Suppose I’m a professor at some institution directing a lab conducting research in computer science or related fields. A new graduate student is going to join soon. Below is a welcome package I’d send over to my student before they join my lab.
Dear graduate student,
Congratulations on being accepted into the program and for considering doing research in my lab!
Before you finalize whatever you’re doing and prepare for the adventure, I’d like to offer you the following welcome package. Please accept, or at least review, it in all wisdom.
I. Books you should read or reread
Graduate studies are fun, but they constitute an over-the-edge adventure. As such, you should mingle your enthusiasm with a reality check. Are you organized? Are you generally a happy person? Do you tend to nourish or avert negative thoughts? Do you cope with challenges and polish your skills? Do you have sufficient foundational knowledge for working with me? I’ve sent you several books you should read, if not study, before you head over to my lab. Here’s a brief overview of each of them:
1. Flow by M. Csikszentmihalyi
This book will probably invite your attention to focus on its main theme: In order to enjoy whatever you do in life (even if your job is to mow grass), your skills must be such that they cope with your challenges in order to attain optimal flow and contentment in your work. If, for whatever reasons, the proportionality between challenges and skills becomes asymmetric, then you have to attain new skills in order to cope with increased challenges, or you have to increase challenges in order to apply your skills. If you live and work in disproportion you shall feel listless, which in turn shall affect your success (negatively).
Csikszentmihalyi’s book (I know, the author’s name is a nightmare) is an amazing intellectual work. I highly recommend you read and study its points.
2. Getting Things Done by D. Allen
You may be an organized person. You may already have a system of personal organization in place. Or, you may not. This book by Allen provides a practical personal organizational system to augment your current system or to help you get started afresh. I’ve used this system in a digital format probably also due to the rationale I came up with for not hesitating to use it. The rationale, ironically, came after I read Flow: here’s what I observed.
3. The Mindful Brain by D. Siegel
Mindful awareness entails focusing your attention in your present activity, be it breathing, running, thinking, etc. It’s part of ancient wisdom, but has become a topic of research in neurology, psychology, etc. This book by neuropsychologist Dan Siegel is sufficient to apprehend the concept and some of the practices related to maintaining a mindful brain in your life. I highly recommend you read that in order to learn how to eliminate minor worries and negative thoughts from your life.
4. The Conquest of Happiness by B. Russell
I’m probably biased here, since Russell is one of my favorite intellectuals. I don’t have heroes in my life, but Russell would be one of them if I were to put forth the existence of a modern Mount Olympus. This book by Russell is an intellectual treatise to happiness for all sorts of people — for me, for you, for the janitor, for the philosopher, and so forth.
It’s about helping you to realize that no matter how you feel before, during, or after doing something, the universe won’t change. Happiness in Russell’s terms is expanding your knowledge and nurturing feelings of affection towards others so as to increase your social network. This is also my definition of happiness, which supersedes all others. Thus, why be stressed before talking to an audience? Why have negative thoughts about life? What does it mean to be happy? Read this book to find out and come up with or adapt your definition of happiness — you’ll need it during your stay in my lab.
5. Foundational knowledge
Naturally, I expect you to have good foundational knowledge in computer science. Otherwise, what’s the point of philosophizing and being a doctor in the end? You should know what the fuss about the P vs. NP problem is and why the Courant folks are willing to give away a million bucks to the one who comes up with a funny solution. A couple of venerable books in the field of algorithms, data structures, and computability are: Introduction to Algorithms by Cormen et al.; Introduction to the Theory of Computation by M. Sipser, Data Structures and Algorithm Analysis series by Weiss. Do review them and keep them for future reference.
6. The Logic of Scientific Discovery by K. Popper
This is one last book you should read and refer to for several reasons. First, Popper introduces the concept of falsifiability. That is, a theory is not such if it’s not falsifiable. Here’s an example of such a theory. Second, I should warn you that most research in applied fields of computer science, such as empirical software engineering, takes on a neo-positivist (or logical positivist) stance. I, personally, am not a big fan of that stance, which mingles empiricism with rationalism to establish scientific truth by making verifiable, rather than falsifiable, claims. I align myself with Hume and Popper on the matter, who is one of the critics of neo-positivism for the very criterion of verification.
That’s all your package contains with respect to books. Do your best to read them. As for myself, cultural legitimacy has always been crucial in my life — it wouldn’t trade it for anything at all.
II. A collaboration model
For the sake of not falling prey to natural, neurobiological wirings for collaboration, let’s give the following model a shot:
III. Your bank account
Now the nasty news. Unless you have no financial worries in your life, I should let you know that you need to come to my lab with a positive financial basis, say $10,000 on the least. The reason is simple: Academia has been trapped by the publishing business. As such, you have to publish. Then, if successful, you have to travel to scientific, esoteric venues. Here’s the fun part: You’ll be reimbursed for your expenses, but it’s your initial burden to account for the travel expenses; hence the financial basis above, which comes from my own experience. Like it or not, you will be reimbursed completely if all is in order, but you’ll still have incurred financial loss. You’ll know why eventually. This is just a friendly warning.
IV. Gaining knowledge, augmenting your intellect
Here’s some practical advice: Never refrain from reading books. You’ll probably be a little overwhelmed with reading scientific papers, some of which will be in the ‘kerfuffle’ class of works, but do not let this deter your from reading books. Read a lot and read mindfully. Keep an open mind and read critically. Exploit local libraries. Also, write about your reflections on what you read, or manifest any thoughts you get into some personal blog. This way, you’ll polish your skills and augment your intellect.
Finally, don’t become apathetic. Travel. Get acquainted with the local zeitgeist. Be a contrarian, and keep up with being positive. In the end, you’ll succeed.
I hope you enjoy exploring this welcome package. Looking forward to collaborating with you.
Welcome to my lab!