The dreamy-eyed alumni

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.

9 thoughts on “The dreamy-eyed alumni

  1. Damn you for reminding me about how wonderful my grad student eyars at Berkeley were :)

    “Umesh asked a really unexpected question.” Now that sounds familiar.

  2. I am curious now. how important would you say the issue of “vision” is in theory then ? assuming it is not asked as an interview test question, but over a nice dinner at (say) Cesar’s :).

  3. I’m curious: do you get the sense that “theory is in the air” more at Berkeley than, say, at MIT or Stanford or (insert other top school)?

    Also, having gone to MIT as an undergrad I have to speak up: while I wouldn’t quite say that people get “dreamy eyed” about their time at MIT, I would say there is a definite “energy” to the place that makes it very special…

  4. There are a few concrete things I have noticed about Berkeley that make it a lovely place to be. I can’t really speak to the “theory in the air,” but I can say a little about why I might get dewy-eyed after leaving.

    For one thing, the coffeeshops near Soda; I can’t count the number of times I have run into people and had interesting conversations about what they are doing. Sometimes research-related, sometimes not. Then there are the coffeeshops not near Soda, which are good for different reasons. (Especially the ones without wireless internet.)

    There is also the feeling that students are responsible and independent. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that we need to wait for a professor before we can start thinking about a problem. Students organize and run reading groups spontaneously, and the faculty do a good job of helping out but letting us do our thing.

    People are also remarkably generous with their time and willing to listen to ideas, suggest extensions, and so on. That is invaluable for figuring out if a problem is interesting or not.

  5. It’s really hard to put into words what it means to be in Berkeley and I think you did an excellent job. Berkeley will just always feel like home. Sure, there were frustrating moments, moments I wished I knew how to quit it, but in the end, I happily became another one of those dreamy-eyed alumni.

    Talking about visit days, I think they do make a difference. I will never forget when I visited CMU and Manuel Blum was so disarmingly charming that he almost made me change my mind.

    Or, if I remember correctly there was also a time when during the visit day there was some concensus that certain prospective students would be better off in a different university and somehow (surely, out of pure coincidence) after the visit day they ended up somewhere else.

  6. Very nice post, Luca. If your thoughts crystallize more, I would love to read about some concrete things that contribute to Berkeley’s greatness (say, in theory) that can be emulated elsewhere. BTW, my advisor David Shmoys was at Berkeley during the early 80s, and has told us the impact that the student-only seminars had.

    Aravind Srinivasan

  7. Top-notch people do top-notch work. There’s also some synergy involved, and this is probably the mysterious Berkeley factor you describe.

    That said, the key factors are how sharp you are, how hard you work, and luck. It’s not as if Luca suddenly started writing good papers after coming to MIT and Berkeley – the ones he wrote as a student in Rome were also great. It also works the other way around: The papers I wrote for my thesis were a lot less deep than Luca’s, but that was because I’m not very sharp, not because I did my PhD at a school that can’t match Berkeley’s reputation.

  8. A grey-haired bum that spends his days and nights reading outside a bookstore. The espresso counter at Strada that works like a machine. (They should be organizing seminars for baristas.) Two guys on the next table arguing about the subtle differences between radicchio and trevisano.

    Okay, I made this last one up, but it could happen.

    What does this have to do with theory? Nothing, and that’s what makes Berkeley different. There it is hard to miss that theory, while important and enjoyable, happens to be just one of many important and enjoyable things in life. I feel this attitude is what makes theory at Berkeley different than, say, theory at… oops. I won’t name places.

    As for what makes the city special, there is a great essay by Luca’s fellow blogger, my former neighbor, and local celebrity Michael Chabon.

    andrej

  9. There is something super mysterious and amazing in Berkeley, and I felt the theory in the air sensation just from my visit. I was surprised that you wrote that the place didn’t look special at first. The book store, the coffee shops,…

    As someone who’s going through the phd admissions process now this is making me very jealous. Berkeley is by far the top choice.. oh Berkeley.

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