If you are interested in network security and are looking for an advisor, or just want to work on some projects in this area, send me an E-mail. I am always looking for new students (although I may not always have funding available right away) and I'll be happy to chat with you and give you an overview of the current research in my lab. However, I won't have time to personally teach you about network security. Unless you have a strong background in this area, I recommend taking a network security class at USC, or asking me for a list of books and papers to read. I will expect that you have a strong background in networking, know basics of cryptographic protocols used in networking, and have excellent coding skills. If you lack in one of these areas, improve before you talk to me in person. I will be happy to recommend courses and books you can use to improve if you send me an E-mail.
Working with me
Being a grad student, I have discovered that there are quite a few things that go unsaid between students and their advisors, such as: how long can a student take a vacation, what if they still want to be paid, how to get feedback on your performance, what if funding runs out or the advisor can't pay you any longer, what does your advisor expect from you, etc. So below, you have my views on these points. I will do my best to stick to them as much as possible (or change the writeup on the webpage:)).
I may not always have readily available funds to support new students. If you have never talked to me before and have not taken my class, I will generally be reluctant to offer you support right away. If you are considering asking me for support, start planning early. Talk to me and either take one of my classes or do a small research project with me to help me evaluate your skills.
Sometimes I may not have funds to support a student even if I find them very promising. In that case, you may look somewhere else or you may help me find new funds. Consider applying for a fellowship. If you have worked with me I will gladly supply you a recommendation letter. I will also always be willing to ask for a teaching assistantship appointment with the Department or seek ways to obtain a tuition waiver, for students who work with me. But be aware that this doesn't always work out: I may ask but not get it.
I am always actively seeking external funds and you may help me generate good ideas and write grant proposals, thus ensuring funding for yourself. It usually takes 6-8 months to hear if the proposal was funded and another 1-2 to get the money, so plan ahead.
Once I agree to fund you I will let you know for how long this appointment is and what are requirements for maintaining funding. These are usually focused on your making good progress toward your degree. This means progress in submitting papers and getting them accepted, good grades, timely finding of your thesis topic, and doing a thesis proposal.
My research group usually meets once a week for a group meeting, where we discuss research topics. Sometimes we discuss some relevant papers on network security. Other times we will discuss current research within the group or grant writing. Each time we meet, one of the students or myself will be in charge of leading the meeting and speaking on the topic. If we are discussing a paper, this person will be assigned the task of reading the paper before the meeting and presenting it to the rest of the group. Everyone gets to choose which paper to read and how to present it, but we may restrict the topic to some important problem in the network security area. If we are talking about research and it's your turn, you will need to prepare a short (30 mins) presentation of your current research. Then we will brainstorm about it, ask questions, and help you resolve the problems you might have. If we are discussing grant proposals, we will simply brainstorm possible ideas.
Everyone is expected to participate in the meeting. If another person is presenting you are expected to take notes about his slides, the material, presentation style, etc., and give them back to this person to help them improve. If we are discussing a grant proposal you are expected to read the material I will send before the meeting and come up with some ideas to propose.
Group meetings last one hour and I would like all my students to attend them regularly. If you are sometimes unable to attend, feel free to skip but you must let me know in advance. If you are running late, that's fine, we'll start without you. If you are presenting and cannot make it, you must let me know as early as possible. Call my cell phone.
- They give you a glimpse of the 'real world'
- They pay well
- They may be a plus on your resume and help you make useful contacts for job search
- They slow down your progress toward a degree
If you want to do an internship I will not disagree, but please let me know in advance. Generally, it is a good thing to find a project that is related to your research because then it may actually speed up your progress toward a degree. Talk to me if you are looking for an internship. I may be able to help.
You may take vacation whenever you like and as frequently as you like, as long as:
- You let me know ahead of time (preferably a few months ahead)
- You are making good progress in your research and there are no imminent paper or project deadlines, or you are able to work during your vacation
If you are going away for a long time (a week or longer) and you would like to be paid during your vacation, talk to me ahead of time. I will generally be willing to do this if you can propose some research work you will be doing while being away (e.g., reading some papers, writing papers, or coding). Otherwise, if you want to just rest, do nothing, and not get paid, this is fine with me.
If the vacation is short (less than a week) simply go for it and work more when you come back or before you leave. But you need to let me know that you are gone and for how long, and to take care that this doesn't jeopardize a project or a paper deadline.
What does it take to graduate? For an MS student finishing your coursework is enough to graduate. If you are working on a research project with me, it will usually take you 9-18 months to complete the project, write the MS thesis, and graduate. Some of this time can be overlapped with coursework but your path to graduation will generally take longer than just doing the coursework. On the upside, research experience will improve your chances of finding a good job. If you just want to do research but not write the MS thesis, you can do this in parallel with your coursework as a for-credit class. I will expect you to produce some deliverable (a paper or a piece of code) so make sure you have enough time and effort to dedicate to your research.
If you are a PhD student, you should expect to do one project for your MS degree, or simply as an entry task to join the group, then work on your PhD topic. Your overall research work (courses, an MS, a PhD, and any other research you get involved in) should yield about 8-10 papers until your graduation, and at least 1-2 of those should be journal papers. These are not hard and fast rules, but they will help you monitor your progress toward a degree. You should expect to find your topic before the end of the second year of our joint work, and then graduate within 2-3 years. Your proposal defense (qualifying exam) will take time during these 2-3 years and roughly about 1-2 years before you graduate. If you already have an MS degree this whole process may take even less time. The speed of your graduation will ultimately depend on the quality of your work and the nature of your PhD topic (some topics require more work than others) but I will do my best to help you graduate within a reasonable time frame.
To do good work, of course! You should be making good progress in research and do thorough work on every project you undertake. Sometimes it takes a long time to write some program or to learn a new skill. Take time and do it right. This will pay off in your future research. Each acquired skill greatly speeds up your progress in the future. Invest a lot of energy and enthusiasm in everything you do, even if it is a class presentation. This will help you do high-quality work that everyone will appreciate.
Here are some specific, quantitative expectations:
- You should strive to publish at least 1-2 papers a year, to meet your 8-10 paper goal for graduation within a reasonable time frame. This generally means that you should submit 3-4 conference and/or journal papers each year, on average. There will be years when you are just coding and cannot publish a thing. There will be other years when your work matures and you are able to generate a lot of papers. But you should always work toward a paper and aim to submit a few papers a year at least. A code that works is great, but ultimately papers are the ones that count. You cannot graduate without a sufficient number of papers.
- I expect you to work to meet deadlines we both agree on. I am really serious about deadlines and will get upset if you miss a deadline for a paper, a presentation, a poster, or a similar deliverable.
- If it's a working day and you are not traveling I expect you to check your email frequently and reply to my messages within 30-60 minutes during working hours. If you are traveling and are being paid while on the trip, make arrangements to check your email every few hours, or give me your cell phone number so I can contact you if I need something quickly.
- You should not miss our weekly meetings and you should arrive on time, prepared to discuss your work and report on progress. Make sure you do enough work during the week to have something to report.
I will work to help you throughout your graduate studies. You should expect me to always have time to talk to you. If I am busy at the moment, we will set up an appointment as soon as possible. You should also expect me to help you find financial support for your studies, help you find an MS or a Ph.D. topic, and participate in paper writing. I will generally be willing to write some sections in papers stemming from our research and proofread the whole paper several times. I will also find time to attend your presentation dry runs and help you improve your presentation skills. If you have a research problem (or any other kind of problem) and need to talk to me, don't hesitate.
When writing a paper, the authors should be listed in order of contribution. Thus if you wrote all the code, and wrote some sections of the paper, your name will go first. My name, and the names of other faculty members who get involved will usually come last unless we did more work than you (highly unlikely;)).
If your paper gets accepted to a conference, and you are the first author, you should expect to attend this conference and present the paper. This may not always be possible but I will work hard to find funds and make it happen.
How to be a (sane) grad student
When I was just starting my graduate studies I had no idea how a grad school works: when to work and how much, how to write papers, how to choose the Ph.D. topic, how to find an advisor, etc. It took me four years to finally find answers to all of my questions, mostly through trial and error. So here is the compiled version of those answers. Hopefully you are not like me, and can learn from other people's mistakes, so these guidelines will actually be useful. Of course, they are neither comprehensive nor universal. Simply some wisdom that worked for me and may work for you, too.
Oh well, this one is tough. Grad school is especially hard because you need to organize your own time. There is no one to tell you what to do and frequently there are not so many deadlines. Except, of course, occasionally when there are simply too many deadlines and you can't make them all. The best way to work I have discovered is to decide on working hours and stick to them each day. There will, of course, be days when you skip work completely, and yet others when you have to pull an all-nighter, but on average sticking to regular working hours can do miracles for your motivation and effectiveness. What worked best for me is to come early in the morning, around 9 am, and work until lunch. Then go and have lunch somewhere (eating wending-machine junk in front of your screen is about the worst thing you can do), come back and work until 6 pm. I am not a morning person and getting up early is not my favorite thing, but after a few tries I discovered that I can be amazingly efficient in the morning hours and that my lab is almost empty so no distractions either. Another good thing is that you come to work when the rest of students, professors, and staff do, so you can talk to them if you need to. Also, your advisor will have a high opinion of "your hard-working" if you are at work early every morning. Chances are, they will never notice your hard work if you come at 4 pm and work until midnight (been there, done that) because they will never see you working that late - they'll be home eating dinner at that time.
A very important thing to keep in mind is that you also need to live through grad school. This means that you need to organize your time so that it's not all work, work, work. Maniac working mode can be effective for a few weeks or months (especially before deadlines) but in the long term will make your motivation and productivity diminish. So make time for other things in life: have fun, go out, see friends, go on a weekend trip, go to a gym, learn how to cook (useful later in life, too), clean your room, learn a foreign language. Be careful not to procrastinate - assign time to each of these activities, and make sure you get your 8 work hours a day. Balanced work and a fun schedule will keep you invigorated while at work and relaxed the whole day.
It is extremely important that you get at least 8 hours of sleep each night. Skipping on a night of sleep for a few nights, when you have a deadline, is fine, but prolonged sleep deprivation can seriously harm you. You will grow increasingly tired and it will take you hours to finish things that otherwise would take a couple of minutes. Your brain will refuse to cooperate, and become sluggish. Your stress levels will increase, making you easily irritable. Besides, if you drive to/from school, lack of sleep can endanger your life and the lives of others.
Short point summary
- Decide on your work schedule (preferably regular hours)
- Plan fun and rest in your schedule, apart from work
- Get enough sleep
Reading papers is extremely important throughout grad school, and should be especially intensive in the beginning. While books can give you a good background in some areas, research papers will give you the necessary feeling of the open problems and the existing approaches to solving them. It is virtually impossible to have a solid good idea without seeing what else is there, and what people have already tried. So plan paper-reading in your schedule. Ideally, reading 1-2 papers on average in a week should keep you well-informed.
Some people have found it useful to print out the paper they are reading and mark it, underline important stuff, write notes on the margins, and file it into a dedicated folder. Other people keep computer files with notes on papers they read. I keep on wishing to do one or both of these things but still haven't found time. However, both of these techniques seem like really good ideas and should simplify your life later, when you need to locate some relevant paper for a "Related work" section.
Sometimes, if you are reading papers in a completely new field, they may seem overwhelming - crowded with formulas and jargon you don't understand. It usually helps if you don't read a paper from beginning to end, lingering on every formula, graph, or proof. Try instead to read through it once superficially, looking to grasp the idea and important sections. Later, come back to those parts you found interesting and focus on them, trying to learn more. You can repeat this process many times. You may even leave some parts of the paper unresolved if you think that these are not relevant to your research. Later, if they become relevant, you can always go back and re-read them. I call this technique "multiple pass reading". It greatly helped me read many papers and stay informed about new ideas in the field (although I can only reproduce formulas and proofs from a handful of them that I found relevant to my research).
Short point summary
- Read a lot of papers
- It will be helpful to keep track of which papers you read and what were their key claims
- Try the "multiple pass reading" technique
Picking a research topic, be it for a Ph.D. thesis or class project, can be difficult. The best approach is to keep on reading papers and discussing them, and good ideas will pop up. Occasionally, your advisor will have something that needs to be done and will assign you a problem to work on. But more frequently you will come up with something you think is a cool idea and would like to pursue it. There are several preparatory steps you need to take in both cases:
- Make sure this is an important problem and people care to see it solved, otherwise you will be working in vain. Try to distill this information from the relevant papers you read.
- Verify that your idea makes sense and looks feasible. Talk to other students in your group, to your advisor, other professors, etc. Get enough opinions that the idea is good, practical, and can be done in the amount of time you have for this project.
- Make sure no one has done the same thing. Before starting any research, do the homework and make sure that no similar ideas have already been published. If they have, you need to find enough points of difference between them and your idea. You also need to make sure that your idea will work better than the existing approaches to solving the same problem. This is the ongoing process. As you work on your research, you need to keep an open eye for all similar/relevant approaches done by others, understand them, and make sure your approach differs from them.
- Make sure you understand what you need to do in order to verify this idea. Do you have all the necessary information? Do you have all the equipment? If the research seems too demanding, consider involving other people in it.
- Ask yourself if you are excited enough about this work. If you are not, sometimes it is better to switch to another problem. For instance, if you are working on your Ph.D. and you discover after a few months or a year that you dislike the whole idea, it is better to change because you have several more years to go. If, on the other hand, you dislike the idea you are working on for a class project and a month has passed, you are probably better off sticking to it since the time is running short. Either way, figuring out early that you don't like some research topic will save you a lot of aggravation later. Your advisor might not be particularly happy if you switch interests all the time, but he/she will appreciate if you share your doubts and will help you find a mutually agreeable solution. Keep in mind that you can only do a good job on a problem that you are excited about. Otherwise, both you and your advisor will end up with mediocre research that you don't want to boast about.On another hand, you need to be excited about some topic long enough to produce solid research on it. While it is OK to change topics sometimes, if you do this a lot ask yourself if graduate school is for you. A good researcher will usually be easily excited by a variety of topics and will be able to produce solid research on many of them.
When doing research, think deeply about each important step in the project. Consider all options and choose the one that seems best suited for the problem. It helps also to make a note to yourself why you have chosen that option. It will be useful later when you write a paper and want to justify your solution design.
You will likely do several research projects during your graduate studies. It helps if you try to keep them related but diverse. Thus later, when you apply for jobs, people looking at your research project summary will gain an impression of a focused researcher with several strong interests. For instance, when choosing a class project, try to relate it to your current research rather than just choosing anything that comes to mind.
Short point summary
- Read a lot of papers and discuss them to find inspiration
- Make sure your ideas address an important, solvable but yet unsolved problem
- Be aware of how much you like/dislike working on the chosen problem and act on it
- Keep track of important project decisions
- Keep your projects tied together but diverse
It is a student's responsibility to choose a Ph.D. topic, with the help of the advisor. Sometimes, your advisor will have a specific research idea or will have a ready problem for you to work on. This work may directly lead to defining your Ph.D. topic. More frequently, however, you will have to find a topic on your own. Your advisor will be available to discuss it with you and offer you guidance, but will likely not initiate this process. What this means, is that you should take the initiative and start searching for the topic, no later than the second year of graduate school. Don't let yourself wake up in the fourth year of studies with a bunch of unrelated projects you worked on and without any idea of a suitable topic. See How to do research for guidance on how to choose a research topic. In addition to that, you need to choose a topic that:
- Will be significant enough so that you can write at least 3 papers on it
- Is doable in a 2-3 year timeframe
- Your advisor and your committee members approve of
For a Ph.D. topic, more than for anything else, you need to make sure you like it enough to keep on working on it for 2-3 years. If you are not so sure, better spend some time finding out. Once you have chosen your topic and passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam, it is almost impossible to change it without changing the advisor and the school and forfeiting all the time you already invested in this. So, if you don't like your topic, talk to your advisor as soon as possible. As I already mentioned here (How to do research), you cannot do good research unless you are excited about the topic, which in a Ph.D. thesis case translates to a very, very long time spent doing research you don't like. If your advisor does not approve of your topic change, talk to them some more. Ultimately, you can also change the advisor. See How to work with your advisor and other faculty members for more information on this.
Ph.D. topics come roughly in three flavors. The first flavor is a topic that proposes a systematic solution to an important problem. You will typically design and implement this solution, then write several papers about different key principles of your solution. The second flavor is a topic that proposes a technique for a problem X, that also can be useful for related problems Y and Z. You will design and implement this technique, and test it for X, Y and Z, each test resulting in a paper. The third flavor is a topic that proposes several different techniques (say X, Y and Z) that address same or related problems. You will implement each of these techniques, test them on the given problem, and compare them against each other (and the related work).
Short point summary
- Take initiative in looking for your Ph.D. topic
- Make sure that both you and your advisor (and committee members) like the topic
- Ph.D. topic flavors (yeah, I'll have chocolate with mint;))
If you have arrived at the University with a teaching assistantship or a fellowship, you will be looking for an advisor. I cannot emphasize enough how important the advisor is to your graduation. You may be the most diligent and intelligent student, and still take years to graduate, because your advisor keeps on asking you to do "one more thing", does not approve of your ideas, or is never around. Here are several pieces of advice to avoid this:
- Find someone that does research that interests you. Figure out which background you need for research in this field, and brush up on it before going to talk to your prospective advisor. They will be more impressed and likely to accept you.
- If you are uncertain what interests you take a few classes. You may also start working with different people, but let them know that you have not yet decided on doing Ph.D. work with them.
- The best way of approaching a prospective advisor is to take his/her class and do well. They will thus have some notion about your research potential and skills before they commit to being your advisor.
- Find someone that will be there for you. Ideally, you would like to be able to meet your advisor at least once every two weeks and have a 1-hour chat about your research. If you find someone who is a famous researcher, always travels, and has a thousand things to do, chances are you will not receive enough attention. This is not always true. I have known great professors who have found time for advising amid frantic travels and engagements. Working for someone who is well-known in the field has also a lot of advantages. They will have good ideas about which problems are popular and worth working on. They will also have a lot of contacts to help you find an internship or a job. With their help, you may meet everyone worth knowing in the field. Just keep in mind to make sure they will work with you. Otherwise, you will see more hindrance than benefit from their being famous.
- Talk to the current students of your prospective advisor. Ask them how they like working with this person and how long it usually takes to graduate in this research group. Inquire whether they get enough help from their advisor and how they have chosen their research topic. Also, inquire about funding. Does this advisor find support for his/her students or does he/she make them teach and do internships to support themselves through grad school?
- Talk to your prospective advisor about funding. Let them know whether you need it and when.
Short point summary
- Find someone who does interesting research
- Find someone who will be working with you
- Inform yourself as much as possible before committing
- Let your prospective advisor know about your funding needs
Writing papers requires a lot of trial and error. Generally, a paper's chances of being accepted for a given venue depend on three major points:
- The paper addresses an important problem and has a good point. This is obviously the most important thing. Some papers propose a solution to an important problem, while others simply investigate a problem offering a better understanding of it. The second kind of paper is usually easier to write than the first one since it takes less time to analyze already gathered data than to design and implement a solution to a known problem.
- The paper is well written. This is extremely important. You may have the greatest idea, but if it is not well presented the paper will be rejected. How to learn to write good papers? Read a lot of papers, discuss them in your research group, ask different people to read your writeups, and take a technical writing class. Generally organizing your presentation well, and using simple vocabulary and a lot of examples and illustrations works much better than using complicated jargon. People like nice, simple, tangible explanations, not boring, complex rambling.I found outlining before writing critical to writing clearly and well. "Outlining" here means writing a few sentences in a free style for each section you plan to write, then expanding these into a few paragraphs, and reorganizing. You can then expand each paragraph into nicely written text. Bear in mind that it will likely take many rewrites to get the text written and plan for them.
There are many good books on how to write technical papers well. Read them!
Also very important is to do your homework and write a good "Related work" section. Be sure to mention all the related work (people hate if their work is left out) and to present an objective and well-documented critique of the related work (people hate if you criticize their work without any supporting arguments).
- The chosen venue welcomes the kind and the topic of the paper. Sometimes excellent papers will be rejected if you send them to an ill-suited venue. Look at the papers published in this venue in previous years to get a feeling of whether your paper is the right match.
If your paper is rejected, read the reviewers' comments and learn from them. Then fix the paper and send it to another venue. Having a paper rejected is definitely unpleasant but it happens quite often. Don't get discouraged. In time you will learn how to write to minimize rejections. Sometimes it also happens that you wrote a perfectly good paper but the reviewers didn't spend enough time reading it and they misunderstood your claims. These things happen and, although they fill you with righteous anger, there is nothing much to be done about it. Fix the paper and send it to another venue.
Send your papers to good enough conferences. I know it is tempting to send to mediocre venues in interesting places (Hawaii, the Caribbean, Australia) so you get to visit those places and you also greatly increase acceptance chances. However, once you graduate and start looking for a job, those publications will not look very impressive.
Short point summary
- Select a good topic
- Write well. Learn from other authors, welcome comments, outline, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
- Select a suitable and well-known venue
Accept that some papers will be rejected, and learn from the experience
You will have a lot of opportunities to present your research during graduate studies. Make good use of them to learn how to present well. This is an acquired skill. Very few people will present well the first time they try it, but in time you can really master this skill and deliver a sparkling presentation when it really matters (e.g. a job talk, a conference presentation, your qualifying exam, etc.) Here are a few tips that should help you along:
- When making slides, count on having roughly one slide per minute of your talk. If you tend to speak slowly, make even fewer slides. There is nothing worse than when a speaker crams too many details into the presentation and goes over time.
- Use a large enough font. A golden rule using a default PPT font or one size smaller. Don't go over 10 lines per slide.
- Use large enough pictures. Small graphs with thin lines will deliver no message, as they will simply be invisible to the audience.
- Use colors that are visible during the presentation. Sometimes things look different on the computer screen than on the projector. The best way to find this out is to do a practice talk with the projector.
- Don't put complete sentences on slides. Instead, put clear hints to the points you want to make during the talk.
- Think about what message you want to deliver. What is it that you want your audience to carry with them, after the talk? Deliver this message in the second slide (the title slide being the first), enforce it with your talk, and repeat it in the conclusion. Put only as much information as needed to deliver the message.
- Prepare your slides at least a week before the talk. Working until morning hours the night before the talk or on the plane flying out to the conference will result in a very sloppy talk.
- Do dry runs of your talk at least three times before actually presenting. If possible, try to have some audience (your advisor, research group, friends) during those dry runs, and pretend that you are actually delivering the talk in the target venue. Ask your audience after the talk for their comments and suggestions. If you cannot find any audience practice alone.
- Having stage fright and really hate speaking in front of many people? Practice should help you overcome that. Everyone dreads speaking up in public to some extent. But doing this often will help you get rid of your shyness and actually start liking the experience. Besides, if you follow the previous suggestion and practice your talk, you will be able to deliver it well even if you get very nervous because you practiced so much that you know it by heart. Also, keep in mind that the audience is usually sympathetic and will rarely give you a hard time and ask nasty questions. They come to learn.
- Don't get discouraged if you deliver a bad talk. Just practice some more and do better next time.
- Use any chance to speak. Be a teaching assistant, do class presentations, speak in seminars or research group meetings.
- When actually delivering the talk in the venue, be enthusiastic and energetic (if you don't feel like this about your talk, why should your audience?). Speak slowly and look at your audience. Think about what you want to say before saying it. Be aware of your behavior and of the audience's attention. Don't wave hands, mutter, or walk up and down. Bring a laser pointer (speakers that point with their hands on the projection panel are abominable) and point only when necessary (drawing circles with it while talking will distract the audience).
- There are numerous books about the art of speaking well. Buy one or enroll in a public speaking class.
Short point summary
- Make visually good slides
- Don't put a lot of details on the slides
- Decide on a message you want to deliver, then make sure you deliver it
- Practice, practice, practice
- Be aware of your behavior and surroundings during your talk
- Buy a book on presentation skills or enroll in a public speaking class
It is very important for your own health and progress to schedule time for work, fun, and sleep. See How to manage your time as a grad student for more details on this. In addition to managing your time well make sure you are working in a clean, pleasant environment. Does your office look bad and dirty? Find help to clean it and make it pleasant to work in. Do you need a phone in the office? Talk to your advisor. Do you need a good chair or a desk? Talk to your advisor again. Your office is probably the place you will spend most of your time in. Make it enjoyable. Download nice music, bring in pictures, posters and flowers. Arrange things the way you like. Maybe invest in a coffee machine, a used sofa or a fridge, or a water delivery.
- Ergonomics is a very important aspect of work. I have had a lot of problems that come from bad posture and prolonged computer work. I have also known many, many people who had similar problems and couldn't work for 6 months or more. Ask around. Chances are you will easily find 10 people who have wrist, arm, shoulder, or neck pain but have never been injured in these areas. You will likely find 5 more that have had Carpal tunnel syndrome or Repetitive stress injury. Don't let this happen to you. Muscle and tendon strain that comes from bad computer posture or prolonged work hours can really disturb your studies and slow down your progress if left untreated. If you feel pain when you work, see the doctor today. Don't neglect the symptoms because they are small and may go away. They won't. The doctor will be able to do some tests and accurately diagnose your problem. He/she will also be able to explain to you how to avoid similar problems in the future.
- There are a lot of computer ergonomics Web sites (just do a search on Google) and you can get plenty of information there. The student health center will also have brochures and consultations about proper computer posture. Below are a few tips that are far from comprehensive. Definitely do your own information search.
- Don't work for more than 8 hours a day for a prolonged period.
- Make 5-minute breaks every half an hour. Get up, stretch, go drink some water.
- Don't type on a laptop keyboard for a prolonged time. This is about the worst way to type. Instead, if you only have a laptop buy a regular keyboard and connect it to the laptop. The same goes for the laptop mouse. Buy a real one.
- Buy a keyboard and mouse tray. As you type your lower arms should make 90 degree or bigger angle with your upper arms. This is usually not the case with current desks and chairs. A keyboard tray is mounted beneath the desk and lowers the keyboard to the proper level. Find one that also tilts so your wrists are not bent when typing. A mouse tray keeps the mouse next to the keyboard so you can easily use it. If you have to reach and stretch to get to your mouse, this puts strain on your muscles. Ask your advisor or the department for help in buying the trays. Also, look at eBay. Keyboard/mouse trays are usually expensive ($200+) but can be found at eBay for as low as $30.
- Don't lean your elbows or palms on anything while typing.
- Lift the computer monitor so you can look at it without bending your head. It should be at the eye level.
- Use large enough fonts so you don't have to stretch your neck in order to see.
- Reconsider computer games with lots of clicking.
- Make sure you have a good chair whose height can be adjusted. If not, ask for a new chair or buy one at shops like Staples. They cost only $50.
- Sit up straight, don't slouch.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of muscle and tendon pain comes from stress and may not go away just by doing exercises and paying attention to ergonomics. To completely solve the problem you must take action to reduce stress, such as reevaluating your priorities in life, adjusting your working habits and hours, doing meditation, taking a yoga or a fitness class, going to a gym, taking walks each day, etc. See How to deal with stress for more information.
Short point summary
- Make your working environment pleasant
- Pay very good attention to ergonomics
- Work on finding ways to reduce stress in your work
Groupwork is essential for good research. Very few people have been able to work well in isolation. Working in a group facilitates the exchange of ideas and brainstorming and leads to better results. But sometimes it may be challenging. It frequently happens that some group members do a lot more work than others. This cannot always be prevented - sometimes you will simply work with someone who will not have the same priorities. For instance, you are working together with another student on a class project, but he/she is happy with a B and will do sloppy work. The best approach in this case is to talk to this student, and, if this doesn't work out, to talk to the teacher and adjust the project description so you can work on pieces alone and be graded separately. Otherwise, you'll have to grin and bear it. However, many times a timely discussion of the problem, clear work division, and frequent checkpointing can help you work smoothly in a group. Here are a few tips to help you along:
- Do your best to work well within the group. OK, maybe you think that other group members are a bit annoying, lazy, or stupid. Don't give up on them. Try to work out the problems and you may get to be very good friends by the end.
- Divide the work clearly and make sure you understand how it will fit together and everybody is happy with what they've got to do.
- Meet frequently with your group members. Don't just divide the work and meet a night before submission to merge things together. It won't work. Ideally, you want to merge things as early as possible so you have time for necessary adjustments.
- If your group members don't work as fast or as well as you think they should, discuss this with them. Chances are they have some problem they cannot overcome alone. Help them out. Although it is tempting to take things into your own hands and do all the work, negotiating this with them instead can bring many benefits. First, they will learn how to do this themselves. Second, you will have more time to concentrate on your own work. And third, your partners may surprise you and do a really good job if you just help them out a bit.
Working in a group for a class project prepares you for collaboration in your future research projects. Collaborating with other students and other research groups (companies, universities) can be very fruitful. No one of us knows everything. Rather than learning, say, a lot of discrete math because you need to prove some things in your protocol, it will work better if you team up with someone from a Mathematics Department, and delegate the work. You may get acquainted with lots of researchers and industry people when attending a conference. Don't hesitate to initiate collaboration if you spot that you have common research interests. You can do this without your advisor and inform them when you come back. They will likely be happy and support this initiative.
Short point summary
- Seek collaboration
- Divide up responsibilities within the group and do a lot of checkpointing
- Discuss any problems that may arise, and work hard to resolve them
As in other human relations, the key is in communication. Don't like something your advisor is (not) doing? Talk to him/her. You are not happy with the topic? Talk to your advisor again. Do you feel stressed out or have family problems and cannot work for a while? Talk to your advisor. I know a lot of people who occasionally get angry with their advisors because they feel neglected, they would like more help from the advisor, their advisor is never around, they feel pushed too hard, etc. I myself have also experienced some of these feelings. Rather than assuming that your advisor hates you and will not work with you, try talking to him/her. Maybe he/she has just failed to notice that there is something you need.
It is very important that your advisor be happy with your research. This is because this person holds in her hands the keys to your graduation. If she dislikes your research, you will have a hard time graduating. First step: talk to him/her some more. If things definitely don't work out between you two, maybe it is time to switch. There are very few professors I have known who had bitter feelings when their student wanted to switch to a new advisor. Usually, people won't mind and will actually assist you in the transition if you explain to them nicely why you want to switch. In all cases I have known the switch really helped the student's progress toward the degree.
The same philosophy about "being happy with your research" holds for your committee members. If there is a professor you would like to have on your committee but is not enthusiastic about your research (or is known to give hard times to students in the past), think again. Having someone who does not approve of your research, in your committee, doesn't make sense. They will only hinder your graduation, whereas the role of your committee members should be to help you along.
If at any time you feel you have a serious problem with your advisor or other faculty member, you may consider arbitrated dialogue. You should talk to your department chair or student legal services and ask them to help you.
- Short point summary
- Talk to your advisor
- If talking doesn't help, consider switching advisor
- Make sure that both your advisor and committee members like your research
- If you have serious problems with a faculty member, seek help from University services
Graduate studies bring along a lot of stress. This is normal, and don't be surprised if you find yourself suddenly burned out, bitter and irritable. There are a few things, though, that you can do to alleviate the stress. Here are some techniques that helped me:
- Don't believe that you will work better if you put yourself under stress. In general, you will always work better if you are relaxed but focused, than if you are a nervous wreck.
- Buy a paper organizer (little calendar notebook where you write down deadlines and plan activities). Bookstores have all sorts of those. Make sure you write down everything important and check the organizer each day. You will never forget another appointment.
If you prefer electronic calendars invest in a Palm Pilot or use a Google calendar. I tried all three and Google Calendar worked wonders for me.
- Manage your time well. See How to manage your time as a grad student for more details on this.
- Engage in relaxing activities. Do yoga, paint, read poetry, talk to friends, watch movies, and listen to music.
- There are many books and courses on stress management. I found the book "Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook" particularly helpful. Your University's health center may also offer free workshops on stress management and relaxation. Ask around.
- Share your problems with friends and family. They will offer a lot of support and understanding.
- Go for counseling or join a support group. Many people do this and it helps them greatly. There is nothing to be ashamed of.
- Work out. Physical activity relieves stress and also helps you control weight and stay in shape. Then you can have your PhD and good looks, too. Wouldn't that be nice?
Short point summary
- Stress during graduate studies is normal, learn how to manage it
- Buy a paper or electronic organizer, or use an online calendar.