Insightful advice for academia from WICSE

Today I attended the WISCE Berkeley-Stanford annual meetup and there was quite a bit I learned that I think applies to anyone in the field, so I wanted to share it here (along with more women-specific things). In particular, I found the academia panel to be very insightful and wise. Here were the key points.

First off, there are lots of resources specific to women + careers in EECS from an annual conference called Rising Stars in EECS. It’s neat because the talks are all online and the advice is quite specific to EECS and covers both academia and industry.

The panelists

The first invited panelist is Professor Ruzena Bajcsy (Berkeley), who has been in the field for 40+ years and thus has been through many of the shifts through the generation. The second panelist is Professor Tsu-Jae King Liu (Berkeley, current EECS department chair). She was immediately asked a bunch of questions about time management, chair responsibilities and whatnot, to which she says that of course being chair is a lot of work and easily takes up half of her time. The third and last panelist is Dr. Sadia Afroz (Berkeley, current postdoc).

Shifts in academia

When asked about what the biggest changes in academia have been, Ruzena commented that she’s noticed almost an obsession with money among young researchers… people are always talking about their salary, grant funding, etc. She cautioned (and reminded) us that she chose academia because she wanted to do her own projects, to think independently… not to be led where the money lies.

Advice for new faculty

Ruzena, now 80+ years old, still advises a full lab, comes to work every day, stays fully engaged in the community and the field. I find it remarkable and admirable and awesome. When asked the question “What advice would you give a new young faculty?” she gave the advice: you really want to have a job where every day you are happy to go to work. She commented that she is literally happy to come into the lab every day, including weekends (our meetup was on a Saturday). Specific to academia, she advised that if you are not curious, don’t like teaching, don’t like exploring wild ideas (and keep in mind that many of those ideas won’t work out), don’t do it.

A lot of these qualities actually ring true with me. I love teaching, mentoring; I like exploring new ideas, I like thinking about the future, and certainly I’m curious. But at the same time, it’s really important to me that the things that I work on see the light of day and actually make a real difference in people’s lives. So I asked the question: is curiosity in conflict with broad impact? It seems clear to me that, at some point, if you want to carry an idea out further and broader, then you need to spend the time and effort to invest in that single idea… which of course detracts from other curiosities. So then is academia still suitable if your life drive is the impact and results rather than the curiosity?

Ruzena’s response was actually unexpected but heart-warming and wise. So, Ruzena had just seen the talk I presented at this meetup, which was focused on developing large urban systems. In my particular context, she agreed that academia is probably best suited for this type of work because it can connect me with a wide group of people in many different related fields, and this is necessary since urban systems touch on so many different studies, e.g. EECS, civil engineering, urban planning, economics, public policy, etc. But more generally, she advised that everyone take advantage of the breadth of courses and resources that are available to us (at a top school); to explore a bit because anything narrow that we learn now will become out of date. And so it is prudent to pick up a breadth of skills.

Nice gals lose?

Often times, women (and actually many people in EECS) feel like they need to be more aggressive in order to succeed, but feel conflicted because it is counter to their personality. When asked the question of “Should I be more aggressive if I want to attain professorship?”, Liu responded that confidence is everything; that the key is to develop confidence in your own abilities, over time and to recall that often times people are just curious… there’s no need to get defensive. In order to have people recognize you as an individual rather than as a woman is to have confidence from within, display that confidence, and engage in conversations.

Advice for yourself?

The next question was: now, putting yourself back in your own shoes as a grad student, what’s one piece of advice that you’d give yourself, in order to succeed in academia? Ruzena responded succinctly: learn as much mathematics as you can. Liu’s advice was to really get to know your classmates; in fact, that also helps with building confidence. Sadia’s response was to not be afraid to ask questions, make the critical comments about other people’s work — to not assume that other people know better — because often times, you will be right. And I full-heartedly agree with all of the responses. The bottom line is really to gradually build up your own confidence.

Relatedly, what’s one thing you did right?

To this, Liu responded with seeking out a good mentor, one who is separate from your academic advisor. This person should believe in you, be able to provide emotional support. Ruzena, being the only female in robotics at the time (eeeesh) and immersed in a somewhat WASP-y culture (white anglo-saxon protestant), simply tried to make friends, looking for those (male) colleagues who were open to equality. She slowly built up a network and community for herself, slowly but surely. It wasn’t revolutionary by any means, she commented, but she was really supported by this network despite the opposing culture. What we have here now with WISCE is not far off. It’s a great community of like-minded people, and it’s really important that we stick together and support one another.

Thanks to Alex Lee for feedback on this article!