Thursday, February 28, 2013

What Not to Do When Applying for PhDs.

I was sifting through some old, old emails and stumbled across a conversation that brought a curl of a smile to the corner of my lips. Take this time to learn the wisdom of my folly several years ago.

In December, 2008, I was contacting researchers at various American universities to inquire about available PhD positions. (Like I mentioned in an earlier post, there was a time when I had never considered studying in Europe.) At the time, I wasn't fully sold on machine translation, so I was interested in pretty much anything related to natural language processing.

There was one Ivy League university that really caught my fancy. At the time, one of their hot spin-off products was a little service that provided sentiment analysis on opinions based on natural language. Particularly targeting investors, it was a novel way of tracking market opinions on political and social events. Sadly, the service is no longer around.

Anyway, I decided to send an email to some of the researchers in the NLP group at the university. At the time I worked in an IT organization. One thing I had learned in my industry experience was that the cc: field was your friend when sending emails. This is not true.

I sent an email, targeting a Professor Y in particular and cc:ed another professor, X, who I thought was equally interesting and might also be interested in my inquiry. Wrong assumption. Here was the gist of my email:
Dear Prof. Y,
Hello, my name is Nicholas Ruiz. I graduated from Houghton College in 2006 with a BS in Computer Science. I also majored in Mathematics and minored in Spanish. Houghton is located in New York, USA. As an undergraduate, I independently studied machine learning and kernel methods, in addition to taking a course on neural network design. I wrote a bachelors thesis on [blah-blah-blah].

[Industry background]
I have been interested in pursuing a PhD in Natural Language Processing and recently decided to pursue my PhD full-time.

I was browsing [your department's] website and was impressed by the research performed by the department, including your publications on identifying opinionated phrases within a corpus. I am interested in natural language understanding, particularly in regards to machine translation and pronunciation. [blah-blah-blah]

I am interested in applying to [university] and would be interested in learning more about your NLP program.

Thank you very much for your time.
Nicholas Ruiz

I sent the email on December 4, 2008 and received a prompt reply from Professor X (if only it was the mutant academy professor). I was excited.
Dear Nick Ruiz,
I thought I should let you know that you seem to have accidentally
cc:ed your email to someone other than its intended recipient.
Whoops. I had better clarify myself:
Dear Prof. X,
Thank you for your reply. I carbon-copied you as well, as I noticed that you are also very involved in the Natural Language Processing department at [university].
[Other salutatory text here]
Then I received the following reply:
Dear Nick Ruiz,
There is no need to reply to this message, since there's no reason to keep spending bandwidth on this matter, but please forgive me for being bold enough to offer you some advice, which is well-meant.

Suppose you cc: professor X in research group N on an email to professor Y, who is also in research group Y, saying that you have been investigating the work going on in group N and that you are interested in Y's research. This can be interpreted by X as:

(a) a statement that you are not interested in X's research, or
(b) indicating that you are working under the (mistaken, in this case) assumption that X is an assistant of Y who should be taking care of Y's correspondence.
Which is all well and good --- not everything is interesting to everybody, and people do have assistants --- but it's not clear that you benefit by letting X have either of these impressions.
One word for this encounter: schooled. I got professionally reamed by a professor who was instructive enough to use a logical example to make sure I understood her offense at being the recipient of a cc: not explicitly directed at her. In reality, the cc: button was my enemy. I never received a reply from Prof. Y and ultimately, my PhD application was rejected, all due to a naive assumption.

Please learn from my mistake. Industry ≠ Academia. Keep business practices separate from academic etiquette and make sure you know the proper way to address a professor before corresponding.

By the way, I particularly liked the "there's no reason to keep spending bandwidth on this matter" part. The professor really drove it home that I wasn't worth the $0.00003 after my folly. It's actually pretty funny in hindsight.

How about you? Do you have any (in)famous application bloopers you'd like to share?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why Europe? Part 2: The Pragmatic Decision.

[This is Part 2 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 1 | Part 3]

In my previous post in this series, I questioned the motives of asking the question, "Why would an American choose to live in Europe?" Not because it's a bad question in itself, but rather because of the stereotypes about Americans and what the US has to offer.

Despite my diatribe, the question itself is still worth answering. So in the next few posts, I'll give my answer to the "Why Europe?" question. There are simple ways and complex ways to answer this question. So I'll let you pick the satisfactory answer.

Back in 2009, I was working for a great company. It was a very successful career track offering a great team of employees and stability -- the latter being a particularly appealing feature in the midst of the dreaded "economic crisis." But the siren call of higher education enticed me after three years of work. Thus, I moved away from pure information technology and pursued research in machine translation.

[As an aside, if you're unfamiliar with machine translation, here's an obligatory video to show how Google Translate (and machine translation in general) works.]

With my study background in computer science, math, and Spanish, I deemed machine translation a suitable career decision. But again, "Why Europe?"

The United States is ripe with opportunities in Machine Translation. Many universities like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, University of Washington, Johns Hopkins, and University of Pennsylvania (just to name a few) have excellent research groups and prominent research grants from research bodies like DARPA, focusing on challenging languages like Arabic and Chinese. Naturally, conducting my PhD research at any of these institutions would have yielded a successful career. And that's where I started looking. However, Google search doesn't always take you where you'd expect.

As I was broadening my knowledge in the machine translation field, I encountered a blog from a graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Language & Communication Technologies European Master's program, describing his experience pursuing a master's degree in Europe. In particular, this type of master's program offered the opportunity to study at two universities from a respectable consortium in the EU. Though I had never considered leaving the US for studies before, the description of the program provided an alternative worth considering.

So, weighing pros and cons about studying in the LCT program in Europe, I observed the following:
  • Europe provides a "real" case-study on the importance of translation. With 23 official languages and an EU-mandate that all documents and government services be provided in these languages, machine translation is a "must."
  • Linguistic opportunities. Participating in the LCT program entails living in two countries (in my case, the Netherlands and Italy). This provides opportunities to learn foreign languages in natural contexts.
  • Intercultural connections. In addition to being immersed in different languages, studying in Europe provides the opportunity to meet with people from all over the world, from locals to other international students. There are many opportunities to discuss intercultural perspectives on issues like culture, government, and religion.
  • Research facilities. Most of the universities in the LCT consortium are connected with research laboratories performing cutting edge research in computational linguistics (among other disciplines). EU-funded projects are in abundance and serve as the counterpart to US-funding for disciplines like machine translation.
  • Travel opportunities. Part of being pragmatic is being honest. Who would pass up opportunities to visit some of the most interesting places in the world?
Just boasting about where I've traveled.
These facts warranted applying for the LCT program. After eventually being accepted into the program, my wife and I made the decision to move to Europe for two years to complete the master's program -- after which I received an excellent opportunity to continue on to pursue a PhD in speech translation under a widely respected researcher, specializing in my exact research interests.

So now I leave it up to you:
Are you satisfied with my pragmatic reasons for living in Europe?

If not, stay tuned for the next post in this series.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Europe? Part 1: The Audacity of the Question.

[This is Part 1 of a three part series entitled "Why Europe?" Read Part 2 | Part 3]

I get the same question all the time. Whether being asked by an American from home, or from a foreigner (or even an Italian!).

"Why did you come to Europe?"

I encountered two particularly memorable incidents at the Universities of Bolzano and Trento in Italy. Let's recap.

Bolzano. Located at the base of the Alps in Northern Italy. I, a then-master's student, am sitting in a computer science lab. For the first half of the semester, the professor escaped the need to remember his student's names by referring to all of them as "Your Colleague." Quite a witty idea, actually!

I was working on a project with a Pakistani and an Indonesian student. The professor overheard me speaking and, noticing me for the first time, decided to talk to me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.
"The United States."
"Ah, I thought you were American. Why are you here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Italy. Bolzano. Why are you here?"
"It's a nice university and a good opportunity--"
"But there are plenty of good places in the US."

Our conversation went on and he grew more and more interested in this American coming to Italy. He didn't forget my name after that and seemed to find other opportunities to talk to me.

Trento. Similar story. As a PhD student, I was attending a class chock-full of international students -- again, I was the only American. The professor on the first day of class asked every student to give an introduction. So I gave my introduction in my American English accent: the content of the introduction was no better than my colleagues. Later on, the professor asks me the age-old question:

"What are you doing here?"
"Well, I completed a master's degree in Europe and I had an excellent opportunity to continue my PhD in Trento."
"But you could do it in the US. Tell me, why not just go to the US?"
"What about the other students here?" [gesturing to the others in the class]
"Well, I know why many of them are here, but why would an American"

Frustration. This simple "Why Europe?" question is loaded with biases and false assumptions. It's weighed down by expectations and stereotypes about Americans and other nationalities. The question itself is audacious. "Why NOT Europe?" Why can't an American decide that there are excellent opportunities outside of the "Land of the Free?" Let's break down some of the problems with this question.
  1. The question assumes that the US is the best, period. We've all heard it. The US is the "Land of Opportunity." Now, I don't want to disrespect my homeland. There are excellent opportunities in the US. News articles in late 2012 cited over 750,000 international students in the US. Naturally, so many wouldn't be coming if the US didn't have something to offer. That's not my problem. The problem is the ego associated with the statistics. 
  2. The US can't offer everything. Even with great educational statistics and an increasing international community, international students still experience isolation from Americans. The same news article says:
  3. A study in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication suggests that many international students are disappointed in their relationships with U.S. students. Author Elisabeth Gareis found that 38% of 454 international students attending 10 public universities had reported no strong friendships with U.S. students, and 27% were not satisfied with the quality of the friends they had made. Students from China and East Asia were most likely to be unhappy with relationships.
    While the US is certainly a place that many internationals go to, it doesn't mean it's international. Europe, on the other hand, better represents linguistic groups and cultures, which seems to make it a better place to experience a truly international environment.
  4. The question assumes that Americans form a higher class. Caste systems aren't implemented in most governments in the world. However, discrimination still occurs among ethnic groups -- particularly along socioeconomic lines. Should educators really write off an African or Asian student as coming to Europe for better money and better opportunities, while questioning the judgment of an American? Am I really just a fool leaving a land of riches for folly? In reality, I'm no better than these same African or Asian students.
  5. The question perpetuates the Rest vs. West mentality. Times are changing. The West needs to respond to globalization in a way that recognizes the growth of the international world. Instead of asking Americans "Why Europe?", why not ask the others? Find out their stories. Understand their ambition. While some might not be able to articulate it in such a romantic way as a native English speaker, it doesn't make their stories any less grand. Singling out Americans or other Westerners just makes us more disliked in the long run.
Now don't get me wrong: had the right opportunity (i.e. the "best" opportunity) risen in the United States, I would have ended up there. But that opportunity didn't come. Instead, I was surprised by opportunities in Europe. In this series, I will try to answer the question "Why Europe?" along several assessments. Again, keep in mind what I said in my reintroduction. I'm coming at this question from different disciplines/backgrounds, so some of the answers might not be what you'd expect.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


So my last blog post was four years ago. Sad. But let's face it: people typically don't want to read blog posts. And bloggers typically don't have a lot of interesting things to say.

That being said, you're still reading.

Thank you.

Allow me to reintroduce myself. My name is Nicholas Ruiz.

That's nice, isn't it? What's next?

Who am I? What do I do? Is this where I'm supposed to tote my strengths, talents, and everything else that makes me worthy of being read? No thanks.

I'm a guy. A guy whose thoughts perhaps aren't worth the world reading. Maybe not hearing. But here I am, throwing out thoughts anyway. Why bother? Surely my efforts are meaningless anyway.

Nevertheless, I'll try. I'll try to write something worth your time. I'll try to write something to get you thinking. Hopefully about something that isn't so meaningless.

Well, to reintroduce myself, I should at least tell you enough that you might get an idea of what I could write about. I'll leave the rest to your judgments regarding whether you want to read more.

I'm married. I have a 7 month old daughter (as of today, incidentally). I'm a "junior" researcher in speech translation. I'm an American not living in America. God is guiding my steps -- insofar as I'm listening to the drumbeat. All of these things will mush together into a core dump of my consciousness.

Still reading? Wow, thanks.