Tag Archives: phd support

how to write about operations research

In my lab meeting this month, we discussed writing operations research publications. We read How to Write About Operations Research by Gerald G. Brown at the Naval Postgraduate School, a fabulous guide for writing technical publications in the field of operations research written in 2004. The entire paper is worth reading and discussing. The paper starts by introducing a “grand, unified design for any OR publication.”

There are five simple, essential questions you must answer in your publication, preferably in this order:
1) What is the problem?
2) Why is this problem important?
3) How will this problem be solved without your help?
4) What are you doing to solve this problem?
5) How will we know when you have succeeded?

The paper introduces a series of writing recommendations, which we discussed by listing our favorite and least favorite recommendations. My two favorites are ones that I often tell students:

  • Start each paragraph with a topic sentence.
  • Make sure that just reading your paragraph-by-paragraph topic sentences conveys all of your publication.

I also like these three recommendations:

  • Use active voice
  • Use present tense
  • Work at it

Afterward, as a group we brainstormed recommendations that we felt were missing from the list. Here is what we came up with:

  • Read your writing out loud as you edit.
  • Use inclusive and gender neutral language.
  • Describe all tables and figures in the text, i.e., do not just refer to the tables and figures.
  • Be consistent with terminology.

What are your favorite writing tips?


PhD development seminar: Time management and work-life balance

I am teaching a PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines. The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.

Last week, a student panel composed of three senior PhD students discussed time management and work-life balance. The panelists were fantastic. Below are some highlights from the panel.

I am creating a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

Other posts in this series:


PhD development seminar: getting started with research

I am teaching a PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines. The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.

I am creating a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

Other posts in this series:


PhD development seminar: first steps in writing

I am teaching a PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines. The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.






I am creating a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

Other posts in this series:


PhD development seminar: first steps in research

Last year, I developed a new PhD development seminar for first year PhD students in industrial engineering and related disciplines.

The purpose of this course is to prepare students for the dissertation research in industrial and systems engineering. The main focus is on initial steps and skills required to get started with research. Topics include understanding degree requirements, first steps in research, conducting a literature review, working with citation managers, time management, research ethics, data management, technical writing, and research organization. I invite a number of guest speakers to class sessions to introduce topics, connect students with campus resources, and answer questions.

By the end of the semester: each student should achieve these learning outcomes

  • Understand requirements for a PhD in Industrial Engineering or other PhD program.
  • Understand expectations for a dissertation and how to get started with research.
  • Understand what campus resources are available for writing, finding resources at the library, mental health, and others.
  • Understand research concepts such as research safety, research ethics, time management principles, setting expectations, meeting milestones, and plagiarism.

The course helps set expectations, introduces campus resources to students, and creates a cohort of student to connect students with their peers.

I am again offering the course in Fall 2020 but in a virtual format. So far, we are off to a great start. I will create a series of blog posts featuring some of the classes from the semester. Those, along with previous PhD related posts, are tagged with the “PhD support” tag.

First steps in research

This week’s class was about first steps in research, where two professors discussed how they helped new PhD students started on research. Professors Vicki Bier and Doug Wiegmann came to class and were wonderful. Some of their terrific advice was captured in my tweetstorm below.

Stay tuned for more blog posts about the course.


how to write a scientific paper: advice told through a series of tweets

It’s almost the end of the summer, which marks the end of writing season in academia. Here is some advice for writing a scientific paper, as told through a series of tweets. What would you add?

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Heilmeier’s catechism: not all research that is “interesting” is also “important”

Legendary engineer George Heilmeier came up with a set of questions to help program managers evaluate proposals while he was director of DARPA (1975-1977):

  1. What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  3. What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  4. Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  5. What are the risks ?
  6. How much will it cost?
  7. How long will it take?
  8. What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

This list is still used today. I most often see this list in presentations by National Science Foundation program officers who are interested in helping researchers write competitive proposals.

I love this list.

This list has stood the test of time because it’s a great list. I find questions #2 and #4 to be particularly helpful. I do so because my first inclination is to talk about why my research is interesting and exciting to me. I wouldn’t start research in a new area unless the topic were interesting and unless my skill set were brought something to the table. Being excited about my interesting research is not sufficient for giving a good answer to #2 and #4. Not all research that is “interesting” is also “important.”

When I write with my students, we talk about how we need to answer #1-#4 in the paper, although we answer slightly different versions of the questions since the research has already been successful if we are publishing the results.

I once summarized how to answer an abridged version of the Heilmeier questions in the first couple minutes of a thesis defense. When a student did so, it made for a memorable defense (in a good way!) and I tweeted about it.

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Related posts:


just write, damn it: the dissertation edition

One of my recent blog posts entitled “just write, damn it” got a lot of hits and positive feedback. All the feedback was for just writing and none was in favor of planning first. I was surprised that my methodological and analytical readers preferred to cannonball into writing without a lot of planning.

Someone told me about an approach to writing a dissertation that was somewhere in between just writing willy nilly and planning. It’s called the One Draft PhD Dissertation [pdf] by John Carlis, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Minnesota. His approach is to sketch a blueprint of a dissertation by planning what will be in each paragraph and then jump in and write each of those paragraphs. He writes:

What’s my story? While writing my dissertation and, at the same time, working as a professor (yes, it was stressful), several streams of thought happily converged. I read lots about writing, and was particularly struck by the forward to the John McPhee Reader, which described his disciplined, design-before-write way of work. I read Richard Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, which has this message that translates to writing: teaching (writing) is about them, the students (readers), not the teacher (author). I taught software development using Yourdon and Constantine’s “Structured Development” (Addison-Wesley, 1975). Convergence began when the strong parallels in their content struck me. By then I already believed that software should be designed and not hacked, and, coming to the same conclusion about a dissertation, I decided to try to transfer software notions to writing. Since a paragraph is a unit of development, like a software procedure, I, following McPhee, chose to design everything down to the paragraph topic sentence level before writing. And it worked!

The one draft dissertation is a 5 step process:

  1. Believe you can do it.
  2. Understand that the purpose of a dissertation is to defend your claimed contributions to your field.
  3. Write for the right audience. Start by sketching a blueprint by writing for yourself then do the formal writing for your committee.
  4. Acquire draft writing skills (paragraph topic sentences, story telling, and logic to tie paragraphs together to tell your story)
  5. Design a dissertation.

What does “draft” mean? Here a draft is a completed unit, something that you give to others for review. I do not consider small scale revising, say editing within a paragraph while leaving the structure alone, the same as re-drafting. Do not misunderstand; “one draft” does not mean that you just start from a blank slate with final words of truth and beauty rolling off your fingertips. No, producing a dissertation is work, but it is merely work, not some mystical thing… You should believe that you can produce a one-draft dissertation, because focusing on contributions allows you to first choose vocabulary, craft figures, and grow a story tree down to paragraph topic sentences, and to then, for an audience of other experts, draft, one at a time, what you have the skill to draft, namely, paragraphs.

This approach has been tested on his students. It’s similar to one of my writer’s block antidotes. When I’ve struggled with writing something new, I often dive in and plan my story paragraph by paragraph by writing topic sentences, much like in the One Draft Dissertation. It’s planning, but it feels like another way to jump in and write. Just write topic sentences, damn it.

Finally, here is the average length of a dissertation by field, courtesy of beckmw.wordpress.com.


Thinking about getting a PhD? Here are some good resources.

Part of my job is to help students figure out if grad school is for them. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a few great resources for students thinking about a PhD. Here are some of my favorites.

Here is a link to the first of a series of ten blog posts by Jean Yang, who decided to leave Google to attend grad school in CS at MIT.

Philip Guo released an e-book on the PhD experience called The PhD Grind and has a 45 minute lecture on why to consider a PhD in CS. He has a bunch of other good posts about academic life as both a student and an assistant professor. He has a post specifically on applying to grad school.

Tim Hopper has a great series about whether one should consider a PhD in a technical field. I like this series because a broad range of people participated and not everyone encourages a PhD.

Chris Chamber’s blog post called “Tough Love: an insensitive guide to thriving in your PhD” has a lot of frank advice for determining whether a PhD is for you.

Below is a slideshare presentation I put together for the VCU math club a few years ago, since several seniors were planning to apply to graduate programs.

This is a woefully incomplete list, but I don’t want to delay posting it any longer. What other useful resources are out there?


thoughts on a PhD development course, part 1

I am teaching a 1 credit hour PhD development course for industrial and systems engineering students at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I am teaching the course with librarian Ryan Schryver, who is using the course to replace his office hours that students never came to. He found that students were not asking the questions that they needed to ask. Additionally, the department has a goal of exposing students to research and people across the department, but we have found that our students work in their labs with few interactions with students in operations research, manufacturing, human factors, and/or healthcare (our four department areas).

This course will fill these gaps. Our syllabus includes a variety of topics for students in their first 2-3 years, from understanding department and university policies to choosing a dissertation topic, technical writing, graphics, research organization, good programming habits, and prelims. We have a bunch of guest speakers plus me. I love hearing my colleagues’ take on things.

Student feedback thus far has been fantastic. I have urged the students to take ownership, and they seem interested in getting what they need from this course, not just in attending to get credit.

My favorite day thus far has been the PhD student panel, where PhD students asked questions to other PhD students. The questions came from all over the place, and the panelists were open to being quite honest about the process and the occasional struggles. Ryan and I knew it was successful when we had those unfiltered moments. Here are a few tweets from the panel.

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Our guest speaker from the writing center, had some really good advice about the writing process:

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Ryan talked about copyright and fair use, and he filled his talk with many pieces of useful information:

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I’ll have a recap slide on this course at the end of the semester. In the mean time, please share advice and observations from similar courses you have taken so I can revise and improve the experience.

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