@macshonle@c.cim - Mastadon

31 May 2010

How to Surprise Your Advisor

The PhD you get is the PhD you work for. Just because your advisor has certain expectations for you in mind doesn't meant that you can't exceed them! Here are some ways you can surprise your advisor:
  • Be involved in other projects. For example, even though it's not your research area, do you like parallel programming? Then go to the weekly meetings. Then, if something related to parallel programming comes up, you can make your advisor's jaw drop when you are fluent in it. Obviously, you can over do this. Don't let it get in the way of your primary duties.

  • Know the conferences. You should know the top conferences in your area. Check out their pages and see what the upcoming deadlines are, and what the co-located workshops are. Mark deadlines in your calendar. Study the members of the PC, and find out more about their work.

  • Understand your group project. Are you part of a five person group? Don't stick to just knowing and studying "your part" of it-- look at what your teammates are doing and seek to understand their part too. This could help your own work because you can understand the bigger context. For example, you might think of a way the overall system can be improved. Or, you might help your teammate by showing them a related work you found on your own.

  • Generate ideas. Science is an art. There are no fixed ways for you to consistently generate brilliant ideas that have impact. But here are some things I've found helpful:
    1. Aim Big - Go for the real problems that bug you. Go for the Holy Grails. Do so with concrete ideas. If you've aimed high enough, there's probably a dissertation in there.
    2. Read - The best way I get ideas is reading other people's work. Always make notes when reading, and then later process these notes as a source for papers to work on. A dozen bad ideas that lead to a workable idea makes it all worth it.
    3. Combine - Bring a separate interest into your research area, and see what you get. I came up with the idea for my dissertation when I asked my wife, who has a background in fine art, what "deconstructive programming" would look like. Her answer helped shape my big idea into something I could build.
But, remember, your PhD is not about your advisor. Your PhD is about you. You aren't on a quest to impress your advisor, but they are your best guide for your research career. Surprising them just shows them how well you are on your way.


  1. This is really insightful Dr. Mac, just snooping around the department’s website got me to this page and look what I’ve found !
    Newbies into the program like some of us definitely need some of these insider tips. Thank You !