My Other Advice Pages

Advice for Prospective Research Students on Contacting Potential Advisors

Mostly not relevant for new faculty, but you may want to have a similar page with your suggestions for students to contact you. It saves a lot of time to be able to point people who send you emails to a URL. (This is actually the most visited page on my personal website, getting several thousand visits a month.)

Advice on Giving Talks

One of the hardest things about becoming a professor is it gets much harder to get any real feedback on talks (unlike your students, who should be frequently giving talks and getting a lot of feedback from you on them). If you can find a mentor who can give you useful feedback on talks (including lectures), you are very lucky and should take advantage of this.

Collected Advice for Students

Some of what is collected there is duplicated here, but the Academic Tipping Guidelines only apply to 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 Life. 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 he left for Google shortly after. His post on "Everything 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 job.


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 important work…

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 SchwartzThe 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 is good.

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 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.

Geoffrey Pullman’s anti-dote to Strunk & White: The 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). (Geoffrey Pullman is not a fan, though.)

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 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.

Richard Muller’s teaching practices: What 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 Success.