Projects and Letters of Recommendation

  • Undergraduates:  Often, some aspects of the projects and data analytics are appropriate for undergraduates.   Sometimes a graduate student (Master’s or Ph.D.) might be the project lead.  Hopefully, these projects will help you develop a compelling story for the next stage of your career.  The average GPA of students who work with me is above 3.75; if your GPS is below 3, you should probably focus on getting your GPA up and understanding how to manage expectations and your time before delving into a research project.
    • Letters of recommendation:
      • I am happy to write a letter of recommendation if you did research with me as an undergraduate.  Since my notes are not perfect, please remind send me a resume to help me remember when (which semesters) you worked with me and what project you worked on.  Please also tell me what you did within the project, and what your goals are.  That will help me tailor the letter.  I will ask any graduate students involved in the project for additional context about your contributions.
        • Please tell me where you have been accepted and where you end up going; existing good students having bright career paths helps me recruit future good students.
        • I would also like a non-UIUC/persistent email address so that I can keep in touch with you.
        • I typically am asked to write a number of letters.  Please tell me the first due date for your letters.  That helps me plan out my time.
      • Since I try to write the strongest letters for those students who have helped push the edge of knowledge through research, I am unlikely to write strong letters for students with whom my only contact is in the classroom.
  • Potential Master’s students: Often, some aspects of the projects and data analytics are appropriate for a Master’s thesis.  Often, one can take some ideas off the shelf and apply them in interesting ways.   Undergraduates can often do part of the work, and this gives Master’s students experience in managing a STEM team.  A conference paper is often an appropriate publishable outcome.
  • Potential Ph.D. students: I would like to start out working on a project at the level of a Master’s student for about 6 months.   This way we are sure that we can work together and at least produce some type of research deliverable before committing to a Ph.D. thesis.

Research projects at a university while pursuing a degree (either undergraduate or graduate) are a bit tricky. since you are not yet in the real world, but are moving towards it.  I try to formulate things so that, as much as possible, you have a compelling story to tell when you move on to the next phase of your life.  I am also happy to try to connect you with former students if I think that you would be a good fit (note:  if you are a former student, please stay in touch; I want to know what you are doing!  I try to pay it forward with students).

Most of my projects involve reality, and thus involve some coding.  A principal framework for code development is some type of git repo; I try to set up a git repo for most of my projects, and ultimately open them to the public.  That allows potential employers to see your coding abilities and how they are progressing (and nobody, including anyone who is interested in hiring you, started out as a 10X coder).

Since we are at a research university, the ultimate aim of projects with me is to push the cutting edge of knowledge.   Almost invariably, that best comes from a group effort.  Within that,

  1. The more advanced students can help mentor the less advanced students.  This is what happens in a real job.  In a letter of recommendation or a discussion with a former student, I would like to say that you started out as a beginner, and gradually took more and more leadership and eventually were helping the newer students.

  2.  In any real-world job, how often would you update your superiors?  Probably every other day or so.  This helps your superior execute his or her job and identify and resolve problems before they become showstoppers.  It also is used as a basis for promotions and raises.  Furthermore, if I am regularly kept up to date on what you are doing, I can sometimes act opportunistically and connect you to other things.  In a letter of recommendation or a discussion with a former student, I would like to say that you were inexorably and regularly pushing the project forward and keeping me informed of bottlenecks and seeking help if you needed it.

    • I would like an organized cumulative powerpoint every several days, and each slide should indicate who has contributed to the work (even if your only contribution that week was “I’m spending a lot of time resolving problem XYZ”, or “I am able to print ‘hello world’ using the technology we are interested in”).

    • I would also like to see regular pushes to a git repo.   Potential employers can look at commit messages and see if you are regularly moving the project down the field.

  3. In a real-world job, would you compete or collaborate?  You would probably collaborate in the interest of pushing a project most efficiently towards completion.   I try to run most of my projects as pass-fail, which somewhat reduces the tendency to compete vs collaborate.   In a letter of recommendation or a discussion with a former student, I would like to say that you were a great team member, able to effortlessly switch between leading and following as needed.

  4. In a real-world job, would you ask questions of the supervisor or a team member if you didn’t understand things?  Of course; if you are stuck and can’t finish your deliverable, the entire project may suffer.  The penalty for delay in a project may be infinitely greater than the penalty for asking a question (regardless of whether it is silly or not).  I appreciate that a complete project involves messy data, good analysis, and meaningful presentation; all of this may require tools you haven’t been exposed to you.  In a letter of recommendation or a discussion with a former student, I would like to say that you were unafraid to ask questions and quickly got up to speed on your project.

More thoughts:

  • Use prior knowledge or technologies.  You probably happy to use an existing car or smartphone, as opposed to building your own.  Often other technologies have been developed by really smart people.  Stand on their shoulders and take things off the shelf as needed.

Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan (attributed to JFK).  Published papers are the coin of the realm in academia.  They are also hard to write; 80% of a research effort may often be in the last 20% of the project as things are written up (see the Pareto principle).   I’m happy to acknowledge everyone’s help in contributing to research.  If you are helping to write and submit the final version of a paper, I am happy to include you as a coauthor.