Archives for category: Faculty

You, my colleagues, are world-renowned researchers, entrepreneurs, educators, and leaders.   I’d feel presumptuous offering you my thoughts on how to pursue research, entrepreneurship, etc.   I might as well share my thoughts on basketball with Coach K.   Thus, I’m going to focus on an issue that I perhaps spend more time thinking about: why I love my job.  And yes, I do love my job – and not just because I can sit outside with a cup of coffee discussing new research ideas with brilliant students and call it “work.”

As professors in a department like Duke ECE, we have an unusual ability to shape our jobs.  We get to choose our research topics, our collaborators, our students, and the classes we teach.   We control our research group structures, and we can adjust how much time we devote to each aspect of our jobs.   We can even control how much time we devote to work and which hours we choose to work.  

Given that there is more that I’d like to do than I have time for doing well, I have tried to shape my job such that my time and energy are spent on the activities that I find most rewarding.

Mentoring Students

If I had to single out the part of my job that is the most fulfilling, it is seeing my former students succeed.  To paraphrase a co-advisor of mine, our most important products as professors are our students.  We have papers we’re particularly proud of, but we end up being most proud of our students.    

I have had the great joy of mentoring many wonderful PhD students and undergraduates.  I enjoy this part of my job and thus try to maximize my time for it.   (I have had a few students who were difficult and not terribly enjoyable to advise, but they were thankfully in the minority.)  I have intentionally kept my group fairly small—4 or 5 PhD students and 1 or 2 undergraduate research assistants—so that I have enough time to devote to each of them.  My meetings with my students are usually the highlights of my week, and I don’t believe I could manage more students and still have the same kind of relationships with them.  I fully realize that there are faculty, including colleagues here in Duke ECE, who can have more students and easily find time for all of them; I’m just not one of them.  Perhaps my group size will increase when my kids are older and want less of my time.  My group size decision is a conscious trade-off: there are certain projects that just can’t be done with a group of this size.


I very much enjoy teaching students who are genuinely interested in the topic, and I’m happy to devote time for that.  I still get a kick out of that moment when the students realize that computers aren’t magic.   At Duke, I’m extraordinarily lucky to teach a lot of superb students and relatively few slackers.  I have found it tremendously rewarding when former students contact me or visit me to tell me about how they have used what they learned in their jobs and in graduate school.   I do worry about eventually getting bored teaching the same courses over and over, but I hope that alternating among four different courses helps to stave that problem off.

The only part of teaching I dislike—other than grading, which I absolutely hate and thus delegate to TAs—is handling the requests for extensions, special consideration, make-up work, etc.   Early on I discovered I could solve this problem by having a single one-size-fits-all policy (summary: “No”), and I could live with being considered “inflexible” (or other less tactful words one finds in one’s teacher/course evaluations).  Then I discovered that I could pitch this policy as fairness, since how could I possibly judge the relative merits of 50 different excuses in a way that’s fair to all?   Students bought that explanation and it has saved me time that I can devote to other activities.  The only drawback is receiving less fodder for my Fault Tolerant Computing course, because I’m no longer told about as many instances of computers failing (or being stolen or possessed by gremlins) the night before assignments are due.

Service: Committees and Undergraduate Advising

Service is a necessary part of the job, but I doubt there are many of us who joined the department because of a burning desire to serve on the graduate studies committee.   But, given that service is necessary, the key has been finding service jobs where I care about the outcome and where I may have something unique to offer.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on IT committees because I rely on the IT infrastructure here and I’m often among the first ones to break a new service.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on a joint CS/CE committee because the relationship between CS and Computer Engineering (and ECE, as a whole) is important to me.  I was (relatively) happy to serve on faculty search committees because I care about who my new colleagues will be.  All of these service jobs were preferable to alternatives, some of which I wasn’t clever enough to escape.

Early on, I discovered that undergraduate advising was a bimodal experience.  I enjoyed advising ECE/CS double majors, and it was rewarding to be able to offer them useful career guidance and connect them to colleagues in academia and industry.  However, it was miserable to advise BME majors, because I had nothing to offer them.   A typical student question was something like “So, Prof. Sorin, what do you think of BME 273?”  I don’t think about BME 273.   (I offered less grouchy, but no more insightful, responses to the students.)   At one point it occurred to me that I could ask promising ECE/CS double majors in my classes to switch to be my advisees.  The key is making sure I take on enough new ECE/CS advisees so that the DUS doesn’t think I need any other advisees.   I tend to end up with perhaps a few more advisees than I’d otherwise have if I was passive, but the advising is far more rewarding this way.   (Yes, I realize that this approach isn’t scalable, so don’t all start doing this!)


One of the many aspects of Duke that drew me here was seeing that faculty could be highly successful and have families and lives.   I cherish the ability to leave Duke early and be with my kids from around 4:30 until their bedtime, knowing that I can get my work done later.    I consciously categorize my work into “must do at Duke” and “could do from home.”   I like that you, my colleagues, care about what a faculty member accomplishes without needing to compete to see who can spend the most hours visibly working at Duke.

Personal Freedom vs. Departmental Service

So everything is great, right?  We can shape our jobs in a way that we can be successful and apply our limited time and energy towards the activities we find most rewarding.  But what if we all shape our jobs to suit ourselves?  One problem is that we’d be unlikely to have a DGS, given that few of us would prioritize being DGS in terms of how rewarding it is (compared to, say, research).  OK, so we can “incentivize” jobs like this with perks, although I’ve not yet figured out what perks would be required to persuade me to take on that job.  But what about serving on committees?  What about teaching large, core undergraduate courses (instead of small graduate seminars)?  The operation of an academic department like Duke ECE fails Game Theory 101; the incentives are set up in a way that almost completely discourages time spent on service.  We are rewarded for our research contributions—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, our teaching—and thus time spent on service is clearly counter-productive.

So why does our department (usually) function well despite the presence of disincentives to service?  It’s because of you, my conscientious colleagues.  We tend to do “the right thing” even when it’s not in our interests.  It certainly helps that departmental leadership publicly recognizes our service, but I doubt most of us serve on committees because we’ll get recognized for that service.  It seems like we should need to readjust the incentive system to encourage service, but I have not reconciled this goal with the justifiable all-importance of research. 

Concluding Thoughts

Many colleagues of mine at other universities have left academia to take jobs in industry.  Although some of them left for the understandable reason of wanting a new challenge or for financial reasons, others have told me about how they couldn’t find enough time to do the parts of their jobs that they enjoyed the most.  I try to keep that thought in mind when I find myself drifting (“hey, that looks like it could be fun”) instead of being strategic with my time.   Perhaps that’s why I still love my job.


When I first visited Duke University more than 10 years ago as a faculty candidate, our current Chair, Larry Carin, was the host for my visit. I met several of our faculty members who have been at Duke for some time, as well as senior faculty members that had just joined the department (then-Chair April Brown and then-Director of the Fitzpatrick Center David Brady, among others). What impressed me the most was the enthusiasm that prevailed in the department, about the effort under way to establish a great academic unit with the core values of outstanding education and prominent research. As the recruiting process progressed, Larry recommended a book to me, Good to Great by Jim Collins, which was a very popular title at the time in business management. The book summarizes a research effort analyzing the case of 11 companies that have done extremely well compared to their peers and the general stock market for a period of over 15 years, trying to identify the critical elements that led to building such successful organizations. It was clear to me why Larry was interested in such a study, as this topic was in the minds of everyone in the ECE department at that period in time.

While it is impossible to tell the true predictive value of these types of postmortem analysis, there were some interesting and compelling points that were worth discussing. I certainly was intrigued by the prospect of building up a strong research effort and new educational initiatives in the department, and decided to come join the excitement. Having 10 years to look back upon our department that has gained substantial momentum along the way, it is an interesting exercise to see what aspect of those analyses were relevant to our department’s current path to success. The book describes six characteristics of these success stories, but I will ponder upon three or four that might be directly relevant to academic institution like ours.

Before I put together my random thoughts on these issues, I would like to share the insight some of our colleagues have shared in the “ECE Corner Office” section: I most strongly resonate with Richard Fair’s story on “Change, or Die”. All of our operating environment changes over time, either fast or slow, and the thriving organizations derive their success from how well they adapt to these changing conditions. Such changes often pose threats to successful organizations, yet provide opportunities for upcoming organizations to compete. All of these factors of success cannot be considered unless in the context of constant change: the Roman Empire did not last forever, and neither will the era of those dominant Engineering research/educational institutions of today, no matter how strong you feel their grip is in the current environment. Everything changes, and there lies our opportunity to build a great organization.

The first topic is the type of leadership that is common to these organizations with success. The authors term the type of leadership “Level-5”, characterized by individuals with extreme personal humility and intense professional will. They are the most modest people who never let her/his own ego get in the way of the success of the team/organization, nor quibble about trivial credit taking for personal gains (as the authors quote Harry Truman, “you can accomplish anything in life, provided that you do not mind who gets the credit”). At the same time, they move with incredible intensity when it comes to achieving success for the team or organization. I have personally been blessed with having two mentors I can confidently identify as “Level-5 leaders” throughout my professional training process prior to Duke (one is my thesis advisor, and the other is my manager of three years at Bell Labs). While they do not strive to attract the flashes of stardom, they focus on building the core ingredients of success with ferocious will, eventually achieving outstanding success. Many Nobel Laureates I know in person also feature such a leadership: throughout their career, they do not explicitly pursue the glories of Nobel Prize, but work tenaciously to achieve scientific progress which eventually lead them to such an honor. Look around our department, and you will see many such leaders quietly building up incredible momentum, whether it is the novelty in their cutting-edge research efforts or means to educate the future leaders of our society: I am sure these efforts will eventually lead to outcomes that will have a huge impact in our world.

The second topic is about the process of building the organization by attracting outstanding talent, which many of us can see as an important procedure towards a great organization. We typically struggle with the role of strategic planning to think about where the organization (department) should go, and finding adequate people with the right talent to achieve those strategic goals. One of their findings is somewhat striking (and counter-intuitive): they find in these success stories, that instead of defining a strategic direction and then getting people to get them there, these leaders have done things in the exactly opposite order. Making analogies to people getting on a bus to go to a great place, “they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus), and then figured out where to drive it”. They always begin with “who” rather than “what”, which make it easier to change directions and adapt to the changes that one will inevitably face down the road (remember the “Change or Die” comment from Richard!!). What is an important field of research will inevitably change in ten years, and we want people who can be successful in those future fields. More desirably, we want to have people who can define what will be an important field of research ten years from now, and naturally be the leaders in those fields by driving those changes. I believe we have done exceptionally well on this front. Looking at our faculty members that have joined the department since I came in 2004, we have assembled an outstanding group of people who have become leaders in the field since. We certainly got the right people on the bus without necessarily worrying about exactly where the bus will go (of course, that does not mean that we want the bus to be driven in random Brownian path!!): the classic example is myself, in the sense that I absolutely did not foresee that I will be working so heavily in quantum information science, nor gigapixel cameras, when I accepted the offer to come to Duke. After 10 years, we indeed have a pretty clear direction that our people should be driving towards: such direction as the big data and information analytics and system integration research (current developments in “Future Technologies” initiative). These are some new directions that have become clear opportunities for our department based on the talent and expertise we have accumulated in the past decade, that was not obvious when the these faculty members were brought to Duke. We face an exciting prospect of becoming leaders in these rapidly emerging fields by driving the cutting edge of change in these research fields. These days, I get into interesting discussions with my colleagues that I have the most respect for, on whether we should hire pure talent or strategically in certain areas of research. We are in a bit of a different place compared to 10 years ago: we have some directions along which we want to “drive the bus” now, defined by some great people that have come aboard our bus in the past decade and a half. At the same time, we cannot lose the sight of bringing the “right kind of talent” on board: those that do the most rigorous research yet are capable of pursuing new directions. One cannot build a leading organization by following others. The fact that everything changes works greatly in our favor: if we have people who take some risks and strives to be at the leading edge of those changes, that is the recipe of success for building a leading organization in the future.

The next topic is termed “Confront the brutal facts, yet never lose faith”. This topic indeed is about how organizations face the issue of “change”, especially if it is of the nature and magnitude that completely changes the landscape the operation of their organization stands on. Many organizations face this issue as the world is changing, and again, as our colleague Richard points out, one will die if they do not face the challenge and change. The successful organizations have recognized the nature of the changes that is impacting their existence, and “developed a simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of their decisions on in confronting these changes. The changes do not go away if you turn your head the other way. When confronted properly, these changes that are potential threats to one’s existence can turn into the greatest opportunities for success. We know of many great companies of the past, for example Kodak, Zerox and Nortel Networks, who have failed to see the change in the landscape (in these cases, shift to digital imaging and internet-based communication technologies) and disappear. Big changes of similar magnitude might be coming our direction, such as on-line education, federal funding environment for research, and higher education in developing countries, that might change the way Duke operates the education and research enterprise. We have to accept these changes as the new norm, and figure out an effective way to transform ourselves to not just survive but thrive in the new environment. I do not claim to know all the answers at this time, but feel that these crises might indeed turn out to be an opportunity for us to shine and rise to be the leadership status if we can learn to seize the changes and use them to our advantage.

The final topic that is of relevance is developing “simple yet deeply insightful frame of reference” to base all of the organization’s important decisions on. This insight must effectively answer the following three questions: “What can you be the best in the world at? What drives your economic engine? What are you deeply passionate about?” Among these three, the second one is highly relevant for the companies they analyzed (pursuing economic profit), but might be less relevant for an academic institution like ours. Although we cannot ignore the cost of operating an academic institution, I believe neither education nor research should be driven with economic profit as a metric. Our success should be measured by the success of people we train, whether they are undergraduate or graduate students, based on the impact they make in the society. So, we should paraphrase the questions as follows: What can we be the best in the world at, in which we are deeply passionate about, that will make our graduates the most successful once they leave Duke? If we can collectively come up with an answer to these questions and base all of our decisions based on that answer (faculty hiring, how to structure our educational programs, our research portfolio, and strategic initiatives), we should be able to make consistent decisions that will allow us to build an organization that best addresses these goals.

They describe the process of “good to great” transition as a slow yet steady momentum-building process, just like turning a large flywheel. The initial efforts to get the flywheel turning are enormous yet the results are not visible: but they are essential in building up the momentum to get things going. Such build-up process can be painful as the progress will necessarily seem very slow, but once the momentum builds up, spectacular results will follow. We have a lot of institutional experience on this front at Duke: Coach K had 10 years of build-up period before he could establish one of the greatest college basketball programs in the history of the game. While the long-term sustainability is yet to be seen, it took Coach Cutcliff over six years to achieve the success we witnessed this season. Duke’s highly visible educational programs, such as our professional schools and the signature undergraduate program, took a few decades to build up momentum and emerge into national eminence. We have definitely been building up a lot of momentum that is starting to show up in objective metrics (as Larry pointed out in the past few years). Our progress in undergraduate education is based on a long track record of our excellent teaching, as well as important initiatives such as the curriculum reform from 10 years ago that has led to our current educational structure. Based on these momentum-building measures, we have recently cracked the top 20 in undergraduate education in electrical engineering. The rate at which we have been expanding our research is equally stunning: the systematic expansion in research has led to a very high level of success in faculty productivity in various metrics, and our Ph.Ds are making much larger impact in both academic and industry environments of late. There is no question we have built up huge momentum in the past 15 years, and the trend is likely to continue. We are indeed about to make a huge leap, and it is exciting to note that it came as a result of the successful drive that has built up in the past 15 years.

On a closing note, it is important to again point out the message from Richard’s note: Change or Die. After an additional decade, we have the benefit of seeing where the 11 examples of Good-to-Great companies studied by Jim Collins’ team have landed at this point. While some of the companies continue to excel (such as Abbott Laboratories and Nucor Corporation), many companies have fallen victims to the changes that have caught them by surprise. Circuit City has gone out of business after the electronics retail industry largely moved to on-line marketplace. Fannie Mae deviated substantially from their core business values during the housing crisis, and needed huge infusion of public funds just to survive and has not recovered since. These examples show that even the most successful organizations are vulnerable and can lose their prominence in this changing world: a great opportunity for department like ours as we try to build up more momentum and rise in the ranks, but reminds us that the core values of the institution must be maintained for continued success. The essential driving force to adapt to the changes is the ability of our members to take some risk and move into new areas to lead this change: some of our most successful colleagues have done exactly that, whether it’s metamaterials, computational imaging, or machine learning. We should create a departmental environment where our young faculty members are encouraged to take some risks in their research directions. I am convinced that with adequate mentoring and guidance, the types of people we hire will be able to make progress in new areas, eventually growing into leaders of their fields. When we have more people like that, we will naturally become a great department in the leadership position.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being a professor is guiding students as they identify and achieve their educational, research, and professional goals. This mentorship role is often buried within the faculty mission of research, teaching, and service, but it is a core component of our daily activities and responsibilities. As such, faculty mentorship is one of the strongest resources for creating successful outcomes for graduate students…the challenge is to incorporate such mentorship earlier in the graduate experience.

Socialization is defined as “…the processes through which individuals gain the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for successful entry into a professional career…” [1]. In the traditional Ph.D. program, the faculty research advisor imparts this knowledge to the Ph.D. student, most often in the context of being an independent researcher. Typically, this mentorship occurs once the student has completed all coursework and qualifying exams, and is fully integrated into the research group. Yet, for most Ph.D. students, the foundation for completing the degree and much of their future success is rooted in the mentoring provided during the first two years.

One of the greatest dangers for any graduate student after matriculation, and especially for members of underrepresented groups, is the feeling of isolation or the concern that you do not fit into the culture of your research group, department, and/or chosen field of study. As an African-American woman and member of a group that is sorely underrepresented in science and engineering, I am acutely aware of the perils posed during this critical, initial period of graduate study. From the time of matriculation, Ph.D. students require socialization to their research group, department, and institution; yet, the relationship with the faculty advisor is new and under development, and may present its own set of challenges. Therefore, alternative forms of mentorship are an essential approach to the successful socialization of graduate students.

As I reflect on my experiences as a Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan, I find that in many ways, it was representative of the traditional graduate program structure. I was very fortunate to have had an excellent faculty advisor and mentor; but, this relationship did not fully blossom until well after the qualifying exam in my second year. During the first two years of study, like many other graduate students, my academic life was dominated by coursework, interactions with peers and faculty instructors, and preparation for the qualifying exam. Fortunately, my first two years of graduate study were also characterized by peer mentoring, which provided socialization and a sense of community. Peer mentorship occurred spontaneously because the Applied Physics Program at UofM consisted of a common physics curriculum for all students in the first year and required weekly seminars for the first two years.

These requirements created an atmosphere in which cohorts of Applied Physics students often took courses together and formed study groups, and encouraged first-year and second-year students to interact and share knowledge about navigating the program, selecting research advisors, and passing the qualifying exam. Another important aspect of my experience at UofM was that the student body and faculty in science and engineering included a critical mass of underrepresented minorities that provided role models and successful examples for emulation.

Of course, my graduate school experiences are not unique, and the peer mentoring that was instrumental to my success as a graduate student is not the only model for promoting better socialization through mentorship. The growing recognition of the importance of socialization and mentorship in graduate education is well documented. The 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” identifies the following trends that necessitate reform of the traditional Ph.D. program structure [1]:
Diversity – One aspect of graduate student socialization is that the “backgrounds and predispositions of prospective graduate students” influence their perceptions of belonging to a potential graduate program and their decisions of whether to attend a given institution or not. The impact of the program structure on the ability to recruit diverse student populations (i.e., underrepresented groups, women & minorities) should be considered.
International Graduate Students – As the graduate student population continues to comprise large percentages of international Ph.D. students, it is important to ensure these students receive professional socialization beyond the routine attention to academics and research.
Professionalism – A successful Ph.D. program should not only prepare students for completion of coursework and the research dissertation, but it should instill in students the qualities and sensibilities of professionalism that they will be expected to display after graduation.
Professionalization – A successful Ph.D. program should also provide some guidance and training on issues that have historically been learned through on-the-job training, such as grant-writing or teaching in the case of academia.
Ethics – While ethics are not always explicitly taught in the context of Ph.D. education, the expectation exists that students will be well-versed in ethics issues during their professional careers.
Technology and Distance Learning – As technology continues to enable distance learning and on-line education, it is important to determine how this will impact socialization and transfer of knowledge, especially with respect to Master’s education.

We can see examples of some of these trends being addressed in our current Ph.D. graduate program, such as the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) training required by the graduate school, the technical writing and presentation courses required for international graduate students, and the Ph.D.+ Program offered by the Pratt School of Engineering. Less obvious are the actions we can take as faculty and as a department to better support our Ph.D. students and to promote socialization early in our graduate program. Some reforms have been suggested in higher education literature.

In the same 2001 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, the following suggestions for improvement were made [1]:
Modifying the program – “More collaborative, holistic approaches to learning necessitate systemic change that challenges most existing approaches to graduate and professional study.”
Increasing diversity – “Developing greater flexibility and more options for students so that graduates are more versatile, attracting more women and minority group members, and providing better information about careers continue to be among the major areas of improvement advocated by major national commissions.”
Offering support for students – “Graduate programs will have not only to create more supportive and collaborative environments in the face of increasing diversity but also to sustain them over time.”
Modifying faculty and administrative roles – “The relationship of faculty to students should be interactive, collaborative, open, and mutually evaluative. Relationships need not be power based but should be more interactive with faculty-student, teaching, and research relationships more cooperative.”

Austin provides student recommendations for how graduate programs can provide better socialization, especially in the context of preparing future faculty [2]. The following two suggestions are of particular interest:
More attention to regular mentoring, advising, and feedback – “…faculty members should provide regular, ongoing advising and thorough, periodic feedback and assessment. Assessment should help students determine their progress as scholars and future faculty members. Such advising requires department chairs and graduate deans to work with faculty members to develop effective, mutually respectful, efficient advising relationships. In addition to effective advising, reducing the conflicts between faculty members and graduate students is important.”
Regular and guided reflection – “…graduate students should be encouraged to engage in ongoing, systematic self-reflection. Socialization for doctoral students is largely about making sense of graduate school and the academic career, developing one’s interests and areas of strength, determining how one’s values and commitments relate to those in the profession, and developing one’s own sense of place and competence within that profession. The time and support for reflection are important ingredients in the socialization process.”

Austin synthesizes the student recommendations to propose a modest revision of the typical PhD program [2]:
“A revised doctoral program could begin with an opportunity for entering students to discuss with faculty members their intellectual and professional goals. Though students’ goals often change as they gain experience and learn more about the questions of their fields, the initial assessment could be used to begin focused planning and decision-making. A planning session at time of entry could be followed by annual discussions with a faculty advisor about how the student’s goals are changing and how courses, research, teaching, and other experiences are contributing to progress toward the goals.”

Austin also notes [2]:
“Without a plan these recommendations might appear to add more time to a doctoral program or to the work of already busy faculty members. Yet many of these suggestions involve reorganizing, not adding time.”

Chesler and Chesler describe alternative, gender-informed, mentoring models for women engineering scholars [3]:
“Model 3: Collective Mentoring – Collective mentoring is an evolution of the multiple mentor/single mentee model whereby senior colleagues and the department take responsibility for constructing and maintaining a mentoring team. The entire department or organization must establish and ensure the effective mentoring and performance of graduate students and young professionals. In this way, senior colleagues and the department itself send the message that their progress is a priority concern and may create a departmental climate that overcomes some of the obstacles not only to effective mentoring of women, but also to their effective performance, retention, and advancement.”

Davidson and Foster-Johnson suggest specific actions that departments can take to improve the mentorship of graduate researchers of color [4]. Of particular interest is the suggestion that departments create formal mentoring programs in which faculty are rewarded for participation, which should be voluntary, and that choice should be involved in the matching process with mentors.

It is important to note that one of the positive outcomes of being sensitive to diversity is that the community and departmental culture can improve for everyone when the programmatic structure accounts for vulnerable members of underrepresented groups. As Chesler and Chesler state [3], “Organizational change that creates more egalitarian and caring communities will benefit men as well as women.”

I believe that a stronger sense of community, as well as a stronger faculty presence in and commitment to the development of PhD students during the early years of graduate study, are the best ways to improve departmental culture, to combat attrition, to increase diversity of our graduate student population (specifically students from underrepresented groups), to better serve diverse student populations, and to continue to attract and matriculate the very best PhD students. So, to conclude, I pose the following questions:
1) What structural changes can/should we make to our Ph.D. program to promote peer mentoring and to foster a sense of community?
2) How can we as faculty members be active participants, as mentors and advocates, in the socialization of Ph.D. students after matriculation?

With modest effort, creative thinking, and flexibility, I am certain that we can channel our existing mentorship functions into a force for improvement within our department.

[1] J. C. Weidman, D. J. Twale, and E. L. Stein, “Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage?,” San Francisco, CA 2001.
[2] A. E. Austin, “Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career,” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 73, pp. 94-122, 2002.
[3] N. C. Chesler and M. A. Chesler, “Gender-informed mentoring strategies for women engineering scholars: On establishing a caring community,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 91, 2002.
[4] M. N. Davidson and L. Foster-Johnson, “Mentoring in the Preparation of Graduate Researchers of Color,” Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, pp. 549-574, 2001.

Our students often ask us for recommendations and feedback about their career path and related topics. I find such types of conversations among the most important part of our job as educators. I would not dare to give advice in this letter, after all, as Oscar Wilde said, “I am not young enough to know everything.” Others are certainly much more qualified than me to advise, for example see President Richard H. Brodhead’s recent convocation speech for the class of 2017 ( I simply want to share some of my personal experience and thoughts and invite the interested reader to go for a coffee (or tea in my case) to continue these important and fun conversations. For me academia has been the best job possible, and I will try to convey why.

Let me start by a brief biography since my life experience has without a doubt shaped me into who I am today. I left my country, Uruguay, at the age of 17. Leaving everything behind at such early age is a challenge, one that we as educators must understand since a large population of our students left their homes at a similar age. I first arrived at a Kibbutz in Israel, where I spent 6 marvelous months. Coming from a very socialist background, and after living the majority of my life under a military dictatorship, being in a Kibbutz was not only an incredible way to adapt to a new country, but also a way to experience what I have been reading about and discussing with my youth friends. After that unique experience, I moved to Haifa, and applied to the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. Like many, I didn’t know what to study; after all, asking 17-18 years old what they want to do when they grow up is in the majority of the cases, a pointless question (I am now 47 and still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up). I knew I loved math (still do), and I thought about applying to the math department. One of my roommates explained to me that it was a mistake, since to get into the math department I had to only get about 75% in the admission exam, and that I should apply to electrical engineering where I needed to get about a perfect score (a simple consequence of supply and demand). So I did, got admitted, and from then, my academic life has been a dream! I spent 4 years working very hard, harder than ever, and got my degree. I loved it so much that I decided to continue to graduate school (or maybe I was running away from the responsibility of a real job?). I was fortunate to be accepted by David Malah to his team, and that was probably my first experience on what a great mentor is and how much he/she can influence the life of a student. Half of what I am today in academia is thanks to David, and the other half to my PhD advisor, Allen Tannenbaum. While I learned a lot about science, engineering and research from them, I learned as much about life. We are still very good friends, and they are the role models for me for the way I want to be with my own students. A good teacher, mentor, and advisor can help you to love what you do.

I loved the Technion, still do; I consider it the best university in the world (sorry Duke, but being second to the Technion is nothing to be ashamed of). I left to MIT for a year, already having a faculty position waiting for me back at the Technion: a dream job. That year was 20 years ago. How I ended up for 3 years at HP Labs in Palo Alto instead of going back to Israel is a long story for another occasion, but this was an industrial experience I recommend to everybody in our field. After that the possibility of moving to the University of Minnesota appeared, and I took it, I don’t regret it at all. I spent 15 great years in Minnesota before coming to Duke in 2012. I had and still have a blast in my job.

I was interviewed a few years ago by the main newspaper in Uruguay on the occasion of receiving the PECASE from the White House (yes, you get to visit the White House, unescorted!), and I was asked why I moved from industry back to academia. I gave many motives, but one (I will give a few more down below) was that I find universities a place where we don’t get old: we keep innovating, meeting new fabulous people, and new and naïve students with great ideas and questions. Students… they can make us so proud!

Let’s continue this line of thought. Every year we teach new students, and hopefully we positively shape their future, like my teachers and mentors helped me to shape mine. Even when we engage in innovative ways of teaching, like MOOCS, we meet new students. While I got engaged with Coursera for many motives, one being the fact that in science and in all new experiments we have to be players and not spectators, without any doubt for me the best part of my Coursera experience were the forums, and to see how naturally students help each other and how we can communicate with people otherwise we would have never had the chance to interact. Knowledge, and in particular the thirst for knowledge, transcends languages, political views, religion, and everything in between.

Academia also permits us to keep innovating scientifically. While all my research in the past 20 years is connected, what I am doing today is very different from what I did 20 years ago, and that is the case for most of my preferred colleagues. I am lucky that I am involved in very challenging research that can be life transformative as well, like our activities in deep brain stimulation (neurosurgery), HIV, and early child behavioral analysis. What can be more fun and rewarding than engaging in challenging activities that have the potential, one step at a time, of helping others?

This brings me to another key reason why I consider this the best job in the world. It allowed me to meet incredible colleagues and human beings. My closer collaborators are also among my best friends, often we first become friends and then collaborators, but sometimes the other way around also happens. I have so much fun, and have learned so much from my collaborators, that is sometimes incredible we get paid to do this (though don’t believe our salaries are so high of course). I don’t want to name all my close friends and collaborators here, we can do that when we get together for that coffee I mentioned above, but let me name one that very sadly, just passed away a few weeks ago: Vicent Caselles. The great friendship and academic collaboration we had is an example of how much I enjoy this work.

I find academia the perfect place to have a great balance between professional and family life. I feel privileged that the flexible time allowed me to pick my kids every early afternoon from school, for over 12 years, while my wife worked. It also allowed me to be at virtually every school event they have, including 9 consecutive years of camping with their school class. My family is my life, and my job allowed me to exercise this. A good friend once told me “the only free people in the world are very rich people and professors, since I can’t be in the first group, I chose to be in the second.” While we work very hard in academia, I believe that much harder than any other job we could do, we work in our own time, and that is priceless.

Yes, there are other great jobs out there, some as exciting as academia, and the world is very different today than it was when I became a professor. Yes, I was very privileged to have outstanding collaborators and students, outstanding program managers for my grants, and incredible support from the administration, and this certainly contributed to my happy life in academia. I always look for other challenges to combine with my current academic activities, other places to contribute and to become excited with. But academia is in my heart, and I hope everybody can enjoy their job as much as I enjoy mine.

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could offer in a corner office piece that would be distinct from all of the excellent perspectives that we’ve seen so far.  An advantage in coming later in that sequence is I can carve out a pretty focused topic or two, as I’ve tried to do below.

Administration: Sometimes Good

As I’m just about to step down from what is really my first long-term administrative position with day-to-day responsibilities, I have been debriefing myself about what was good, what was bad, and what might I do differently if I find myself in a similar position in the future.  For what it’s worth, here are my some of thoughts on that experience and things that I will consider with respect to any future opportunities.

Many aspects of being DGS were very rewarding.  That sounds a bit fake, I know, but it’s the truth.  It was a new experience that called on different skills than those exercised in the research and teaching parts of academia. I had the privilege of working with some dedicated and talented people (Samantha Morton and Stacy Tantum in particular).  When things are firing on all cylinders, and everyone brings complementary skills and ideas to the issues at hand, the amount that can be accomplished is impressive.  Being part of that kind of team is enormously satisfying.

As DGS, students really appreciate you and the attention and help you can give them.  There are a surprising number of student issues and conflicts that require a neutral viewpoint beyond the parties involved.  Being able to provide that perspective to help find a solution, and more generally assisting students to navigate a sometimes-tricky path towards a Ph.D. is also very satisfying.  Faculty colleagues are also appreciative of your effort, but there’s always an element of thank-goodness-I’m-not-you about that appreciation.  I too had that feeling before I was DGS, and I look forward to feeling it again (sorry Jeff and Krish!).

Another benefit of serving in a position like DGS is that you learn a lot—way more than I imagined I would. I wish I’d read Jeff Glass’s corner office early in my DGS term.  It contains many, many nuggets of useful advice on the soft skills needed for administration, some of which I have learned the hard way.  In my view, the most important of those is this.  Like all academics, I always know best (or think I do).  And there are times when you simply cannot believe the stupidity (from your perspective, of course) of what others are doing or decisions that have been made.  Through this, it is absolutely essential to remember that, deep down, you are usually all on the same team.  You really have many of the same high-level goals, but the boundary conditions that exist for or are perceived by different people in different positions are different.  Keep it rational, try to orient the problem so that it can be defined in terms of a common goal, and don’t let it get personal.  Easier said than done, but with thought and care usually problems can be solved to everyone’s equal satisfaction (or more truthfully, dissatisfaction). This is how you know when you’ve found a good solution.

Administration: Sometimes Challenging

One of the biggest challenges I faced as DGS was what I think is a mismatch between both the quantity and the types of administrative duties the job requires, and the human resources available to dispatch those duties.  Everything I’m about to say is probably obvious to those who have had administrative responsibilities before.  In fact, if I traveled back in time to visit myself to pass along this advice, the younger me would have told the older me that this is all obvious and not to waste his time.  But the degree to which these things matter is much more than I would have guessed. 

Any biggish organization (and I think one that is responsible for around 200 students, as ECE is, qualifies) needs enough people to keep an eye on things all the time.  Something that size can go off the rails very quickly without constant vigilance (especially when students are involved!).  But just as important as the quantity of effort available is the availability of different kinds effort to address the distribution of complexity of the things that need to get done.  In a way, this is the universal impedance matching problem.  The ability to transmit power depends not just on the amount of power available but the distribution of that power within its component parts (V and I, E and H, etc.).  A bad match means a lot of wasted power.

The need to have the right balance of available effort is particularly true when a significant fraction of the job involves interfacing with an organization (the Graduate School) whose administrative procedures have been structured around on departments with grad programs that are far smaller than ECE. These procedures do not scale up in a sensible way and can create a massive and not-always-necessary time sink for the one person with the official authority to handle them (the DGS).  Nan Jokerst mentioned this to me once, long ago, and I had no idea how right she was.

It’s hard to know what is the right distribution of authority and personnel to successful run an organization (although I can say that placing essentially all authority and responsibility on the DGS, as the Graduate School requires, is probably not optimal).  A useful strategy to find a reference point might come from looking at a comparable administrative structure that definitely is successful on many levels.  Having worked closely with them for several years, I consider the Pratt Professional Masters Program to be an extremely well-run group, top to bottom.  They react quickly and sensibly to deal with new issues that arise, and solve problems in a way that leaves a process in place to deal with them when they appear again.  And the program provides great service to its students. 

Admittedly there are structural differences between the ECE grad program and the Professional Masters Program.  But the number of students in each is comparable, and many of the administrative responsibilities scale with student population.  The Professional Masters Program has two full-time, senior-level administrators, and 6 full-time academic, admissions, and support staff (I’m excluding career services which also supports the regular Pratt grad programs). 

In contrast, the ECE grad program has one full-time, mid-level administrator (and I admit I’ve been fortunate to work with two excellent ones), a high-level faculty administrator who devotes whatever time can be cobbled together from that which research and teaching do not demand, and a lot of additional (also excellent) support from research staff who devote far more time and energy to helping with the grad program than they perhaps should.  You may be asking yourself, why didn’t I try to change the amount and distribution of administrative support available?  Ah, but I did, and that ended in one of the most unbelievably Kafkaesque scenarios that I’ve ever witnessed.  Suffice it to say, it didn’t work.

This is definitely not to say that it can’t be rewarding to be responsible for an organization that is administratively lean, especially when it involves working with great colleagues and coworkers as I have had the chance to do.  We were able to grow the program and leave it on solid (maybe too solid!) financial footing, and we also managed to improve a few internal structures and processes (such as the distribution of grad school money among the Pratt departments).  But leading a lean organization has left me a little unsatisfied in the sense that I really wasn’t able to accomplish or improve all of the things that I would have liked.  The sheer volume of routine but time-consuming tasks that probably don’t all need to be attended to by a faculty member (but must be) made that tough.  And should I consider taking on administrative responsibilities in the future, I will take a close look at the distribution of tasks, staff, and authority before saying yes. 

I think much of the above might come across as more negative than I intend, so let me end this part with a prediction.  Right now I’m acutely aware of all of the challenges of administration, and the thought of doing this again is pretty far from my mind.  But as I get farther removed from it, I’m going to start missing some of the positive and even fun things about it.  I bet I’ll say yes to some future opportunity, and I may even seek one out.  But later, not now.

One More Thing

I’d like use this platform to raise one more issue that I wrestle with a lot and definitely do not have solved.  If any of you do have this solved, please let me know and I’ll buy you a nice dinner while you tell me the answer.  I suppose it’s more of a confession: I wish working with Ph.D. students were more uniformly rewarding.  My words were carefully chosen.  In my experience, almost all students are rewarding to some degree.  But there are a lot of times when it is frustrating, especially when so much effort is spent to support them, and what comes back in return is clearly not anywhere near a comparable effort.

In many ways I feel like a coach, herding and organizing and pushing my team of researchers to try to get the most out of everyone’s skills.  That by itself can be a rewarding experience—just look at all of the collegiate and professional coaches who are in it for life.  But there’s a twist that I think applies to all of us faculty: we can still play the game better than most of those we coach. So, where is the right balance between playing and coaching duties?

I know people who have gone to extremes in both directions. I have a colleague who left a faculty position after more than a decade to go to research company because he was tired of students, not him, getting to do all the fun stuff.   But I also know have a colleague at NASA who been PI on more scientific rockets than almost anyone (more than a hundred, I think) who simply loved to manage.  The moment the money came in on a project, he was on telecons, pushing everyone to meet their obligations, and that’s what he wanted to do.

So, obviously, the sweet spot in this balance varies from person to person.  But it is easy to unintentionally slide into a state where you are more coach and less player than you want to be.

A Closing Thought

The things I’ve discussed here all boil down to the most precious commodity in life: time.  We all think about this in the context of work-life balance, among other things.  But within the normal faculty existence the issue of work-work balance is pretty important too.  The number of different hats we are asked to wear is staggering.  Without careful career management, it is very easy to slip into a state in which you have nearly zero time to spend on the things that are actually the most important to you or that are the most valued in academia.  The feeling of loss of control that comes from that imbalance can be very stressful.  Fortunately we do all have the ability to manage our work-work balance, at least to some degree.  But it takes real effort to do so.

Looking back at my publications, I can see that most of my research output during my time as DGS was built on ideas I had before becoming DGS.  Those ideas have by now been mined pretty well.  Now it’s time to spend more time hiding in my office, getting my hands dirty with research, and (hopefully) starting to replenish the bank of interesting new ideas to pursue.  Undoubtedly the best thing about life in academia is that I have that opportunity, and for that I’m grateful.

I have learned a lot from the Corner Office columns written by my colleagues during the past few months. In order to write about something that has not already been covered, I have decided to focus here on the themes of productivity in academia, industry relations, student mentoring, and international collaborations.

My research is at the intersection of Computer Engineering and micro/nano-systems. To be successful as a researcher in this field, significant collaboration with industry partners is necessary. Therefore, let me first elaborate on the recipes for successful university/industry collaboration.

How to Promote University/Industry Research Collaboration

Research collaboration between university researchers and industry experts requires a number of key ingredients. The first requirement for promoting collaboration is that university researchers work on the right problems. What is a right problem to work on? That depends on the expertise of the researchers, the challenges being faced in companies for which no solutions exist today, and on whether the problem is one of research or development of known technology in a company setting. For example, I have never attempted to collaborate with companies in the area of RF circuit design because my knowledge in this domain is very limited. Also, I have never approached industry partners with proposals for providing ready-to-use tools and software.

Early in my career, I was successful in developing significant industry collaboration in the area of system-on-chip (SOC) design and testing, thanks to the right timing (SOC was the new thing in the mid- and late-90s), research grants from NSF that offered matching funds and strong encouragement for industry collaboration, and interactions with many industry colleagues who could have been university professors with their research mindset. I would travel extensively and give talks at companies, and quite often I would get follow-up emails and phone calls for further discussions. NSF funding was a great facilitator and early career awards from Government funding agencies are always a credibility booster. There is clearly a “winner take all” scenario that prevails in these situations, an outcome no doubt of the emphasis on excellence and merit.

In contrast to the above examples of success, a few collaborations failed to take off when the companies insisted on IP agreements and the university lawyers could not agree with company lawyers. Other attempts at collaboration failed when key people in the companies left for other jobs. Finally, collaborative efforts failed when companies showed no appreciation for theoretical insights and dictated the intellectual content of the research, resulting in frustration and a lack of true collaboration.
In later years, most of my successful collaborations with companies have been a result of outstanding PhD students. Most companies view PhD students as a long-term investment and they appreciate the training provided to them by the university research environment. (Some industry sponsors have even told me with a fair bit of seriousness that they do not care so much for the research that professors do, but they greatly value the training of graduate students.) In my case, for example, my collaborations with companies in board/system-level diagnosis and 3D chip testing have been driven by the hard work of many top-rate students. It is of course incumbent on the Professors in such scenarios to ensure that the companies work with only the best students, those who are motivated, qualified, and willing to make the extra effort to understand industry challenges and practical issues.

Therefore, successful university/collaboration requires a research model that is somewhat different from the traditional university model of “blue sky” research, yet retains the characteristics of independence of thinking and a focus on longer-term problems of tomorrow.

University/Industry Collaboration Models

University researchers must sustain their research programs through external financial support, the right mix of research topics, and high-quality graduate students. In my field (and I believe this is true for many of my colleagues), there is the added burden of ensuring that research is directed towards problems that are relevant to medium- and long-term industry needs, and students are adequately trained for a career in the semiconductor industry. I am faced with a vibrant industry community that includes top-rate researchers and visionaries. Therefore, I have to always ask myself: “How should university researchers engage with this community, and conversely how should industry interact in a meaningful way with the university community?

Several engagement models come to mind as I think about this question:

The oblivious model: Each side deliberately ignores to a large extent the existence of the other, and limits engagement to occasional meetings at conferences and student hiring. This model allows freedom of thought in the most complete sense for a university researcher but deprives the researcher from early access to exciting developments in industry, and it deprives companies from the benefits of harnessing the intellectual prowess and creativity available at universities. Unfettered thinking can lead to major breakthroughs but success stories are rare amidst a large body of mediocre, low-impact research.

The consulting model: A university researcher provides expert opinions and insights on a specific but narrowly defined problem of interest to a company. While such short-term engagements are certainly more meaningful than the oblivious model, they often do not provide benefits to the larger community. Neither do they foster longer-term synergistic relationships. The company dictates the problem to be solved and a university professor completes a “homework assignment”.

The directed research model: Companies often provide research funding to universities in the form of contracts. Many of us in academia have been recipients of such contracts and we have undoubtedly benefited from the support and mentoring provided to graduate students, access to industry data, and guidance on research directions. However, it is often frustrating for university researchers to navigate the hurdles of IP agreements between universities and companies, and the barriers placed on publications and broader dissemination of research findings. In addition, identifying concrete deliverables a priori and meeting them in a timely manner can detract from the intellectual freedom necessary for high-quality research.

The true research collaboration and partnership model: A research collaboration can be most successful and lead to longer-term benefits when the partnership is between equals, research is truly open, problem areas and specific topics are discussed without excessive consideration of commercial benefits for the company, and where mutual respect reigns. Funding in the form of gifts with no IP barriers or burden of deliverables is surely the best way to sustain longer-term collaboration that is beneficial to all. University researchers have the luxury of being able to think in unconventional ways and “out of the box”. Indeed it is incumbent upon them to do so. They can identify and exploit theoretical methods from other fields, as well as form connections between problems that are not obvious to an industry practitioner. In addition to gift funding, such an interaction model is sustained and enriched by the participation of industry mentors in PhD theses committees, industry internships for students, and systematic transition of basic research into industry practice and automation tools. Quite often, such collaborative relationships transcend university/affiliations; collaborations continue in the form of new institutional partnerships when key personnel change jobs.

Irrespective of the collaboration model between university researchers and companies, constant vigilance on both sides is needed to ensure that added value is an outcome of the collaboration, industry sees more value than simply a pipeline for trained graduates, and university researchers find the collaboration to be an enriching intellectual experience. From a university perspective, successful industry collaboration requires a change in mindset—publications should no longer be the only yardstick for measuring success. Publications will always arise from a truly open and success research collaboration, hence the emphasis must be placed on professional relationships that build trust and mutual respect. Making unreasonable demands for funds, data, or resources is counter-productive for a university researcher while the industry collaborator must understand that university research is not expected to lead to ready-to-use design flows or tools. We must start modestly, take small steps, and then go on to bigger things. That is surely a recipe for success.

The Right Research Topics

Academic freedom is a great thing. I am free to work on research problems of my choice, but of course with the caveat that I have to be able to sustain the research program through external grants and the right graduate students. It is tempting to be opportunistic and target research topics that are in vogue, where there is a lot of federal funding, or where there are significant opportunities for collaboration. Such opportunism helps a faculty member in many situations, but the agility with which we change research focus or jump into new areas must be sustained through a genuine appreciation of the area at an intellectual level. When we choose a research topic, we have to ask ourselves whether we will be as excited by this topic after 5+ years, whether our liking for it borders on the obsessive (obsession is sometimes good for research!), and whether we can in reasonable time reach a sufficient level of excellence to compete successfully and be rated as among the very best in the field. I always remember the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get”.

As engineers, we often have to grapple with the need to link new ideas with applications. Conceptual advances in theory or new breakthroughs in technology are often reined in by the need to justify practical applications. Whenever in doubt in such situations, I remind myself of the words of Prof. Herbert Kroemer from the ECE department in UC-Santa Barbara, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2000: “The principal applications of any sufficiently new and innovative technology have always been—and will continue to be—applications created by that technology.” This is also referred to as Kroemer’s Lemma of New Technology! The logic is circular, but so is research and so is the universe in a metaphysical sense.

So how do we start working on a new problem? Our PhD degrees have prepared us to learn new things, and to be prepared to change (as eloquently expressed by Richard Fair in his Corner Office column). First, we have to use our imagination and look beyond the short term. In the words of the French Nobel laureate Andre Gide, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time“. Also, we have to start “doing” and not just “think” all the time. Finally, we have to be prepared to go against the general consensus and take risks judiciously. I like the pictures below, which express just these thoughts (adapted from originals by Rob Rutenbar, now at University of Illinois).














In my experience, I have found that it helps to have one core area (“home”) where I can maintain a leadership role over a long period of time. With the sure footing of a home base, it becomes easier to feel more secure, and to “roam” and explore newer areas. Research must lead to impact; of course, impact can be measured in different ways, but as a researcher, I need to know in advance how the impact will be measured when I start a new project. There is a certain of sense of speculation involved since we have to select research topics that are just emerging, so that we can ride the wave and be a leader. So this process is a lot like buying stocks.

When I started my academic career, a mentor advised me to always have three bags of ideas. The first bag should contain ideas that could be explained quickly to a practitioner, and through which I could get industry projects and make immediate impact. The second bag should contain ideas for longer-term projects, possibly leading to PhD theses, multi-year grants, and good publications. We should not underestimate the importance of the second bag and revisiting with a critical eye what we already know. Again, I quote Andre Gide: “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” The third bag is the most interesting, since it should contain the most high-risk ideas, which might not even be appropriate for graduate student research, might require years of thinking and mulling, but which might one day lead to my magnum opus. I still remember this advice and I make a conscious effort to have all three bags with me!

Another way of looking at research topics is to imagine the figure shown here. My portfolio of research problems at any time includes several points in this space. This strategy has served me well and, again, it reminds me of how we invest money in stocks.

Chakrabarty_2How to Mentor Students

Students are arguably the most important “products” of any university. We do not manufacture artifacts for the marketplace. Instead, we train students for the workplace for a wide range of professions. Hence student mentoring is for me a key job requirement. Here let me dwell on my philosophy of working with graduate students.

Broadly speaking, my role as a mentor for graduate students aspect involves two important tasks: (1) Explain a big problem; (2) Give sound advice and be a trusted guide. I read somewhere long back that a good mentor must be a good listener (key to good communication), be a good problem-solver, and be a good observer (able to spot “problems”).

The first job of an advisor is to dispel fear from the minds of students. When a grad student starts research, we would expect the student to start with a clean slate, i.e., more like a blank sheet of paper on which nothing has been written yet. However, we often overlook the fear mentality that prevents the student from taking the first steps towards leaving his or her imprint on this sheet of paper. In my role as advisor, I take inspiration from India’s Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore, who penned these famous lines in Gitanjali (the poet’s own translation from Bengali):

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

A fearless and proud student is almost always a productive student. All we have to do is to appeal to a student’s pride, and there is hardly a better motivator than the pride that comes from having achieved something notable. A fearless student is never afraid to ask why, question the status quo without being dismissive, and seek answers to difficult questions. In the words of Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Furthermore, students have to understand that success in research requires patience and an inner calm that helps us focus our creative energies (yoga and meditation are of course highly recommended!). When I was new to Duke, Provost Peter Lange told me: “tenure is not an event, it is a process”. Likewise research is not a sprint, it is more akin to a marathon. Again, in the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Every student is different, and instead of insisting that every student adjust to my style or personality, I make efforts to understand the unique needs of students and meet them halfway. I have, at various times, provided gratis service (of course with the rider that I am not a professional in these matters!) as a marriage counselor, tax advisor, immigration consultant, mental health counselor, personal safety guide, etc.

International Collaborations

One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is the opportunity to collaborate with outstanding researchers in my field all over the world. The Duke brand name is a privilege, and it is an honor to be a Duke ambassador in these activities. International collaborations offer many benefitstangible and intangible. Tangible benefits include the opportunity to work first-hand with students who ultimately join Duke and work with me for their PhD degrees. This is an example of risk mitigation, whereby I already know a student through a joint project before he or she joins our PhD program. I regularly host visiting researchers from overseas and their presence at Duke for short- to medium-term visits enriches the graduate school experience for my PhD students. Other tangible benefits include participation in joint research proposals (such as EU projects, special programs at NSF, grants from EPRSC-UK and the National Science Council in Taiwan), and an understanding of cultural differences that help me to do a better job in teaching and student advising at Duke. Many companies today are globalized, and US students must understand the challenges and opportunities involved in such a work environment. Researchers from other countries often approach the same problem in different ways, and many of my most satisfying research accomplishments have been inspired by different ways of problem solving. In addition to my Duke family of graduate students (present and graduated), I have a large extended family worldwide that includes students from nearly all the countries that I have visited. Good working relationships with the best researchers all over the world (and an understanding of how they carry out their research) helps me to be a better Editor-in-Chief and Associate Editor of journals.

I have always valued efforts aimed at bridging different cultures, and additional benefits of international collaborations include the opportunity to see amazing places, enjoy exotic food, and learn about history, politics, languages, architecture, lifestyles, and religions. The list is endless.

My colleagues Dan Sorin and Chris Dwyer like to do some good-natured leg pulling. They calculated my average velocity based on all the international travel that I do. Of course, they were technically incorrect; my average velocity is zero since I always return home to Duke. What they actually calculated was my average speed, which admittedly is a really large number.

Final Words of Advice

In my experience in mentoring graduate students and working with colleagues from other countries and cultures, I have learned that I can make a point much more effectively using allegories. So here are three stories with their associated morals (told to me by a friend in Germany).

Lesson 1
A crow was sitting on a tree, doing nothing all day.
A small rabbit saw the crow, and asked him, “Can I also sit like you and do nothing all day long?”
The crow answered: “Sure, why not.”
So, the rabbit sat on the ground below the crow, and rested.
All of a sudden, a fox appeared,
Jumped on the rabbit… and ate it.

Moral of the story: To be sitting and doing nothing, you must be sitting very, very high up!

Lesson 2
A turkey was chatting with a bull.
“I would love to be able to get to the top of that tree,” sighed the turkey, “but I haven’t got the energy.”
Well, why don’t you nibble on some of my droppings?” replied the bull. “They’re packed with nutrients.”
The turkey pecked at a lump of dung and found that it gave him enough strength to reach the first branch of the tree.
The next day, after eating more dung, he reached the second branch.
Finally after a fortnight, there he was proudly perched at the top of the tree
Soon he was spotted by a farmer, who promptly shot the turkey out of the tree.

Moral of the story: Bull*#*@ might get you to the top, but it won’t keep you there.

Lesson 3
A little bird was flying south for the winter.
It was so cold, the bird froze and fell to the ground in a large field.
While it was lying there, a cow came by and dropped some dung on it.
As the frozen bird lay there in the pile of cow dung, it began to realize how warm it was. The dung was actually thawing him out!
He lay there all warm and happy, and soon began to sing for joy.
A passing cat heard the bird singing and came to investigate.
Following the sound, the cat discovered the bird under the pile of cow dung, and promptly dug him out and ate him!

Morals of the story:
1) Not everyone who drops s$*t on you is your enemy.
2) Not everyone who gets you out of s$*t is your friend.
3) And when you are in deep s$*t, keep your mouth shut.

The above lessons can be useful for all of us, as we navigate different roles at different times in our academic career.
In closing, I stress that productivity in an academic career is not possible without a supportive environment. I have been fortunate to have many excellent role models in Duke ECE and an administration that has always been appreciative of my efforts in research, mentoring, industry partnerships, and international collaborations. When I first arrived at Duke, I was under the impression that I am expected to work on a specific problem and in a specific area. I asked Loren Nolte (the department chair at that time) what problem I should work on. I can imagine how much amused Loren must have been, and he still chuckles and reminds me of that episode. I guess I have come a long way since then!

While I appreciate the invitation to contribute to this insightful series of essays, I realize I am very far from attaining the depth of distinction and breadth of perspective associated with previous essayists – Robert Calderbank, Nan Jokerst, Richard Fair and Jeff Glass. However, I was asked to discuss the complexity of my recent experiences related to developing a research program and earning tenure as a female faculty member starting a family. My hope is that these reflections may be helpful not only to those facing similar challenges, but also to those designing policies and allocating resources for junior faculty in a rapidly changing world.


Anyone attending the annual meeting hosted by the Provost to explain the tenure process will hear details of APT considerations and a review of frequently asked questions. Based on these discussions, it is clear and unsurprising than a successful assistant professor must conduct high-quality research and communicate compelling research results effectively enough to garner strong outside letters and recognition in the form of competitive funding. To accomplish these tasks, I found I needed to jealously guard my research time and develop sound strategies for choosing fruitful research problems.

Setting aside time for research in the face of external demands is a perpetual challenge, as Hisham Massoud advised me during my first week and as Nan Jokerst discussed in her essay in this series. One aspect of this – setting service priorities – was particularly easy at Duke, where senior faculty are consistently protective and supportive of junior faculty. I was encouraged to focus on activities which would raise my visibility within my scholarly community (such as organizing committees for workshops) or were particularly important to the direction of the department (such as faculty search committees), and defer other service for later in my career.

I also learned, much later than I should, that asking for advice when needed is an excellent way of saving time. Balancing the uncertainty of funding with the uncertainty of graduate student recruitment was a continual challenge, and I arrived here not knowing how to most effectively manage research staff and students. In my early years, I hesitated to ask advice about these issues, thinking I was expected to already know how to handle them. In this sense, I underestimated my colleagues, who were more than willing to offer suggestions and advice when I finally asked for help. Along these lines, I highly recommend reading You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty by Mohamed Noor of Duke. ( It was sadly not published when I was beginning my career, but it offers helpful advice on a variety of relevant topics – including time management and asking advice.

Rebecca Willet ECE-Corner Office Image jpegMy most significant challenge, however, was the selection of good problems. Some projects would immediately lead to publication and garner a few citations without having significant staying power. Other projects in my portfolio were far riskier, not only for me, but for my students. Initially I tried exclusively to choose “big” problems. Richard Hamming said researchers should always ask themselves, “What are the important problems of my field? What important problems am I working on?” (1) However, I have come to think if we only focus on the seemingly big problems, we risk missing new perspectives and surprises. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal offers a humorous perspective on this at More soberly, I remember seeing Emmanuel Candes, a giant in my field responsible for many of the initial insights into compressed sensing, give one of the first talks on this topic before it was widely known. He said he first discovered compressed sensing after trying to help a colleague with what appeared to be a straightforward problem, and seeing an interesting and surprising effect. He started investigating this phenomenon, and what appeared initially to be small and unimportant turned out to yield groundbreaking results. Similarly, an early technique for spread spectrum communications was developed by actress Hedy Lamarr after observing composer George Antheil experiment with synchronized player pianos( Other renowned researchers, including Richard Feynman (whose Nobel Prize winning work stemmed from his fascination with the motion of plates being spun in the cafeteria (, have noted the importance of choosing problems based upon how interesting and intellectually stimulating they are, and this has been an influential principle for me in recent years. We have all been trained to recognize interesting and surprising phenomena, and I believe that by focusing our attention in these directions, we give ourselves the most opportunity to make exciting new discoveries.

Women in Science and Engineering

I have often been asked to reflect on any special challenges I’ve faced associated with being a woman in engineering. This is a difficult topic for many people to address; women do not want to appear malcontent or unable to compete, and men often hesitate to claim they understand all the challenges faced by their female colleagues. First let me state that I’m proud to be part of the Duke community, where I have never personally experienced outright gender bias. My fellow faculty and administrators have always been supportive, including when I took maternity leave and a tenure clock extension, when I needed assistance addressing dual career challenges before being hired, when I was working with other Duke departments and UNC to help them address dual career challenges for their faculty, and in prioritizing family-friendly scheduling of critical meetings. Based on what I know of our peer institutions, Duke is quite progressive on these fronts. In fact, a 1999 study of female faculty in the sciences at MIT lists several tangible actions designed to foster inclusion and supportive environments for women (, and many of these actions are already standard procedure at Duke.

This being stated, women faculty in engineering and the sciences in general still face gender bias and significant challenges. April Brown has spent a lot of time thinking about these issues in her various roles at Pratt and I’m sure her reflections would be a valuable complement to mine. Consider the following 2012 study. Yale researchers “created application forms purporting to be from a recent science graduate wanting a laboratory manager job and asking for feedback. In total, 127 faculty members were asked to rank the candidate in terms of competence, starting salary they would offer, willingness to mentor the candidate, and likeability. The only difference in the applications was the name of the student – 63 were from ‘John’ and 64 were from ‘Jennifer’. The results were stark. Jennifer was ranked less competent than John and was offered a median starting salary almost $4,000 lower than John. In addition, the faculty was less willing to mentor Jennifer, but, strangely, found her to be more likeable.”,  More recently, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, “blasted managers who unconsciously reflect stereotypes when they judge women’s performance, saying: ‘She’s great at her job but she’s just not as well liked by her peers,’ or: ‘She’s a bit aggressive.’” ( While my personal experiences have been very positive, that is more a reflection of the caliber of the faculty and administration here at Duke than on the state of women in science and engineering in general.

The root causes of these phenomena are opaque, but Duke has the opportunity to maintain its leadership role in addressing these challenges. A 2011 report on the status of women faculty in science and engineering at MIT ( describes a variety of these challenges, many of which are relevant to the faculty at Duke as well. Below I describe some specific examples of these challenges and possible ways to address them. Many of these initiatives would be beneficial to all faculty, not just women.

  • As described above, subtle forms of bias can emerge during hiring and evaluation processes. The MIT study recommends, and Duke could consider, “training search committees to recognize subtle forms of discrimination in reference letters and the interview process.”
  • Women, particularly in engineering and the “hard” sciences, are often asked to perform more service activities, sometimes because of the admirable desire to have some female representation. This was particularly noted in the MIT report: “Additionally, women faculty members expressed concern at their high level of service, both within the Institute and in their scientific communities, which can interfere significantly with research accomplishment.” Duke administrators should be made aware of the service requests made of women and the toll this can take on their research programs, ensure service loads are fairly distributed without excluding qualified faculty from key decision-making roles, and exercise due discretion when making service requests.
  • Recent research has shown that, even in dual-career families, women generally take on a significant majority of housework and childrearing tasks. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( indicates that, on average, women perform 200 more hours per year on household chores than men, leaving them with less time to devote to their careers. This is perhaps not as it should be, but the disparity is nevertheless a fact of life for many working women, including female science and engineering faculty at Duke. Duke might consider resources to ease housework burdens on all faculty, particularly when it comes to childcare. Examples might include on-campus daycare without a three (or more) year waiting list, emergency backup child care programs, or Duke-negotiated discounts for housecleaning and lawn care services. Duke could also consider the cost-benefit tradeoff of concierge services, a major benefit at companies such as Freescale Semiconductor: “Freescale also has a concierge service to handle simple tasks that would otherwise require an employee to be in two places at one time. If an employee is on a business trip, but at the same time needs to deliver an item to his or her children’s school, the service can handle that. If a mother is working from home and her children are sick, the concierge can pick up medicine for her. Freescale’s intent is to have a suite of services that makes it easier for women to fulfill their career ambitions without compromising family obligations.” (
  • Supervising graduate students and showing progress on grants and contracts or towards career milestones is a major challenge for faculty on family leave; these challenges are not entirely mitigated by teaching release and tenure clock extensions. Evidence suggests these challenges disproportionately affect women: “Women with children younger than age six were the least likely of all groups to secure a ladder-rank faculty position. Married men with children younger than six were the most likely of all groups to secure a tenure-track position.” ( Analysis of the Survey of Doctorate Recipients data paints a complex picture of the role of family life for men and women in academia, as compellingly presented via graphs at Duke development offices could pursue private funding for post-doc support for faculty on family leave, as at USC (
  • Additional research has revealed that “women don’t ask” ( – that is, they tend to negotiate for salary and resources far less aggressively than their male counterparts, leading to significant long-term discrepancies. Similar trends appear if we examine research funding applications. “At NSF and NIH, women who applied in 2001 were less likely to submit another application in the next two years. The difference was much larger at NIH (more than 20 percent) than at NSF (5 percent). At both agencies, this disparity applied to both successful and unsuccessful applicants in the first year.” ( Related work in Virginia Valian’s book, Why so Slow?, shows that small differences in resources allocated to faculty have a cumulative effect over time, leading to significant disparities in long-term achievement. ( Duke could offer practical grant strategizing, negotiation and leadership training workshops for faculty. As the MIT report recommends, Duke could also “continue and improve tracking of faculty salaries and resources for equity. Conduct a study on equity of individual retirement packages.” The distribution of chaired professorships could also be tracked.
  • “Many women faculty cite workplace climate as an important factor in career satisfaction and decisions about whether to pursue a career in academe. All too often, newly minted scientists begin their faculty positions with little or no training in effective strategies for running a laboratory, lacking even basic training and skills in writing and managing a budget, hiring and evaluating personnel, and conflict management. The dearth of training contributes in turn to some of the observed climate problems in the academic science workplace.” ( Duke could provide additional training in these areas for all junior faculty.
  • As described in the MIT report, women are often asked to speak or serve on panels related to work-life balance and child rearing, while men are rarely asked to publicly reflect on their personal lives in profession settings. One MIT faculty member said, “I am uncomfortable on work/life balance panels. There is an expectation that as a female faculty member you will talk about personal issues. But it’s perfectly normal for men to keep work and life separate.” This imbalance engenders the notion that women are distracted by family concerns while men are not. We do a disservice to men in this respect, as I have known many male colleagues who were dedicated husbands and fathers and struggled with work-life balance issues. I am looking forward to seeing future essays in this series written by my male colleagues as they discuss work-life balance issues.

Let me close by reflecting that most of the above sources highlight the importance of mentorship in overcoming these and other challenges. Again, I consider myself fortunate to be part of the Duke ECE community, where I found ready mentors for a variety of job facets: Loren Nolte on developing a clear tenure dossier; Robert Calderbank on constructing a research vision; Leslie Collins on lab management; Larry Carin and David Brady on navigating the DOD funding environment; Steve Cummer and Dan Sorin on day-to-day life in the department; Ingrid Daubechies and Nan Jokerst on maternity leave and kids; Gary Ybarra on service; and many others. Study after study shows that this kind of support network is critical to the success of junior faculty and thus a department as a whole, and I look forward to continuing that tradition in my turn.