Tuesday, March 16, 2010

How to become a star grad student

In this article, Cal Newport tries to answer this question. He takes James McLurkin as a case study, and starts by explaining how far one could be recognized in his field, and why this is so important.

“Four years earlier, Time Magazine profiled James as part of their Innovators series. The next year, he was featured on an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. Earlier this year, TheGrio, a popular African American-focused news portal, named James one of their 100 History Makers in the Making.”

“In other words, James is famous in his field. So it’s not surprising that in 2009 he landed a professorship at Rice University — one of the country’s top engineering schools — in one of the worst academic job market in decades.”

James' stardom started when he designed a swarm of microbots 'Ants' for his senior thesis project (i.e. graduation project). The devices were designed to perform complex behavior using simple rules. The paper in which he documented this work spread out to the public media, making a star out of James.

“I went to the lab as an undergrad to interview for a position,” James recalls. “Anita Flynn told me they’re not hiring. So I came back with some robots I had built, and some I was halfway through building, and she said, ‘okay, you can work in the lab, and use our parts, but we can’t pay you.’”

Once in the lab, he worked real-hard on one project after another; each stretching his abilities a little bit. He wasn't alone in the lab though. Anita Flynn was shrinking the size of electronic motors, enabling the micro-robot revolution, while Maja Mataric was a leading thinker on robotic swarms.

“By the time he conceived of the Ants project for his thesis, James was an accomplished robot engineer with a number of successful projects under his belt. He also had a cutting-edge knowledge of microrobotics, and was “marinating” in a lab environment obsessed with biologically-inspired systems. With this in mind, the idea of building a robot swarm that behaves like insects was not a big hairy audacious goal to him.”

It was James' knowledge and expertise in cutting-edge techniques in his field that enabled him to take an unprecedented step. To him (and others with equivalent level of knowledge and expertise), Ants was an obvious incremental step. To the rest of the world, including less-aware people in robotics field, it was a huge breakthrough. Cal concludes that, to become a star, you should focus on getting to the bleeding edge of your field as quickly as possible.

“Many graduate students, for example, never arrive at the bleeding edge of their field. Instead, they reach a comfortable level of knowledge — enough to understand relevant research, and make their own acceptably-complex contributions, but not enough to make bold advances. Thousands of chemists could understand Watson and Crick’s 1953 paper on the double helix, but only a handful had the knowledge needed to have discovered it for themselves.”

Now, the obvious question is how do you get to the bleeding edge?

“Every semester, my supervisor, Anita, had me write out goals,” James told Cal. “We would go back at the end of the semester and look at what I did and didn’t do. She would tell me, ‘it’s fine that you didn’t get this all done, but what’s not fine is your inability to estimate how long something will take.’”

James deliberately chose projects that were hard enough to stretch his ability, but reasonable enough to complete in the available timeframe.

“With this in mind, I argue that the secret to James McLurkin’s success is his ability to choose the right projects. By resisting work that reinforced what he’s comfortable with, yet also sidestepping overly-ambitious projects, he consistently advanced his skill until he arrived at the bleeding edge of research robotics. Once there, the “breakthrough” projects that cemented his reputation became obvious next steps. Stretch projects are an effective way to integrate deliberate practice into fields without clear competitive structures and coaching”

To emphasize, Cal gives two definitions:
Stretch Project: A project that requires a skill you don’t have.
Stretch Churn: Number of stretch projects you complete per unit time.

In order to make it to the bleeding edge, you need to maximize your stretch churn. You need to be in a continuous discomfort learning new things and resist the tendency to reinforce what you already know.

Uh.. I think this comment (in response to Cal's article) is also worth quoting
Nianu: What kind of stretch projects would you recommend I start to tackle? I have a hard time thinking of what would be a good way to start as I am still early in my college career.”
Cal: College and graduate-level courses are stretch projects in themselves. They force you to acquire new skills, but everyone completes them within a relatively short time frame.
Attack your courses with the mindset. Savor the hard focus required to master the material (coupled, of course, with smart study tactics to eliminate wasted time and effort), knowing that you're building the skills needed to move toward the bleeding edge.”