Previous month:
June 2017

July 2017

"The Skill that Industry Hires Need"

According to this post in Science magazine (geared toward PhD students and academics in science), industry employers particularly value project management skills in new hires, "including working in a team and delivering on schedule and on budget". I found this particularly striking because project management is perhaps the least used skill in graduate school. There is no timeline in submitting a research paper or getting a degree. Some doctoral students take five years to graduate; other take eight. There is little concept of a schedule to be kept, research-wise. In a way, not only are graduate students not taught project management, they are taught the opposite: it takes the time that it takes; what matters is the end result. No wonder then that graduate students with industry internships have an advantage over the competition when they seek industry positions.

(As a side note, this got me thinking about the skill that analytics students need the most, since I teach analytics rather than science. Of course project management is important for analytics students too, but based on my experience, students struggle the most with the idea that there might not be a single best model to be created from their data. You can create, say, a linear regression keeping only the coefficients that are significant at the 95% level, or you can focus on the 99% level, or you can have categorical variables, with some labels being very significant and others not as much, or you can have a logistic regression model and a classification tree model to predict a binary outcome, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. Students are disappointed sometimes when it feels like there isn't a unique best answer. But you create your models based on the data you have, and the process is necessarily imperfect. You can still get good insights from your model. )

Going back to the theme of this post, I think that undergraduate students learn more about project management through their capstone project at the end of their studies than doctoral students do. It makes sense, given that most undergrads go on to industry positions right after graduation (only a few get a Master's degree before starting work), but it is time to recognize the changed job prospects for PhDs too. Could we bring project management to academic research itself? Grant proposals ask us principal investigators to do as much, with budget justifications, deliverables and intermediate milestones, but graduate students are rarely involved in defining those. Maybe universities should provide more training on those matters.

Or maybe this could motivate a stronger emphasis on doctorate programs with time-constrained "praxis" capstone projects rather than dissertations, such as D.Eng. rather than PhDs. Perhaps it is even time for a renaissance of doctoral students that aren't PhDs in order to better meet industry needs, or the creation of an intermediary degree between Master's and PhDs. When I was at MIT, my department (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science) had a degree of Electrical Engineer, which was aimed at doctoral students who had completed all coursework in the PhD program: the All But Dissertation folks. Obviously most A.B.D.s don't plan on working in academia and maybe an advanced degree geared toward industry would be better suited for their career goals. This raises the issue of degree visibility and name recognition, if only a handful of universities deliver the new degree, but given today's pace of change, it'd make sense to introduce new degrees more suited to the needs of the workforce.

We could even imagine a system where students get credentials for each year of graduate study (or some number of credits to account for part-time students), with "Graduate Credential Level 1" being received at the end of the first year (maybe similarly to a Master of Engineering), "Level 2" at the end of the second year (equivalent to a Master of Science), and then adding "Level 3", "Level 4" etc, with the student being able to stop for a few years in-between if he so wishes. There is a lot of talk on campuses these days about continuing education, but it is unrealistic to expect these trends will fit neatly within existing degree programs. It is time for new graduate degrees.


A new type of queues

I just came back from IFORS17, which was a fantastic conference in a great venue (and I'm glad that many people showed up for my early-morning talk on binary optimization and R&D portfolio management), but for today's post I wanted to write something quick about the new TSA queues at the airport. In academia we talk a lot about queues like M/M/1 but I don't think there is a name for the queues in the new TSA system. (Maybe TSA is a queueing pioneer! It creates queues we academics have never imagined in our wildest nightmares.) If you know the names for the queues described below or any literature that supports their use, I'd love to hear about it.
 
Now there are two tracks in front of the X-ray machine, one divided into 5 "stations" where people put their stuff in the new bins and one parallel to the first one that actually feeds into the X-ray machine. The idea is that once you have your bin ready, it is going to go onto the main track that goes into the X-ray machine. It happens because "someone" pushes the bin forward onto the main track. The thing is, that someone isn't the traveler. The TSA agent wants to do that, perhaps to avoid having people knock other people's bins while they try to push theirs, but then travelers who arrived long after you could have their bins move forward long before yours.
 
If you have to put your stuff in more than one bin (even your rollerboard has to go in a bin, so it's likely you'll need more than one, although the new bins are very large), the bins are going to get separated from each other because your stuff goes in line on the main track for the X-ray machine when the agent feels like letting it get in line. This is not a good thing.
 
Also (1) the TSA agent at EWR kept saying laptops in a bin by themselves but the bins are enormous and since your stuff is going out of order it becomes really easy for someone else to take your laptop by mistake (it also went against the pictures I'd seen at DFW about how to properly pack the new bins - the important point is that nothing should be above or below the laptops but there can be things around them - but I wasn't going to argue with TSA) and (2) several lines of people at EWR had to merge into one line for the X-ray machines; at DFW people do "alternate merge" like it's second nature but at EWR you have people who just stare at the line and hope someone will be nice to them and (3) it's not FIFO anymore because you take the first available station by the X-ray, even if that station is closer to the X-ray machine than the station of people who were in front of you in line. 
 
I liked the old system a lot more. I particularly liked the FIFO part because it seemed fair. Sadly, I've seen the new approach both at EWR and DFW, so I'm assuming a nationwide rollout. I just hope whoever came up with the new way of doing things wasn't an engineer. It's suboptimal by a wide margin.
 
Ok, so here is the mathematical description. You have 1 X-ray machine, 2 lines of travelers that attempt to merge into 1 line to use the X-ray machine, 5 stations, 1 parallel track where the bins are later pushed onto to get Xray'd. The traveler goes to the first available station. Then he has to wait until his stuff goes onto the X-ray track, and if he has multiple bins he has to wait until he found a way to squeeze the last one in, then he queues for the metal detector, then he waits for his stuff to come out of the X-ray machine. Remember that the TSA agent, not the traveler, decides when the traveler's bins go on the X-rays track (the TSA agent makes the gaps between bins to let a new bin come onto the track). Therefore, people who came to available stations after the traveler might have their stuff pushed into the X-ray machine first and might go through the metal detector before the traveler. Compute the average time to go through security and compare with the average time in the old system. Also compute a new criterion called the Traveler's Sense of Shock and Disbelief at TSA's New Ideas, alternatively called "Did someone get paid to come up with this?", surely to be the focus of a case study either about the crazy things people come up with to justify their consulting gigs or the flaws in the decision processes that green-lighted this innovation. Discuss. 
 
I suppose whoever came up with this disliked having to wait behind, say, families with young children who had to take off their shoes, or elderly people who moved too slowly for their taste. It still seems there would be better, simpler ways to address this, starting with having more lines open so that people can move away from a slow line toward one that goes faster.
 
Maybe the lines should be per type of customers (although I'm not sure if travelers would comply if they're in a rush and another line goes faster, but perhaps having TSA lines matching the group numbers of the airlines, such as A/B/C for Southwest or 1/2/3/4/5 for United would be aligned with travelers' frequency of travel and presumably their familiarity with the screening process), or the lines could be based on the amount of luggage travelers have to screen (do they have a laptop, do they have a rollerboard) - something similar to the express checkout lane at the supermarket.
 
Or there could be a system where travelers don't enter the line to the X-rays until their stuff is in bins. (If we allow ourselves to dream for a second, TSA could invent a cart that carries multiple bins to the X-rays. Heck, it could be the X-ray machine of the future: a cart robot that has all your things neatly arranged on the cart and drives itself to the X-ray machine, and then the X-ray machine would be able to scan your things one by one, and your cart would re-appear at the other end of the machine, and then you could happily push your cart to the gate or return it at the checkpoint.)
 
It'd also be interesting to have a system where people can see the average time to go through security at different times of the day at their airport and the current real time, like what Google does for restaurants, although for airports we also need to have a measure of the staffing level to be able to compare numbers. 
 
If TSA was serious about decreasing waiting times at checkpoints, it would run a nationwide competition among universities (or at least industrial engineering departments) to suggest improvements that would be a bit more thought-out than this. I bet students could come up with a better alternative using IE/OR tools. In the end, just thinking I might have to go through the new screening system every time I go to the airport makes me very uneager to fly, and perhaps that's the point.

Purdue-Kaplan Universities Merger

I came across this interview of Purdue University's President Mitch Daniels on NPR.org - for some reason I missed the announcement about the merger between nonprofit Purdue and for-profit Kaplan University earlier this year. The goal, as Daniels explains it, is to offer a different, non-traditional segment of the student population broader and cheaper access to higher education. There is no question that residential colleges are better fits for 18-to-22-year-olds than, say, 35-year-olds with a family and a mortgage, and acquiring Kaplan is a way to reach those non-traditional students without starting from scratch. The interview did not contain much new information about current trends - all of us in higher ed know that the demographics are changing, more college-bound high school graduates are not college-ready, the increasing cost of a diploma is becoming worrisome. (An interesting tidbit in the first NPR article was the "revenue theory of cost" of economist William Bowen, which basically says that colleges spend more because they can.)

Daniels did show he was aware of key trends such as the rise of alternative certifications and the need to educate students at different (nontraditional) ages. As a side note, the acquisition of Kaplan U addresses neither the lack of college-readiness for college-bound high school grads, nor the increasing cost of a diploma. Maybe there are more nontraditional students now because they were not college-ready 10 years ago, and perhaps it would be more helpful to deal with the root of the problem (the transition from high school to college, or even the high school curriculum) now rather than trying to take those people money when they have a bit of an income and realize their options are going to be limited if they don't get a college degree.

In the interview Daniels talks a little bit about the deal with Kaplan, which is an online university educating working adults. This other NPR article gives a fuller picture of it. More and more universities are entering the online market to help attract "non-completers" (people who started college but did not get a degree) and non-traditional students. Personally I like the use of basic technology, like videotaping the lectures, to help students understand the material by watching lectures in their dorm after class, but I'm ambivalent about online education. It's great when you're older (and so hopefully have the discipline to follow through even if the professor isn't in the same room as you), when you don't have a high-quality local option, and when the course is well-suited for an online format, but in order for it to replace on-campus education, it needs to reach a far more advanced state than the collection of short, simple videos that make a course on, say, Coursera. I also think that any good course requires the assessment of students' work by a real person, rather than multiple-choices quizzes that can be graded by a computer. But that'll be the topic of another post. 

I wonder about the traditional students who applied to Purdue and were rejected, and will see nontraditional students get the Purdue name on their degree. Can they hope to get into Purdue through Kaplan? What will make the Kaplan University education a Purdue education?

The NPR article explains: "In an atmosphere of ever-skinnier state budgets, these programs enable universities to reach a global market, cater to working adults, and potentially increase revenue without expensive capital investment." But one has to be cautious not to admit anyone just because they can pay the tuition. The article makes clear Kaplan will operate as a new, distinct unit of Purdue. Interestingly, it "will be exempt from Indiana open-door laws, access to public records and public accounting rules." A 2009 Senate investigation "accused Kaplan of using predatory marketing tactics, and putting more money toward recruitment and profits than education" While Kaplan is said to have reformed itself by the time a 2012 followup came around, it might get a little complicated to merge the cultures of both institutions.

Running a for-profit university and a nonprofit university are very different endeavors and Purdue has no existing skill set in that area. I don't get where the synergy is going to come from. If Purdue feels this is part of its mission as a land-grand institution, why isn't it merging with local community colleges? Oh, wait, they'd actually have to see the students. On the other hand, if the merger makes Kaplan U become a real nonprofit, then it could have a lot of positive developments for the nontraditional students who have spent so much of their money trying to get a degree, including veterans. Maybe it is in the public interest that Purdue merge with Kaplan, in the interest of Kaplan's students. But it's important that the faculty and students going through Kaplan U, now renamed "New U", aren't viewed as second-tier. I don't think faculty at for-profit institutions have tenure, for instance, I also doubt they do research, in contrast to Purdue's. So it'd be like an entire school at a research university being taught by adjuncts. They may well be highly competent adjuncts, but they are in a completely different category of faculty. 

Hopefully Purdue will also use Kaplan's online infrastructure to offer great online courses to its on-campus students, allowing them to take a mix of classes in person and online, but this also opens the risk of on-campus teaching positions being eliminated down the road and replaced by online education.  

Anyway, it'll be fascinating to watch what happens with that merger.


SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 4

SMU-logo2 I realized I never got around to writing about the rest of the events I attended during Commencement weekend (after writing Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3), so here is a summary.

I started the "weekend", which started on Thursday, with a public event unrelated to the Honorary Degree Recipients Symposium. It was a talk about creating technology for social change, or how to make change by creating and sharing media, by MIT's Ethan Zuckerman. He mentioned, among many good points he made, Christopher Hayer's distinction between institutionalists and insurrectionists, with institutionalists believing that institutions are reformable and insurrectionists arguing that we need to fundamentally question those institutions. It is hard to motivate young people to vote if they identify as insurrectionists precisely because they don't trust institutions. Protest becomes a hard sell too. Zuckerman mentioned the book Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest by Zeynep Tufekci. Zuckerman also talked about laws, software code, social norms and markets as effective tools for social change. An example of norms was the "Black Lives Matter" movement and which type of photographs were at first selected by the media to depict Michael Brown. A fascinating part of Zuckerman's talk focused on "landscape mappers", visual tools to highlight what communities and media outlets were talking about. For instance, he had a slide about Ebola as a political issue, "Obama's fault", etc, and CDC was unwilling to talk about quarantine but it turned out to be central to the conversation. Another tidbit was that Zuckerman explained that people who think there's a link between autism and vaccines are very interested in science, but it turns out that they do science very badly. 

The next event I attended was the "Ice Fishing for Neutrinos" talk by UW-Madison Professor Francis Halzen, who received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU during Commencement Weekend. I loved this talk because Halzen made such an excellent presentation tailored to a lay audience that I could follow all the key concepts and understand why the work was important, although obviously the physics completely eluded me. I took a lot of notes but I'll spare myself the embarrassment of posting something wrong if I misread what I wrote, so I'll just say the idea is to create reactions in ultra-pure ice - the kind of ice that exists at the Amundsen Scott South Pole station - rather than water to observe neutrinos, which can't be seen directly and have no charge. The only way to "see" them is to have them crash into the nucleus of an atom to initiate a reaction. The IceCube experiment was awarded PhysicsWorld's "Breakthrough of the Year 2013", after the researchers published in Science the first evidence for a very high-energy astrophysical neutrino flux. Funnily enough, Halzen was hosted by two SMU profs with whom I share a good friend (no Texas connection), and we had only met in person earlier that same week. 

The next day, I went to the Q&A with Dallas philanthropy powerhouse Nancy Nasher, who also received a Honorary Doctorate from SMU that weekend. She is well known locally for the Nasher Sculpture Center, which was started by her parents and helped revitalize the Dallas arts district (she is also known nationally for her philanthropy to the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), and she is a co-owner of NorthPark Center, one of the largest malls in America. She worked on it as a lawyer in the late 1970s, writing and negotiating leases. In the mid-1990s, Nasher and her husband acquired NorthPark and then the ground lease, and then they planned and oversaw the extension of the center. It is the 4th highest-grossing shopping center in the U.S. and the 2nd tourist attraction in Texas (1st in North Texas). What I love most about NorthPark Center is the abundance of top quality art on display in the public spaces. NorthPark is also a performing arts venue with 300 performing groups per year, including 200 in the 5 weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year. Nasher has been deliberate in her intent to use NorthPark as a venue to support performing arts organizations vital to Texas. 

In her opinion, the most pressing need in Dallas for arts is that Dallas needs more corporate support. Arts education is also vitally important, and needs more funding too. NorthPark has also launched "50 days of giving", about giving back to 50 nonprofits in the Dallas area. It also has a program where it provides transportation from Uplift schools to NorthPark to teach schoolteachers more about arts education, and help teachers decide how best to teach the material. She also mentioned the Business Council for the Arts, which was launched by her father and which develops support for the arts from business.

Nasher also talked about her career path - at Princeton she wanted to be a Russian literature major (I would've wanted to be one too!), was an English major, took a lot of courses in art history, her father suggested she would be a good lawyer, which is how she went to Duke for law school, where she was one of only 20 women, out of a class of 125. She was also in one of the first classes of women at Princeton. She interned at a law firm that put her on the NorthPark project from day one. Later that firm offered her a job. She only stopped when her mother became very ill and she went into business to help. Nancy Nasher is a very inspiring figure in Dallas and in hindsight, it stuns me that SMU didn't give her a Honorary Doctorate a long time ago. One thing I love about Dallas is how the most successful people so generously give back to the communities where they grew up. 

I can't wait to hear who next year's Commencement speaker and Honorary Degree recipients are going to be!


Congratulations, Dr. Denoyel!

Congratulations to my PhD student Victoire Denoyel of ESSEC Business School in Paris, France (co-advised with Laurent Alfandari) for successfully defending her dissertation a few days ago! Her dissertation is entitled "Towards an efficient embedding of logit choice models into 0-1 selection problems". Our first paper was recently published online in EJOR, the European Journal of Operational Research. 

I hadn't attended a French PhD defense since that of Nabila Remli in 2011 on robustness in linear programming, and I have to say that I like the French system a lot. It is a lot more formalized than the American way, and as a result I feel that the PhD candidate gets more out of it. For instance, France uses a formal system of reviewers and examiners in the jury. The reviewers must receive the dissertation about 8 weeks early to submit a written evaluation before the PhD defense, and after the presentation, reviewers and examiners ask questions to the PhD candidate in the "debate" part of the defense. The questions can be quite specific and in-depth. In Victoire's case, her presentation was about one hour long and the debate lasted close to two hours. I was very impressed by the quality of the questions, and in Victoire's poise in answering all of them with flying colors. We have also had great suggestions from the jury to finalize our other two papers, for which I am very grateful. Victoire's committee consisted of Professors Ivana Ljubic (jury president) of ESSEC, Knut Haase from Hamburg University, Cecile Murat of Paris Dauphine University, Andre de Palma from ENS Cachan and Nathalie Picard from the University of Cergy, in addition to Laurent Alfandari and myself. Many thanks to the jury members! 

I started working with Victoire in 2013 and it's great to see her complete this stage of her career. From a personal standpoint, she is the first French PhD student I have advised and I've greatly enjoyed our research discussions. I tend to prefer working with students who think on the spot about the ideas I suggest and won't hesitate telling me if they don't understand or disagree, because it helps weed out the bad ideas faster and make the viable ones stronger. While I haven't worked with many such PhD students (certainly there are cultural norms at play: we French people like to debate more than most, and in certain foreign countries it is viewed as disrespectful to debate ideas with one's professor), Victoire showed outstanding independent research skills from the start, great follow-through, and superior ability to derive actionable insights for decision makers. She is going to make a great professor. She is currently a lecturer in Operations Management at Brooklyn College and will be on the job market for a tenure track position this fall. 

Congratulations, Victoire!