Thursday, November 09, 2017

Advice for the Advisor

A soon-to-be professor asked me recently if I could share some ideas on on how to advise students. I started to write some notes only to realize that I had already posted on the topic in 2006.
Have students work on problems that interest them not just you. I like to hand them a proceedings of a recent conference and have them skim abstracts to find papers they enjoy. However if they stray too far from your research interests, you will have a hard time pushing them in the right directions. And don't work on their problems unless they want you to.
Keep your students motivated. Meet with them on a regular basis. Encourage students to discuss their problems and other research questions with other students and faculty. Do your best to keep their spirits high if they have trouble proving theorems or are not getting their papers into conferences. Once they lose interest in theory they won't succeed.
Feel free to have them read papers, do some refereeing and reviewing, give talks on recent great papers. These are good skills for them to learn. But don't abuse them too much.
Make sure they learn that selling their research is as important as proving the theorems. Have them write the papers and make them rewrite until the paper properly motivates the work. Make them give practice talks before conferences and do not hold back on the criticism.
Some students will want to talk about some personal issues they have. Listen as a friend and give some suggestions without being condescending. But if they have a serious emotional crisis, you are not trained for that; point them to your university counseling services.
Once it becomes clear a student won't succeed working with you, or won't succeed as a theorist or won't succeed in graduate work, cut them loose. The hardest thing to do as an advisor is to tell a student, particular one that tries hard, that they should go do something else. It's much easier to just keep them on until they get frustrated and quit, but you do no one any favors that way.
Computer science evolves dramatically but the basic principles of advising don't. This advise pretty much works now as well as it did in 2006, in the 80's when I was in the student or even the 18th century. Good advising never goes out of style.

Of course I don't and can't hand out a physical proceedings to a student to skim. Instead I point to on-line proceedings but browsing just doesn't have the same feel.

Looking back I would add some additional advice. Push your students and encourage them to take risks with their research. If they aren't failing to solve their problems, they need to try harder problems. We too often define success by having your paper accepted into a conference. Better to have an impact on what others do.

Finally remember that advising doesn't stop at the defense. It is very much a parent-child relationship that continues long after graduation. Your legacy as a researcher will eventually come to an end. Your legacy as an advisor will live on through those you advise and their students and so on to eternity.


  1. Regarding the "hardest thing to do" there seem to be some gradual differences on how far the student was successful with his/her work. It may be an option to let him/her just get the desired (B-)degree and then let them find something else outside academia (which they usually would have done anyway). There the degree may be more helpful for building a career (and there no one later cares if it was A-, B-, or C- work) than a failed attempt of several years to get it.
    However, this approach can become quite delicate. You don't want to lower your standards, but you also want to help the student as far as this is possible (but not further).

  2. Great advice! As a new faculty I basically follow very similar practices (with minor differences in details which were interesting to see). I also find some other things not mentioned in this post useful: 1) having regular meetings with the students in my group to present and discuss papers, 2) having a student publish their first paper early (even if it is incremental) I think is helpful for the students in order to see the entire process of making the sausage.