Things I Would Do Differently If I Started Grad School Over, Part I

The things I’m recommending are habits to form and things to try to learn or accomplish in your first 6 months to a year in graduate school.  Typically, newer students have less research load and less additional duties (if you are a Research Assistant), and so have more time to learn things that will help you save time and excel later.

The first set of recommendations can apply to basically any student pursuing a graduate degree in any subject, assuming that you need to do research and write papers for conference or journal publication.

  1. Prepare a survey paperThis is super helpful on so many levels.  First, it helps you practice finding relevant sources–discovering online databases, using the university library, and following the tree of citations in order to find all the important literature surrounding a particular subject.  Second, it provides the opportunity to start building a personal database of literature that is relevant to the research you are doing, which will be immensely valuable when you write journal papers or theses.  Third, your knowledge of your field expands far beyond what you will get from your coursework, and you’ll be able to start recognizing where the gaps in the literature exist, providing opportunities for thesis work.  Fourth, you’ll start to recognize what good papers look like compared to bad papers.  And finally, the act of writing a survey paper will give valuable practice in technical writing.
  2. Learn how to use LaTeX, BiBTeX, and a reference manager (such as Mendeley). LaTeX is typically used  only by technical disciplines, with good reason–no other “word processor” produces greater quality equations.  However, there is much to be gained even by graduate students in the liberal arts.  LaTeX really isn’t a word processor; it’s a typesetting language, which automates much of the details of paper writing allowing you to focus on content.  BiBTeX is a companion software that allows you to keep a single text file with all of your references in it (see #1!), which LaTeX will automatically format for you, no matter what citation and bibliography style you are required to use.  The learning curve is much greater than, say, MS Word, but it will pay off in the professional-looking papers it will allow you to produce.  A reference manager, such as Mendeley, can automate the process even more by using the internet to find missing bibliographic data, allows you to make notes and annotations on papers, has mobile apps to access your papers, and automatically produces the .bib file required by BiBTeX.  Maybe most helpful for graduate students is that all these tools are available absolutely free.  (The best place for Windows users to go is here.)
  3. Take an academic writing course, particularly if you’ve taken a break since completing your bachelor’s degree. At Georgia Tech, the course is CETL 8721.  If you spent significant time away from school, as I did, you’ll want to get yourself back in the academic mode of writing.  Moreover, they will teach you a few things that will help you tailor your research for publication BEFORE you’re facing a submission deadline.
  4. Start a discipline of daily writing. Writing a blog–about anything really, but ideally about your research field–and posting 3-5 times a week will help you keep the creative juices flowing.  There are so many options to be able to do this for free these days; WordPress and Blogger are the big ones.  Better yet, learn how to set up your own website using the WordPress software on a server at your university or from a commercial webhost such as Dreamhost. This will help you keep flow when you finally sit down to write your thesis.
  5. [EDIT 3/26:] Get in the academic paper-reading habit. Most graduate students get in the bad habit of only searching literature at the last minute when they have a paper due, often AFTER their own research is done.  This is bad, terrible, and also not good.  Instead, figure out what journals or sets of journals your research will go into, and subscribe to their “Alerts” mailing list.  For example, I subscribe to all of the AIAA journals, the Journal of the American Helicopter Society, and most of the IEEE journals dealing with control, aerospace, or robotics. Assuming your school has access to the journal’s database, you’ll get an email every time a new issue comes out; skim the titles ones that sound interesting or useful, scan those articles to see what’s really useful, read what’s left in depth, and save articles that you might cite in future publications in your Mendeley database.
  6. [EDIT 4/24:] Go to your university library and attend one of their orientation presentations. Every time I go into our library I find out too late about some service they offer which I could really have used.  For example, while our library has access to many publication databases, some of the things I’ve tried to access are hardcopy only.  I just found out this morning that the library staff will somehow find and create an electronic copy of these materials if you request it.  Wow.
  7. [EDIT 5/21/2015:] Review a journal paper or a refereed conference paper in your area of expertise. There’s nothing that can prepare you for writing a good academic paper quite like tearing up somebody else’s. Seeing things from the point of view of the reviewer can help you address problems in your papers before you ever submit.  You may need to ask your advisor to allow you to help on one he’s reviewing.

That’s it for today.  In my next post, I’ll be talking about some things that are a bit more tailored for technical disciplines, but might still be useful for those in softer sciences which perform quantitative analysis.


“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

Things I Would Do Differently If I Started Grad School Over, Introduction

As I reflect back over the last four years and three months, I’ve often thought about how I would do things differently with regards to my graduate education. I figured I would publish a few of those thoughts to help others who are about to enter improve their experience (and perhaps graduate faster than I!).

Since there are so many thoughts, I’ll break it down into several different posts over the next week.  In the meantime, check out PhD Comics–they may or may not be funny to the non-graduate student, but they can definitely give you a seed of truth about what it’s like:

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham


What’s the big deal?

I’ve seen more news about UAVs in the last three months than I had in the previous year, and unfortunately that’s kind of a bad thing. The FAA is setting up six test sites to begin developing the rules to integrate UAVs into the NAS. Among the applicants to use UAVs are police departments, fire departments, universities. Rand Paul led a filibuster against John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA director to try to make a point about what he thought was illegal behavior on the part of the White House with regards to UAVs. National Geographic published an article exploring both the benefits and hazards for UAV technology. I caught Fareed Zakaria talking about it on CNN on Sunday.

It seems like the civil liberties is the main issue getting people up in arms–can we use UAVs to spy in people’s houses and backyards? Will we use them to shoot fugitives? Is the government going to have Big Brother in the sky watching us all the time?

I think that these fears are wholly unfounded.  Yes, UAV technology allows users to go places and see things in a way that was once impossible or at least prohibitively expensive.  However, at a fundamental level, how are UAVs different from the technology we already have? We have security cameras that can persistently surveill an area without human oversight. We have airplanes which can easily look down into people’s home and yards.  Police can use high power cameras and microphones to stake out a suspect’s home.  There are already judicial rules in place for constitutional use of these devices, and the rules will be applied to UAVs in exactly the same way.

Envision a hypothetical scenario where the police catch a criminal because they used a UAV to track everybody’s patterns of life, and his actions seemed suspicious.  At trial, the judge will throw out that evidence and any evidence derived from that source, resulting in the criminal’s exoneration. End of story.

There are some valid points regarding the caution with which we ought to proceed.  National command may be using UAVs for illegal purposes–if so, that’s wrong and needs to be stopped.  But don’t mistake the means for misconduct with the misconduct itself.

The other valid point is one of safety.  There absolutely must be a high degree of confidence that a UAV will not cause undue harm to life, limb, or property, before we integrate them into the national airspace.  However, in order for the technology to develop, there must be provisional rules in place for experimentation.

I would argue that the technology is already in a place where we can safely use UAVs in areas of low population density, at low altitudes, especially if the UAV is small and unlikely to cause a person harm.

[The opinions in this post do not necessarily reflect the view or policies of the Georgia Institute of Technology.]

Under the radar

Reuters published a story yesterday, reporting on the (currently illegal) use of UAVs for commercial purposes.  It seems the furor over UAVs is growing.  On one hand, we have the government, military, universities, commercial operators, and private citizens clamoring for the regulatory infrastructure to allow UAVs to operate in the national airspace; on the other hand we have privacy advocates (mainly) and safety advocates pressing for very tight restrictions on UAV operations.

While the operators using these aircraft are violating the law, I would suggest that they are doing the FAA and the country a favor–while the government is fumbling around to put together the rules, the “black market” of commercial UAV use is already showing a) that this is a viable industry (it must be lucrative enough to risk getting caught), and b) that they can be operated safely even with ad-hoc or non-existent rules.  Without a doubt, there needs to be regulatory oversight, but I would bet that a first set of “regulations” that work have already been developed.

High Speed Flight in Ergodic Forests

Sertac Karaman gave a talk for the AE department last week on his most recent research,  High Speed Flight in Ergodic Forests. It was awesome. He comes to a conclusion based on a (relatively) simple analysis that at a given flight speed, there is a critical tree density below which a bird is virtually certain to fly safely and above which a bird is virtually certain to crash.  This has some real relevance to our previous work in obstacle avoidance, where we initially noted that there is some critical distance (which we did not analyze in depth) where the aircraft cannot avoid a collision.  Nice work, Sertac.

EPFL’s AirBurr

EPFL just published a conference paper on the AirBurr, an indoor small VTOL UAV which purportedly navigates by bumping into walls.  It seems like a decent idea if the use of crashing to find obstacles IF it saves on weight and power consumption, AND if the nav or SLAM solution is of sufficient quality.  However, they don’t seem to publish anything on how the aircraft senses collision, or how that measurement is incorporated into the nav filter.  Rather, the paper seems to be mostly oriented on their hardware design.

Robots in classrooms? Yes!

Read this piece on Singularity Hub this morning. It seems that having inexpensive robots in school classrooms is closer and closer to reality. This is a big step in the right direction for kids–learning by doing. We have a dearth of technically-oriented people in the country, largely because primary education (as well as parents) don’t do enough to make science fun or interesting. Getting deep into programming robots is a great way to “hang” all kinds of subjects. In fact, learning this way better simulates how the knowledge was discovered in the first place (i.e. calculus wasn’t invented in a vacuum–it was developed as a tool to solve problems in classical mechanics). Awesome!

First Post . . .

This is the first post to my self-hosted blog on the UAV Research Lab website. I intend to use it to comment on developments in UAV technology, but other items of interest in control, robotics, rotorcraft, or aerospace engineering in general may get attention as well.