The Importance of Being Nice, Grad School Edition

This is a personal note about my experience in grad school so far and two issues I feel very strongly about: personal well-being & women in CS research (0). Hopefully by sharing my own story I could convince one or two readers about the importance of being nice.

I wouldn’t have gone to grad school in computer science had I not taken a course with Prof. Idreos my senior year, and it was not because of the fascinating topic, but the encouragement. I have ran across related materials before, but they never really jumped out at me as something fun, but always this adversarial problem to be tackled. If I so happen to be good at the material (it could simply be that I have taken more related classes), things start being fun, and this is what I noticed senior year in college, when I started warming up to the idea of research, rather late in the game.

I don’t have good numbers on women in PhD programs (2017 edit: Berkeley CS admits female percentage was 16% for 2017), but I’m fairly confident that it doesn’t look good and hasn’t really improved as much compared to industry. A PhD program in CS is consuming; unless one is motivated it’s not worth pursuing. Furthermore, the window to get interested in research and become qualified for good PhD programs is narrow. For most applicants, to get into a good graduate program usually requires graduate level coursework and research participation, before end of senior fall. A lot of CS student probably won’t feel very confident in graduate level courses and research when they are sophomores/juniors, and that’s a big issue because it might discourage them from continuing. I hadn’t been considering a PhD program, telling myself that I wasn’t interested, where in reality I was just discouraged.

Despite my random entrance, I love grad school. It’s hands down the best experience I’ve had so far. It’s fun to learn the amazing theories and ideas, and to try to push the envelope a farther with creative and intelligent people. I am starstruck by how brilliant my advisor Prof. Hellerstein, and other professors and students I interact with day to day are (I often feel like I’m not climbing an ivory tower, but trekking through reality distortion field). It’s terrifying to think that if it wasn’t for the one person’s encouragement, I would never have tried to pursue a PhD.

Doing a PhD is hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted, and it’s even harder with self-doubt. I had never believed in imposture syndrome until I came to Berkeley for grad school, not even freshman year at Harvard. I hadn’t cried since high school, until I came to Berkeley for grad school. It’s a grand experience to feel that I now care so deeply about something, but it’s also equally scary to feel that I’m not good enough for this thing I care so much about. It’s like unrequited love but harsher, and more personal.

There are a lot of talks of grad students being depressed. And it mostly attributed towards the inherent challenge of doing creative, investigative work. Prof. Philip Guo has written prolifically about his PhD experience in his memoir, which I learnt a lot from reading. PhD Comics also makes eloquent fun of some of the unfortunate aspects of a PhD life.

“At the same time, though, I know that there is a lot of struggle inherent in the Ph.D. experience — the growing pains of transitioning from a test-taking undergrad to an independent researcher. There is only so much an advisor can do to shield their students from these feelings of frustration.”

None of this struct me as unnecessary pain until I read the biographies of Turing and Einstein, and advice from the older generations like Prof. Blum. The striking thing is that none of them even touched the word depression for research. In fact, research was a place for them to seek solace in turbulent times (granted that they are all supergiant star researchers but I think success is besides the point). Come to think of it, why should creative, investigative work cause depression? It’s one of the most fun thing any intelligent being could have!!!

I’m currently taking an algorithms class with Prof. Papadimitriou, where computer theory becomes works of art and proofs become stories (he also wrote Logicomix and Turing, a novel about computation). In one office hours I overheard his self-deprecating comment about not getting an A if his younger self were taking an algorithms class he taught last semester to a student —what a gesture. We talk of being inspirational as if it’s a magical potion of charisma and genus, but what if it’s as simple as being nice and encouraging? Academics are unbelievably smart and hardworking, so much so that any magnitude of ego is justified (and there are plenty out there), but most top researchers I’ve had the fortune of interacting with are humble.

Another related anecdote a professor telling me that I should ask questions because he enjoys explaining them. That made it much easier for me to hold a productive conversation without feeling waves of insecurities about what I should know and should not be asking about. In another interaction, where I was asked if I knew the detail being discussed, I had a really hard time because subconsciously the question just sounded like “how do you not know this?”. In all fairness I should just toughen up and not be so sensitive to such details, but on the flip side it really doesn’t take that much to change the tone and approach. Incidentally a psychiatrist mentioned in a teaching training session that we should not ask questions in the negative form since it implies judgement.

In full disclosure, I felt thrown off balance the first semester of grad school (and first semester really of being an “adult” in the “real life”), and as a result wasn’t able to put in my 100%. I did actively try to fix the situation, by talking to friends (special shoutout to Kathy), seeking advice, reading books, and attending CFAR (a rationality workshop). While those were sensible things to do, the solution/cause seems so simple on hindsight. I was insecure, about my capabilities and even my interests. In general suffering from misguided existential angst developed during my travels. Why did I need that security? “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

In grad school it’s so easy to reduce everything to being smart and working hard: while a convenient theory explaining all failure and success, unfortunately also a cruel and unrealistic one. At least in industry people have the benefit of all kinds of theories on leadership and teamwork, but in academia it’s just the ego and the brain.

Another related issue with interactions that I have seen in grad school is the tendency to straw-man everything, a dangerous side effect critical thinking. Ideas are fragile in their infancy, and could be easily taken to pieces without sufficient conditioning. Unfortunately one easy way to demonstrate false intelligence is to comment on why the idea doesn’t work. To take it as straw-man and point out all the issues. While straw-manning is a powerful technique for enhancing ideas, chances are the person whose idea was just straw-maned have thought of the issues already, and would benefit from some “steel-manning”, where the other person who’s too quick to provide their own opinion try to think harder about why the idea would work and give more insights into helping the idea work better, not identifying in the N ways that the idea has been done before or the N+1 ways where the idea is irrelevant or infeasible. I have fallen pray to this pitiful practice in a desperate struggle to assert my rightful place in a PhD program when I was deeply infected by severe imposture syndrome. I hope I never do it to anyone again.

At the risk of extrapolating too much from my own experiences, I think women gets hit disproportionally from negative feedback. It’s so painful to see female students in a class I’m TAing voice concern about their grades. A lot of the mishaps are superficial and not deserving of the discouragement. I have been there and thought I sucked at computer science and wasn’t as smart as others who seem to get everything in lecture and do well in midterms and not spend hours on stupid bugs, but the truth is maybe we all go through some shit, and maybe the best strategy is to take the setbacks lightly while being reflective and methodological about making progress.

There are a lot of programs around helping grad students with mental well-being, and women in computer science research; I’m sure they all are valuable and important, but I can’t help but think that maybe we could start with just being a bit nicer.