Philip Brisk: Prospective Students

Side profile taken in Palma di Mallorca                             Palm Trees in Cannes, France

What is graduate school?

This is an open-ended question with an open-ended answer: it is whatever you and your advisor make of it. An undergraduate program has considerably more structure than a graduate program; although I can only speak for myself, the undergraduate courses that I teach tend to have a much more formal and rigid structure than my graduate courses. In my opinion, the most important and defining aspect of a graduate education is for me to teach, and for you to learn, autonomy.

An undergraduate course, in many respects, covers a fairly well-defined set of knowledge that you need to master, and virtually all of it will be in a textbook, possibly supplemented by lecture material. Although an undergraduate education provides a motivated student with an immaculate set of essential skills, the basic process of learning via lectures and a textbook, is not the way that things work in the real-world. For example, suppose that you are working in the Aerospace industry, and your project requires you to implement a radar system in which computations are performed using a logarithmic number system. Your local university's computer science department is not going to offer a class that teaches you specifically what you need to know in a timeline that is acceptable for either you or your company. At best, a graduate course on computer arithmetic may have one lecture on logarithmic number systems, and the textbook may or may not cover this topic in a chapter toward the end. Whether or not you realize it, it is now your responsibility to teach yourself logarithmic number systems, whether or not you think you are ready to learn on your own.

I structure my courses to emphasize independent learning and non-linear thinking. Knowledge is being produced and archived every year in conferences and journals, and only a small fraction of it is ever collected into textbooks. At some point in your life, you will need to learn something new that is not readily available in a textbook. If you complete an M.S. degree, you should have effectively mastered the art of teaching yourself whatever you need to learn in order to succeed professionally in the real world. This can easily be done in 1-2 years.

A Ph.D., however, is a completely different beast. Yes, you have to start by achieving an M.S.-level of intellectual autonomy; however, your long-term goal is to produce new knowledge that others will need to learn and master in order to advance their own understand in order to develop their own products and ideas. The purpose of the Ph.D. program is absolutely not to facilitate your mastery of a specific body of knowledge; that is not enough: you must actively contribute and add to it. Your contributions, not your mastery of knowledge, are the indicators of success; the number of contributions, and their respective impacts vary from Ph.D. to Ph.D., and that is one important reason why top research universities and industrial laboratories hire certain Ph.D.s and do not hire others.

That being said, your thesis advisor will have a significant impact on your ability to make these contributions: choose wisely!

Is graduate school for you?

Re-read the above and come to your own conclusion. If the answer is "no," stop reading.

M.S. or Ph.D.?

This is a very personal decision. Clearly, if you are looking for relatively short-term professional development, and possibly a sizable one-time salary bump, then you probably want an M.S. If you are looking to accomplish something intellectually profound, then perhaps you should consider a Ph.D. If you want to spend 5-7 years, and perhaps the rest of your life, producing new knowledge, then yes, I would definitely recommend a Ph.D.

What do I do?

There are key three aspects of professorship: teaching, research, and service.

  ♦  Teaching: As an Assistant Professor, I teach three courses per year (typically one per quarter); within a given year, I teach one graduate course and two undergraduate courses. At UC Riverside, I will be teaching most embedded systems courses (e.g., CS120B) at the undergraduate level; at the graduate level, I will be teaching courses such as reconfigurable computing (CS 223) and more advanced embedded systems courses (e.g., CS 220).

I also supervise students. The type of supervision varies, depending on the status of the student (M.S. vs. Ph.D.) and, in the case of M.S. students, whether they plan to graduate with a project or with an M.S. thesis. Yes, there is a different -- an M.S. thesis is much more significant in scope and content compared to a project.

  ♦  Research: This is where I spend most of my time and effort. Research, in short, is the production of new knowledge and its dissemination to the wider community via conferences, journals, tutorials, etc. If you want to see what I do, and will be doing in the near-future, take a look at my Research Agenda and my List of Publications. All of my research involves graduate students, both at the M.S. and Ph.D. levels. I am also happy to work with undergraduates as well. Please email me if you are interested.

My primary job as a researcher is to find projects for students, raise funds to support these projects, and guide students through the process of doing the research and then publishing it. Additionally, it is my job to promote my students and their research within the communities where I publish regularly. This includes accompanying students to conferences, introducing them to key researchers in the field, and setting up collaborative projects. Through my own observations and experiences, the advocacy I do on behalf of my students has a significant impact on their post-graduate employment, both in academia and in industry. This is a personal commitment that I make to all of my students, and, arguably, it goes far beyond the typical commitment that most graduate advisors will make. The flip side is that I have very high standards and expectations for the work that my laboratory produces; I make an honest effort to lead by example, rather than by command. I view research as a fundamentally collaborative endeavor; my students are my collaborators; they are not my employees, even if I do provide the funding.

  ♦  Service: There are two forms of service expected of all professors. The first is service to the university. This includes attending faculty meetings, various committees (within the department, and within the university as a whole), showing up to university events, e.g., for incoming undergraduate and graduate students, hosting and meeting with potential faculty candidates, etc. These tasks do not make for inspiring essays, but they are crucial for the proper functioning of the university. Remember: if you apply for graduate student in this department, someone will have read through your application materials, regardless of whether you are accepted or rejected.

The second form of service is related to research, rather than the university. This type of service includes organizing conferences and symposia, serving on program committees (i.e., the committees that decide which papers to accept and which to reject), chairing sessions at conferences, anonymously reviewing papers submitted to journals (eventually becoming an associate editor, and perhaps editor-in-chief -- not yet, for me), and promoting my and my students' research by giving talks and tutorials.

  ♦  Summary: This is not your normal 9-5 job. On the one hand, the work never ends and there is always more to be done; I don't remember my last 40-hour work week. On the other hand, the hours are flexible, my students and colleagues are great, and the entire experience is thoroughly fulfilling. It's one of the greatest jobs in the world.

Am I the right advisor for you?

This is a very difficult question, and there are no easy answers. Firstly, you have to have some interest in the topics that I work on. Secondly, some personalities are better matches than others. Thirdly, even if "we" get along, you are expected to maintain good relationships with other students in my workspace -- which is shared between myself, Dr. Vahid, and Dr. Najjar.

That being said, the best way is to test the waters. I find that it is in both of our interests to agree to start working together on a fairly short-term project. This way, we can evaluate one another, and within 1-3 months, have a firm decision as to whether we want to continue a collaboration for the duration of your stay at UC Riverside. I generally need to establish a working relationship with you and evaluate your productivity before I can make a long-term commitment; you should do the same of me, and make sure that you are comfortable pursuing your degree under my guidance. I find this to be the most equitable and overall beneficial arrangement, and most professors that I know take a similar approach.

Can I get you into graduate school?

The short answer is "no" if you are not a UC Riverside undergraduate, and "maybe" if you are.

  ♦  If you are not a UC Riverside undergraduate: Let me be clear: I Am Not A Member of the Admissions Committee. Therefore, I have no official power to admit you. That being said, the admissions committee does seek my input as to which students in my areas (embedded systems, reconfigurable computing, architecture) should be admitted, and which students I think that I would like to advise.

On the other hand, emailing me is not likely to be helpful, but it can be under the right circumstances. 

Firstly, if you have written a generic email that you have sent to every professor in the entire world, I am going to delete it immediately. These mails typically begin with "Dear Sir" (i.e., you haven't even put my name into it) or "Dear Madam" (please note my gender) and claim that you have a lifelong passion for "cloud computing and cyber-physical systems" (the hottest buzzwords in 2010). These mails are a waste of your time and mine. I pity any professor who would actually accept a mail from a student who sends these out. If your grades and test scores are good enough, you don't need to embarass yourself this way.

Secondly, if you have already applied, sending me a personalized email to try to get me to pay attention to you is unlikely to work as well. I will simply ignore it. The admission committee has already ranked and filtered the candidates in my area, and your resumes, transcripts, and letters of recommendation are generally enough for me to evaluate your candidacy and provide feedback. An email, at this point, telling me that you are interested in my research, might be flattering, but it will not offer you any advantages. I care about your publication history and letters of recommendation more than anything else.

Now, if you have not yet applied for graduate study at UC Riverside, and you have legitimate questions about my research and the department in general, then I am much more likely to pay attention to your email and answer questions. But, I will only do so to help you make your decision; although I cannot make any formal guarantees, it is unlikely that these discussions will influence either the admission committee or myself.

  ♦  If you are a UC Riverside undergraduate: Yes, there are things that I can do to help you. Firstly, take my class and get a good grade. Take an undergraduate design project  course with me.If you do well in these classes, I can write letters of recommendation endorsing your candidacy for graduate school. Positive letters from respected faculty members can significantly boost your chances for admission to graduate school, both at UC Riverside, and elsewhere.

Or, better yet, volunteer to do undergraduate research in collaboration with myself and/or my graduate students. More than anything, authoring and co-authoring peer-reviewed publications as an undergraduate are the best metrics for potential success in graduate school. Start early! I am more than willing to consider freshman and sophomore-level undergraduate research assistants. What you do in years 1-3 will be published before you apply to graduate school. If you start doing research in your final year, you will have to apply to graduate schools before you complete your project, and it won't appear as a publication until the following academic year. For this reason, I highly suggest that you pursue undergraduate research opportunities as early as possible. And yes, if you are successful, I will produce an even stronger letter of recommendation in your favor as well.

Am I willing to hire postdoctoral researchers?

Yes, I am definitely willing to hire postdocs. I was a postdoctoral researcher myself for three years (2006 - 2009), and I see significant value in these opportunities. That being said, please do not email me directly unless you know me; for example, we may have met at a conference, or I may have visited your advisor's research laboratory. Similarly, if I have a relationship with your advisor, but you don't know me personally, it is probably better for your advisor to contact me on your behalf.

What about student exchanges?

Who wouldn't want to come to Riverside for 6 months or a year!

In all seriousness, yes, I am generally willing to host students; however, please do not view this as an open invitation to send resumes. I prefer to use this type of exchange as a way to strengthen ties with my collaborators, so it is best arranged between myself and your advisor, rather than between you and me directly. Similarly, if I have a collaborative grant with another professor, then sharing and swapping of students is certainly feasible.

What am I looking for in students and postdocs?

So, you want to be a researcher in my group...

Most importantly, you have to be a decent person who is easy to get along with; I try to reciprocate (and often fail miserably... but that's another story). In short, if you are a fundamentally unpleasant person, then our meetings become unpleasant for me; similarly, you will make life unpleasant for everyone else in my laboratory, and they will either telecommute or they will quit and work with someone else. To be perfectly honest, avoiding pathological personalities in my research group is  my highest priority; that being said, most people get along fine.

Secondly, I care about communication skills, both oral and written. As your advisor, I am going to meet with you regularly. If we cannot understand one another due to your limited speaking abilities and oral comprehension, then it is going to be very difficult for me to guide you in research. Similarly, if you cannot compose an English sentence or a paragraph by this point in your life, then it is unclear to me how you will be able to publish highly technical papers, let alone a thesis, unless you expect me to write them for you; this will not happen.

Beyond that, all that I expect is a basic undergraduate education in a field such as a computer science, computer engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, or perhaps a related field such as statistics or logic; basic-to-moderate programming skills are also necessary. Beyond that, I am confident in my ability to train you to teach yourself what you need to know in order to survive the M.S. or Ph.D. program in my laboratory.

When I evaluate you as a potential student, my concern is not whether or not you are ready to start doing research as soon as you arrive in my lab; what I am looking for is potential to grow and learn with experience. I am much more concerned with the person that you will become at the end of your time in my laboratory than your initial aptitude coming in.

Last words of advice?

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

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