My Other Advice Pages
Advice for Prospective Research Students on Contacting Potential Advisors
Advice on Giving Talks
Collected Advice for Students
Advice for New Faculty
This essay was largely inspired by Radhika Nagpal’s excellent essay
The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and
Love the Tenure-Track Faculty
I didn’t do a post-doc, though, and believe most post-docs are very far
from paradise, so have a somewhat different perspective than she does
(although we were classmates as undergraduates!).
As a contrast, Matt Welsh earned tenure at Harvard, but got so burned
out by the things he did to ensure this, that
for Google shortly after. His post
I did wrong as a professor" is great advice for faculty who
don't want to make the same mistakes.
I really screwed things up as a young faculty member at Harvard. It
worked out OK in the end, but, man, I wish I could go back in time to
when I was a new professor and give my younger self some much-needed
advice. No, not the "you shouldn't be a professor, get another kind of
job" advice -- I wouldn't have listened to that -- but one of the
reasons I ended up leaving academia is that I burned myself out. Maybe
that could have been avoided had I taken a different approach to the
Margo Seltzer's (also a Harvard professor) advice for new faculty is
well worth reading (and often aligns well with mine):
Advising Junior Colleagues (HT: Philip Guo, who suggested this to me;
Philip also has a lot of great
advice for new faculty in his blog).
Richard Hamming’s advice 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
This line is frequently quoted (included in Levoy’s talk
and seems obviously right, but I think its wrong and dangerous! Much
better to work on obviously fun problems, than obviously important
ones. See Richard
Feynman’s letter to Koichi Mano
for a better perspective on this.
Marc Levoy’s Where do
disruptive ideas come from? (hooding ceremony speech at the
University of North Carolina)
For three years I lived next door to Facebook. Literally next door. I
could throw a rock from my bedroom window and break a window in Mark
Zuckerberg’s office. They have a particular culture at Facebook: young,
edgy, in-your-face. Their walls are covered with graffiti and posters,
spray-painted in Wild West Wanted-dead-or-alive font. One of them says:
“Move fast, break things.” Their offices have concrete floors, no
interior walls and lots of skateboards, so I imagine they do break
things. My favorite poster says, “What would you do if you weren’t
afraid?” Being afraid is useful. On the savannah it kept us from being
eaten by lions. Nevertheless, this is the message I’d like to leave you
with, the same message my mentor Don Greenberg gave to me. Know your
fears, know also what you really want, weigh the odds, and
occasionally, make a run for it.
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.
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
Stephen Pinker’s Why
Academics’ Writing Stinks [PDF with more commentary]
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?)
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
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.
Geoffrey Pullman’s anti-dote to Strunk &
Land of the Free and The Elements of Style [PDF].
The book’s style advice, largely vapid and obvious (“Do not overwrite”;
“Be clear”), may do little damage; but the numerous statements about
grammatical correctness are actually harmful. They are riddled with
inaccuracies, uninformed by evidence, and marred by bungled analysis.
Elements is a dogmatic bookful of bad usage advice, and the people who
rely on it have no idea how badly off-beam its grammatical claims are.
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).
Pullman is not a
The passive voice is avoided by good writers.
The word “very” is very often very unnecessary.
Paul Lockhart’s advice on teaching (focused on teaching mathematics, but
applies to all teaching): Lockhart’s
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.
Richard Muller’s teaching
are ten teaching practices that Richard Muller (UC Berkeley)
thinks all professors should try to exemplify? (Quora)
Motivate and intrigue before you teach the hard stuff. Emphasize why
the material is important. If the student is interested in the
material, it is enormously easier to learn.
Respect the student. Imagine that someday one of your students (and you
don't know which one; maybe a currently poor student) will be an
important leader, and this is your one chance to influence that person.
Jeffrey Ullman, Advising Students for