How to be a terrible thesis advisor  (mostly for graduate work in AI)
--- -- -- - -------- ------ -------

                                                          Nigel Ward

Assign student thesis topics based on the section headings in your
grant proposal, or on the boxes of the flowchart for your master plan.

When someone brings up a research paper, tell anecdotes about the
author, his advisor, and his colleagues.  This will impress students
that who you know is more important than what you do.

When laying out your laboratory, give first priority to minimizing the
cost of cable, last priority to good workplaces for students, and no
priority to fostering interaction among students.

Read your students' papers at most once.

When honest differences of opinion arise, paper them over with words.
For example, say "well, we could talk about this forever, but I think
we're all working towards the same basic idea, let's call it a
`neologistic/noetic knowledge representation'.  Now let's move on."

Regarding other schools of thought, make sure students know just
enough to be able to point out the "fatal flaws" in each, and so can
be good foot soldiers in the crusade for your own approach.  A useful
phrase is "why do you want to waste your time reading that?"

Never visit the laboratory; learn about students' work only from what
they tell you.

Define your research aims with catch phrases ("dynamic X", "emergent
Y", "the Z problem", etc.).

Have students handle computer system administration, and let them
think it counts as research.


Assign older students to guide the younger ones.

Involve students in decision-making for unimportant things.  For
example, you can easily while away an hour of seminar deciding who
should be discussion leader for what chapter of the reading.

Share your most trivial thoughts with your students.  Better yet,
bring them up as seminar discussion topics ("in the shower this
morning, it stuck me that whitespace is really important.  Let's think
about whitespace from an AI perspective").

Avoid conflicts with your students; in particular, don't be too

If a student reveals that he is confused about what counts as
meaningful research, ridicule him.

Take no interest in what courses your students are taking.

Pick up ideas from going to conferences, then bring them up in seminar
without explaining from whom you got them or explaining the context
in which they arose.

Plan for research seminars to last at least two hours.

Avoid meeting with students individually, do all advising out in
public, at seminars.

Never go near the laboratory evenings or weekends.

Always come unprepared for seminars; you're smart enough to fake it.

Never program yourself.  After all, you went through that once, and
now you're an ideas man.

Let your students see you rushing to meet deadlines.

Avoid critical discussions of research strategy.  A useful phrase is
"We'll do it this way.  Why?  Because I'm the professor and you're a

Expect nothing much from your students, and subtly let them know this.

Give all your students the same research topic, but with slightly
different names.  If this is the same topic as your own dissertation
topic, all the better.

Let your students see your grant proposals and learn the art of

Enforce disciplinary boundaries.  For example, say, "that sounds like
the sort of thing that people in software engineering would work on,
so let's leave that topic alone", or "why do you want to worry about
that? that's a software engineering issue".

Never suggest your students contact other professors or other

Let your students submit articles to third-rate journals.

If a student's work is not giving the results expected, belittle him.

Encourage your students to work on fashionable problems.

State your opinions loudly and frequently, so your students know what
to write in their theses.

This garnered some follow-ups:

From: (Venkataraman Chandrasekhar)

 . Ask your students to live their thesis (feel free to call them
   on Saturday and expect your ideas followed up and developed by
   Monday morning 8 A.M.

 . Make it clear to him that you have no interest in his future /
   eventual career and will not help him much. This is especially so
   when he is a foreigner because after all 'our own people are 
   having trouble finding work'. Somehow all this living your thesis
   should be of use/benefit/payoff to the student in his country
   (even if those countries are not even meritocracies to the extent
   the U.S. is); tell him, if this is not so, life is hard 
   everywhere; point of examples of other people who suffer similarly;
   conveniently forget the fact that many of those students are not
   asked to live their theses and their advisors are almost like
   a freind for them

 . Invite them once a year to your house. Feel superior that the
   Russians will nevr do this. Tell this to the student

From: Stephen Kowalski 

Get your students to help you write proposals.

Don't read anything, only write.

Encourage students to do their research in areas you know nothing
about, especially if this area is good for grant money.

Never admit to your students that you don't know something or are
unfamiliar with a certain area.

Make all students address you as Dr. or Prof.  Never get on a first
name basis.

Try to get students to select a committee with members who you want to
get friendly with, even if they have no interest in the students area
of research.

From: (Graeme Hirst)
Subject: How to be a terrible graduate student
Date: 21 May 94 19:26:43 GMT

How to be a terrible graduate student (in AI or elsewhere)

-- Come to graduate school only because it allows you to postpone
your entry to the real world.

-- Assume that your advisor acts solely in their own best interests,
and never in yours.

-- Assume that your advisor (being more than 34 years old) doesn't
understand current research, and is not (and never was) as smart as you

-- Never come to a meeting with your advisor prepared with an agenda of
things you want to talk about, and never take notes during the
discussion.  (After all, little that your advisor says matters, and
anyway, if it were important you'd remember it.)

-- Never take notes when you read a paper or book, or record any of your
ideas in a research diary.  (After all, if it were important, you'd
remember it.)  Corollary: It is not necessary to keep complete
bibliographic citations for anything that you read.

-- Expect your advisor to give you a thesis topic and tell you exactly
how to carry out the work, step by step.  Corollary: If your thesis is
not going well, it's your advisor's fault, not yours.

-- Regard any ideas that your advisor gives you for your thesis as
your own exclusive property, and present them to the world as if you
alone thought of them.

-- Frequently cancel meetings with your advisor, giving little notice
(or none at all), whenever there is the slightest excuse to do so.

-- Assume that you can write up the final thesis in a month or two.

-- Don't bother checking any of your results or proofreading anything
you write; that's your advisor's job.

-- Regard your graduate education as a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday job.

-- Give the draft of your thesis to your advisor on a Friday, so that
they can read it over the weekend and give you feedback on Monday.


This was a posting to the newsgroup in 1994, and then was reprinted as part of Marie desJardins' article How to Succeed in Graduate School: A Guide for Students and Advisors in ACM Crossroads, 1 (3), 1995.

A Japanese translation, and discussion board, appears here.

Up to Nigel's Professing Page       Up to Nigel's Home Page