle, here's a lovely Simpsons montage of PhD and grad school humor:

2) This Joy of Tech Comic on technology addicts cracked me up, because it's so true. We had an outreach event recently for some local youngsters and every five minutes they kept asking (with similar sunken eyes to those zombies), "Can I check Facebook on any of the computers here?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Research jobs outside academia

The Prodigal Academic has a great post on alternate careers for scientists outside of academia. I'd also like to add a few notes on CS/Engineering research jobs specifically.

Beyond what Prodigal mentioned, quite a few places support academic style CS/Eng specific research. Depending on what area you work in, you might be happy at places like IBM Almaden, SRI, Google, PARC, Microsoft Research, Apple, Intel, and Disney. There are also quite a few academic/research lab hybrids, like the Johns Hopkins Applied Phyiscs Lab (APL) and the Univ. of Washington APL.

I get the impression it can be tough to get your foot in the door at some of these places, but once you do you can often get something like tenure. Particularly older, well-established and well-managed companies are less likely to do layoffs I would think. This is especially true at non-profits/national labs (e.g., Hopkins APL), or at the "we don't need to make a profit right now because we have lots of cash" companies, like Microsoft Research or Google.

The cultures at these organizations can vary dramatically in how they support your research. For example, I had one colleague who did systems research at Apple but had to take vacation time and pay his own way to attend conferences. Whereas I knew someone who worked at a small company and she could go to as many conferences as she wanted, and get paid for it.

Another issue is publishing. For example, Microsoft Research and parts of IBM are big into academic publishing, whereas SRI is probably less so in general. This is something worth checking on if you want to publish. Same for open source code. You might need to go through a three month approval process to put a little perl script on your webpage, or submit a paper to a conference/journal.

If you interview at these places, even if the job title is something like, "Research Scientist", have them make clear exactly what expectations will be placed on you. Sometimes even a fancy title and gobs of money still means code monkey. It's better to know that going in - you don't want to expect to be leading research team and find out you're the new database programmer for someone else's pet project. And the job ad may or may not clue you in to these expectations, so it's best to ask.

Also check what they mean exactly when they say "flexible working hours". At some places this means you can come to work any time between 6:30am- 8:30am. Some places have a vaguely worded policy that leaves it to the discretion of your manager. Some places let you telecommute every day and just come in for meetings. In any case, also good to know in advance.

If you plan to do research at these places, it's helpful to know what it is you'll need to facilitate your work and what they already have. Do you need specific equipment? Animals? Human subjects? Even if you're joining an existing lab with existing equipment, you'll want to make sure you have access to it when you need it. Do you need to book the Cray eight months in advance? Will you have funds to pay human subjects or do you need to get grants first?

And on that note, what sort of support will you have? This also ties into expectations - yours and theirs. Maybe they'll give you a group of people who will work on your project part or full time. Do you need to bring in grants to cover their salary? Are you evaluated solely on the amount of external/internal research funds you bring in?

Just like with an academic job, do your homework, ask questions, and don't be afraid to negotiate for the things you need to be happy. I think the aforementioned organizations and the ones mentioned in Prodigal's post can be great places to work, but may take some maneuvering to be like what you imagine.