My Lunch with Manish

 

An interview with my advisor, Prof. Manish Vachharajani

Assistant Professor

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

University of Colorado at Boulder

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

 

Interviewed by

 

John Michalakes

CSCI 7900-903: Intro to the PhD program

 

 

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During the time normally reserved for our research meeting, Manish Vachharajani and I set out into the October sunshine south across the quads. Instead, it would be lunch at "The Egg and I" in the former Base-Mar Cinema storefront, across from campus. Along the way, I kvetched a little about the purpose of our lunch: an interview that I would conduct with him to fulfill an assignment. Manish chuckled sympathetically, recalling similar griping from another of his students a few years ahead of me. "Everyone has to do it."

During chit-chat waiting to order, I mentioned I had worked as a reporter and had done many interviews. Manish recoiled humorously and told me he doesn't talk to reporters, nor does he like seeing himself or rather, what reporters represented as himself in print later. I told him it had been a long time since I'd done that kind of work but that yes, I had had similar experiences since then on the other end of an interview and that I, too, dreaded being quoted in the media. In any case, as there was little chance of the Times picking this one up, we ordered and got down to business.

 

I first asked Manish to sketch his background. He has a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from Rutgers; then MS and PhD from Princeton, where his dissertation involved work on simulation of embedded systems. The project was called the Liberty Simulation Environment, and Manish's work involved writing the simulation generator. There were some other points we discussed that I could have also gleaned from his C.V. But this was simply a reporter's feint. Get the subject comfortable, then go for the jugular.

 

Finally, we dove into the meat of the interview. What does it mean to be a PhD student and why get a PhD in the first place? Manish answered candidly. He pursued his own PhD because he had watched his father's career as an electrical engineer and his mother's as a software practitioner, and he couldn't see himself working in a job where he couldn't do research. The value of a PhD was basically as a credential. It was a way to obtain a faculty position and work on interesting new projects. Even outside a university, he said, a PhD provides easier access onto projects and facilitates one's ability to "work your way up." From a utilitarian point of view, at least, there were not many other reasons to go through the time, trouble, and personal upheaval earning a PhD requires.

 

But, as we talked, other less pragmatic reasons came into focus. Manish noted that PhD study and research is one of the few times in a person's life when that's really all the person has to do. This can be uniquely enjoyable, but also disturbing. He said there may be long periods when it seems no progress is being made. If that's all one is supposed to be doing and one is not making progress doing it, things can get a little depressing. (As a working student with a family, mortgage, dog, etc. I am probably not in much danger of having only one thing to do. Manish granted the exception for present company.)

 

I still wasn't satisfied with these more-or-less practical reasons for pursuing a PhD, so we continued exploring. Others that we came up with included:

 

  • Membership in an community. This was partly intellectual but also at a more anthropological level: the security, validation, reinforcement, and cooperation one enjoys as a recognized member of a group. The word "tribe" came up at this point in our conversation.
  • Acquisition and honing of writing, presenting, and other communication skills such as the ability to lead a team of people,
  • Personal development and growth (for its own sake!).

 

What started as an interview quickly lapsed into just a pleasant conversation over eggs and I forgot about taking notes. But I remember the conversation meandered between practical and more personal considerations. On the practical side, we talked about the difficulties of getting papers accepted and how it is as much a matter of understanding one's audience as understanding the topic. Manish related a quote from distinguished professor and former department chair Frank Barnes: "If you have a good idea, don't worry about others stealing it. You'll have to ram it down their throats!" Many times, Manish explained, your reviewers just don't get what you are presenting and that in these times, you must "figure out what the reviewers [as people] can not help but do," and then play to that. What reviewers can not help but do is ask "what are your credentials." Thus, if you can convince them of your authority to speak on a topic, you stand a better chance of having your ideas accepted even if the reviewers still don't quite understand.

 

And, on the more personal side, Manish asked me what I would do if could have the position I want at a university and $30 million dollars to spend doing whatever research I choose without getting a PhD? Would I still get one? Here was my answer. I meant it when I said it and I hope it is really true. I said that at every stage in my education, from earning my B.A., to earning my M.S., up to and including this current adventure, the process changes me. I confront myself, my shortcomings, learn new ways to think, acquire new frames of reference, and new ways of looking at the world. Why a PhD? To become that person.