Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite holiday, because pausing your life and giving thanks provides a needed moment of perspective.
As a researcher, I am most thankful for my education, without which I could not function. I want to share this, because it provides some sense of how a researcher starts.
- My long term memory seems to function particularly well, which makes any education I get is particularly useful.
- I am naturally obsessive, which makes me chase down details until I fully understand things. Natural obsessiveness can go wrong, of course, but it’s a great ally when you absolutely must get things right.
- My childhood was all in one hometown, which was a conscious sacrifice on the part of my father, implying disruptions from moving around were eliminated. I’m not sure how important this was since travel has it’s own benefits, but it bears thought.
- I had several great teachers in grade school, and naturally gravitated towards teachers over classmates, as they seemed more interesting. I particularly remember Mr. Cox, who read Watership Down 10 minutes a day. The frustration of not getting to the ending drove me into reading books on my own, including just about every science fiction book in Lebanon Oregon.
- I spent a few summers picking strawberries and blueberries. It’s great motivation to not do that sort of thing for a living.
- Lebanon school district was willing to bend the rules for me, so I could skip unnecessary math classes. I ended up a year advanced, taking math from our local community college during senior year in high school.
- College applications was a very nervous time, because high quality colleges cost much more than we could reasonably expect to pay. I was very lucky to get into Caltech here. Caltech should not be thought of as a university—instead, it’s a research lab which happens to have a few undergraduate students running around. I understand from Preston that the operating budget is about 4% tuition these days. This showed in the financial aid package, where they basically let me attend for the cost of room&board. Between a few scholarships and plentiful summer research opportunities, I managed to graduate debt free. Caltech was also an exceptional place to study, because rules like “no taking two classes at the same time” were never enforced them. The only limits on what you could learn were your own.
- Graduate school was another big step. Here, I think Avrim must have picked out my application to Carnegie Mellon, which was a good fit for me. At the time, I knew I wanted to do research in some sort of ML/AI subject area, but not really what, so the breadth of possibilities at CMU was excellent. In graduate school, your advisor is much more important, and between Avrim and Sebastian, I learned quite a bit. The funding which made this all work out was mostly hidden from me at CMU, but there was surely a strong dependence on NSF and DARPA. Tom Siebel also directly covered my final year as as a Siebel Scholar.
- Figuring out what to do next was again a nervous time, but it did work out, first in a summer postdoc with Michael Kearns, then at IBM research as a Herman Goldstine Fellow, then at TTI-Chicago, and now at Yahoo! Research for the last 5 years.
My life is just one anecdote, from which it’s easy to be misled. But trying to abstract the details, it seems like the critical elements for success are a good memory, an interest in getting the details right, motivation, and huge amounts of time to learn and then to do research. Given that many of the steps in this process winnow out large fractions of people, some amount of determination and sheer luck is involved. Does the right person manage to see you as a good possibility?
But mostly I’d like to give thanks for the “huge amounts of time” which in practical terms translates into access to other smart people and funding. In education and research funding is something like oxygen—you really miss it when it’s not there, so Thanksgiving is a good time to remember it.