On the Savage Award, advices to Ph.D. candidates [guest post]

This blog post was contributed by my friend Julien Cornebise, as a reprint of a column he wrote for the latest ISBA Bulletin.

This article is an occasion to pay forward ever so slightly, by encouraging current Ph.D. candidates on their path, the support ISBA gave me. Four years ago, I was honored and humbled to receive the ISBA 2010 Savage Award, category Theory and Methods, for my Ph.D. dissertation defended in 2009. Looking back, I can now testify how much this brought to me both inside and outside of Academia.

Inside Academia: confirming and mitigating the widely-shared post-graduate’s impostor syndrome

Upon hearing of the great news, a brilliant multi-awarded senior researcher in my lab very kindly wrote to me that such awards meant never having to prove one’s worth again. Although genuinely touched by her congratulations, being far less accomplished and more junior than her, I felt all the more responsible to prove myself worth of this show of confidence from ISBA. It would be rather awkward to receive such an award only to fail miserably shortly after.

This resonated deeply with the shared secret of recent PhDs, discovered during my year at SAMSI, a vibrant institution where half a dozen new postdocs arrive each year: each and every one of us, fresh Ph.D.s from some of the best institutions (Cambridge, Duke, Waterloo, Paris…) secretly suffered the very same impostor syndrome. We were looking at each other’s CV/website and thinking “jeez! this guy/girl across the door is an expert of his/her field, look at all he/she has done, whereas I just barely scrape by on my own research!” – all the while putting up a convincing façade of self-assurance in front of audiences and whiteboards, to the point of apparent cockiness. Only after candid exchanges in SAMSI’s very open environment did we all discover being in the very same mindset.

In hindsight the explanation is simple: each young researcher in his/her own domain has the very expertise to measure how much he/she still does not know and has yet to learn, while he/she hears other young researchers, experts in their own other field, present results not as familiar to him/her, thus sounding so much more advanced. This take-away from SAMSI was perfectly confirmed by the Savage Award: yes, maybe indeed, I, just like my other colleagues, might actually know something relatively valuable, and my scraping by might just be not so bad – as is also the case of so many of my young colleagues.

Of course, impostor syndrome is a clingy beast and, healthily, I hope to never get entirely over it – merely overcoming it enough to say “Do not worry, thee young candidate, thy doubts pave a path well trodden”.

A similar message is also part of the little-known yet gem of a guide “How to do Research at MIT AI Lab – Emotional Factors, relevant far beyond its original lab. I recommend it to any Ph.D. student; the feedback from readers is unanimous.

Outside Academia: incredibly increased readability

After two post-docs, and curious to see what was out there in atypical paths, I took a turn out of purely academic research, first as an independent consultant, then recruited out of the blue by a start-up’s recruiter, and eventually doing my small share to help convince investors. I discovered there another facet of ISBA’s Savage Award: tremendous readability.

In Academia, the dominating metric of quality is the length of the publication list – a debate for another day.  Outside of Academia, however, not all interlocutors know how remarkable is a JRSSB Read Paper, or an oral presentation at NIPS, or a publication in Nature.

This is where international learned societies, like ISBA, come into play: the awards they bestow can serve as headline-grabbing material in a biography, easily spotted. The interlocutors do not need to be familiar with the subtleties of Bayesian Analysis. All they see is a stamp of approval from an official association of this researcher’s peers. That, in itself, is enough of a quality metric to pass the first round of contact, raise interest, and get the chance to further the conversation.

First concrete example: the recruiter who contacted me for the start-up I joined in 2011 was tasked to find profiles for an Applied position. The Savage Award on the CV grabbed his attention, even though he had no inkling what Adaptive Sequential Monte Carlo Methods were, nor if they were immediately relevant to the start-up. Passing it to the start-up’s managers, they immediately changed focus and interviewed me for their Research track instead: a profile that was not what they were looking for originally, yet stood out enough to interest them for a position they had not thought of filling via a recruiter – and indeed a unique position that I would never have thought to find this way either!

Second concrete example, years later, hard at work in this start-up’s amazing team: investors were coming for a round of technical due diligence. Venture capitals sent their best scientists-in-residence to dive deeply into the technical details of our research. Of course what matters in the end is, and forever will be, the work that is done and presented. Yet, the Savage Award was mentioned in the first line of the biography that was sent ahead of time, as a salient point to give a strong first impression of our research team.

Advices to Ph.D. Candidates: apply, you are the world best expert on your topic

That may sound trivial, but the first advice: apply. Discuss with your advisor the possibility to put your dissertation up for consideration. This might sound obvious to North-American students, whose educative system is rife with awards for high-performing students. Not so much in France, where those would be at odds with the sometimes over-present culture of égalité in the younger-age public education system. As a cultural consequence, few French Ph.D. students, even the most brilliant, would consider putting up their dissertation for consideration. I have been very lucky in that regard to benefit from the advice of a long-term Bayesian, who offered to send it for me – thanks again Xi’an! Not all students, regardless how brilliant their work, are made aware of this possibility.

The second advice, closely linked: do not underestimate the quality of your work. You are the foremost expert in the entire world on your Ph.D. topic. As discussed above, it is all too easy to see how advanced are the maths wielded by your office-mate, yet oversee the as-much-advanced maths you are juggling on a day-to-day basis, more familiar to you, and whose limitations you know better than anyone else. Actually, knowing these very limitations is what proves you are an expert.

A word of thanks and final advice

Finally, a word of thanks. I have been incredibly lucky, throughout my career so far, to meet great people. My dissertation already had four pages of acknowledgements: I doubt the Bulletin’s editor would appreciate me renewing (and extending!) them here. They are just as heartfelt today as they were then. I must, of course, add ISBA and the Savage Award committee for their support, as well as all those who, by their generous donations, allow the Savage Fund to stay alive throughout the years.

Of interest to Ph.D. candidates, though, one special mention of a dual tutelage system, that I have seen successfully at work many times. The most senior, a professor with the deep knowledge necessary to steer the project brings his endless fonts of knowledge collected over decades, wrapped in hardened tough-love. The youngest, a postdoc or fresh assistant professor, brings virtuosity, emulation and day-to-day patience. In my case they were Pr. Éric Moulines and Dr. Jimmy Olsson. That might be the final advice to a student: if you ever stumble, as many do, as I most surely did, because Ph.D. studies can be a hell of a roller-coaster to go through, reach out to the people around you and the joint set of skills they want to offer you. In combination, they can be amazing, and help you open doors that, in retrospect, can be worth all the efforts.

Julien Cornebise, Ph.D.


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