What I Have Learned from Professor YY

Hongtao Hao / 2020-09-05


The following only applies to social sciences. I know nothing about natural sciences communities.

I’ve learned so much from Professor Yong-Yeon (“YY”) Ahn . Aside from knowledge and skills1, I learned how to get along with (my future) students, find a job after a PhD, and be a good scholar and a good person.

I thought about writing this blog after the Zoom meeting yesterday where he shared his experience about finding a job after PhD or a postdoc. I’ll first summarize what I learned during that meeting and then talk about what I learned from him previously.

What I Learned from the Zoom Meeting, Professor YY’s Advice on How to Spend Your Five Years as A PhD student #

On Research #

Write Your Research Statement Early on #

I guess a research statement2 is more or less similar to a statement of purpose when we apply for PhD positions. I mentioned this analogy and Professor YY told me that they are a little different. For example, in a research statement, you need to specify how you can contribute to the diversity and development of the department you are applying to, and also to societal good, but you don’t necessarily have to do this for a statement of purpose.

On research statementsProfessor YY said that you need to start writing it early on, as this will help you see the bigger academic picture more clearly. What does a big academic picture mean? If I remember it correctly, Professor YY suggested that when you are focusing on your individual research projects, you can easily forget about where you stand among others. However, research statements will remind you of your location in that big picture. This way, you will be more aware of where you are heading, and what your contribution to the scientific community is. The more clearly you know about your contribution, the higher chances of finding a position.

Be A World-class Expert in Your Chosen Field #

Professor YY also said that as a scholar, you need to have expertise. You should be able to make distinct contributions to the scientific community you are in. You are the one to ask when people have questions regarding the issue(s) you are doing research on.

Have Two or Three Areas While Maintaining A Focus #

You never know what research will help you find a job when you graduate. Before finding his current job, Professor YY did research on epidemiology, network science, and some computational biology. It is network science that helped him land a job at Indiana University.

Even though it’s better to have more than one area, you should have a focus. The best situation is that you are these two or three areas are around this focus.

On Grants and Publication #

Applying for Grants, No Matter How Impossible You Think It Is for You to Get Them #

In a group correspondence, Professor YY said that he wouldn’t have had any grants if he only applied when he thought he was able to get it. Of special note, Professor YY got the 2014 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship , which he mentioned briefly that sent him an envelope that has a huge check. Keep applying for grants and fellowships, and you’ll someday get one.

I have personal confirmation of this advice. In the Slack group, Professor YY encouraged group members to apply for NetSci2020, so I applied. I didn’t have even a slice of expectation that I’d get it: I applied one day after the deadline, didn’t know the field, and didn’t have any papers to present. However, one month after I submitted the application, I received an email telling me that I was selected for a full fee waiver, which saved me around $200.

As Professor YY said, when you try, you still have some chance to get it, no matter how unlikely it seems. When you don’t try, it’s 100% sure that you are not going to get it.

Have Some Exceptionally Good Publications #

If all of your publications are good, such that they all get published in Science, Nature, or PNAS, good for you! Chances are you won’t be able to do it. That said, Professor YY said you can’t have so-so publications only. Some of your publications need to stand out.

Collaborate with Other Scholars #

If you are the first author, or worst, sole author, in all of your publications, the search committee might get the sense that you are an asshole: not willing or being able to get along with others. That might hurt your chances of getting hired. It’s best that you have first author papers but also second or third author papers.

Publish Consistently #

After your first publication, it’s best if you can keep publishing at least one paper each year. This will send the signal that you are consistent. If you have papers published in the first year, no papers in the second and third year, and two or three papers in the fourth year, people reading your CV will feel you are inconsistent.

Aim High #

If you read Professor YY’s CV , you’ll know that he has publications in Science, Nature, PNAS, and Lancet. He mentions that you should aim high in research. He was quite humble to say that many times he felt surprised that his research got accepted by high-level journals.

For me, and I guess for a lot of other scholars, it is quite the opposite. We feel that our work should get accepted but they didn’t.

Professor YY didn’t say that but I learned from this that no matter how great you are as a scholar, keep foolish and humble.

Ask for Help #

People are nice. You’ll get some help if you ask for it. Professor YY mentioned that when he was applying for the Microsoft Fellowship, he emailed recipients of previous years asking for their application statements. He did get them. So when you need others' help, don’t lock yourself in your own room. Shoot emails to people you think can give you some help.

I guess this applies not only to academia, but also to life.

On Networking #

Attend Conferences #

A lot of times, people get hired by someone who talked with you, listened to your presentation, or simply saw your work at a conference. Therefore, attend academic conferences, talk to people, and prepare for each of your presentations well.

Work with Different Professors and Get Their Reference Letters #

You need up to several reference letters when you apply for academic or postdoc positions. In order to have strong letters, you need to work with different professors so they’ll get to know more about you.

Reference letters weigh a lot. To have a strong letter, these professors need concrete, convincing and specific evidence to demonstrate your ability. If you don’t work with them, they won’t be able to write good and strong letters for you.

Also, the more reference letters, the better.

On Teaching #

It’s beneficial if you can work as a teaching assistant3 for at least once. This will give you a sense of teaching. If you really hate teaching, you might want to reconsider whether you want to be a professor. Although research is the most important, especially if you find a job at a research oriented institution, teaching will account for a big chunk of your sense of accomplishment. If you don’t like teaching, you’ll hate your job as a professor.

What I Learned Previously #

Be Patient with Students #

Students ask “stupid” questions and I did it in his Data Visualization class. His Dataviz class is very challenging. For me, each assignment costs me on average a whole day. Many times, I got very angry with the class and Prof. YY. I saw that someone was also complaining about the Dataviz course on Slack this past Summer in the Slack group4. I could tell that, at least he was as impatient and angry as I was.

However, as patient and nice as he was last year when replying to my angry words on Slack, Professor YY replied to that student very nicely.

Looking back, I felt so fortunate to have taken Professor YY’s Data Visualization class. That was my first experience of using Python and I learned a very important skill, i.e., visualizing data.

Be Humble #

I mentioned this above. Although Professor YY had papers published in top journals, he was very humble. I learned a lot from this.

Updates #

Update on 2021-04-07: #

From the writing group of 2021-04-01, I learned

  1. Don’t expect too much when doing research & submitting papers. It’s much better for your mental health to focus on your efforts rather than the results.

  2. Reading helps. You can gain insights from other’s research.

  3. Relating to #2, talking with others helps. If you are too focused on yourself and do not socialize, you’ll tend to think that you know a lot about your chosen topic (and other people do not). However, if you talk with others, you’ll realize that other researchers know as much as, or much more than, what you know. Talking therefore expands your outlook.

  4. Spending long hours on a project helps solve problems. Sometimes, the programs you are facing can only be solved by concentrating on it for a long time, say, 2-3 hours.

  5. Walking outside helps. Don’t just sit in front of your computer.

Update on 2021-04-13 #

  • The writing group of 2021-04-08 talked about how to prioritize. I learned the following in the discussion:

    1. Your physical and psychological health should always be the 1st priority.

    2. To move a project forward, you need to keep focused on it for a long stretch of time.

  • On a weekly group meeting two months ago, I learned:

    1. Attach importance to rebuttals. They are important but not many people value them.

    2. Reading papers from different fields helps.

    3. Mastering the most basic but important things/concepts will help your research a lot. For example, friendship paradox, degree of freedom, statistical significance, etc.

  • In a reply from YY, I learned:

    Research and learning should go hand in hand. Don’t separate the two. You should learn by doing. What you learn should contribute to your research. You cannot focus on learning alone. PhD is all about research. If you cannot show the promise to produce high-quality research, no professors are interested in working with you. You risk dropping out of the program.

Update: 2021-05-27 (weekly group meeting): Choosing the right advisor #

  1. A field guide to graduate school
  2. Try to know other mentors outside of your current lab/supervisor, through classes or research projects
  3. Tenured professors like mentoring young students. Try contacting them. You won’t know they can help you unless you reach out.
  4. Talk to your fellow PhD students. You can get loads of help and insight from talking with your peers.
  5. If your current advisor gets pissed off when you collaborate with other professors, leave this advisor as soon as possible. (如果你的导师见到你和别的老师合作进而生气,尽早离开这个老师。)

Update: 2021-07-19 (Research vs. classes) #

  • 95% of PhD students focus too much on courses.
  • Nobody cares about your grades in graduate school.
  • What should be the ratio of time spent on classes to that spent on research? Spend as little time on classes as you can afford. Maximize your research time. Just don’t fail the classes.
  • There is a caveat: If you want to collaborate with the professor teaching the course, doing too poorly might prevent the professor from working with you. Of course, for courses that you take just to fulfill requirements, there is no such caveat.

Update: 2021-09-20 #

  • Work on two research projects at a time
  • Regularly update your homepage, cv, and projects page
  • Omnifocus for “get things done”.

Update: 2021-10-04, Writing group (Research statement) #

During the writing group this week, Jisung asked how to write a research statemnt. YY shared some advice and resources .

  • You should write your research statement (RS) as early as possible.

  • Your RS should have a common thread. Finding that thesis statement is hard.

  • In your RS, you are supposed to connect your current research to your future research, both “real” ones and “imagained” ones.

  • RS and job interviews are all about “selling your story”:

    1. what fundamental challenges are you solving? and why is it important?
    2. Why other people haven’t solve it?
    3. How are you going to solve it and why are you able to do that (i.e., why are you special & show me the evidence)?
    4. What will be the applications if the challenge gets solved?
  • Industry folks doesn’t care about your research statement.

  • Your RS basically tells the audience (1) what problem you are solving, and (2) why what you are doing is solving it.

Isabel mentioned that she applied for Microsoft research fellowship and this application made her think about what she wants to do for PhD and dissertation. YY also recommends applying for scholarships and fellowships.

Update: 2021-10-11, Writing group (How to have a regular life) #

Munjung asked how to have a regular life. I find it a very interesting and useful topic. Here are some suggestions, mainly from YY:

  1. You need good food, sleep, and exercise.
  2. Schedule time for exercise before each semester. Make it unchangable. Otherwise, you’ll end up having no time to exercise.
  3. Eating well helps you sleep well.
  4. Prioritize sleeping. You’ll lose more if you don’t sleep regularly.
  5. Parkinson’s Law: the work will fill whatever time you have. You can do it in 5 minutes or 5 hours.
  6. Do things efficiently. This helps you have time to do other things.
  7. Planning.
  8. Aim for 8 or even 9 hours for your sleep every day. It helps.

Update: 2021-10-18, Writing group (Writing tips) #

This week’s writing gruop discussion is on general tips for academic writing:

  • Read a lot. Not just academic papers, but also popular science books. This helps you build sentence structure.

  • Some books:

    • The sense of structure
    • Line by line
    • Elements of style
  • Start writing as soon as you start the project. But don’t be too detailed. Just a stretch. Maybe just one page.

    • Writing the methods section before you write your codes. Writing the methods forces you to think about what steps you need to follow.
    • Write down what message you want to convey before you produce the figures.
  • On a team project, if you lead it, it’s beneficial if you have a document containing the stetch of your papers, your ideas, methods, etc. This way, other people can view it as the project is going on. If you share with others your key ideas after the study is done, then if someone diagress with a certain section, the study needs to be redone. It wastes time.

  • How to write the introduction: it’s a good idea to (1) learn from good papers, for example, those on Science, PNAS, and Nature. Look at how they approach the introduction; (2) build your introduction based on relevant literature published on good journals, again, like those on Science, PNAS, and Nature.

    • The introduction keesp evolving. You are not supposed to start it only after the study is done.

  1. I took Data Visualization and am learning Network Science with Professor YY. ↩︎

  2. I found an example of a research statement here , which might be helpful for you. ↩︎

  3. Here at IU, we called a teaching assistant as graduate assistant (do not lead lectures) and associate instructors (usually lead discussions). ↩︎

  4. Professor YY usually communicates with students on Slack. ↩︎

Last modified on 2021-10-24