How to get in to graduate school

The graduate school application process is essentially over and my results were pretty good, so I will put everything that I think was useful here. **This will be tailored to a research-oriented graduate school application rather than, for example, a medical school application. They require completely different approaches.**

Let’s think about that in terms of each component of the application: letters of recommendation, statement of purpose/research experience, and transcript/GREs.

Letters of Recommendation
This is one of the most important parts of the application, and for good reason. One common problem among people is that we have trouble accurately judging our own skills. We can say that we are on time, good with people, and so on, but it could be way off. Outsiders often have a better objective view of how we work. Therefore, the letters serve as a sort of litmus test. If your previous professors enjoyed working with you, then there is a good chance that your grad school advisor will too. This idea also explains the tier list for letter writers (professors > industrial researchers > bosses): the closer the experience is to research, the more likely it is that the results will be similar. For example, research in industry is generally less open-ended than in academia, and so someone might be great when there are step-by-step deadlines but struggle with few constraints. That is less likely if you have already had some success in academic research. Probably the best ways to get good recommendations are to take initiative, be interested, follow through with what you say you will, and generally be pleasant to work with (this last one goes a long way wherever you are).

Statement of Purpose
There are three keys to doing an excellent statement of purpose: (1) demonstrate that ***you know what you are getting in to***, (2) demonstrate interest in the specific field or subfield that you are applying for (past research in the area is great for this), and (3) try to show some capacity for self-learning and motivation to deeply understand and publish new insights on a topic.

A few things to avoid: (1) do not talk about your childhood dreams and (2) do not talk about your outside interests. Childhood dreams are an easy (and common) way to start the statement, but admissions committees do not really care. They want to know about who you are right now. Specifically, talk about research and demonstrate passion and a realistic picture of what graduate school will be like, because this is really a research statement rather than a personal statement. They want to see a well thought out topic and purpose for applying to graduate school.

Here is how I did it: I started off by saying that I do not enjoy classes and instead prefer to teach myself. (This suggests that I am comfortable with the self-guided learning that is important in research.) Next, I mentioned the field that I was interested in and why I am interested. (This helps them direct the application to the best professor to read it, and it is a good place to demonstrate passion. Put the field in bold for their convenience, like “… and for that reason I want to work in nanotechnology and energy.”) I also mentioned other semi-relevant interests in one sentence here: “I am also very interested in business and education, and I plan to make each a significant component of my graduate experience.” (It is useful to mention your other interests because people with a variety of interests tend to be more interesting people and they may identify with yours, but do not waste any space explaining them. I literally only mentioned business and education in the one sentence above.) All of that took a little over a half a page, and I spent the next 1.5 pages talking about my past research and engineering experience. It is good to mention what you did, what went well, what you struggled with, and how you improved as a researcher from the experiences. Also talk about the field you want to go into in more depth. Talk about the problems you find interesting and about your ideas and questions regarding those subjects. I spent about a paragraph and a half on that. I finished up with talking briefly about my professional goals and how the school is an excellent fit for both my field of interest and my goals. Your chances of admission go way up if you fit with the institutional culture. For example, if you are applying to Stanford, you have a better shot of getting in if you are also interested in tech entrepreneurship than a similar person who is not. Because of that, you should try to identify those programs where you match well.

Transcript/GREs
As I mentioned, they expect to teach you how to do outstanding, publishable research in graduate school. They do not want to have to reteach what you learned during undergrad. Obviously everyone will have gaps and need to learn new topics, but if you didn’t learn what you studied in undergrad, it’s a red flag that you might need remedial instruction or be a poor self-taught learner. Neither of those bode well for graduate school, where you are expected to learn the necessary background while your advisor teaches you how to do publishable research. In effect, both of these are quick checks for basic competence, but compared to the rest of your application, these are relatively unimportant. A significant reason why incoming GPAs/GRE scores are so high at top schools is due to self-selection. People with a 3.8+ GPA think they have a shot at getting in, so they apply. I have heard several admissions folks say that they barely look at GPAs and GREs, especially at the top schools.

People spend an unnecessary amount of time worrying about the GREs. Keys to doing well: read widely and often for the verbal section, and review basic math and be careful on the math section. None of the math is complex or particularly challenging, but it is easy to make mistakes. Just practice a few times, be careful, and then focus most of your effort on the other parts of your application. It is quite possible to overcome a low GRE score, but it is not possible to overcome a bad statement of purpose, for example.

The takeaways?
1) Understand what grad school will be like. Read a lot about it
2) Get research and work experience that closely matches the components of graduate school. Take initiative in everything that you do.
3) Make sure you present yourself as someone who will be great to work with (and actually be great to work with)
4) Demonstrate interest and know some of the open questions in the field

Note: I’ll probably continually update this with better/more complete advice.

Stop Worrying About National Performance on Tests

Politicians often seem to be worried over our performance. Our children are falling behind, and we are losing our edge in engineering! There are a lot of stupidities in that, and I’ll go over a few.

First, countries are ranked by their average scores. If we are worried about our engineers, we do not need to care. A countries future engineers are going to come from the top 10% or so of children on the math scores. America, for good or ill, is a country of wild variance. I find it completely plausible that we could be 30th when ranked by overall average but 1st when ranked by the average of the top 10% of scorers, but I have not looked it up (and neither have the politicians crying wolf). Now, a country with a better average math-sense and appreciation of math is probably better off, but the tests do not test for those. At best, the test results might decently correspond with math-sense, but it is doubtful that the results correspond with with math appreciation. Indeed, several of the high-performing countries have drill-and-kill heavy math instruction, which works for simple standardized tests but not for anything else.

Second, test scores improve when countries focus on improving test scores. Makes sense. However, what happens to instruction to math instruction when countries try to focus on test scores? It typically becomes full of drill-and-kill practice and rote memorization replacing understanding and exploring. In that regard, we might consider running the other way. Let’s instead focus on trying to solve big, fun problems. You know, the type of problems that are great to learn from but impossible to put on standardized tests.

Something like the Russians launching Sputnik makes much more sense in terms of worrying over falling behind. Sputnik was a real, impressive achievement that demonstrated an engineering capacity to create something that exceeded our own. If a rival of ours were to create a net-output fusion reactor, for example, then we might have cause for worry. Right now, I do not see much reason to fret.

The classroom will disappear

One of the most obvious features of college is also, in my opinion, one of the least useful. Classroom are not where real learning takes place: an average student in a lecture demonstrates about as much brain activity as they do when watching TV. In other words, a lecture can be interpreted as boring entertainment. On the other hand, the brain is much more engaged when playing video games because they are interactive, just as it would be easy to stay focused when a zombie is trying to eat your brains. They require an immediate response.

So, why did I title the post as I did? I think that the classroom is eventually going to be replaced by a new model enabled by better technology.

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have given a brief glimpse of the new direction, but they are only the smallest step in this new direction. Video games are a better model here. So imagining we can provide content to each student individually which is already possible in MOOCs, what elements needs to be included to make this work?

(1) Something visual. Remember text-based adventure games? There’s a reason why everyone went to “video” games. They are more engrossing. Life is visual, so we probably need a visual element. What would that look like? For military history, you could easily create a historically accurate real-time or turn-based strategy game. For engineering, you could create a visual solver geared towards education (several of which already exist with some limited functionality). It may be a little tougher for certain other genres, like literature, but you could potentially do some adventure game. This part is conceptually easier, even if tough to execute.

(2) The ability to tailor content to a person’s skills. This should be possible through a big data approach similar to how Amazon suggests new products. Other people who viewed the same things as you viewed this other thing as well, so you probably will too. In an educational context, this would be: others who got this problem wrong got similar problems right after being shown some other problem, therefore you will get that other problem next. Using this approach, you could probably do all learning via problems, with no need for lectures at all. Skeptical? Video games use that strategy to teach some pretty complex concepts. I think it could be done here too.

(3) A way to generate a massive amount of content. In order to use the big data approach, you would need an enormous bank of problems for any given topic. There is no way that a small team could generate enough problems to make this work, so we probably need some mechanism for user-generated problems.

(4) An error-finding tool or algorithm if we use user-generated content. There are generally a lot of errors in user-generated content, but certain techniques like level editors (in this case problem editors) in video games or the user review process used by Wikipedia can be used to iron those out.

(5) Immediate feedback. There is nothing more immediate than falling into a pit and getting a game over when you misjudge the jump, and so video games are excellent models for this. A huge problem that currently limits the usefulness of homework is the 1-2 week delay between doing the work and getting the feedback.

(6) Some obvious measure of advancement, like badges or levels or achievements. This is another reason why video games are so addictive. People put an enormous amount of time into incredibly frustrating tasks in order to get a badge. Think: like every game ever. It is sometimes incredibly frustrating to master a new concept, and this is an effective way to keep people invested.

The wonderful thing is that none of these elements are new. Everything has been done before, albeit in non-educational contexts. Therefore, there should be no reason why it couldn’t be implemented in education. Now all that remains is to do it (although that part will, as always, be a thorny problem).

Learning Without Obligation

I am currently in a very enjoyable class. There are no tests and no papers. We are not evaluated in any way for the knowledge that is presented in class. Where do we get our grades from? We are responsible for three presentations in front of the rest of the class: the first is on a chapter in the book, the second is on a research paper related to one of the chapters in the book, and the third is a group project based on a chapter in the book.

Despite having no obligation or responsibility over the material, I have never paid stricter attention than in this class. So, in terms of educational gains, I am learning a lot.

How could this be? Shouldn’t I be relieved and proceed to space out? There are a couple of factors that prevent this:

1. Technology use is forbidden: I can’t play computer games.
2. We have to evaluate our peers’ presentations: there is a minimum amount we need to pay attention to (alternatively, we could just make up our evaluations without penalty, but I don’t and I doubt my classmates do either).
3. There is discussion in the second half of class: there’s a possibility of sounding stupid during this part.

The above factors are not very strong but subtle enough to get the most important factor going:

As it turns out, this class is interesting

Without the obligation of needing to “learn” (or shall I say, “memorize”) terms, when they fit, when they don’t, when its used in a tricky way, or other ways it might be tested, I spend less time taking notes and straining to catch every word and more time relaxing, listening, and making eye contact with the speaker. The amount of effort used to stressfully “learn” is enough to tire anyone to just retreat, chat online instead, and cram later (at least you only have to do it once, instead of multiple times a week).

We run into some problems of course. How can we assess whether a student has learned anything? According to the current syllabus, it is obvious whether or not a student has learned their designated chapters according to their presentations. There is also some evidence that a student has learned according to their participation in the discussion. The second, however, is not guaranteed factual learning like a test might be.

However, what do we want out of a class?

Ask any student and they will tell you that for most tests, they cram hard and almost instantly forget everything they just “learned” once the test is over. Rather than memorizing the facts, perhaps it is more important to learn how to think in context with the subject. How do we solve problems in this field? How can we think about this? What are some strategies to tackle these problems in this subject? In order to answer these questions, facts are naturally needed and learned along the way (and it may encourage individual and extra research from the student). Although, a student may not be able to reproduce every single detail of the class, but is that really important?

Projects are the best way to demonstrate and practice thinking within a subject. Whether it’s an engineering design project, writing a short story, performing a literature review, or conducting a presentation, a student must have a grasp of the knowledge of the class and must know how to use it (which is arguably the important part) in order to produce a good product. Projects that are shared with peers often encourage even better results as their is an added responsibility for students to represent themselves well.

Bonus about projects: it allows a student room to go above and beyond the class’ expectations.

Publishers take ownership of research papers, instead of authors

Research, an essential part of a university and its faculty, could be at odds with legality. In a presentation at The Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech (2013), Robert Turner, a Librarian at Radford University, and Scott Turner, an associate professor of Computer Science at UNC Pembroke, brought to light the issue that many professors are probably illegally distributing and using content in their classrooms according to copyright laws on accident.


When a paper is published to a peer-reviewed journal, depending on the agreement that a researcher signed, that paper could be owned, 100%, by the publisher. This means that if a colleague was interested in your work, you might not be legally entitled to email him a copy of the PDF. However, the publisher may be kind enough to offer the author 20 or so copies to share with his peers. When teaching a class, a professor might not be able to even upload his own paper to Blackboard, Scholar, or whatever other online organizational medium his institution uses, which leads to the first tip to avoid trouble:

TIP #1

Use a direct link from the online journal instead of a PDF from your computer.

This works because it gives control of the distribution to the publisher. Of course, this comes with all sorts of inconveniences, such as: your colleague or students do not have access to the journal.

But this seems like a big Catch-22: to legitimize research, the author needs to submit it for peer review and then publish. However, once published, the author can’t even truly access their own paper because they no longer really own it. Credit is given to them, but they can’t distribute it if they wanted to. This is strange when, one of the major reasons to publish research in the first place is to improve upon previous research and suggest where new research should be conducted–essentially, we need to read each others work. So what can you do? Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to all of these journals when their employees, the professors and creators of these research papers, are not getting reconciled for their work. (Actually, review board members don’t really get paid either). The only people who get paid are the publishers. As most things are online already (and many people prefer them to be online), there is little to no cost for them “publishing” the work. So, here comes tip number 2:

FORGET THE OTHER TIP, JUST USE THIS ONE: THE TIP

Forget “publishing,” share your work freely with peer-reviewed open source publications, such as PLOS ONE.

Publishing it to a paying journal doesn’t make it any more legitimized and hides research papers making them inaccessible or inconvenient for the people who need it. We might be repeating a lot of work and wasting time. Information, is more powerful and important than the money (which really only goes to the middle-man anyway).

A list of other open source, peer reviewed journals: http://www.firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/index

A successful strategy to avoid the “Why?”

Parents often hate answering the question “why?” when their children suddenly become obsessed with that word around the age of 4 (when they’ve gained enough vocabulary to understand and to express themselves fairly well).  Parents usually find it annoying: children ask that question constantly–to even the littlest things–AND it lasts forever:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Because it’s the object of the game.”
“Why?”
“Because it says so on the box.”
“Why?”
“Because its hard to pull out pieces.”
“Why?”
“because…don’t you have something else to do?

Over the summer, I visited my cousin’s family where they have a 4-year-old son.  There I learned the magical wisdom of

how to avoid it:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Why do you think, Johnny?”
“Because when it is knocked over you can’t play anymore?”
“Yes, Johnny! That’s exactly right!”

The important difference here is to ask the question back.  Chances are, the child either already knows the answer (or at least knows something very close to the answer) or can figure it out.  In learning, it is important to clarify the answers that the child provides to his own question.  This can be done by asking bonus questions:

“Johnny, why do you think the Jenga tower would get knocked down?”
“Because its hard to pull out the pieces without it falling over?”
“Yes, Johnny! Why might it be hard?”
“Because when you pull one from this side, the other side gets tipped over?”
“That’s right! It gets tipped over because the tower is out of balance. See? Its uneven.”
“Why is it uneven?”
“Why do you think?
“There are less on this side than that side?
“That’s absolutely right! Great job, Johnny!”

Bonus questions = bonus points for parenthood: Now the child has some knowledge of basic mechanics.

Learning Like Water: The End

I attempted to learn like water this semester of college, and I do not think it worked. Here’s why.

I missed things.

Like a quiz, a final exam, numerous hand outs, and about 60% of the total lecture time.

I am sure that missing a final exam caught your attention. Yes, it happened. One of my professors decided in class to unofficially change the final exam time (with unanimous approval), and I did not hear about it. Since it was unofficial, he let me take the exam at a different time. Phew. I also missed an in-class quiz.

In some classes missing the lectures was a bigger issue than in others. One of my classes had no textbook and the material was pretty obscure (read: tough to find online), so it was here that I had the most trouble. The professor posted about half of his notes online, but I relied heavily on other students for the other half. I prefer not to need to mooch off everyone else’s efforts. I am not sure how to handle this obscure-material problem.

I did not focus well enough.

My original plan was to use class time to study on my own. That ended quickly when I had assignments due right after a class. In those cases, learning the new material took a backseat (who would have guessed?). I have a feeling that the structure is a problem here, but I have not identified the exact reason.

I could not shrink it to two weeks.

At the beginning of the semester, I proposed my compressed-schedule idea to each of my professors. Each said some variation of “you are welcome to get ahead, but you cannot get behind.” In other words, I could only conduct my experiment if I was willing to do a whole class in two weeks AND do two weeks worth of all of my other classes. That would require a huge amount of extra work at the beginning of the semester, and by the time I got to the last class at the end of the semester I would have little left to learn in that class. Not quite what I hoped for, to say the least, so that idea died. Oh well.

Even if the pieces had all been in place…

I still do not think it would have worked too well. I was unable to stay disciplined enough to stick with the program I designed. I have either average or slightly above average willpower, so it probably would be a problem for many other people too. That, combined with the constraints of college classes, makes this seem pretty impractical. But at least it was interesting and it did not hurt my GPA.

Next semester’s experiment.

I still think that lectures are a poor learning tool. What other tools could enhance the value of a lecture? Here is my next plan: come up with a problem to solve during each class. Ideally, it would be a homework problem that I could work on during the lecture on that material, but I may just have to settle for a random book problem which may or may not save me time on homework.

Here are the benefits: class time is spent actively problem solving, I will not miss any announcements or quizzes, I’ll notice the thorny problems as they are taught, and I will be able to use the lecture to reference concepts as I practice.

I will flesh out the details in mid-January before the semester starts. Comments welcome!