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UC Berkeley Chancellor's Postdoctoral Fellow

I’ve completed my PhD and joined UC Berkeley as a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow.

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Getting Unstuck in Writing for Research

I was recently contacted by another graduate student for advice on how to deal with feeling bogged down by theoretical and mathematical detail while working on a journal paper.  This is a problem that I have a lot actually, I don’t think I’ve gotten it all solved, but I have developed a number of strategies for getting through it.

The most general one is somewhat circular, but more proactive.  I’ve put significant effort toward learning to be a better researcher, learner, writer, and generally productive person. I’ve read some books and countless articles on these types of matters. This of course isn’t the best in the moment before a deadline solution, to try to consume all of these materials at once and then magically be able to get your work done, but slowly working through these materials over the course of time has made me lose less time and get less worried when I face these struggles. I maybe face them less often or maybe with about the same frequency, but lose less time with each occurrence and I do more complex and more theoretical work than I did at the beginning of graduate school. This strategy can help a little immediately as well. When I get really stuck I pause and spend 20-30 minutes reading whatever’s next on my ‘get better at x’ list or the book I’m currently working through. After a few minutes of a productive feeling distraction, I often have a better idea of how to proceed.   This used to be my first strategy, I’d spend a few minutes reading and learning about things I could try until I found one that sounded like a good strategy to try.  Recently this has fallen lower on  my list, because the ones below get me back on track.  I think this is the most important strategy and that it should the first one I mention here, because even though the strategies below help me they may not help you so learning about as many strategies and trying them out until you settle into your own toolbox of strategies is the most important.

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Why & How I Chose to Get a PhD

Getting a PhD is a major commitment; deciding to do it isn’t easy. Now I’m in the final stretch of my PhD: my qualifying exam is passed, coursework is complete, proposal stage is passed, just a dissertation left.  I think it’s a good time to share how I got started in grad school.  I’m completely happy with my choice to get a PhD, even though at the start of my final year of undergrad, I wasn’t sure.  Hopefully the way I made the choice and why I’m glad I’m getting a PhD helps you make the choice yourself.

At this time five years ago, I was a few months into my third and final co-op, at Draper Laboratory. My senior year had just started and even with my bonus year of delay by entering a five year program, I finally had to figure out what to do after graduation.  I wasn’t entirely certain what I wanted to do as a career. I did know I wanted to be an engineer- I was still happy with my major and had enjoyed my experiences through undergrad, but I also know I could be an engineer, and use the skills I had acquired through the degree in a lot of different ways. I had done research on campus since the spring of freshman year and I had done two research-related coops. In the second one, most of the people I had worked with had Master’s degrees and the first one was at a hospital, with mostly doctors of one sort or another.  Working around so many people with graduate degrees had convinced me I’d probably need one too, but I wasn’t sure what kind.  I liked doing research; I was continually drawn to research positions after reviewing hundreds of posted co-op positions.  I wasn’t sure, however, if I wanted to work in industry or academia and I didn’t see a lot of PhDs in industry.  I used my time at my third co-op to figure out which graduate degree would be the best choice for me and what I was going to do in grad school, at least roughly.

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Becoming a Better Writer: Building a Daily Writing Habit

Writing has always been hard for me.  For a while, as an engineer, I thought I was safe.  Then came writing in grad school.  My MS thesis was a painful process in summer 2013 and I vowed I would learn from that.  Then last summer, I struggled through my next paper again.  In both cases, the process of writing about my work had revealed gaps I wasn’t comfortable with leaving.  To overcome that, with my next project, I started writing it out as I worked on it.  Even before I had all the results figured out, I started writing it out and working on explaining it.  My new problem was just that writing felt like something to avoid.  I would decide I needed to write, but start with staring at the blank screen, wandering the internet, or answering e-mail to feel productive, while not accomplishing the important things. Writing is going to be a critical part of my career, so I need it to come more naturally. My plan to reach that, is to form a daily writing habit.

In the past, I’ve made plans to try to make writing come more naturally, but never managed to follow through.  I came across the site and started using it in the beginning of March.  The site was created by Buster who was working to make a daily writing habit, had tried numerous media and not succeed.  To help himself, he created a private location for the daily brain dumps.  It provides a clean interface to write in each day and statistics on your writing.  The site runs a monthly challenge and posts a leader board based on points earned for writing, reaching 750 words, and for streaks.  There are also badges for streaks of different lengths and other behaviors.  After the first 30 days, it does cost $5/month, but I think the idea that I paid for it helps me hold myself accountable even a little more.   Using has helped me hold myself accountable. It’s been helpful that I keep this in my mind as owing myself 750 words of text, on any topic from research to just a reflection on my day, every day.

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My Top 5 Academic Productivity Tools

Keeping up with school can be tough.  Everyone has their own study/organizational habits, but having the right tools is important too.  Notebooks and pencils are great, but there are ways to use technology to stay on top of work, away from distractions and make painful tasks a little more pleasant.  Here are 5 tools I use every day to keep up that I would recommend trying to anyone.

This is one I’ve used for quite a long time, I think I installed it in my 3rd or 4th year of undergrad.  It’s an extension for chrome, that blocks any sites you add to it (Facebook and Twitter for me) after a certain amount of time spent on those sites.  Of course, there are work-arounds, that I do occasionally use, but the small extra step makes sure that I’m cognizant of how much time I’m at the computer but not working. This is free, but if you go over time, and then try to visit a blocked site, the “Shouldn’t you be working?” page has a donate button.

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Kimball Union Academy TECHplusHack

This weekend I spent a little over 24 hours at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, NH for their TECH+hack. It was a hackathon for the high school students here, where they were encouraged to not only build apps, but also hardware systems or conduct an experiment. Essentially their challenge was to connect their other interests to anything Tech. Many of the students tackled problems they had no idea how to get started with. A few had some programming experience, but many were just getting started and relied on the tutorials offered during the hack. It was really cool to see how excited to learn and fearless about failing the students were. Their projects varied from hobbies, to improvements for the school, to just exploring curiosities.

After the twenty-four hours of work, at the end of Sunday Brunch at the school, the students presented the results of their projects. Two projects were related to arts-based capstones: laser cutting for a hand made guitar and designing a fire background that could be integrated with Kinect to give the effect of a dancer on fire. The school is located in a remote area, so the cell reception isn’t great; two students build a cell phone reception booster. One young woman built a website that could track cross country runners as they worked their way through the wooded course.

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Timely Advice

Wednesday, I received a piece of advice labeled as “the one piece of advice  I wish I would have had day one of the graduate school process.”

What I realized was that a part of why it was so hard to organize the ideas and research interests I had was that it was way more than a PhD worth of work floating around in my head.  Some of the ideas are general enough that though my current work inspired these ideas, they probably can’t even be validated with the data that I’m working on.  When I reach the point of applying for jobs, having good ideas for future work will be great, but what I need to narrow down a dissertation, it’s not constructive.  For now, I need to narrowly work on what will get me my degree.

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A PhD is Not Enough: important choices

As in a previous post this is a part of a series on the book A PhD is Not Enough- A guide to scientific survival. This is the second post.

In chapter three, he focuses on two important early career choices: thesis adviser and post-doctoral position.  For selecting an adviser he focuses on what the advantages are of choosing a more senior person and what to be cautious of with a young, early career, advisor. He weighs what an adviser’s prominence can and cannot do for you.  It can give you easy access to connections, but it cannot be absorbed.

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A PhD is not enough!

I’ve been told numerous times that I should read the book A PhD is not Enough! and I recently finally decided to buy it and start reading. I posted on instagram that I was and was asked for cliff notes. My next blog series will be that.

The first two chapters are very introductory; he introduces the motivation for the book and gives a series of anecdotes of other scientists careers.  He focuses on bad decisions they each made, including his own.  He positions the book to focus on how to make sure you’re a good candidate for full time positions as a researcher in science. He acknowledges changes in the world since he was on the job market and since the first edition of the book and states why the core of his advice is timeless.  He notes that some of the details will change rapidly, but the same principles will apply.  The central themes will be: 1) know thyself, and 2) understand and respect the needs of your audience.

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Mentoring Works: By Proof

I first learned what engineering was from a mentor I had in my senior year of high school.    I had completed AP calculus already and wasn’t interested in AP Statistics.  Instead I took this ‘course’ of sorts that had been trialed a year before me when three students were in the same situation as me asked for a way to take more math that the district had planned for, without having to adapt their schedules to fit a college course.   It was a course in mathematical proofs and basics of set theory.

For the fall semester of my senior year, each morning I reported to the library instead of a “real” class.  I had a book to follow and a notebook to scribble in.  Once a week, an engineer from a company in town came and met with me for an hour.  This was actually an amazing mentoring experience.  He wasn’t really my teacher, I worked through most of the material on my own.  He was there to meet with me weekly to check on my progress some, but mostly to give me someone to discuss the material with.

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Help: Easier to offer than to ask for

Asking for help is pretty much the hardest thing on earth for me to do. I’m always willing to offer help, but asking for myself is hard.  As I’ve become more aware of my own strengths and weaknesses, I’ve gotten good at playing the connector and asking people to help others when I’m not the best person.  However, when I struggle with something that’s for my own benefit, I always try to just teach myself.  I try to learn the skill on my own, or by taking a class or attending a workshop, but I rarely just ask for help- when I’m the only one to benefit.

I’ve learned through leadership experiences that building a team with different strengths is essential to the success of an organization.   I’ve heard countless times from successful people that they have a group of mentors and advisers that they refer to as a board of directors. As a part of an on going effort to challenge myself, I decided this is the next challenge I want to face, asking for help. It doesn’t make any sense to not use available resources.

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Network = Net worth

First, I’m struggling with this effort to post regularly, but I’ll keep trying.

The key in this though is that it’s more than knowing people, it’s about having people in your network.  It’s a two way relationship.  You need to know the people and their expertise well enough to recommend them to other people for help and be able to pass on a request for help.

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The Science Gap

I’ve been involved in a lot of STEM outreach since I began college.  I truly LOVE what I do and sharing that with others is just natural to me.  What I found alarming though was the reasons there’s so much push for STEM outreach.  The bleak outlook for minorities and women going into STEM fields is the predominant one.  In that effort we often cite the digital divide as the problem, a lack of basic computer literacy within our communities.  It’s bigger than that though.

Most of society is far, far removed from what researchers do.  Some even think it’s wasteful, few understand the critical role advanced research plays in developing technology.  Some times we have to solve more basic problems, discover materials, or explain observed phenomena first, before we can build products that safely and reliably accomplish the previously impossible.

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Fall Challenge

I know multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.  Realistically, you can only focus on one task at a time.  However, I do believe that tasks can be constructed so that they contribute to multiple objectives.  You can learn more than one thing out of a single task.

The best way to get better at something is to do it more often.  Writing is hard for me, in fact effective communication in general is.  Ideas float around in my head completely clear, but sharing them?  A very different story.  I know it’s hard for me though, so I prepare, a lot, in advance.  As an engineering undergraduate, I got away without writing much.  In general scientists and engineers aren’t great at communicating, but I think that’s a problem.  At the very least we need to communicate among ourselves to advance our fields.  Especially in research, writing is an essential skill.

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On Monday I sat on a panel about the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. That’s the funding source I currently have for graduate school. It’s a national fellowship that provides a stipend and cost of education allowance for three years. It’s competitive, like most funding mechanisms, but what makes it different from grants is that the funding is for the PERSON, not the project. At the info session we first had the university’s fellowship coordinator speak on general advice and the support she offers, then a professor who’s served on review panels for the fellowship talk about what it’s like as a reviewer. There’s a lot of resources available to help students put together a competitive application, but I think the most important thing that both speakers and the other panelist and I all repeated, is also the first thing: read and directly address the review criteria and purpose of the funding.

Everything submitted to NSF is reviewed for intellectual merit and broader impacts, and this fellowship specifically exists to “ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity.”  So as an applicant, you need to show that by funding you, the NSF can accomplish that goal and that your work is both intellectually merited and will have a broad societal impact. Most advice says to specifically address the two criteria with subheadings in the essays to ensure that it’s clear you’ve covered both.  I didn’t do that though; for me, it was more natural to integrate the two throughout.   What’s most important is that you use the limited space you have in the essays to make it clear that your career plans and proposed graduate studies address both.

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Broadening Participation in Data Mining

I just attended the Broadening Participation in Data Mining workshop co-located with Knowledge Discover in Databases (KDD).  The workshop was designed to provide exposure and professional development workshops to groups underrepresented in datamining and provide the experience of attending one of the top conferences in the field.   The program included two keynote talks, mentoring sessions, in the lab sessions and panels on publishing and career choices.  One keynote was by Natasha Balac from the UCSD Super Computer Center.  She spoke on what data science is and sorting out what it means.  She described the four V’s used to define “big data”: volume, velocity, variety, and veracity.  Big data is a lot of data, in mixed forms, that is generated rapidly and has some uncertainty to it.  I found a good infographic defining it in more detail.    She also described what the supercomputer center does and how she used her PhD in machine learning and artificial intelligence working there and then became the director of the Predictive Analytics Center of Excellence.

The most helpful sessions were the mentoring sessions.   The attendees were PhD students and post docs and the mentors were PhDs working in both industry and academia.  They gave us tips about thesis development, career path, and personal branding.  My favorite piece of advice was from one of the organizers, professor [](” target=“_blank”>Brandies Hill Marshall, that as a prospective faculty member you’re, “COO, company of one.”  They also gave tips for forming a thesis committee, what to include in a job talk and some of the variety of the scope of job talks they were asked to give for various jobs.

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