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?

1 comment:

Rodrique Djonkou said...

What should we do :) I'm waiting the post for successful application ;)