Tuesday, October 2, 2007

CRA Award

In 2005, I received CRA's Outstanding Undergraduate Award (my citation, with a nicely kempt picture).

I have been asked a bunch of times (most recently yesterday) for "insider" tips, my nomination materials, opinions etc. So why not post all of these publicly on the blog, to promote competition...

Here is the research statement and the CV that I submitted back then (2004). It's nice to see the CV has changed a bit since then, not only in the contact info section ;)

Below is some "advice" and personal opinions that I wrote in emails. But there is a catch that you must be aware of -- I certainly did not have a typical application. I had a bunch of research even back then, and I got the award based on work in my sophomore year, which is very very atypical. Thus, you can either think that (1) the application was good enough to earn me the award so early, so my advice is trustworthy; or (2) my circumstances were sufficiently weird that the application didn't really matter, so my advice is worthless.

For what it's worth it, here was the formula I used:

  • I got the advice (maybe it was even official advice from CRA) to describe carefully what my contribution was on the papers, so I do that to some extent in the statement. At a later stage in life (post PhD), this would probably be unusual.

  • I was also told that some contribution to humanity might not hurt, so the CV emphasized my involvement in organizing high school computer olympiads. Still I decided not to dramatize it too much.

  • I did not mention intended future work, broader impact, and the like. My reasoning was that empty talk is a skill that senior researchers need to develop for grants. It is understood that empty talk is needed, so including it will not hurt your reputation.

    But if young students write the kind of things we normally write in grants, they end up looking sily and childish. They should compete based on objective things they actually did, and get some respect based on objective criteria before the hype can begin.
Looking at the research statement in retrospect, I severely underestimated the impact of my predecessor lower bound with Mikkel (then in the writing). That was a fundamental paper --- the first separation between quasilinear space (say, n polylg n) and polynomial space (say n2). In data structures, all the action tends to happen below quadratic space, so this paper has already generated a lot of fall-out, and will probably be remembered into the future.

Still, the fact that I did not speculate on future impact was probably the right thing to do. As I said already, I believe the tone of a statement at the student level should be strongly objective.


Anonymous said...

I'd congratulate you on the impressive award, but it looks like you've already done that yourself. :)

As you might expect, the most important factors are the letters of recommendation describing the quality of research. The application material itself is a second-order term.

Mihai said...

the most important factors are the letters of recommendation describing the quality of research.

Everybody says that, so there might be some truth to it. In any case, I assume whoever seeks advice is not in charge of their own recommendation, so what they can influence is the 2nd order term.