What is it like to study at uni and work with a famous Professor?

There are all sorts of jobs in this world that I call invisible jobs. You can walk along the High Street and not see them.  And indeed, sometimes you can see some a  job but not see what people do in the job.  When I come across good interviews or descriptions of hidden work, I grab them.

A few days ago, I came across this interview of Jennifer Widom, the head of computer science at Stanford  . .  to use British parlance. In American, Professor Widom is chair of the computer science department at  Stanford.

This interview is valuable in many respects.

  • The Professor is candid, without being forthright, about her career and her work-life balance.
  • She speaks with evident respect and affection for everyone around her, including students.
  • She describes the tacit knowledge (the how-to) of being a successful professor.
  • She is clear about the difference between a career in a university and a career in industry.
  • She nonetheless understands the connection between the two and how value moves from universities into industry and the working life of a nation.

I have written recently about the essence of university life. If you are thinking of going to universty, you should read this article.  You will be going to learn from people like this, because they are like this.  Professor Widom’s description will help you understand what studying at a university is like and why you want active researchers as your teacher.

It’s an easy to read interview and valuable for people trying to write up what is a mostly invisible job.  Above all, we read the story of a Professor who is warm, generous and down to earth.

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Why be bothered with a university education?

The distinction between university education and other post-school education can be hard to grasp. Many emotional arguments are advanced. “We only need a handful of people who speak Latin” is one argument, for example, that came up in my Twitter stream.  Often, our argument expresses no more than the emotions we are experiencing as the world shifts about and what we do or have done seems more or less highly valued.

In an earlier post, I tried to list three features of university life which make university education worthwhile though hard to understand from the outside, and hard to get used to when you first arrive as a first year fresh from high school.

I am doing a uni course right now coming from the other direction.  I have a lot of hands-on experience in a field and I wanted to work backwards – so to speak – and formalize my knowledge.  I find the course fairly frustrating because I cannot always relate what I am hearing to a practical situation and some of  the practical exercises are simply better done with a combination of a crib sheet and some trial and error.

So I have to ask myself : why am I still there?  Why haven’t I transferred to a polytechnic type college which would be better organized (from the students’ point of view) , and where the lecturing would frankly be more coherent and the exercises better thought out?

So I’ve had to write down my thoughts (to get them out of my head) and they may be useful to you.

#1 Professors tell the story of abstractions and the failure of abstraction

The job of a professor is to look out on the world and to describe what is common across a whole set of similar situations.

When they do a good job, we can use their generalization like a formula.  I can convert Celcius to Farenheit, for example.

Or, in the case of my course, I can understand how to set up some tables and store them in a database in the most efficient way possible.

The difficulty comes when the generalization or abstraction

a)       Is already known in real life (there have been people making almanacs and look-up tables for generations)

b)       And it turns out the generalization solves some problems but not all (or creates a few side-effects).

The professors then go back to the ‘drawing board’ and try to solve the problem with their own abstraction that they just created with their solution!

This drives students crazy, particularly the more practically minded.  They don’t really want to know this long story of

  • Make this formula
  • Oh. Oooops!
  • Well make this formula.  It is better.
  • Oh. Ooops!

This is particularly annoying to students when they have the spoiler and know the current state of best practice (and are perhaps of slightly impatient temperament).

But. this is what professors know about it and after all, there is not much point in asking them about things they don’t know about!

So the question becomes – shall I keep asking them, or shall I ask someone else?

# 2 Professors prepare you to manage the interface of new knowledge and reality

Well, let’s fast forward a bit to 10 or 20 years’ time when knowledge has advanced.  Of course, you can just go on another course.  And you probably will  go on another course to find out the new way of doing things.

But let’s imagine you are pretty important now and it is your job to decide whether to spend money on this new knowledge, spend money and time on the courses, and to decide whether or not to changing work practice to use the new ideas.

Of course you can find out the new method in a course.  Of course, you can hire consultants to give you the best guess of whether your competitors will use the new knowledge and how much better than you they will be when they put it into play.

There is another question you must ask and answer even if you answer it partly by gut-feel.  You must anticipate what the professors have not answered.  What will be their Oh. Ooops!  Your judgement of the Oh. Ooops! tells you the hidden costs.  The company that judges those correctly is the company that wins.

Everyone will pick up the new knowledge.  That’s out there. Everyone and his dog will take the course and read the book.  What we will compete on is the sense of the side-effects. That thalidomide will be a disaster.  That going to war will increase attacks on us.  To take to well known examples.

The professors won’t be articulate about the side-effects of their new solution. Not because they are irresponsible but because their heads are fully taken up figuring it out.

It is the leaders in charge of the interface between new knowledge and the real world who must take a reasonable view of the risks.  Just as in the banks, it is the Directors who are responsible for using technology that had unexpected side-effects.

When you are the Director, you want a good sense of the unknown unknowns and you develop that sense by listening to Professors. They tell you story of how we found the general idea and then went Oh. Ooops!.  The story can be irritating because it is mainly the story of cleaning up their own mess and sometimes the whole story is nothing more than Oh. Oops!  that ends with “Let’s give this up and start on another story”.

But as future leaders students, practise listening to experts at the edge of knowledge, relating the solutions to real world problems, and getting a good sense of the Oh. Ooops! that is about to come next!

#3 Uni education can feel complicated and annoying

That’s uni education.  Don’t expect it to be a movie that charms you and tickles you ego.  It is irritating.

But rather be irritated there than create a medical disaster, a ship that sinks or a financial system that collapses when you were in charge and jumped into things naively.

See you in class!

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9 things to think about when you choose a university

Uni fees in UK have gone up – a lot

Next year, domestic student fees for undergraduates at UK universities will be £9 000 pounds per year.  Some universities, though not many, will charge less and the fee is the same whether you do an expensive subject like Chemistry or a cheap subject like English or take a subject with with low staff-student ratios like Drama or one where students don’t know or need to meet a member of staff like Management and sign up in their hundreds.

On top of the £9000, students also have to pay for books, computers, stationery, accommodation, food, clothing, heating, clubs and extra activities and not least transport to get to uni and to move from where they live to lecture rooms and clubs and so on.  It’s not cheap going to uni in the UK. It costs a lot more than many people earn per year.

Many people say they cannot afford to go. As I understand it, this is not true.  They might not be afford to do A levels, but if they get good A levels and are accepted into a university, they can get a student loan which they start to pay back after their earning are well above a minimum wage job which they will get if they don’t go to uni or find a rarer-than-hen’s-teeth apprenticeship.

Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

Having taught in universities on three continents for three decades, there are universities and universities; and students find it hard to tell them apart.  There are the well known ones to be sure – the Harvard’s, the Oxford’s. There are those well known to students because their friends have gone there and they anticipate the party scene with relish.  Students pick their university by word-of-mouth.  That’s what we all do when quality is hard to assess from the outside.

But why should fees change our attitude?  Practically, nothing much has changed. Yes students will have to pay back their loans but 60K or whatever is not a lot for a life time’s investment. They will spend that much getting married and unmarried  in their time.  It is the price of a new kitchen if the shops on my high street are correct.

I thought it would be useful to write down three deep misunderstandings about universities.  If you are serious about going ,and equally miffed at the price, then think about these three points and see if they help you choose the university that you want to go to.

As an accountant once wisely said to me, never look at the price ticket until you know what is for sale.  What do you get from going to a university?

#1 University lecturers and professors spend more than half their time on research

A university teaches something quite different from school or a training course at work.  The teachers in a university are “research active”.  What that means is that they are in the business of making knowledge. That is a highly competitive business and they are only deemed to have made knowledge if there is ringing applause world-wide and gasps of “wish I had thought of that”!

It follows that lecturers and professors watch world knowledge, and the way it changes, like proverbial hawks. They are aware of the history of knowledge in their field and they are watching developments, hoping to pounce and work out the key bits to achieve glory in their subject area.

When you listen to them talk, you hear people who see and think about your subject as something that changes.  And from listening to them, you learn not what is great today, but what is changing all the time.

It is true that you want to know what is great today, but what is great today will probably not be great even by the time you graduate.  It certainly won’t be great for the 50 years of your working life. So learning about the way your subject morphs and develops is what is valuable.

Lesson 1a:  Make sure you will be taught by people who are active in your subject matter.  Turn down universities who use juniors or part-timers to teach you.  Check and ruthlessly discard those that do.  The teachers will not have the appreciation of change which is what you have come to learn.

Lesson 1b: Stop expecting someone to lead you by the hand.  The lecturers’ job is to watch the world and to show you the world through their eyes. If the lecturers are playing coach and tutor to you, they are not doing their jobs and you will have nothing to learn from them. Do the work to catch up.  Every student is in the same position. It is the very reason why you came to uni.  To catch up with people who see world-knowledge as something on the march.

Lesson 1c: Choose a uni partly for the other students. Do the other students care about knowing about where the subject is going over the next 50 years and where it came from over the last 500 years.  If not, move on. You will depend on the buzz of other students to catch up with the lecturers and if the other students don’t care, you will find it very difficult to master the steep learning curve.  Look at what students talk about on the chat boards.  If they don’t care, move on. 60K is a lot of money to pay for 3 years of bad parties.

#2 Universities are strict about referencing and plagiarism

The second thing you will notice when you get to university is that lecturers bang on about referencing your essays.  And referencing is a pain to learn. It is bitty and fiddly and lecturers fail you outright when you get it wrong. What is all that about?

I said under the previous point that lecturers are not telling you about a subject, they are telling you about how a subject changes.  So they are telling you about where an idea came from and who is talking about it.  They think geographically with layers of history.  Watch them read and you’ll seem them see a reference and then flick to the back to see the details of the publication.

In their minds they are thinking, hmm Harvard 1921  . . . who else was at Harvard then, what else did this person write, who over here in Europe would not have known because communications across the Atlantic were still slow then.  When they read, they are mapping the changing of the idea so they can pounce and put in the missing step or the next step in the evolution of ideas.

And they are teaching you to do the same.  Why? Because you have 50 years in the game and you want to be on top for 50 years, not on top for 1 and increasingly behind for the next 49.

Provenance, provenance, provenance.  That’s what it is all about.

But you learn something more from this aspect of uni education that is not a prominent part of school or workplace training.  When you track who thought of what, you understand that ideas develop because of the self-interest of the people involved. People at Harvard in 1921 would think up different things from people at Oxford in 1921 because they are surrounded by different people and face different issues.

From watching the provenance of ideas, we begin to appreciate diversity.  We begin to understand the value of other people’s ideas.   Their specific circumstances are different from ours and lead to different thought processes.  The mark of the a university-trained man or woman is that their ears prick up when they realise someone comes from a different walk-of-life because they know that person is likely to think quite differently from us and their thoughts could be very valuable.

Lesson 2a:  Spend your first year learning the reference system, though it is a pain, and get it right. It is the essential mechanic for building the geographical and historical map of change that you need to consistently be on top form for 50 years.

Lesson 2b: Start to appreciate how the circumstances of a person contribute to their thinking (and how your circumstances contribute to your thinking)

Lesson 2c:  Go to a uni where the students differ a lot from each other. It is difficult when you first arrive because you don’t know how to get along socially. But you’ll learn and appreciating the value of differences will give you the grounding to become a world-class negotiator and keep you on top of your game for 50 years.

#3 University is hard

Yes, university is hard, meaning – it is very difficult to know if you are doing well or not.  You can’t just ‘knock off the homework’. You can put 20 hours into something and find you are off the point.  The feedback doesn’t always make sense.  That’s what hard is.  The task isn’t hard when you know how to do it; it’s bloody hard when you don’t and you can’t figure out what  ou are supposed to do or what matters.

Well, that is also part of the design of university education.  When we know how to do a piece of work, we can delegate it to someone who can’t untangle problems – a high school graduate in other words, or a computer, or an outsourcing company in outer space.

It is jobs where the goals aren’t even clear, let alone the steps, that require well trained minds.  All good universities give you work that seems to have several layers of confusion and your job is to work out the layers and turn the confused mess into something orderly.

If you have been listening to how ideas change and where they come from, then you are more than half-way there because you start placing bits and pieces on your mental map and you can work out the story and see where it is going.

But there is another skill that you learn and that is keeping your temper.  When things are hard, our blood pressure goes up and thinking goes down. To think straight, you have to get on top of your temper to think straight. And you will learn to get good at not reacting badly to the feeling of being confused.

You will also stop blaming people. At first, your thought is ‘bad teacher – teacher confused me.’  Soon you will realise you should be saying ‘thank you teacher, you got me there, I had to think a bit.’

Above all, a university man or woman can untangle the mess of all the different ideas that a crowd of people put on the table.  And because you are calmly gathering all these emotionally charged ideas and sorting them out, even if you aren’t the smartest and most knowledgeable player in the room, you are welcome in the room for not just 50 years but probably your remaining 70.

A university should challenge you emotionally; if not, your money and most importantly your valuable three years of young adulthood are being wasted.

Lesson 3a:  Expect instructions to be confused and untangle them calmly.

Lesson3b:  React to your own indignation by realising your alarm is a signal that you haven’t finished the task.

Lesson3c:  Look at student chat boards. Avoid universities where they are full of whining and complaining.  Uni isn’t a cutprice airline.   Find a university where students solve problems and take pride in their emotional aplomb.

 Look at what is being sold before you look at the price tag

I hope these points help you think through why you might want to go to university and how to choose one that is worth 60K and more importantly, worth 3 of the most valuable years of your life. Choose well, and then get on the steepest learning curve you will ever face.  You will be glad; but if you don’t want any of these things, then by all means go to the nearest and cheapest.   Or consider whether you want to go to uni at all.  You can get information you need off the internet and sometimes you can bypass uni and go straight to a Masters.  Some people have to do it that way round because for one reason or another, they can’t go to uni when they are young.

But if you are going, remember to think like that accountant. Work out exactly what is for sale before you worry if the price tag is right.

This is what a good university (or good university department) provides.

  • A sense of how the world has changed and is changing and will continue changing for the next 50 years of your working life
  • A sense of how the circumstances in which people live affect their thinking and how their perspectives enrich yours
  • An ability to sort out confusion, including lots of emotionally-charged arguments, without getting upset yourself or blaming others.

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Universities: parties and yawns or surprisingly vigorous enterprisess

What was your uni like?

Parties with casual yet dictatorial professors?

Most of us go to university and college and find something that looks like a lawless, unruly form of school where the lecturers and professors are the biggest outlaws.  And so we go out into the world thinking of universities as schools with no business-imperative and no business-sense.

The business of universities

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Universities are businesses, or enterprises; but with a business model  that is so opaque, few people understand it, unless they have worked in one for quite a while.   If you do business with universities, if you are in a knowledge business, if you have to hire graduates to get work done, you might like to read this brilliant description of university business models.

As greedy as bacteria

“As organisms in a system, universities evolve. They eat up smaller institutions to dominate a niche, or split of side campuses to enter new spaces. They relentlessly share their DNA, as Universities heads look over their shoulders and shamelessly copy the innovations of others. Universities fight for resources, funding, students among themselves, where a Society usually co-opts all of the resources in it’s zone of control and operates without competitive challenge.”

As disregarding as dinosaurs

“Make no mistake, Universities are dinosaurs. They can crush you, outrun you and outbreed you. They dominate their ecosystem to the exclusions of all others, existing in astonishing diversity, and repeatedly adapting to environmental change. What it took to get rid of the dinosaurs wiped out almost everything else as well. The same is true here. If Universities become non viable institutions, then their collapse will be the least of our worries.”

As mutative as viruses

“Universities are not going to go gently into the night. They won’t wave their hands in the air, cry that it’s all to complicated (or was it complex?) and shut their doors. Some will no doubt go under, but most will adapt and survive, ruthlessly ripping out the DNA from models that work and re-engineering themselves for Internet Age. They will do it in University Time, not Internet time, but they have enough inertia for that not to matter. In fact, a slower response to change will insulate them from short timescale fads (Would you wish you had bet the farm on CD-ROMS? WAP?).”
Brilliant description of the strategic model of universities.  But who would know when you are yawning your way through another lecture?
FOR THE FULL POST:  Tertiary21

A plan big enough to include now!

Feb 8 2009 High Street South & Steeple snow pi...
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Will your degree really take you where you want to be?

I’ve just read story in the TimesOnline about a mature student who returned to university and read psychology, very successfully, only to find that there are insufficient places for students to complete their professional qualifications.

I am sorry to hear this story. There is a breach-of-confidence here that shames us all.   When students go to university, they accept in good faith our implied promises of progression within their degree and access to their chosen profession.

Very sadly, these promises are often made lightly.  And quite often universities deliberately conceal the facts, if not by commission, then by omission.  They quite consciously don’t collect information on student destinations, and they just as consciously don’t make these facts available.  It is certainly time for regulators to insist that these facts are published on University websites and kept up-to-date!

Not only do I think publishing student pass rates and destinations should be mandatory.  I think universities should loan fees to students and recover the loans themselves!

Caveat emptor

Until the day that regulations are tightened up, then I afraid it is a matter of caveat emptor, buyer beware.  Students need to be wary of making large investments in services that have no warranty!  Should they discover that the university’s promises are inflated, they will be able to recover neither their money nor, more importantly, their time.

Craft a life plan that is far bigger than uni and the professions

So what can students do to avoid this trap?

The advice from contemporary positive psychologists is this.  Don’t plan your university studies around a specific job and employment route! Neither is guaranteed.  Indeed, we have seen from the banking crisis that nothing in this world is guaranteed.

Rather, see your university education as a supplement to your life plan.  Let me give you this example.

Young Nick Cochiarella from my village of Olney has already launched his first social network, SpeakLife while he is at college.  He’s a hardworking guy and he also has a job at the local Coop.  He is taking a slightly circuituous route doing technical training before he goes to university.  But he is not waiting for anyone.  It is true that his hard work still guarantees him nothing.  But he is not deferring his dreams, and his university training supports, rather than defines, his life’s purpose.

But I need a job now!

It can be tough to start living our dreams.  We often get into an enormous tangle.

The biggest distractor is the desperate belief that we will somehow be safe when we follow a road carved out by others.  But it is not safe, as we have seen.

And even if it were safe, why do we think that other people’s dreams will be enough for us?

Wouldn’t it be better to have our own dreams and to work with others to find where we can temporarily work together to make the path easier and broader for both of us?

A plan big enough to include now

Ned Lawrence has been challenging me to refocus this site on the needs of the ordinary person – the person who lives these dilemmas.

What do you think?

Is it possible to make a plan that is big enough to include now?

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5 signs our education system has got better

Best Buy Store located in Shanghai, China

 

Image via Wikipedia

Do you believe that the education system is better or worse than when you were at school?

Micheal Porter recently published a strategic plan for the recovery of the US economy.  It applies equally to the UK economy.  A key requirement is that our education system must get very much more rigorous and competitive.

We all like to criticize the educational system and claim that it is not what it once was.  I think, in business subjects at least, our education system is BETTER than it was when we went through university.  This is what we can expect of graduates

  1. Strategy.  They will know who Micheal Porter is and rattle off his work on 5 competitive forces, define the supply-chain, and appreciate how international competitiveness rests on hyper-competitiveness at home.
  2. Management science. They will have done some management science and be able do some basic process modelling with diagrams and excel spreadsheets.
  3. Social media. They are likely to be able to set up, with relative ease, basic social media facilties like networks and blog and work effectively in companies like Best Buy who use internet-mediated collaboration extensively.
  4. Social constructionism.  They are used to giving their opinions and are well schooled to accept there are many points-of-view to a single issue.
  5. Positive organizational scholarship.  They are increasingly exposed to the idea that ideas emerge from the group or situation and are not dependent on an all-powerful, all-knowing “boss”.

Is this enough though?

While I believe that our education system has got better, is it enough?  There are three areas that worry me about what our students learn.

  1. General knowledge including knowledge of science.   Students, reasonably in my opinion, are most interested in material that seem relevant to what they want to do in life.  Adolescents and young adults, won’t settle until we recognise their unique identity.  Nonetheless, how can any student in an educational system in 2008 not know of the CERN accelerator, the Obama election and the credit crunch?   That is the modern day equivalent of switching off the radio as Armstrong landed on the moon, when Martin Luther King spoke and or Sam Miller sold Trademe for 200 million pounds (you didn’t know that one!)  We need to be able pick up events of the day and bring them into our courses and to do that, teachers need time to follow events and time to redesign their classes.
  2. Time spent on cutting edge ideas. In seeming contradiction of the first point, students have a limited number of hours in their day and our textbooks are often old.  It is bizzare to be teaching them procedures that are no longer used. Having said that, why don’t we have an interactive museum that teaches them the history of work and business?  Is it not reasonable that any examing authority, including every university, review its curriculum annually and account for what is taken out and put in?  I believe these curricula should be public and available for any one to inspect and comment on the internet.
  3. Quantitative skills.  When we were students we studied statistics but only a small percentage of students can actually use the skills they were taught.  Workers on the Toyota assembly line use means, standard deviations and t-tests as part of their daily work.  Herein lies the call for more rigour in our education system.   We must use the skills we teach and if we think it is beyond us, we need to convey deep respect for those who do.

So those are my three issues, none of which are so difficult to implement.  They require no capital and no retraining – just leadership.

My optimistic view of the future

As we move towards networked organizations such as we see at Boeing and Best Buy, our graduates will be mapping out complex supply networks, resolving performance problems at source using sophisticated analyses, and proposing solutions to diverse audiences all of whom are experts in their own right. Students do get this experience working on non-educational projects on the internet.  It is time for us to bring this activity into the classroom too.

I am generally optimistic.  My expectation is that within a year or so, graduates will be routinely presenting a portfolio of work on the internet.  Alex Deschamps-Sonsino, London based interaction designer is an example.  Daryl Tay, young Singaporean social media evangelist, is another.  Students might also show off wikis and multimedia project via links or pages.

I think the young people of today are up to it and it is they who might drive the development of more rigorous education!

So what is your view?  Do you believe that our education system is better than in your day, and what are the key issues that need to be addressed to “allow our workers to compete with workers anywhere in the world”?

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