Saturday, June 19, 2010

Research versus Teaching

My previous post stirred some people's emotions. Reading the comments, it seems part of that came from the tension between teaching and research in modern American universities.

In most countries, the role of universities is solely to educate their students. That's true of many colleges in the United States, but not of Research I universities. The majority of American universities you've heard of belong to this category: Harvard, Yale, UCLA, Stanford, MIT, CMU, Princeton, etc. In addition to teaching, these institutions have another equally important role, which is to produce high-quality research that benefits society. Indeed, many of the game-changing discoveries or inventions in the last century have been entirely or partly developed at American Research I universities: The Internet, Google, the cure for polio, vitamin D milk, even Gatorade. To a large extent, this is where Nobel prizes are won, and where the future is invented.

American Research I universities are also mostly responsible for educating the smartest people in the country (or even the world), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. This includes most doctors, lawyers, politicians, US presidents, dot com billionaires, and yes, even Lady GaGa.

Combining these two very important roles may have benefits, but it also causes an unspoken tension. Is the job of a professor primarily to educate or to do research?

The interesting thing is that everybody seems to have a different opinion about this. Students and their paying parents, of course, think professors are there solely to educate; Professors mostly think they are there to do research; and university administrators seem to change their tune depending on whom they’re talking to.

As usual with me, I have more questions than answers. Should research and education be combined in this manner? Should professors primarily concentrate on research or teaching?

Regardless of what should happen, I can tell you that at least from a tenure-track professor’s point of view, the system at the vast majority of Research I universities is extremely biased towards the research side. Most of my friends at other universities chose to be professors because they want to do research without being pressed by economic outcomes like they would in a company, and consider teaching a bearable chore that they must do to get the freedom and prestige of being a professor. The hiring of faculty (at least at the ~15 Research I universities that have offered me a job) pays almost no attention to the potential quality of the candidates as teachers. The tenure process also puts teaching in the back seat. So in essence, professors are largely not selected, evaluated, or rewarded based on teaching.

This is not to say that there are no good teachers among the faculty at Research I universities. Many of the faculty both here at CMU and elsewhere are outstanding instructors and work very hard on their teaching. However, they do so out of pure love (and possibly a misconceived sense of duty), because the system is not set up for this.

Since I don’t want to get in trouble again with the commenters, I will end with a few disclaimers. First, I do spend a significant amount of time on my teaching (as evidenced by having won the teaching award). Second, there are very good institutions that educate smart people in the US that are not Research I universities and that concentrate solely on teaching.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Outsourcing My Research Group

A PhD student at Carnegie Mellon costs approximately $80,000 per year. (Research programmers and post-docs cost about the same.) Given that PhD students have to take classes for the first couple of years and are therefore running at 50% capacity, this means that each effective person in my research group costs on average $100,000 per year.

I'm from Guatemala. For $100,000, you can hire 4-5 extremely competent full-time engineers there (even accounting for the 50% overhead rate inside CMU). My question today is: would it make sense to take 5 engineers instead of a PhD student next time I have extra money?

I understand that CMU PhD students have a much higher IQ than the average programmer, and that for certain tasks you can't just rely on programmers, but if the exchange rate is 5 to 1, I think the experiment is worth a try.

And from there, it's a slippery slope: why not just move my whole research group to India or China, since a large fraction of our PhD students come from there anyways?

Part of the goal of being a professor is mentoring, and I love that part: I am not saying we should get rid of PhD students, but that perhaps a mix of some outsourced coding and PhD students would be a better investment for everybody.

Disclaimer: 100% of my PhD students are working on projects of their own choosing, and if anything my biggest flaw as an advisor is not giving them enough direction (instead of micromanaging them).

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

America's Next Top Nerd

I want to make a computer science reality TV show. Like in most reality shows, the participants would compete to win a prize, but since they would be CS nerds, we won't aim for something as crazy as getting married to a famous person (maybe it can be something like becoming Facebook friends with a girl).

Anyways, instead of athletic or beauty competitions, I want the participants to compete by solving computer science problems. My question is this: what are some good CS problems for TV? I have some thoughts, but I'd also like to hear what others have to say. Ideally the problems would: (1) explain a cool CS concept, (2) be accessible to a PBS-type audience (i.e., no PCP proofs), and (3) have something that can be filmed.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Startups and CMU

Is Carnegie Mellon a good university to go to if you plan on working for or building a startup? That's the question I was recently asked by somebody from the Quora team. I'm frequently asked similar questions because I started a company out of CMU that never moved out of Pittsburgh even after it was acquired by Google. Following another brief conversation about this on Twitter today, I decided it would be good to have an open discussion about startups and CMU. I'll start with my personal opinion, but hope that others pitch in.

Personally, I think CMU is a great place to start a company. Granted, I'm biased because things worked out for me, but here are some objective reasons why I think more people should be starting technology companies out of CMU:

1. Talent Pool. CMU graduate and undergraduate students are truly world class. The computer science PhD program is ranked #1 by USNews, and according to my recruiter friends, CMU is the #1 or #2 school by quantity of hires from companies with uber selective hiring standards such as Facebook or Google.

2. Less Competition for this Talent. I won't claim that CMU students are strictly better than students from e.g. Stanford, but I will claim this: the competition for hiring a top student to join a startup at CMU is much much lower than at comparable schools in California or Boston, since it's not the case that everybody and their mother has a startup in Pittsburgh (last time I went to Silicon Valley, even the guy that served me at Starbucks, who overheard my conversation with a VC friend, started pitching me his company!). At CMU you'll have your pick of top talent to start a company with.

3. Opportunity for Different Ideas. Don't get me wrong, I love Silicon Valley. But it always strikes me when I go there how much everybody thinks exactly the same as each other (most even dress the same as each other). While some herd mentality is ok, I think there is huge benefit to being outside of that bubble.

If I were to start another company, I would do it out of CMU.