Contents

Milestones

This document focuses on deliverables and milestones in two sections: those specific to our lab and those for all grad students in the department.

Lab Deliverables

Every semester our lab engages in goal setting, reporting, and 1-on-1 reflection/planning meetings.

Goals and Planning

You would never build a house without a set of blueprints. Along the way you may (almost certainly will) make some changes, but it is much easier to make changes on existing blueprints as compared to making changes with only a vague plan. There is no one right approach to goal setting, but there are some important common principles including goal setting, planning, and accountability. In the following I will use an analogy of learning in a classroom environment, since that is something we are all familiar with and the semester is a natural period for our goal setting.

  1. Goals (e.g., semester goals). If you don’t know where you want to end up then all the daily planning will be aimless. For our classroom analogy these would be course outcomes. You need to step back and think about your research and focus on what is essential and impactful. There are a lot of good things one could do, but you need to make sure you are focused on what is best and let nonessentials drop away. This requires careful thinking and some time away from the thick of things. Long term goals should be aspirational, important objectives, and should have associated measurable outcomes (or key results) that support those objectives. We have a google doc, shared across the lab, to enter our goals each semester. It generally isn’t helpful to list things that will happen anyway. Key results are outcomes, not the habits or means to get you there. Sometimes it is helpful to pair a quantity key result with a quality key result.

  2. Planning. This is the roadmap to help you achieve your goals. Without this plan it is hard to know if your weekly/daily activities are on track (until you get close to the end and panic-mode sets in). In our classroom analogy this is the syllabus where the lectures, homework, and exams are placed on a calendar. This level of planning forces you to grapple with what needs to happen, and what needs to be dropped. You should describe your week to week activities and set a few key milestones (like exams in the syllabus analogy). These key milestones will help you track towards your semester goals. You don’t need to go into great detail, just like a syllabus doesn’t go into details of an individual lecture, but do need to have a feasible plan. Format is up to you. Some people like Gantt charts, simple lists, calendars, etc. While key results generally don’t change for the semester, the plan to get there needs constant attention and revision (at least weekly).

  1. Accountability. It’s hard to make progress without some accountability. In the classroom analogy if you didn’t have intermediate deadlines to turn in homework and other assignments, it is unlikely you would achieve the learning outcomes you set out to achieve. Find what works for you, but at a minimum you should: 1) report on weekly goals each week at lab meeting, and 2) discuss the past semester goals and the upcoming goals during our end-of-semester meetings. Don’t worry if you’re not always achieving your weekly goals. In fact if you always are then they may not be ambitious enough. Conversely, if you are consistently not meeting your goals you may need to rethink your plan. By regularly reporting these patterns will become clearer to you. You may want to seek other forms of accountability: journaling, regular check-ins with someone else in the lab, etc.

Semester Reports

This is less a report, but more a summary of what you accomplished that semester. The summary may take many forms and will usually be more than one thing: a document of derived theory, a literature review, a defended prospectus, passed qualifying exams, a submitted paper or revisions to a paper, a submitted abstract, a presentation, a post on social media, code that was developed or documented or registered, mentoring, TA’ing, etc. Including everything relevant.

You have great latitude in how you report. The guiding principles are these:

  1. Accountability and reflection. It is vitally important to regularly look back at what we accomplish and to share that. Doing so helps us celebrate the wins, identify opportunities for improvements, and calibrate our ability to plan going forward. It’s hard to see the accumulation without stepping back and it is good to take a moment and appreciate what you’ve accomplished. Reflecting on our progress against our original goals helps us to improve our ability to set goals and plan. You might consider sharing your report to the group, rather than sending directly to me, though you are not required to. It can be helpful for others to catch up on what you’ve been working on.

  2. Feedback. This is an opportunity for you to receive feedback, and that can include anything from theory, code, writing, goal setting, mentoring, etc. Not everything you report needs feedback, but for those things you want a close look at, be sure to note that. When theory or conceptual errors are caught early you will save a lot of time. Getting regular feedback is a good way to progress faster.

  3. Drafts and clarity. The format and level of polish will appropriately vary widely depending on the stage and purpose of the document. No need to polish something just for the purpose of this report. A report should only require a minimal amount of extra effort, just assembling what you’ve already done. Drafts are the norm, bullet points, presentations, whiteboard photos, notebooks, and other mediums are sometimes the most suitable. What is important is to be clear, particular for items you are seeking feedback on.

1-on-1

At the end of each semester (or beginning of next semester) be sure to schedule a 1-on-1. At a minimum we should reflect on the previous semester including goals, accomplishments, feedback, and discuss plans, goals, and ideas for the upcoming semester.

Department Milestones

This page overviews some of the milestones you will need to go through as a graduate student. I do not provide details on the logistics, those you can find in the department graduate handbook, rather I am imparting some advice I frequently repeat to new graduate students. These are my own views, not all faculty members will view the purposes of these milestones the same way.

Course Selection

My main advice is to choose courses you are interested in. You will learn more and have a more satisfying experiencing if you follow your interests. You may even find some ideas in an unrelated field that help you with your research. Of course, you will also need to take classes that are directly related to your research, but presumably you are interested in those anyway (otherwise you picked the wrong research topic). See Learning > BYU Courses for some suggestions.

Don’t take more than 2 classes per semester. There just isn’t time for that. Take your classes seriously, but remember that research is always a higher priority over classes. It can be too easy to linger in the relative safety of classes where there are often known answers and more immediate feedback from homework scores, but you have to prioritize the more important but much harder open-ended questions with no known solution and delayed feedback from research. This can be a hard transition for undergraduate students.

If you are a PhD student you will almost certainly find a few interesting and useful classes that won’t count towards your degree (e.g., a 400-level CS class, a business class). Take them anyway! (within reason). Although if they aren’t relevant to your research, you should save them until after you complete your program of study. If you are a MS student, unfortunately there just isn’t time, but fortunately one or two 400-level technical classes can count for you.

I’d also recommend taking advantage of the unique opportunity you have to take fun 0.5 credit classes like tennis, bowling, martial arts, etc. Good for the body and mind. (again, within reason)

A typical course registration looks like the following:

Taking 1 credit every semester/term should put you on track to complete the necessary thesis/dissertation credits. Some adaptation will be necessary if gone for a summer internship or if you are an international student (don’t register during spring/summer)

Committee

Your research will have some aspects that are outside your advisor’s areas of expertise. The purpose of a committee is to provide additional expertise in those areas and to provide broader feedback and direction within the same field. Select other faculty that would be helpful to you. You don’t need to meet with them regularly to report or anything like that. They are a resource to help you, so meet with them when they can help you with something. It’s ok if you don’t know them. As long as your topic crosses their expertise in some way, they will be happy to help. All of us serve on a wide variety of thesis/dissertation committees, in most cases with students that we did not know previously.

Attending Conferences

When you attend a conference please write a short summary (just a paragraph) for each talk you attend. This will help you learn more deeply (not just listen and leave) and by sharing your notes with the group after the conference you will be helping others find some relevant papers.

Publishing

This is your main marker of progress. See the section on publishing.

Prospectus

You will need to write a prospectus during your graduate work, which is essentially a short proposal. Writing a proposal is different than writing a scientific paper. A proposal is intended to be a persuasive argument (rather than a presentation of results and an illumination of their implications). You need to persuade the reader that the problems you are trying to solve are important, that you’ve carefully thought through how you will accomplish the work, and that you have the resources and training you need to succeed. You must have a solid plan, but don’t worry that it must be cast in stone. Like all research projects you should expect that there will be deviations. The purpose is to help you plan ahead and think about the bigger picture. Rather than think of this as a one-time document, you should think of it as one step in what should be periodic reflection and replanning to align with what is most impactful and essential.

Make sure you explicitly answer the following questions in any proposal, as these are the criteria an evaluator will use to judge its merit. These questions come from George H. Heilmeier, a former DARPA director:

Other advice related to addressing these questions in your prospectus:

Qualifying Exams (PhD)

If you take your preparation seriously, this can be a transformative part of your education. A PhD student needs to demonstrate impactful and original research (primarily demonstrated through your dissertation), and needs to demonstrate a broad understand of fundamentals (primarily demonstrated through qualifying exams). In other words, this is a major milestone. The goal is not to pass the exams. The goal is to develop a solid understanding of fundamentals. You should be so well prepared that the exams are a mere formality. If you are diligent in your preparation you will lay a foundation of knowledge that you will build on throughout your career. You will strengthen your ability to learn new things independently—an essential skill in an ever changing world. You will also find great satisfaction in your deepened level of understanding and greater confidence to move forward into new areas of learning. There will likely never be another opportunity in your life to dedicate your time and focus so completely to subject mastery in this way, so although it is hard be sure to take advantage of it!

You need to start your preparation at least one semester prior to taking the exams. Start slow and ramp up. I strongly recommend studying with a group. It can be helpful to take turns working problems out on the board in front of the group. A group provides feedback (essential so that you don’t unknowingly learn something incorrectly!), encouragement, and can help you gather a broader set of problems to test your understanding. During the semester of quals, I recommend taking a lighter course load. Maybe just one class, unless the two classes are both helpful in your quals preparation.

Thesis/Dissertation

For a PhD Dissertation your focus should be on journal papers. As a rule of thumb, it takes four journal papers in a specific area to develop the requisite expertise. These four papers form the core of the dissertation, and often are inserted directly as four chapters (with annotations for where they were published). Alternatively, some people like to pull out common intro/conclusion content from the four papers.

Surrounding these papers you will add a few new sections: 1) a unifying introduction, 2) a chapter or two after the introduction that describes fundamentals and background necessary for the rest of the dissertation, 3) a unifying conclusion, and 4) appendices that provide important details like lengthy derivations, model parameters, data sets, etc.

These new sections in the dissertation are different from their journal counterparts. For 1), a journal paper may only contain a few sentences, because the audience is subject matter experts in the journal’s topic. However, for a dissertation the audience is general and you should assume they come in knowing nothing about your topic. Motivations, themes, key concepts, etc., need to be described.

For 2), a journal is space limited so for well-known methods we don’t reiterate all the details, but rather provide just enough info that one could still reasonably reproduce. In a dissertation one generally goes into full and complete detail on most everything. A good rule of thumb is that the dissertation should stand alone (i.e., one shouldn’t have to refer to other references to figure out derivations or reproduce your results). You’ll still have references of course (lots), but anything key from those references should be in the document. This means that some of the background you add isn’t necessarily novel, but like a textbook, is repackaged in a way that adds clarity and connection to your topic. This is probably the most important contribution of your dissertation. The main chapters are all available in journal papers elsewhere (and most people will go to the journal versions), but your dissertation contains excellent detail to help someone get up to speed in your area. This is something you can and should be writing throughout your years as a graduate student. It represents your unique acquired body of knowledge.

For 3), the conclusion should be comprehensive across all the papers, and should clearly highlight your unique contributions to the field.

You should have all necessary detail to reproduce your work. Some of that info is too lengthy or not appropriate in the main text, and that is what the appendix is for. For big data sets, or code, hyperlinked archived data sources are usually preferable to typed out versions.

An MS Thesis is similar to described above, but with an expectation of one journal paper. In contrast to PhD students, MS students will probably want to start with the thesis (writing as you go) and then distill to a journal paper at the end.

The Last Year

Most graduate students underestimate the time required to conduct a proper job search. For a PhD student a job search might span two semesters (less for an MS student). Visits typically include presenting at a seminar and interviewing with people across multiple levels for a full day or two. Preparation is needed to deliver an effective presentation, to learn what you can about the organization/people beforehand, and to prepare relevant questions. The preparation, travel, and interviewing can take a better part of a week, and you’ll likely do this more than once.

You’ll want to apply to multiple places. Even if a certain group is interested in you, circumstances can change quickly. While leveraging your network is always helpful, this is especially important at the PhD level. In fact many PhD-level positions aren’t available from an internet search and are created specifically when the right person comes along. Receiving your first job offer is exciting, but don’t feel pressured to take it just because it is there. More than the name of the company/organization you will want to make sure there is a strong fit with the specific team you will be working with, including your direct supervisor(s). Those relationships will have a bigger impact on your working environment than the overall company/organization culture.

Knowledge/code transition is important. You’ll need to plan adequate time to document, train other students, integrate code with other lab code so that it can be used by others. As a PhD student you’re expected to leave behind a well-documented useful code packages that reflects the understanding and skill you’ve developed. If you’ve been following good practice, usually a couple weeks post dissertation is sufficient to finish documenting, testing, registering, etc. More time may be needed if your code is less well organized.

Depending on your funding source we may have some outstanding sponsor deliverables. Make sure to ask about any expectations in this area so that you can plan your time accordingly.

In short, don’t plan your graduation timing with only the defense/dissertation in mind. A robust job search, code packaging, and funding obligations are some important elements that we sometimes underestimate or don’t account for.

Defense

You need to submit your thesis/dissertation to your committee well before the defense (I believe it is a minimum of two weeks, but see the graduate handbook), and it needs to come to me for review 2 weeks before that. If you find things you need to fix after this date, do not send updates to your committee. Some of them will have started reading, and if only some members of your committee read the updates it will cause confusion and give the impression that your work is not ready. You will have an opportunity to make changes afterwords. Like journal reviews there will almost certainly be comments and suggestions for improvement.

I suggest preparing a handout with your slides printed on them (4 per page, double sided), one for each member of your committee. This will help your committee follow along and note their questions next to the slides. Put slide numbers on the slides. The committee will want to refer back to things and having numbers will make this much easier.

The notes on presentations are applicable to your defense. The only difference is a little more emphasis on clearly highlighting your contributions.