Sunday, October 21, 2007


Nicole Immorlica guest posts from FOCS.

I wake up bleary-eyed and jet-lagged at 6 AM begging of myself WHY? Why do I subject my body to such torturous trans-atlantic flight for three days of, of what? Of talks of which I will attend at most a quarter? Of hotel banquet food? Of aching back muscles from lugging around massive proceedings and laptops bundled together in free canvas tote bags that I don't really want anyway?

For me, the answer is the people, my friends, my colleagues, their quirky interests and insightful comments. It's the research in the corridors, the animated technical arguments over the lunch tables, the great stories that get told by a diverse set of people from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Basically, it's like a big family reunion. But families you are born into. How do you get born into the FOCS family? I remember my first FOCS – Las Vegas 2001 – feeling alone, isolated, shy. Now I feel a part of the family, accepted into this community due in part to my papers, yes, but also labels that were really a matter of luck. What becomes of all those people that didn't have my luck?


  1. I am curious which parts of your acceptance you consider "luck"?

  2. >What becomes of all those people that didn't have my luck?

    Well, some of them get lucrative jobs in Southern California, fly Virgin Atlantic Upper Class when they wish to go to Europe and back, drive Porsches, and recall FOCS as something as important as their academic life as a high school homecoming dance.

  3. I am curious which parts of your acceptance you consider "luck"?

    I think Nicole's referring to the fact that she got to hang out with me. I'm sorry that not everyone gets the chance.

  4. My first FOCS was in 1986, and after that I vouched that I would never go again...

  5. I laughed out load when I read anonymous #2.

    I do know lots of people who might have been academics who moved on and have led quite successful lives -- at least monetarily speaking. Microsoft, Wall Street, Google, and many other opportunities have been out there for the taking. Arguably, the people who got out of FOCS are the lucky ones!

    Money doesn't buy happiness, of course. (It can buy Virgin Atlantic Upper Class tickets and Porsches, but surprisingly, these don't quite equal happiness for everyone. Go figure. But good for you, anonymous #2!) On the whole, I think academics are as happy if not moreso than the non-academics.

    Nicole has a point about luck. Particularly early on in your career, I think luck, timing, whatever you want to call it, is really important. I've known several very talented people (including many ex-theorists) -- as talented or more than people who made it in academics -- who just couldn't find the right position at the right time, and decided that the universe was telling them to move on to more lucrative if less intellectual endeavors. It's a shame, from our perspective.

    So enjoy your luck Nicole! Though I imagine you've earned more of it than you think.

  6. Well, hi. I am one of the unlucky ones who still are not even close to fitting in. Some of us are still around, lurking here at FOCS as I am today. Probably most of us gave up and went into other careers a long time ago.

    In addition to luck, talent and persistence are generally necessary, though sadly not entirely sufficient.

    Luck can cause a middle-of-the-pack paper to be rejected or accepted, it can affect your ability to collaborate (geographic/national proximity, university acceptances, finding enough funding for research) or even your ability to function productively on a day-to-day basis (societal collapses or war; forces of nature, such as a hurricane; medical issues (for example, for Abel); etc). You could even die in a duel, but I suppose this doesn't happen so often anymore ...

    Well, I hope the persistence will some day be worthwhile, but I'm not so sure.

  7. >What becomes of all those people that didn't have my luck?

    The poor folks left behind you are probably drinking from the gutter now.

  8. anon6:

    Your persistence and passion are laudable, but please consider that you might need to make some strategic changes. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

    When you search for faculty positions, do you search widely or only within the "top 25" United States CS departments? If so, perhaps you should consider searching with a more open mind - supportive colleagues, a good paycheck and enough time to do research are all you really need. Perhaps you should also consider mathematics departments.

    Do you like to pour a lot of time into "hard" or "important" problems? While this approach can have dramatic payoffs, it is risky and potentially isolating. A steady stream of output reassures those who do the hiring, and we all know that (despite its flaws) "stoc/focs" count is a popular metric for evaluating junior TCSers. More importantly, more frequent publications will lead to more presentations and conferences, and a more thorough integration into the community. Allow yourself to work on problems that are "interesting" even if not "groundbraking", and write up "trivial" things (I find that "trivial" things are often not so trivial once they are written down, and sometimes grow into impressive things).

    Have you branched out to problems beyond your dissertation area? The people who hire are afraid of hiring one-trick ponies and people whose ideas all came from their thesis advisor. Do a lot of browsing and skimming, and look for a "hot" topic that is close enough to what you do that you can make progress, but new enough that you learn something.

    Since you (understandably) did not identify yourself, it's hard to be sure which of these apply to you. But they are common pitfalls for fresh PhDs.

  9. Hi Nicole (and Claire),

    I think that's a sentiment shared by many of us, although I haven't quite seen it put across clearly (and poignantly) in so many words; thanks! In fact, not too long ago, I mentioned to a junior grad student that it's not necessarily a bad idea to save up her travel money for Crypto, or STOC, instead of going to FOCS.

    Enjoy the conference, and keep posting!

    hoeteck, new york

  10. My first FOCS was in 1986, and after that I vouched that I would never go again...

    I had a similar experience in the early 90s. I found the atmosphere snottish and unwelcoming. I went back a few years later and the whole thing seemed more relaxed. I don't know what prompted the change. I'm still not a regular FOCS attendee, though.

  11. anon 8 is enlightening.

  12. I had a question - is it a good idea to go for a conference even if you don't have a paper in it ?