Getting to the coolest part of a PhD: Conceiving ideas and discussing with people (in any order)

I always pictured being a PhD student to learn new things by myself, go after other people on campus with which I could endeavor great projects, and make a great impact by consequence. Well, it took 18 months into the program to get over coursework, qualification exams, and the crucial third-semester review. While craving for this moment since I was applying for PhD programs, the training was definitely worth it. It corrected several misconceptions (some quite ugly, I have to admit) and keep polishing how I think and work (or else, how picky I am with my own ideas and writings).

Now I have been reading more, sitting in random classes out of curiosity, and going to diverse seminars. But getting to meet and productively discuss with other people takes more than that, and here are two approaches I have found quite useful for this purpose:

Dinner discussions at the INFORMS Student Chapter

Starting from the assumption that everybody has to eat dinner and Monday is not a busy night for most, my colleague Tarek Elgindy suggested that we could meet every week to discuss a topic of interest to someone in the group. This became the main activity of our recently created INFORMS Student Chapter.

I contributed with a talk about lift-and-project normalization, which was mostly a lecture on the board in which I presented the main results and current issues to colleagues from my PhD program. Not only it was a good exchange of ideas, but also a great training for teaching since some of them are just learning about the topic. It also helped me adhering to the trending idea that board presentations are much better than slides. Besides, it also helped me training to be ready for “almost impromptu” talks: one of Tarek’s claims is that we are not supposed to over prepare to such discussions, and in fact mine was just summarizing formulations from a few papers I have been reading for research.

Speed networking thought CMU’s Public Communications for Researchers

I recently became officer of PCR, a student organization that has been very successful in training communication skills of graduate students at CMU. Along with Rohit Girdhar, my role is to conceive and organize social events to complement the other activities PCR has been doing. Our first attempt was a speed networking event, which was aimed at introducing people from diverse fields to each other in the hope that they start collaborating. While attendance to this first event was small and we had to break it to a group conversation instead of the traditional pairing of people, some interesting possibilities already came out of the group. I am confident that we can make it work in a larger scale by reflecting on what could be better, in particular when it comes to attracting people and advertising the event.

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