This busy week was not just about the FOCS deadline and paying taxes. Yesterday was also the deadline by which prospective graduate students had to choose which school they want to attend.
How do students make such a choice?
Theory students admitted to Berkeley have typically other excellent offers, and it is impossible for them to make a wrong choice. Wherever they end up, they will have very good advisors and a very conducive environment. I also think people overstate the impact of their choice in terms of career prospects: luck, good timing and talent are, I believe, the main factors that will matter, in this order. (I attribute my own job at Berkeley almost entirely to luck and flawless timing.)
But even though it is not as important as some people make it up to be, the choice of graduate school is still a choice that will dictate how you live for four to six years and, to a certain extent, what kind of theoretician you will become and what kind of taste you will develop. Unfortunately, it is a choice that is made based on very partial information: the impressions of a one-day visit, word-of-mouth, and the advice of professors at one’s own institution.
So how do students choose to come to Berkeley? Perhaps their experience is not unlike mine when I had to decide whether to move here.
When I came to Berkeley for my interview, it was my first time on the West coast. All I knew about it were New Yorkers’ preconceptions about California (people drive cars over there! And they shop in malls! It’s like Long Island, but much much bigger) and what my Berkeley alumni friends told me of their experience.
Being a theoretician, I am friends with several people who were students at Berkeley, and I have always noticed how dreamy-eyed they become when they recall the time they spent here. This is very distinctive. Somehow, people don’t become dreamy-eyed when recalling the time they spent as students at other places. This, of course, does not mean much. Think about your exes: X who was so nice, and that jerk/bitch Y. Now, did you have a better time with X or with Y? Did the relationship with X or the one with Y make you grow up more?
Anyways, everybody’s sweet Berkeley memories were such that I arrived here prepared to be dazzled. The shuttle from the airport drove through a series of non-descript suburban houses and then reached a campus that had a beautiful scenery, with the creek, the hills, the old trees and so on, but ugly buildings. Around 9pm, the campus became deserted, and the whole town looked empty. Is that it?, I thought.
At the end of my talk, however, Umesh asked a really unexpected question. The day after, an AI faculty sat me down for more than half an hour because he wanted to see all the details of my extractor construction. Few people asked me where I wanted to be in five years, and I don’t think I ever heard the word “vision.” The last night, Umesh and Christos took me to have dinner at Cesar’s. The four of us (a friend of Christos also joined) drank three bottles of wine. Clearly, something different was going on in Berkeley: the theoreticians were interested in “big questions,” and knew how to have a good time; technical strength and interest in theory were widespread in the department; and bullshit was kept at a minimum.
But I came back to New York still thinking is that it? Fortunately, I followed the advice of everybody I spoke to, and moved to Berkeley.
After about a year, I started to understand what my dreamy-eyed friends were talking about, and I will miss this place very dearly if I ever move away. The fact is, I cannot explain what it is in a way that really makes sense. It’s like, in Berkeley, theory is in the air, or perhaps in the espresso. People seem to work effortlessly, and to be interested in everything. Theory students study German, or Swedish, just for fun, or they sing opera, or they take film studies classes, but they also do first-rate theory work. They take a systems class because it’s required, and then they publish their project in INFOCOM. Certainly, it helps that everybody around here is very talented, but this seems to be a place where it is easier to be lucky and to have good timing.
So, once more, how do students decide to come here? Probably they visit for a day, feel that it is a special place, but go back somewhat unimpressed. Someone on the faculty of their school, however, graduated from Berkeley, or was a post-doc here, or spent a sabbatical here, and he or she tells them “just go there, it’s perfect for you.” The students come here, graduate with excellent work, leave Berkeley with fond memories, and go on to become professors at the other top universities. And so the cycle can continue.