On the pursuit of a PhD program: What would be your ‘School of Sagres’?

As a native Portuguese speaker and descendant, I was told in history classes about the so-called School of Sagres. This school is regarded as responsible for many technological advancements between the XV and XVI centuries that enabled, among other things, the first world circumnavigation (and nowadays puzzle people from other cultures for the fact that the language of such a small country like Portugal is spoken in almost all continents and borrowed words to diverse cultures like the Japanese and Indonesian). However, there was never a physical place with such label: some historians now believe that it was simply a gathering of the best European experts along taverns in the Iberian Peninsula. This is somewhat what I feel about the academic world, and five centuries later I wanted to find the best corridors along which I could move my coffee mug while pursuing a PhD degree. And the experience was an interesting one!

I wondered whether to pursue a PhD or not for quite a while. During such time I earned a MSc degree, kept publishing the results of my work, explored some topics that could be the subject of a doctoral thesis, and interacted as I could with the OR community. Despite doing all of this, I was yet undecided about pursuing a PhD mostly because I already had a good job in the industry doing what I like – something that I meant to have after obtaining a PhD. It was at such point that I went to ICAPS last year, and I had an intense week that reminded me of many good things from academia that were absent from my work routine. In the following week, I was already studying for the TOEFL, and the application process was only over a couple of months ago. As a result, I got some amazing formal offers, some polite rejections, and gave up on some other ongoing applications after receiving those offers.

The application process and the general tips to excel at it abound on the internet: apply only for places to which you would definitely go if offered admission; ask for recommendations from professors that know a lot about you instead of those who gave you the best grades; do not attach yourself to specific lines of research, specially to methodologies; let it clear why you would like to pursue a PhD; be concise; etc. However, I read little advice about how to effectively target schools. I have heard from very successful applicants that I should try every top school that I could, but the fact that I could barely see myself in many of them made me include in the list a few more than those in which I was already planning to apply. As a matter of fact, all of my formal offers came from applications in which I mentioned faculty members and extensively discussed common interests in the essays. Some of those schools were in my radar as the obvious choices for my interests but there was an outlier which was somewhat a surprise: I decided to apply to that school only after accessing their website for the second time and reading every word about their program. Despite that first impression, I ended up feeling that it could be a good match, they felt the same way upon reading my application, and that made the final choice even harder!

Choosing among those programs who replied positively was difficult for the same reason that I had such an enthusiasm for applying for each of them: I read about what they were doing, I feel that I understood what they were targeting, and I wanted to be part of each of those efforts. And then everyday new information came to me that tempted me to accept one of those offers, but it was the fact that CMU was my top choice before receiving any offer and that visiting the school did not change my impression of it which make me accept their offer. Declining the other offers was very hard and belated second thoughts are inevitable, but I feel that I would have deeper regret feelings if I had chosen differently. Besides, I have an entire career ahead to join those schools in other ways that not as a student.

In short, the most important advice – and the only one I would dare to offer to a prospective student already full of them – is to focus more on those schools that are closely related to your interests, but still make a comprehensive scan of the programs out there in the hope to be surprised. There are too many great schools and some of your friends will advise you to try a lot of them, but the fact that you are unable to make a strong claim for studying somewhere also means that your chances in this place are smaller and you are wasting time that could be used in other applications. When you find your personal ‘School of Sagres’, words go out much more easily.

4 summer activities you must do before graduating + late remarks about ICAPS 2012

I recently attended to the 2012 International Conference on Automated Planning and Scheduling (ICAPS), which was held at a car distance from São Paulo (what a rare opportunity!). It was the first time that I saw something like Festivus, which featured funny debates about the relevance of the research developed by the P&S community and even a bossa nova song about three blocks that wanted to be moved. Beyond the fun and cheap transportation cost, the most remarking experiences I had there were the satellite event to gather and mentor graduate students – ICAPS Doctoral Consortium – as well as observing the differences between planners and schedulers – the former of which somewhat belonging to the OR community.

ICAPS Doctoral Consortium (DC)

DC consisted of four talks directed to PhD students and a poster presentation, during which at least two mentors were assigned to talk with each student to discuss his/her research topic.

Alan Fern managed to invite young and mid-career researchers that followed varied directions after earning their PhD and were willing to tell their stories to us.

Andrew Coles presented a talk entitle “Now what?” describing his career and how much time does it take to achieve certain positions in the academia.

Silvia Richter’s talk was mostly focused on issues such as finding motivation and realizing that it takes a lot of time to have a good idea. She also provided good figures regarding how many papers you should publish (3-4 is nice) and how much effort should you put on writing your thesis (not as much as you suppose, since only 5 people will probably read it entirely), and suggested an interesting website: 3monththesis.com.

Minh Do showed some interesting graphs to compare salaries, freedom, possibilities for changing career afterwards etc for positions like working in the industry, researching in the industry, researching in the academia and striving to be a professor with tenure. On top of that, he listed four activities that any CS undergrad student should experience to know what to do with his/her life afterwards (and that I wish I was told years ago):

  • Do a research internship in academia
  • Do an internship at the headquarters of a company
  • Work in a local startup with a good tech team
  • Work in an open source project

Scott Sanner finished the session with good tips for social networking and external presence. In the former case, he stressed the importance of talking to other researchers and getting to know more about their work (and not bragging about yours) and of giving memorable talks, or at least striving to do that. In the latter case, he talked about building a professional website and he showed his first website as a funny example of what you should not do.

I presented a poster about adaptive search methods for Constraint-Based Scheduling (CBS). The first mentor who showed up was Amanda Coles (wife of Andrew Coles, the first speaker above). We had a long and interesting talk, that let me realize how much of the theoretical background of adaptive search methods for combinatorial optimization is also valuable for planning. The second mentor was Stephen Smith, who was the advisor of a number of works related to my topic of interest. I was glad that both mentors enjoyed my research plan and gave me good advices to succeed with it.

Planning vs. Scheduling (and OR)

I have already mentioned in a former post the divide between planners and schedulers: the summer school consisted of three courses about planning and one about scheduling, the latter being easier to me than the others. While some recognize that planning methods can theoretically be used to solve scheduling problems, planners strive to be as generalist as possible when approaching a problem. Schedulers, however, prefer the opposite path and delve themselves into the structure of each problem to take the most of it. In practice, their application domains barely touch each other. Nevertheless, there are some researchers that, as we say in Brazil, are on the top of the wall that divides those areas. Even though I was feeling an outsider at some moments, there were a number of talks related to OR and a few others discussing the limits of application of each type of technique. Thus, tying together planners and schedulers seems to be a good long-term strategy to both areas.