Advice to Graduate Students

From: Olin Shivers <>
Date: Tue, 13 Dec 94 15:28:51 -0500
To: Jay.Sipelstein@CS.CMU.EDU
In-Reply-To: <9412131321.aa26590@MINTAKA.LCS.MIT.EDU>
Subject: Quals

Hey, Jay. You are right -- people worry about quals way too much.

I don't really remember much about my quals, or my entire first year, in fact.
I spent most of it stoned to the gills.

My most important graduate student advice, however, comes later in the game.
Never, under any circumstances, let your advisor talk you into going out
"for a few beers" the night before your thesis defense. It is not a tradition.
It is not an expected rite of passage. It will not "relax you and help you
do better tomorrow." Your advisor is, in fact, a lying son of a bitch. Trust
me on this one.

If you ignore this advice, I guarantee you that the following morning every
one will be saying, "Wow, Jay, you look pale; are you feeling nervous?"  In
fact, you won't be nervous in the least. You'll be feeling so hung-over that
you'll be praying for the release of immediate death, rather than worried
about your presentation.

It will not help that your entire committee will be grinning and saying things
like "Don't worry, Jay! If you get half-way through your presentation and
throw up... we'll throw up, too."  I'm afraid that *is* a bit of a tradition
at CMU -- trying to get hung-over grads to blow chunks in the middle of their
defense. A professor who manages this feat gains great face with his
colleagues -- you should see them high-fiving and laughing it up once everyone
else has left the room. Although they would never discuss these things when
there are "children" present, amongst themselves the faculty love to trade
effective ploys they've used in the past.

I remember standing there before my defense started. I was having cold sweats,
couldn't balance well, and was unsuccessfully trying to get both of my eyes to
focus in the same plane.  While the rest of my committee sat there looking on
and snickering like a bunch of jackals, Newell stepped up with a big,
solicitous smile and said, "Say, Olin, you look like you could use a nice tall
glass of cold pork gravy." My complexion instantaneously shifted from dead
white to pale green, my mouth flooded with saliva, my stomach tried to turn
itself into a Kline bottle, and it took all my control to just stand there and
mutter, "Damn, Allen, did you really punch out that hooker in the bar last

After that, the rest of the actual presentation was a piece of cake.
(And, actually, turned out it was Peter Lee that had started the bar fight,
as you probably expected.)

Professional academia is not pretty. I just wanted to get you clear on that.