Preparing students for a research career: Gregory Abowd’s 30 PhD Graduates

September 28, 2018 at 7:00 am 3 comments

Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing did an article on my friend Gregory Abowd and his 30 PhD graduates, many of whom have continued in academia. You can find the article here.

The “Abowd family” is a real thing. The article ends talking about how Gregory and his students and their students get together at conferences. I’ve seen pictures of these events. There’s a strong sense of kinship and support in the group, inspired by Gregory.

Here at the University of Michigan, we have just hired two second-generation members of the Abowd family. Gabriela Marcu (see webpage here) and Nikola Banovic (see webpage here) both earned their PhD’s at CMU, working with former Gregory students Jen Mankoff and Anind Dey (who have now moved to U. Washington).  What’s striking to me about both Gabriela and Nikola is that they started down the path to academic research by doing undergraduate research with other Abowd graduates: Gillian Hayes at Irvine and Khai Troung at Toronto (respectively).

What does it take to support future academic researchers while they are still undergraduates?  Obviously, we don’t want all of our undergraduates to become researchers. But we need some. Academic researchers in computing perform a useful and important role. We particularly want more women getting into computing research, and kudos to Google for awarding fifteen grants to promote more women getting into computing research (see article here). We do not have enough CS academics today (as I described in this blog post), and that’s part of the struggle in dealing with the enrollment boom. So we want more — how do we get them?  What do we do at the undergraduate level to make it more likely that we get graduates like Gabriela and Nikola?

We need to expect that CS undergraduates will have careers other than software developers. We often build our undergraduate programs assuming that all of our graduates will become software developers, or will manage software developers. But you can do a lot with a CS degree. We have to build into our programs the features that will help students succeed in the career that they choose, including becoming academic researchers.

One of my colleagues in the Engineering Education Research program here, Joi Mondisa, researches mentoring. She just gave the first EER Seminar, and talked about the importance of being “treated/advised like family.”  Mentors give their mentees honest and valuable advice as if the mentee were a family member.

I suspect that that’s part of Gregory’s success — that the notion of being in the “Abowd family” is something that the members feel and actively participate in. That’s likely a lesson that we can use in the future. Personal mentoring relationships play a big role in encouraging future researchers.  I don’t know how to build personal “like family” research relationships into an undergraduate program, especially at the enrollment scales we see today. But it’s an important problem to think about, both because we should support a variety of outcomes for our CS undergraduates and because one way of managing the enrollment crisis is to grow more CS faculty.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Thomas Morley  |  September 28, 2018 at 7:10 am

    I began my research by doing undergraduate research (eventually published) with a student of Richard Duffin, and then went to CMU to study with Richard Duffin. Duffin students always got together at conferences. Duffin had 14 students and 1268 dependents.

  • 2. Mike Zamansky  |  September 28, 2018 at 7:45 am

    I agree that there should be more undergraduate research opportunities but I’ll disagree on:

    ‘ We often build our undergraduate programs assuming that all of our graduates will become software developers…”

    It appears we’re doing neither well. Look at the lack of software engineering and development practices included in fundamental CS courses, look at the amount of math and theory usually required. Look at the tooling used.

    I’m not arguing one way or another right now on the content in the typical CS program but the refrains “I didn’t learn any of the stuff I used until I secured that internship” or ‘I haven’t used _______ since the final exam and I’ve been at _____ for ____ years.”

    That class sequences and content aren’t really preparing the kids ideally for industry makes sense since classes are taught by people who are on academic career paths and not industry ones but it is a problem, particularly once you get past the top of the class or the most selective of institutions.

    So, I’ll contend that we don’t do either particularly well – prepare our kids for industry or prepare are kids for academia.

  • 3. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 28, 2018 at 1:00 pm

    Giving undergrads research opportunities is not difficult. Several engineering departments at UCSC require all their students to do a year-long senior capstone, which can be a solo senior thesis or a group engineering design project. In the major I supervise, about 1/3 of the students do senior theses, which are modeled after PhD theses, but reduced in scope to 1-year projects. Students wanting to senior theses are encouraged to join a lab by the beginning of their junior year, so that there is time to train them before they start a project.

    Computer science has the least undergraduate participation in research in the School of Engineering, because they have the largest student/faculty ratio and have not figured out how to incorporate undergrads into research projects in a significant way (despite having the lowest marginal cost for adding a student to a project, as students can provide their own computers and no other lab equipment or reagents are needed).

    My son, at UCSB, has been involved in research projects in computer science since his freshman year, thanks to the College of Creative Studies. He is now finishing his MS at UCSB, but has no desire to become an academic. He’s better prepared for industry than most, having been CTO of a small startup for 5 years and having dealt with simultaneous hardware and software design, design for manufacturability, dealing with contract manufacturers, supply-chain logistics, penny pinching on components to make a price point, … —lots of things that we don’t teach in college, because we don’t have the experience to teach them well.


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