Automatic Advising

A comment on my previous post Interviewing PhD Students suggested that advising students can and should be automated. Although at first I didn’t take it seriously, this idea started to grow on me once I realized that a person could probably be an above-average advisor by simply doing nothing that is actively harmful and also saying the following things at vaguely appropriate times:

  • Sure, I’d be happy to sign that piece of paper without looking at it closely.
  • Is there a thesis statement here?
  • How’s the writing going?
  • How are the experiments going?
  • I think you’d better cite a few more papers in chapter 7.
  • What research question is this addressing?
  • There’s no such thing as writers’ block, but there is such a thing as people who don’t want to write very badly.
  • You are not allowed to say “the stupid reviewer is wrong about X” but rather “I failed to explain X clearly enough for the reviewer.”
  • Do you really need to implement that, or do you just want to?
  • What’s the null hypothesis?
  • Why does this graph: contain no axis labels / connect unrelated points with lines / start the y-axis somewhere besides zero / use 3D / confuse me so much?
  • What have you learned that you didn’t already know?
  • What have you learned that I didn’t already know?
  • What have you learned that nobody knew?
  • Whose life have you made better so far?

Now if only paper-writing, proposal-writing, and teaching could be automated so easily.

3 Replies to “Automatic Advising”

  1. “Do you really need to implement that, or do you just want to?”

    Yes! I’ve said that many times to my direct reports.

    Goes hand-in-hand with “Are you just scratching an itch there?” or “How long have you been waiting for an opportunity to use that Design Pattern / C trick / C++ Template Metaprogramming insanity / etc.?”

    Keeping people focused on the task at hand is one of the biggest challenges of a technical manager, in my experience. Especially when the project is boring, extremely under-staffed, or perceived to be “not worthwhile”.

  2. “Whose life have you made better so far?”

    What a cruel question. What if *everyone* asked themselves that — whole areas of human endeavour would collapse under their own self-importance. 🙂

    “How is this going to improve things for whoever you’re working for” (or in software parlance, “how will this help your user get laid”) is often a surprisingly unsettling question for much pointless busywork we do. “Well, no, this doesn’t really help anyone but I’m just doing it because it seemed like a good idea at the time and I didn’t know when to stop.”

    Also, regarding what David said, I find that surprisingly few projects are boring as long as the goals are clear — to everyone involved. “Why, exactly, are we doing this” (to which the useful answer is not “because we’re getting paid to do it”) almost always leads to something that makes it challenging, or at least sufficiently worthwhile to be captivating. People who are still bored with the kind of work this results in become technical managers, where a whole new set of challenges opens up. 🙂

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