Dave's Advice Collection

My Advice

Advice for Prospective Research Students on Contacting Potential Advisors
Advice on Giving Good Talks

Selected Advice From Others

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with all the advice here (except Hughes' and Barry's), but I think all of it is worth reading (except Hughes').

Life and College

Paul Graham's advice on what to do in college: Undergraduation

So the fact that you're mainly interested in hacking shouldn't deter you from going to grad school. Just be warned you'll have to do a lot of stuff you don't like.

Number one will be your dissertation. Almost everyone hates their dissertation by the time they're done with it. The process inherently tends to produce an unpleasant result, like a cake made out of whole wheat flour and baked for twelve hours. Few dissertations are read with pleasure, especially by their authors.

But thousands before you have suffered through writing a dissertation. And aside from that, grad school is close to paradise. Many people remember it as the happiest time of their lives. And nearly all the rest, including me, remember it as a period that would have been, if they hadn't had to write a dissertation.

Randy Pausch's advice on achieving your childhood dreams: Windows Media Video file

Almost all of us have childhood dreams; for example, being an astronaut, or making movies or video games for a living. Sadly, most people don't achieve theirs, and I think that's a shame. I had several childhood dreams, and I've actually achieved most of them. More importantly, I have found ways, in particular the creation (with Don Marinelli), of CMU's Entertainment Technology Center of helping many young people actually achieve their childhood dreams.

This talk will discuss how I achieved my childhood dreams (being in zero gravity, designing theme park rides for Disney, and a few others), and will contain realistic advice on how *you* can live your life so that you can make your childhood dreams come true, too.

Steve Wozniak's letter to a high school student:
I also decided that I did not have to convince others of my views for those views to be good. They only needed to be good to me. I didn't have to argue and win points. Arguments rarely have 'winners' anyway. I could tell what I believed (even how to make a computer) and if others didn't agree, they were not bad. They just thought differently. I would have the belief that my thoughts were good and were inside my head and that's all that mattered. ... The best things I did in my young years leading up to the early Apple computers were done because I had little money and had to think deeply to achieve the impossible. Also, I had never done those technologies or studied them. I had to write the book myself. Being self-taught, figuring out how to design computers with pencil and paper, made me skilled at finding solutions that I had not been taught.

Chris Oliver's Looking Back At What I Learned At College

Ethan Fast's Advice for Undergrads and advice on writing a research statement.

Ira Glass' Advice for Beginners (beautifully illustrated by Gavin Aung Than)

Research and Grad School

Richard Hamming's advices on doing great research: You and Your Research (Talk at Bellcore, 7 March 1986)

Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, "Do you mind if I join you?" They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, "What are the important problems of your field?" And after a week or so, "What important problems are you working on?" And after some more time I came in one day and said, "If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?" I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with!...

If you do not work on an important problem, it's unlikely you'll do important work...

I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.

Martin Schwartz' The importance of stupidity in scientific research
We don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid — that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying.
Jennifer Rexford's Advice for New Graduate Students
I must caution you, though, about an important enemy against this kind of informal interactions. The Internet. Okay, so my research focuses on the Internet, so it may seem strange for me to be so negative about it, but this is important so I'll make an exception. The Internet makes it far too easy to work from home, or a cafe, or on the train, rather than in your office or lab with your peers. Your choice to work away from the office is, in fact, perfectly rational. Coming into the office has a defined cost, in terms of your time and (perhaps) having to get out of your pajamas and take a shower. And, all of this is in exchange for some vague, speculative benefit -- that you might have a chance encounter that truly changes your research. And, frankly, in any one day, you probably won't have a profound experience in your office, and your officemates may not even be in the same scholarly mood as you. But, I entreat you to go anyway.
Ronald Azuma's So long, and thanks for the PhD!
Computer Science majors are not, in general, known for their interpersonal skills. Some of us got into this field because it is easier to understand machines than people.
Norman Ramsey's A Guide for Research Students
Don't let the dog eat your notebook.
Yannis Smaragdakis' advice on doing a PhD: PhD Rants and Raves (Be Afraid. Be very afraid.)
To pick an area: be sure you like the incremental results — you should consider them important, or at least fun!
Alan Turing's advice on finishing a PhD thesis (from a letter to his mother, 7 May 1938)
My Ph. D. thesis has been delayed a good deal more than I expected. Church made a number of suggestions which resulted in the thesis being expanded to an appalling length. I hope the length of it won't make it difficult to get it published. I lost some time too when getting it typed by a professional typist here. I took it to a firm which was very well spoken of, but they put a very incompetent girl onto it. She would copy things down wrong on every page from the original, which was almost entirely in type. I made long lists of corrections to be done and even then it would not be right. ... I had an offer of a job here as von Neumann's assistant at $1,500 a year but decided not to take it.
Steven Hughes' Academic Tipping Guidelines
A dwindling minority of traditionalists still oppose academic tipping; they instead cling to the old system whereby graduate students curried favor by emulating the thoughts and actions of their major professor, thus promulgating the "old fogy's" persona indefinitely. Clearly, this antiquated system stifled academic creativity far too long.

A good analogy to academic tipping has operated effectively in the United States Congress for over 150 years. Congressmen are given "tips" in the form of campaign contributions or such other gratuities for a job well done. Furthermore, it is well documented that no Congressman has ever shown preferential treatment toward any of his or her satisfied "constituents" (Thomas "Tip" O'Neill 1987).

Mike Ernst's advice on Getting an academic job
When setting up the interview, I requested ... a 15-30 minute break before the talk. Although I only needed about 10 minutes, I asked for 30 because of schedule slip. This should be in a room by yourself, so you can collect your thoughts, calm down, and flip through your slides one last time (which doesn't help the talk but is a calming ritual). This is more important than I realized. At the one place I didn't get this, my talk went very poorly, though I can't put my finger on exactly why, except maybe my unnecessarily heightened nerves. At another place I was given time but not a room; when I sat in the lounge or the seminar room, I couldn't escape people interested in chatting with me, so I excused myself to the bathroom and sat there for five minutes. The talk went great.
Philip Guo's advice on Faculty Job Search [PDF]

John Regehr's advice on what to read.

Writing Advice

Marc Raibert's advice on Good Writing
My formula for good writing is simple: once you decide that you want to produce good writing and that you can produce good writing, then all that remains is to write bad stuff, and to revise the bad stuff until it is good.
Stephen Pinker's Why Academics' Writing Stinks
Academics mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say. Those include almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue. (Does that mean you would argue for your position if things were different, but are not willing to argue for it now?)
Greg Mankiw also has some great advice on How to Write Well (a few of the points are specific to economics, since the advice was written for his staff preparing the Economic Report of the President, but nearly all of it is good advice for all writing).
The passive voice is avoided by good writers.
The word "very" is very often very unnecessary.
Terence Tao's advice on writing papers including introductions:
This can be as much the fault of the author as it is of the referee; it is incumbent on the author to state as clearly as possible what the merits, novelties, and ramifications of the paper are, and the fact that an expert in the field could read the introduction and not see these is a sign that the introduction is not yet of publication quality.
Dave Barry's advice on writing proposals:
In writing proposals to prospective clients, be sure to clearly state the benefits they will receive:
WRONG: "I sincerely believe that it is to your advantage to accept this proposal."

RIGHT: "I have photographs of you naked with a squirrel."

James Altucher's 33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer:
Use a lot of periods. Forget commas and semicolons. A period makes people pause. Your sentences should be strong enough that you want people to pause and think about it. This will also make your sentences shorter. Short sentences are good.

Teaching

Paul Lockhart's advice on teaching (focused on teaching mathematics, but applies to all teaching): Lockhart's Lament [PDF]
Teaching is not about information. It's about having an honest intellectual relationship with your students. It requires no method, no tools, and no training. Just the ability to be real. And if you can't be real, then you have no right to inflict yourself upon innocent children. ... It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out forms at the DMV, but that's not why we teach children to read. We teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to beautiful and meaningful ideas.

Advice Collections

Advice Collection from Tao Xie and Yuan Xie
Resources for students from Frédo Durand
Advice compiled by Michael Ernst