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Nathan Yau

01-start-finish

Disclaimer: Everyone's graduate school experience is different. Mine wasn't a typical one, mainly because I spent so much time away from campus (in a different state), but hey, most of your PhD experience is independent learning anyways. That's the best part.

Before you begin (or apply)

You should really like the field you're thinking about pursuing a PhD in. You don't have to have this, but you kind of do. A doctorate is a commitment of several years (for me it was 7), and if you're not fascinated by your work, it feels like an impossible chore. There are a lot of things that are actual chores — administration, research results that go against your expectations, challenging collaborations, etc — and the interest in your work pulls you through.

I don't know anyone who finished their PhD who wasn't excited about the field in some way.

On that note, do your research before you apply to programs, and try to find faculty whose interests align with yours. Of course this is easier said than done. I entered graduate school with statistics education in mind and came out the other end with a focus in visualization. The size of my department probably allowed for some of that flexibility. Luck was also involved.

So what I actually did was apply to more than one program and then wait to hear if I got in or not. If I only got into one place (or none), then the decision was easy. In the end, I compared department interests and then went with the one I thought sounded better.

Consider it a red flag if it's hard to find faculty information because there's little to nothing online. There's really no excuse these days not to have updated faculty pages.

Absorb information

02-absorb

Okay, you're in graduate school now. The undergrads suddenly look really young and all of them expect that you know everything there is to know about statistics (or whatever field you're in). This becomes especially obvious if you're a teaching assistant, which can feel weird at first because you're not that far out of undergrad yourself. Use the opportunity to brush up on your core statistics knowledge.

I had coursework for the first two years, but it varies by department I'm sure.You also take classes yourself. Don't freak out if the lectures are confusing and everyone seems to ask smart questions that you don't understand. In reality, it's probably only a handful of people who dominate the discussion, and well, there's just always some people who are ahead of the curve. Maybe you're one of them.

Tough early goings has a lot to do with learning the language of statistics. There's jargon that makes it easier to describe concepts (once you know them already), and there's a flow of logic that you pick up over time.

There's usually a qualifying exam after the first two years to make sure you learned in class.Don't hesitate to ask questions and make use of office hours (but don't be the person who waits until the week before an exam or project to get advice, because that's just so undergrad). Once you finish your coursework, it's going to be a lot of independent learning, so take advantage of the strong guidance while you can.

The key here is to absorb as much information as you can and try to find the area of statistics that excites you the most. Pursue and dig deeper when you do find that thing.

I remember the day I discovered visualization. My future adviser gave a guest lecture on visualization from a mostly media arts perspective. He talked about it, I grew really interested, and then I went home and googled away.

Oh, and read a lot of papers. I didn't do nearly enough of this early on, and you need proper literature review for your dissertation. Background information also informs your own work.

Find an adviser

03-adviser

Actually, I don't think I ever officially asked my adviser to be my adviser. It was just assumed when I became a student researcher in his group.I kind of had an adviser from the start of graduate school, because I was lucky to get a research assistant position that had to do with statistics education. However, as my interests changed, I switched my adviser around the two-year mark.

This is important and goes back to the application process. After a couple years, you should have a sense of what the faculty in your department work on and their teaching styles, and you should go for the best match.

I think a lot of people expect an adviser to have all the answers and give you specific directions during each meeting. That's kind of what it's like early on, but it eventually develops into a partnership. It's not your adviser's job to teach you everything. A good adviser points you in the right direction when you're lost.

Jump at opportunities

04-opps

Statistics is a collaborative field, and there are a lot of opportunities to work with others within the department and outside of it. A lot of companies are often in search of interns, so they might send fliers and listings that end up posting to the grad email list. Jump at these opportunities if you can.

Graduate school doesn't have to be expensive.Opportunities within the department or university should be of extra interest, because it usually means that your tuition could be reduced a lot, if not completely.

If something sounded interesting, I'd respond to it right away, and it usually resulted in something good. A lot of people pass up opportunities, because they see the requirements of an ideal candidate and feel like they're not qualified. Instead, apply and let someone else decide if you're qualified. There's usually a lot of learning on the job, and it's usually more important that you'll be able to pick up the necessary skills.

At the very least, you'll pick up interview experience, which comes in handy later on if you want one of those job things after you graduate.

Learn to say no

05-no

As you progress in your academic career, you'll look more and more like a PhD (hopefully). You have more skills, more knowledge, and more experience, which means you become more of an asset to potential collaborators, researchers, and departments. A lot of my best experiences come from working with others, but eventually, you have to focus on your own work so that you can write your dissertation. Hopefully, you'll have a lot of writing routes to take after you've jumped at all the opportunities that crossed your desk.

So it's a whole lot of yes in the beginning, but you have to be more stingy with your time as you progress.

There are probably going to be potential employers knocking at your door at some point, too. If you really want to finish your PhD, you must make them wait. I know this is much easier said than done, but when you start a full-time job, it's hard to muster the energy at the end of a day to work on a dissertation. I mean, it's already hard to work on a dissertation with normal levels of energy.

All the times I wanted to quit, I justified it by telling myself that I would probably have the same job with or without a doctorate. I also know a lot of people who quit and are plenty successful, so finding a job didn't work for me as a motivator. But it might be different for you, depending on what work you're interested in.

Solitude

06-solitude

This might've been the toughest part for me. During my first two years in school, I hung out with my classmates a lot and we'd discuss our work or just grab some drinks, but I had to study from a distance from my third year on. I've always been an independent learner, so I thought I'd be okay, but my first year away, it was hard to focus, and it was lonely in the apartment by myself. I didn't want to do much of anything.

I eventually made friends, and pets provided nice company during the day. It's important to have a life outside of dissertation work. Give your brain a rest.

Separation from the academic bubble wasn't all bad though. FlowingData came out of my moving away, and my dissertation topic came out of a personal project. So there are definitely pros and cons, but it's mostly what you make out of what you have in front of you.

I found Twitter useful to connect with other work-at-homers and PhD Comics proved to be a great resource for feeling less isolated.Anyways, my situation is kind of specific, but it's good to have a support system rather than go at it alone. I mean, you still have to do all the work, but there will be times of frustration when you need to vent or talk your way through a problem.

Write the dissertation and defend

07-write

Despite what you might've heard, a dissertation does not write itself. Believe me. I've tried. Many times. And it never ever writes itself.

I even (shamefully) bought a book that's lying around somewhere on how to write your dissertation efficiently. That's gotta be up there on my list of worst Amazon impulse buys. The book arrived, I started reading, and then realized that it'd be a lot more efficient to be writing instead of reading about how to write.

Procrastination comes in many forms.

The hardest part for me was getting started. Just deal with the fact that the writing is going to be bad at first. You come back and revise anyways. I've heard this advice a lot, but you really do just have to sit down and write (assuming you've worked on enough things by now that you can write about).

If you already have articles on hand, it doesn't hurt to take notes so that it's easier to clean up citing towards the end.Don't worry about proper citing, what pronouns to use, and the tone of your writing. This stuff is easy to fix later. (It can be helpful to browse past dissertations in your department to learn what's expected.) Focus on the framework and outline first.

Just google "successful PhD defense."By the time you're done writing, you know about your specific topic better than most people, which makes your defense less painful. There's a lot of online advice on a successful defense already, but the two main points are (1) your committee wants you to succeed; and (2) think of it as an opportunity to talk about your work. In my experience and from what I've heard, these are totally true. That didn't stop me from being really nervous though and probably won't help your nerves either, but there you go.

I like this video by Ze Frank on public speaking.The best thing to do is prepare. Rehearse your talk until you can deliver it in your sleep. Your preparation depends on your style. Some like to write their talks out. I like to keep it more natural so it's not like I'm reading a script. Go with what you're comfortable with.

It'll all be fine and not nearly as horrible as you imagine it will be.

Wrapping up

So there you go. A PhD at a glance. Work hard, try to relax, and embrace the uniqueness of graduate school. There are many challenges along the way, but try to learn from them rather than beat yourself up over them. A PhD can be fun if you let it.

Any graduate students — past or present — have more advice? Leave it in the comments.

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An anonymous reader writes with a link to an intriguing account of the challenge of designing a close-range, hand and finger-based gesture recognition interface using 3D cameras. Things like this look good in science-fiction, but it's hard to create a gesture-based system that makes sense to the user and rejects gestures not meant for the computer.

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Another year has come and gone and with it hundreds of thousands of images have recorded the world's evolving history; moments in individual lives; the weather and it's affects on the planet; acts of humanity and tragedies brought by man and by nature. The following is a compilation - not meant to be comprehensive in any way - of images from the first 4 months of 2012. Parts II and III to follow this week. -- Paula Nelson ( 64 photos total)
Fireworks light up the skyline and Big Ben just after midnight, January 1, 2012 in London, England. Thousands of people lined the banks of the River Thames in central London to ring in the New Year with a spectacular fireworks display. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

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What do you need to do today? Other than read this blog entry, I mean.

Have you ever noticed that a huge percentage of Lifehacker-like productivity porn site content is a breathless description of the details of Yet Another To-Do Application? There are dozens upon dozens of the things to choose from, on any platform you can name. At this point it's getting a little ridiculous; per Lifehacker's Law, you'd need a to-do app just to keep track of all the freaking to-do apps.

The to-do appgasm

I've tried to maintain to-do lists at various points in my life. And I've always failed. Utterly and completely. Even turning it into a game, like the cleverly constructed Epic Win app, didn't work for me.

Eventually I realized that the problem wasn't me. All my to-do lists started out as innocuous tools to assist me in my life, but slowly transformed, each and every time, into thankless, soul-draining exercises in reductionism. My to-do list was killing me. Adam Wozniak nails it:

  1. Lists give the illusion of progress.
  2. Lists give the illusion of accomplishment.
  3. Lists make you feel guilty for not achieving these things.
  4. Lists make you feel guilty for continually delaying certain items.
  5. Lists make you feel guilty for not doing things you don't want to be doing anyway.
  6. Lists make you prioritize the wrong things.
  7. Lists are inefficient. (Think of what you could be doing with all the time you spend maintaining your lists!)
  8. Lists suck the enjoyment out of activities, making most things feel like an obligation.
  9. Lists don't actually make you more organized long term.
  10. Lists can close you off to spontaneity and exploration of things you didn't plan for. (Let's face it, it's impossible to really plan some things in life.)

For the things in my life that actually mattered, I've never needed any to-do list to tell me to do them. If I did, then that'd be awfully strong evidence that I have some serious life problems to face before considering the rather trivial matter of which to-do lifehack fits my personality best. As for the things that didn't matter in my life, well, those just tended to pile up endlessly in the old to-do list. And the collective psychic weight of all these minor undone tasks were caught up in my ever-growing to-do katamari ball, where they continually weighed on me, day after day.

Yes, there's that everpresent giant to-do list, hanging right there over your head like a guillotine, growing sharper and heavier every day.

Like a crazy hoarder I mistake the root cause of my growing mountain of incomplete work. The hoarder thinks he has a storage problem when he really has a 'throwing things away problem'. I say I am 'time poor' as if the problem is that poor me is given only 24 hours in a day. It's more accurate to say… what exactly? It seems crazy for a crazy person to use his own crazy reasoning to diagnose his own crazy condition. Maybe I too easily add new projects to my list, or I am too reluctant to exit from unsuccessful projects. Perhaps I am too reluctant to let a task go, to ship what I've done. They're never perfect, never good enough.

And I know I'm not alone in making the easy claim that I am 'time poor'. So many people claim to be time poor, when really we are poor at prioritizing, or poor at decisiveness, or don't know how to say 'no' (…to other people, to our own ideas).

If only I had a hidden store of time, or if only I had magical organisation tools, or if only I could improve my productive throughput, then, only then would I be able to get things done, to consolidate the growing backlogs and todo lists into one clear line of work, and plough through it like an arctic ice breaker carving its way through a sheet of ice.

But are you using the right guillotine? Maybe it'd work better if you tried this newer, shinier guillotine? I'd like to offer you some advice:

  1. There's only one, and exactly one, item anyone should ever need on their to-do list. Everything else is superfluous.
  2. You shouldn't have a to-do list in the first place.
  3. Declare to-do bankruptcy right now. Throw out your to-do list. It's hurting you.
  4. Yes, seriously.
  5. Maybe it is a little scary, but the right choices are always a little scary, so do it anyway.
  6. No, I wasn't kidding.
  7. Isn't Hall and Oates awesome? I know, rhetorical question. But still.
  8. Look, this is becoming counterproductive.
  9. Wait a second, did I just make a list?

Here's my challenge. If you can't wake up every day and, using your 100% original equipment God-given organic brain, come up with the three most important things you need to do that day – then you should seriously work on fixing that. I don't mean install another app, or read more productivity blogs and books. You have to figure out what's important to you and what motivates you; ask yourself why that stuff isn't gnawing at you enough to make you get it done. Fix that.

Tools will come and go, but your brain and your gut will be here with you for the rest of your life. Learn to trust them. And if you can't, do whatever it takes to train them until you can trust them. If it matters, if it really matters, you'll remember to do it. And if you don't, well, maybe you'll get to it one of these days. Or not. And that's cool too.

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The whole "everyone should learn programming" meme has gotten so out of control that the mayor of New York City actually vowed to learn to code in 2012.

Bloomberg-vows-to-code

A noble gesture to garner the NYC tech community vote, for sure, but if the mayor of New York City actually needs to sling JavaScript code to do his job, something is deeply, horribly, terribly wrong with politics in the state of New York. Even if Mr. Bloomberg did "learn to code", with apologies to Adam Vandenberg, I expect we'd end up with this:

10 PRINT "I AM MAYOR"
20 GOTO 10

Fortunately, the odds of this technological flight of fancy happening – even in jest – are zero, and for good reason: the mayor of New York City will hopefully spend his time doing the job taxpayers paid him to do instead. According to the Office of the Mayor home page, that means working on absenteeism programs for schools, public transit improvements, the 2013 city budget, and … do I really need to go on?

To those who argue programming is an essential skill we should be teaching our children, right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic: can you explain to me how Michael Bloomberg would be better at his day to day job of leading the largest city in the USA if he woke up one morning as a crack Java coder? It is obvious to me how being a skilled reader, a skilled writer, and at least high school level math are fundamental to performing the job of a politician. Or at any job, for that matter. But understanding variables and functions, pointers and recursion? I can't see it.

Look, I love programming. I also believe programming is important … in the right context, for some people. But so are a lot of skills. I would no more urge everyone to learn programming than I would urge everyone to learn plumbing. That'd be ridiculous, right?

Advice-for-plumbers

The "everyone should learn to code" movement isn't just wrong because it falsely equates coding with essential life skills like reading, writing, and math. I wish. It is wrong in so many other ways.

  • It assumes that more code in the world is an inherently desirable thing. In my thirty year career as a programmer, I have found this … not to be the case. Should you learn to write code? No, I can't get behind that. You should be learning to write as little code as possible. Ideally none.
  • It assumes that coding is the goal. Software developers tend to be software addicts who think their job is to write code. But it's not. Their job is to solve problems. Don't celebrate the creation of code, celebrate the creation of solutions. We have way too many coders addicted to doing just one more line of code already.
  • It puts the method before the problem. Before you go rushing out to learn to code, figure out what your problem actually is. Do you even have a problem? Can you explain it to others in a way they can understand? Have you researched the problem, and its possible solutions, deeply? Does coding solve that problem? Are you sure?
  • It assumes that adding naive, novice, not-even-sure-they-like-this-whole-programming-thing coders to the workforce is a net positive for the world. I guess that's true if you consider that one bad programmer can easily create two new jobs a year. And for that matter, most people who already call themselves programmers can't even code, so please pardon my skepticism of the sentiment that "everyone can learn to code".
  • It implies that there's a thin, easily permeable membrane between learning to program and getting paid to program professionally. Just look at these new programmers who got offered jobs at an average salary of $79k/year after attending a mere two and a half month bootcamp! Maybe you too can teach yourself Perl in 24 hours! While I love that programming is an egalitarian field where degrees and certifications are irrelevant in the face of experience, you still gotta put in your ten thousand hours like the rest of us.

I suppose I can support learning a tiny bit about programming just so you can recognize what code is, and when code might be an appropriate way to approach a problem you have. But I can also recognize plumbing problems when I see them without any particular training in the area. The general populace (and its political leadership) could probably benefit most of all from a basic understanding of how computers, and the Internet, work. Being able to get around on the Internet is becoming a basic life skill, and we should be worried about fixing that first and most of all, before we start jumping all the way into code.

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …

  • Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
  • Communicate effectively with other human beings.

These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life.

[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!

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An anonymous reader writes with this news out of the University of Illinois:
"Scientists report that they have mapped the physical architecture of intelligence in the brain. Theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses so far of the brain structures vital to general intelligence and to specific aspects of intellectual functioning, such as verbal comprehension and working memory. Their study, published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology (abstract), is unique in that it enlisted an extraordinary pool of volunteer participants: 182 Vietnam veterans with highly localized brain damage from penetrating head injuries. ... The researchers took CT scans of the participants’ brains and administered an extensive battery of cognitive tests. They pooled the CT data to produce a collective map of the cortex, which they divided into more than 3,000 three-dimensional units called voxels. By analyzing multiple patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels and comparing their cognitive abilities with those of patients in whom the same structures were intact, the researchers were able to identify brain regions essential to specific cognitive functions, and those structures that contribute significantly to intelligence."


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Michael Bala is a photographer from Maple Valley, WA. He is 17 years old and currently studying in High School.


http://cargocollective.com/michaelbala

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A memory/discussion of player integrity when presented with seemingly insurmountable difficulty levels, as well as game exploits and how we - as the player - deal with them.

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TEDxBandra - Craig Johnson - 10 Rules to Win

Craig Johnson is the Superintendent of the American School of Bombay. Craig has returned to India (where he spent 12 years of his childhood) after 15 years in Brazil. While in Brazil, Craig served as the High School Principal, at Graded School in Sao Paulo; and more recently as the Headmaster of the American School of Brasilia, Brazil. Craig's roots, as a classroom teacher, are in Middle and High School English and Social Studies. Craig continues to stay engaged in student life, by coaching soccer, and trying to teach or co-teaching an English class as often as possible. A regular presenter and workshop facilitator on a variety of Leadership and School Improvement topics, Craig has also published a novel (Wave Watcher), and has a second novel on the way. Talk: 10 Rules to Win It all began with the answer to a question. It was 6:00 am on a wet monsoon morning in Mumbai. The first day of the new season. The boys were sitting on the wet soccer pitch, and it was still dark, when the coach asked them why they were there? "We're tired of losing," replied the soon to be team Captain. Three months later... they were champions. This talk will reveal their collective wisdom captured in 10 simple commandments. The team's "Rules To Win" are as relevant to them, multi-national companies and everything in between. Come hear their story. Come steal their secret...they want you to. AboutTEDx: In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that <b>...</b>
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