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 post-doc. I’ll first summarize what I leared during that meeting and then talk about what I leared 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 statment, 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.

Around research statements, Professor 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’s your contribution to the scientific community. The 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 conrrespondence, 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 envelop that has a huge check. Keep applying for grants and fellowships, and you’ll someday get one.

I have personal confirmation to this advice. In the Slack group, Professor YY encourage group members to apply for NetSci2020, so I applied. I didn’t have even a slice of expectation that I’ll get it: I applied one day after the deadline, didn’t know the filed, 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, 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 consistant. 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 receipients 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 on a conference. Therefore, do attend academic conference, talk to people, and prepare for each of your presentations well.

Work with Different Professors and Get Their Refference Letters #

You need up to several referene 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, convicing and specific evidence to demonstrate your ability. If you don’w work with them, they won’t be able to write good and strong letters for you.

Also, the more reference letter, 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 on his Data Visualization class. His Dataviz class is very challenging. For me, each assigment 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., visualize data.

Be Humble #

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

Update on 2021-04-07:

From the wriring 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 in 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 keed 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. Read papers from different fields helps.

    3. Master 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.

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

  2. I found an example of 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 2021-04-17