which can energize those on the lonely
trail to a Ph.D. My view now is that it’s
not the dissertation topic so much as
what students do with it.
Here are four pieces of advice for
advisors: help if they stumble, aid non-native speakers, try co-advising, and offer lifelong mentoring.
Help if they stumble. Students may
underperform not because they lack
ability but because they come to think
that “good enough” is OK. Have a heart-to-heart discussion where you point
this out and ask if they agree, and from
now on they’re expected to perform to
the best of their ability. The book The
One Minute Manager offers advice on
handling such touchy situations successfully for all involved.
One colleague asks students that
seem stuck to send him a daily report
about their research and progress. Some
days it could just summarize a paper or
talk, or even “I didn’t do anything.” He
finds that three to four weeks of this often gets them back on track.
When students really stumble in the
program and stop making progress,
I have had luck with sending them to
industry for a six-month leave, as three
months may not be enough to do something significant. Twice students have
come back fired up knowing what they
want to do for their dissertation and,
perhaps more importantly, why they
want to do it. A third student decided to
stay in industry. That was likely a good
decision, as I didn’t look forward to trying to drag him across the Ph.D. finish
line if he didn’t return with a greater
sense of purpose, and I’m not sure he
would have graduated if he wasn’t reinvigorated.
Berkeley CS faculty members hold
two meetings a year to review the progress and give feedback to all Ph.D. students. Students meet with advisors
beforehand to set mutually agreed
upon milestones. Hearing others both
praise and criticize your students provides a valuable perspective, and collectively we develop ideas on how to
help students in need. Reviews also
ensure that no student falls through
the cracks. Occasionally, after several
warnings, we tell students that their
progress is so slow that they should
drop out. In more than one instance,
these letters lit fires under lethargic
students and they filed their disserta-
have others with
whom to interact.
tions soon thereafter.
Aid non-native speakers. Non-native
English speakers can offer another set
of challenges. As far as I can tell, they
just need practice speaking and writing
English. (I wish this need were limited
to non-native English speakers!) Strunk
and White’s The Elements of Style is my
writing bible, which I share with all my
students. Some colleagues have had
luck hiring graduate students from
other parts of campus to work with CS
graduate students to improve their writing. One colleague suggests making
sure that if they share an apartment that
their roommates don’t speak the same
language so that they are forced to speak
English. I am trying an experiment to
improve the diction of an international
student by having him take a course
outside the university called “Learn to
Speak like an American.”
Try co-advising. As part of our new
open labs, we are also trying joint advising. I hear my co-advisors offer great advice that I wish I’d said, and I hope vice
versa. Co-advising also has the benefit
that when one advisor is traveling there
is someone else to meet with the student. It also makes advising more fun
for everyone involved. I believe it works
well if the advisors meet with the student simultaneously, so that they give
consistent advice. (From my long years
of experience in academia, I’ve learned
you get just as much credit whether you
are the sole advisor or if you co-advise a
Mentorship doesn’t end at graduation.
After investing five or six years training
an apprentice, it must be worthwhile
to spend a little more time after graduation to help him or her succeed. I offer to give a talk at their new institution
to give them one last shove in the right
direction. Danny Cohen recently asked
for advice from Ivan Sutherland—who
supervised his 1968 thesis—adding
that Danny views advisor is a lifetime
job. I agree. I still offer advice to, and
receive it from, my former students. (In
fact, my former student Mark Hill suggested I write this Viewpoint.)
advising in Retrospect
When I was finishing my Ph.D., I read
a book based on interviews of people
talking about their jobs to help decide
what I would do next. 5 What I learned
from the book was that people were
happy with their careers if they designed or built objects that lasted, such
as the Empire State Building or the
Golden Gate Bridge, or if they shaped
people’s lives, such as patients or parishioners. Thus, I went into the job of
assistant professor with the hypothesis
that my long-lasting impact was not
the papers but the people.
Thirty-two years later, I can confirm
that hypothesis: your main academic
legacy is the dozens of students you
mentor, not the hundreds of papers
you publish. My advice to advisors is
to get your students off to a good start,
create stimulating research environments, help them acquire research
taste, be a good role model, bolster student confidence, teach them to speak
well publicly, and help them up if they
stumble, for students are the real coins
of the academic realm.
1. allen, t.J. and henn, g. The Organization and
Architecture of Innovation: Managing the Flow of
Technology. Butterworth-heinemann, 2006.
2. Blanchard, k.h. and Johnson, s. The One Minute
Manager. William morrow, 1982.
3. carnegie, d. How to Win Friends and Influence People.
4. strunk, W., and White, e.B. The Elements of Style, 4th
ed. longman, 1999.
5. terkel, s. Working: People Talk About What They Do
All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
Pantheon Books, random house, new york, 1974.
David A. Patterson ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the
Pardee Professor of computer science at u.c. Berkeley
and is a fellow and a past president of acm.
i’d first like to thank former students for advice on this
Viewpoint: remzi arpaci-dusseau, Pete chen, mike dahlin,
garth gibson, and mark hill. additional thanks to mark
hill for suggesting developing this Viewpoint about Ph.d.
advising. the following Berkeley colleagues improved
the draft version of this material: krste asanovic, ruzena
Bajsky, armando fox, ken goldberg, marti hearst, Joe
hellerstein, thomas henzinger, david hodges, randy katz,
Jitendra malik, John ousterhout, alberto sangiovanni-Vincentelli, ion stoica, Jonathan shewchuk, and alan
smith. finally, i’d like to thank everyone who worked with
me on the projects listed in the table for helping nurture