Thursday, February 25, 2010

Beta release of Votail

The first beta release of Votail is now available. Votail is an implementation of Ireland's method of Proportional Representation by Single Transferable Vote (PRSTV). The functional requirements derived from Irish electoral law are specified using Business Object Notation (BON) and the Java Modeling Language (JML). Formal methods have been used to verify the correctness of the software.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 8

What kind of collaborator is your potential supervisor? Are most of their research papers written with their PhD students, with colleagues within their own university, with researchers elsewhere, or by themselves? Is their name the last name listed on every paper that comes out of their research group, or are they first authors on several? The answer to these questions gives you indirect evidence as to which type of collaborator they are.
Personally, I try to find a nice balance between these different strategies, avoiding the "my name goes on every paper because it is my research grant" approach that some supervisors demand. Some papers from my group are solely authored by yours truly (e.g., "Formally Counting Electronic Votes (But Still Only Trusting Paper)""); others are co-written by nearly every member of my research group because everyone pitched in and helped, each finding a facet that fit their strengths and interests (" CLOPS: A DSL for Command Line Options").
But not all supervisors work this way. In all honesty, some supervisors, due to over-commitment or neglect, only meet with their students once a quarter, even when their students are begging for supervision. Some you have to book a month in advance for a half and hour, and even then you are not guaranteed that they show up.
Others have an open door policy and, even though they have very full agendas, make time for their students whenever they are needed. I try to be this latter kind of supervisor, but on rare occasion I feel like the former.
The kind of supervisor that is always "missing" is actually a good supervisor for some kinds of PhD students. Hard-working, independent students who like to drill down on a topic for weeks or months in between taking breaths of air with nudges from their supervisor work well in such groups. But if you are the hand-holding type that wants lots of face-to-face time with your supervisor, or you do not really know what you love to do and are good at in research, I would suggest you stay away.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 7

11. Attitude toward IP and Technology Transfer
Some researchers focus entirely on "pure" research, where one follows the research to its very end, damn the consequences or application. Others enjoy "applied" research, where the use and utility of the research is under direct consideration, and often guides, and sometimes even terminates, the work. These agenda extremes are extremely valuable, and we perform both in my research group.
But for research to see the light of day---for it to be in the hands of governments, companies or, dare I say it, the "public," research needs a evangelist, a support network, and a trusted base of experts. This is where those dreaded words, to some, like "spin-offs," "licensing," "copyright," "trademark," "patent," "lawyer," "venture capitalist," and more come to the fore.
What is your, and your potential supervisor's attitude toward Intellectual Property (IP), both with regards to the law and the state of practice, and what are your attitudes toward Technology Transfer (i.e., moving research from a lab to a real company)? Should research be publicly funded, open, and available to all immediately, whatever its use, utility, value, or impact? Should research be co-financed by public or private corporations, with explicit commercialization aims? Something in-between?
Does your supervisor know the state of software patents in the EU? Process patents in the USA? How and when to conduct a patent search? How to write, a better yet, obtain patent from the USPTO? Do they know how copyright law impacts scientific writing? Programming? Do they know when to choose a GPL, a BSD, or an X11-style license, and why?
Does your supervisor sit on any corporate boards? Are they a founder of a startup? Is that company still running? Did it raise a significant amount of capital? Attract a following? Make an impact? Are you interested in someday commercializing research?
Does any of this matter to you at all? If not, why not?

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 6

10. Gender Balance and Attitudes
What kind of attitude does your potential supervisor have to gender balance and women in computing? Besides the obvious gender equality statements one can expect, are they actively supporting or promoting women in computing?
In many branches of computing and engineering, and in North American and most of central to northern Europe, the ratio of women to men in computing is quite low. Happily, some researchers work in areas that, for a variety of reasons, are more attractive to women researchers and students than others. Others have a more difficult situation: for example, the number of active, visible women researcher in my sub-discipline worldwide is on the order of a couple of dozen.
How can this situation be addressed? Should this situation be worrisome? Do we need more women in computing, and if so, how do we achieve this goal? Attitudes about and answers for these questions classify supervisors as managers in sometimes surprising ways.
Personally, I come from research groups that had decent, but not fantastic, female representation. The groups I worked with at UMass and Caltech had perhaps 1 in 5 ratio. But ever since then I have had less success. This frustrates me.
For the past five years I have actively tried to recruit woman PhD students and postdocs. But of the perhaps 300 "cold" applications I have received and reviewed for hiring, I have only seen about 5 women applicants. I have also pursued hiring a handful of woman researchers, but none of these cases were successful.
I also give special invited lectures to woman undergraduate students and have participated in summer internship programs that focus on under-represented groups in computing (e.g., women, African-Americans, Hispanics, etc.). But all of these activities seem to have come to naught, at least in a direct and immediate fashion into my research group.
Obviously, if you are an outstanding potential PhD student or postdoc and wish to work with me, please get in touch!

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Choosing a Supervisor, part 5

Aside: Over the past few weeks I have been in the middle of a vacation in the USA, a move of my family to Denmark, and starting a new job at ITU. Apologies for the silence in posting.
9. Young vs. Old
Your potential supervisor typically must have a PhD, so this means that they are an "experienced" researcher, but how old are they? On the young side, typically a supervisor is of at least 25/28 years (EU/USA) in age. On the older side, since retirement ages vary from country to country, your potential supervisor might be nearing or into their 70s, or even their 80s. While it is inappropriate to discriminate based upon age, your potential supervisor's age does have repercussions.
Is your potential supervisor nearing retirement? Are they the super-star having just earned their PhD themselves? Something in between?
Supervisors that are at either end of the age spectrum present potential problems, none of which are insurmountable nor intimidating, but should be reflected upon.
A very young supervisor might have little-to-no experience with supervising research themselves. Some universities and supervisors insist that their PhD students gain some experience with supervision, either of undergraduates or MSc students, but this is by no means the norm. Likewise, many quality new professors in the USA obtained their positions directly out of graduate school, so they never held a postdoc position wherein they might have co-supervised a PhD student, a situation that is much more common in the EU.
Also, while one might communicate with a young supervisor more naturally, since you may be in (nearly) the same age group/generation, some people have difficulty working for and respecting a boss that is nearly the same age (or younger!) than themselves. This can be particularly problematic for returning students---can you work for a professor that is a decade your junior?
The dual of this situation is working with a supervisor that is several generations your elder. While they may have enormous amounts of experience and have graduated dozens of PhD students, their core attitudes and perceptions may reflect a different age. This can especially become a tricky situation in fast-moving fields like computing, where research that is five years old is sometimes considered ancient.
Also, to be blunt, an older supervisor may choose to retire, or may have health problems that lead to troublesome situations late in your career. What happens if you are in the final stretch of your PhD and your supervisor decided to retire and move to Florida or, in the worst case, passes away? What is your contingency plan for such a situation?

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