Student mentoring column

Dear students:

In this edition of the student mentoring column, we will cover three topics: the importance of journal and workshop papers, questions pertaining to giving/listening to talks, and two specific questions about jobs in networking. Hope you find the answers useful.

I got plenty of help in preparing this edition. In particular, many thanks to Rodrigo Fonseca, Harsha Madhyastha, George Porter, Vyas Sekar, and Minlan Yu.

Journal and Workshop Papers

Q: What are the pros and cons of submitting to a journal vs. a conference in networking?

A: The benefits of conferences are that they are timely (typically, half a year or less from submission to publication), and they have a very wide audience who keeps up with all the research there. The benefits of a journal are that you aren’t limited in terms of page limits (although several conferences are also going this route by, e.g., allowing each submitted paper an unlimited appendix), and your work is evaluated more or less on its own, rather than in a once-yearly batch of hundreds of other papers.

Q: There is a lot of pressure on getting high profile papers to get research positions. How does one balance the tradeoff between “quantity” and “depth”?

A: Research-oriented academic job searches don’t look for quantity–that’s a common myth that many graduate students appear to believe in! Academic job searches always look for impact and the potential to be a research superstar. One paper at the best venue in your field that solves a really important problem, or has had a lot of impact gets you noticed and could definitely get you an interview. So always shoot for quality and depth in your work.

Q: Are workshop papers helpful in the long term on my CV?

A: This is the wrong question to ask. What’s more important in your CV is the quality of your work overall, rather than individual papers or the number of papers you have published.

Workshop papers could be important toward your research program, though. They provide an opportunity to disseminate early or risky/crazy ideas, and get feedback from the community. Also, going to workshops is a great way to both see what topics are active in your field, and also to meet researchers carrying out that work.

Jobs:

Q: How does one apply and obtain a postdoc position in networking?

A: Typically, most postdocs are hired without a formal process. Your best bet is to identify whom you would like to work with, based on the research area that you hope to pursue during your postdoc. Then, accost your ideal prospective postdoc advisor in the hallway at the next conference. He/she may not know you, but this initial conversation will provide some context for you to follow up by email later, and you will find out if he/she is both interested in and has funding for hiring a postdoc. After that, it is just a matter of whether your prospective postdoc advisor is impressed by the research you’ve done over the course of your PhD. Some advisors may invite you to visit and give a talk before making this decision. If your record is strong, they may invite you mostly to impress upon you as to why you should do a postdoc with them and not someone else!

Q: Given some entrepreneurial interests, but would rather not be tied down to one company’s success, how easy or hard it is for a Ph.D. graduate to get a venture capitalist position?

A: (with help from Alex Benik from Battery Ventures) First, there is no clear correlation between having a PhD and being a successful venture capitalist. There are examples of very successful VCs with and without PhDs. While there are a set of overlapping skills, one stark difference is that a freshly minted PhD knows as much as, or more, than anyone else, about a very specific technical area, whereas a VC usually has a much broader, but necessarily much less deep view of more areas. Moving from one to the other is very personal, in that some might find it frustrating to not be able to go as deep, while others might find it exciting.

There is no single path that leads to a VC position, VC firms are interesting that they are “never hiring and always hiring”, they are in the business of tracking interesting people who might be founders, technical advisors, or join the firm. One potentially good strategy is to get involved in the industry, perhaps by joining a startup for a couple of years. It is really important to get a “sense of product”, what makes a good product is different from what makes a good research project. It’s important to understand how going to market interacts with research and development. Especially for technology-oriented folks, it is easy to underestimate how difficult it is to sell an idea or product, to convince investors or companies to give you money. Technology for technology’s sake is not sufficient, and people won’t buy solely because of a good architecture, for example.

Finally, there is a lot of variation among different VC firms. Some companies, for example, will recruit people young, and use an apprenticeship model, where people go from doing market research to observing more senior people making several decisions, until they finally get to make their own investments. Other firms will prefer people with entrepreneurial or operational experience.

So, unfortunately, there is no direct answer to your question, but I hope this helps!

Talks: Giving them, and listening to them

Q: How to listen to a talk effectively?

A: Depends on your goals in listening to the talk. Are you interested in getting better at giving talks? Or are you interested in learning about their actual work?

In the first case, some things I personally look for in a good talk are clear overall structure and a good narrative arc throughout the talk. It is important that the author tells a story that is interesting, and anticipates the needs of the listener. A good talk, even one that is just 12-20 minutes long, has a beginning, middle, and end, and even when the author is explaining the details of their algorithm or whatever, you have a clear sense for why they are describing what they are describing.

In the second case, I’d say you mainly want to focus on the first part of the talk to understand the problem they are trying to solve, their understanding of the problem, and their main approach or idea. If all of those seem of interest, then you can dive into their paper to get all the details.

Q: Is there an “algorithm” for giving a good talk at a conference?

A: Yes, watch as many conference talks as you can. This could include going to conferences, but also many now live stream the talks, so you have a wide set of potential talks to watch. You can see what aspects work, and which don’t. You will also see which elements going into a talk on a measurement study, vs a talk on a big systems building effort, vs. a talk on a more theoretical result. Finally, when you create a talk, you need to show it to as many people as possible, and listen to their feedback! Don’t be hesitant to go through multiple rounds of practice and feedback, and be aware that you may have to rewrite your talk entirely to improve how you deliver your message.

Aditya Akella, UW—Madison

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