Dave's Advice Collection

My Advice

Advice for Prospective Research Students on Contacting Potential Advisors
How to Live in Paradise: A Guide for New and Disgruntled Professors
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').

Before reading any advice, make sure to consider Should you reverse any advice you hear?.

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.

Scott Adams' Career Advice:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn't take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:
  1. Become the best at one specific thing.
  2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.
I can't speak from personal experience about playing in the NBA (or at anywhere approximating non-embarrasingly level in a pick-up basketball game), but I think Scott is probably wrong here. If you think of "one specific thing" as "playing basketball", he's right; but, playing basketball is one specific thing any more than "doing science" is. If you want to make the NBA, you either need to be the very best there is at one specific thing (e.g., defense, shooting 3-pointers, play-making, and above some threshold at everything else) or very good at two or more of those things.
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don't recommend anyone even try.

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.

Bryan Caplan's What Every High School Junior Should Know About Going to College

Should you stop school after you graduate from high school, or continue on to college?

Going to college definitely sounds better. Almost every authority figure in your life - educators and family alike - recommend it to each and every student. But as you may have noticed, authority figures are often untrustworthy. Indeed, they usually bend the truth whenever honesty makes them look bad. This doesn't mean you shouldn't go to college, but it is a reason to second-guess the party line, to seek out ugly facts parents and educators would rather ignore.

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)

Jeff Bezos' 2018 Shareholder Letter

We didn't ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied. People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday's "wow" quickly becomes today's "ordinary".


A close friend recently decided to learn to do a perfect free-standing handstand. No leaning against a wall. Not for just a few seconds. Instagram good. She decided to start her journey by taking a handstand workshop at her yoga studio. She then practiced for a while but wasn't getting the results she wanted. So, she hired a handstand coach. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but evidently this is an actual thing that exists. In the very first lesson, the coach gave her some wonderful advice. "Most people," he said, "think that if they work hard, they should be able to master a handstand in about two weeks. The reality is that it takes about six months of daily practice. If you think you should be able to do it in two weeks, you're just going to end up quitting." Unrealistic beliefs on scope — often hidden and undiscussed — kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be — something this coach understood well.

Steve Jobs' advice on (not) working in consulting (talk at MIT Sloan, 1992). (After this, he also answers the question about why doesn't NeXT become a software company.)

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Research and Grad School

Claude Shannon's advice on creativity: Claude Shannon's "Creative Thinking" Speech: A Genius Reveals How To Be Creative

Then there's the idea of dissatisfaction. By this I don't mean a pessimistic dissatisfaction of the world — we don't like the way things are — I mean a constructive dissatisfaction. The idea could be expressed in the words, This is OK, but I think things could be done better. I think there is a neater way to do this. I think things could be improved a little. In other words, there is continually a slight irritation when things don't look quite right; and I think that dissatisfaction in present days is a key driving force in good scientists.

Well now, this is all well and good, but supposing a person has these three properties to a sufficient extent to be useful, are there any tricks, any gimmicks that he can apply to thinking that will actually aid in creative work, in getting the answers in research work, in general, in finding answers to problems? I think there are, and I think they can be catalogued to an certain extent. ...

The first one that I might speak of is the idea of simplification. Suppose that you are given a problem to solve, I don't care what kind of a problem — a machine to design, or a physical theory to develop, or a mathematical theorem to prove, or something of that kind — probably a very powerful approach to this is to attempt to eliminate everything from the problem except the essentials; that is, cut it down to size. Almost every problem that you come across is befuddled with all kinds of extraneous data of one sort or another; and if you can bring this problem down into the main issues, you can see more clearly what you're trying to do and perhaps find a solution. ...

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.

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.

Austin Z. Henley's Lessons from my PhD

If you show up to a meeting/internship/job expecting to be told what to do, then chances are someone will tell you something to do. It might not be the best thing for you to be doing though.

Alternatively, if you show up to a meeting/internship/job with a convincing game plan, then chances are people will get out of your way so you can go do it. Sometimes they will even surprise you with the ways they can support you with it.

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.
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.
Luke Burns' advice on The "Snake Fight" Portion of your Thesis Defense
... if you get a poisonous snake, it often means that there was a problem with the formatting of your bibliography.
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.

Hector Garcia-Molina Speaks Out Regarding Startups, How Life is Getting Harder, Delta Papers, CS in Mexico, Life as a Department Chair, and More (interview by Marianne Winslett, in SIGMOD Record, September 2002.

There is [some very] interesting work being done in industry, but when I look at what companies are doing—and especially startups—they rarely have the time to do anything really interesting and significant. They always take the simplest solution to the problem, try to get it out as quickly as possible. They never take the time to really understand why they did something one way, or if they could have done it in another way. If they can get it out the door, that's all they care [about]. And I don't think that's as interesting or fun or as valuable as what we do in universities.
(Two of Garcia-Molina's students started a small company called Google.)

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 [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.
The Economist's Style Guide
Pomposity and long-windedness tend to obscure meaning, or reveal the lack of it: strip them away in favour of plain words.

Do not be hectoring or arrogant. Those who disagree with you are not necessarily stupid or insane.

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.
The best comprehensive writing guide I know of is the US Air Force's, The Tongue and Quill (which also includes lots of great advice on other types of communication like how to run meetings).
A clear purpose for the meeting is the first step towards success. If the meeting has no purpose, you shouldn't meet. When you think about your purpose, try to define it in terms of a product that you want at the end of the meeting. "Talking about Issue X" is not an ideal purpose statement for the meeting because it describes a process, not a product.


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.


Thomas Ptacek's The Hiring Post debunks the silliness that passes as a typical develop interview today, and suggests a better approach. (Quite a bit of this applies to faculty recruiting interviews, which as done today are typically even stranger and less connected to what matters than software developer interviews.)
Years from now, we'll look back at the 2015 developer interview as an anachronism, akin to hiring an orchestra cellist with a personality test and a quiz about music theory rather than a blind audition... Engineering teams are not infantry squads. They aren't selected for their ability to perform under unnatural stress. But that's what most interview processes demand, often — as is the case with every interview that assesses "confidence" — explicitly so.

Advice Collections

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