Sunday, June 19, 2022

Guest post by Prahalad Rajkumar: advice for grad students

I suspect that Lance and/or I have had blogs giving advice to grad students. I won't point to any particular posts since that's a hard thing to search for. However, they were all written WAY AFTER Lance and I actually were grad students. Recently a former grad student at UMCP, Prahalad Rajkumar, emailed me that he wanted to do a post about advice for grad students. Since he has graduated more recently (Master degree in CS, topic was Monte Carlo Techniques, in 2009, then a job as a programmer-analyst) his advice may be better, or at least different, than ours was.

Here is his guest post with an occasional comment by me embedded in it. 


 I Made this Fatal Mistake when I Joined a Graduate Program at Maryland

Getting accepted to a graduate program in a good school is an honor.

It is also an opportunity to do quality work and hone your skills. I made one fatal mistake at the start of my master’s degree at the University of Maryland which took me down a vicious rabbit hole. I believed that I was not cut out for this program.

The Only Person Who Gave an Incorrect Answer

Before the start of my graduate studies, there was an informal gathering held for newer students and some faculty members. A faculty member asked a basic algorithm question.

Everyone in the room gave one answer. I gave another answer.

This is real life and not Good Will Hunting, and of course, I was wrong. I had misunderstood the question. It would have been a simple matter to shrug and move forward. But the paternal voice in my head saw a good opportunity to continue to convince me that I was an imposter who did not belong here.

Who is Smarter than Whom?

Some of my fellow incoming graduate students, who TAed with me for Bill Gasarch’s class, played an innocent looking game.

“That guy is so smart”.

“I wish I were as smart as her”.

They couldn’t know that this would affect me. I too did not know that this could affect me. But it did. I asked myself “Am I smarter than person X?”. Each time, the paternal voice in my head was quick to answer “No”. And each time I took this “No” seriously.

NOTE FROM BILL: Professors also play who is smarter than who game and we shouldn't.

I Didn’t Choose My Classes Wisely

I made a few mistakes in choosing my classes. I chose Concrete Complexity with Bill, which I later realized I had no aptitude for. I chose an undergraduate class taught by a professor whose style did not resonate with me. Mercifully, I chose a third class that I liked and excelled in. A class which did not destroy my confidence.

In retrospect, though I chose a couple of classes that were not my cup of tea, I compounded my problems with the stories I told myself. I had several good options available to me. I could redouble my efforts in the said classes and give it my best shot. I could accept my inevitable “B” grades in these classes, and be mindful to choose better classes in the upcoming semesters.

I, however, did the one thing I should not have done: I further convinced myself that I was not cut out to be a graduate student.

NOTE FROM BILL: Some students wisely ask around to find out who is a good teacher? Prahalad points out that this is just the first question. A class may be appropriate for you or not based on many factors, not just if the instructor is a good teacher. 

I Fell Victim to Impostor Syndrome

I kept compounding my woes in my second and third semesters. Things got bad -- I took up a position as a research assistant in my third semester. My confidence was low -- and I struggled to do basic tasks that fall under my areas of competence.

In my fourth semester, I convinced myself that I could not code. In a class project where I had to do some coding as a part of a group project, I struggled to write a single line of code.

When I confessed this to one of my group members, he got me out of my head. He got me to code my part more than capably. I’ve written about this experience here.

 It Does Not Matter in the Slightest

I wish I could tell the 2007 version of myself the following: It doesn’t matter who is smarter than whom. In any way whatsoever. We are on our individual journeys. In graduate school. In life.

Comparing myself with another person is as productive as playing several hours of angry birds.

 The Admission Committee Believed in Me.

There was one good reason I should have rejected the thought that I did not belong in the program. The admission committee believed that I belonged here. Consisting of several brilliant minds. If they thought I should be here, why should I second guess them?

NOTE FROM BILL: While the Admissions committee DID believe in Prahalad and was CORRECT in this, I would not call the committee brilliant. As is well known, the IQ of a committee is the IQ of its dumbest member divided by the number of people on the committee. 

Bill Gasarch’s Secret Sauce

Since I took a class with Bill and TAed for him, I had occasion to spend a lot of time with Bill.
In one conversation, Bill told me something profound. He told me the secret sauce behind his accomplishments. No, it was not talent. It was his willingness to work as hard as it takes.
And working hard is a superpower which is available to anyone who is inclined to invoke it. I wish I had.

BILL COMMENT: The notion that hard work is important is of course old. I wonder how old. One of the best expressions of this that I read was in a book Myths of Innovation which said (a) Great ideas are over rated, (b) hard work and follow through are underrated. There are more sources on this notion in the next part of Prahalad's post. (Side Note- I got the book at the Borders Books Going Out of Business Sale. Maybe they should have read it.) 

Talent is Overrated.

I read a few books in the last couple of years that discussed the subject of mastery: Mastery by Robert Greene, Peak by Anders Ericsson, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin, The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Mindset by Carol Dweck

There was one point that all of these books made: talent is not the factor which determines a person’s success. Their work ethic, their willingness to do what it takes, and several hours of deliberate practice is the secret of success. Of course, talent plays a part -- you can’t be 5’1 and hope to be better than Michael Jordan. But in the graduate school setting, where a majority are competent, it really is a matter of putting in the effort.

 Follow the Process

Bill Walsh signed up as the coach of the languishing 49ers football team. The title of his bestselling book describes his coaching philosophy: The Score Takes Care of Itself. He established processes. Focusing on the smallest of details. Walsh made everyone in the football team and in the administrative departments follow their respective processes. Long story short: the score took care of itself. The 49ers won 3 super bowls among other impressive performances.

If I had to do it all again: I would get out of my head. And keep going with a disciplined work ethic. Establish a process. Follow the process. And let the results take care of themselves.

All’s Well That Ends Well

I grinded and hustled and successfully completed my Masters degree. However, instead of making the journey a joyride, I got in my own way and complicated things for no good reason.

 Final Thoughts

As William James said, a person can change his life by changing his attitude. All I needed to do was change my thinking -- work hard -- and the “score would have taken care of itself”.

I thought I was alone. But I found out in other spheres that a non-negligent percentage of people fall prey to the impostor syndrome. I wanted to write this to help any student who may be going through the problem that I did. If you are going through self-doubt, my message to you is to get out of the head, believe that you are capable (and make no mistake, you certainly are), do the work diligently,
follow the process, and let the score take care of itself.

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