Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Thoughts on persuasive writing

[This is an edited version of a discussion required for my technical writing class. As I rather like my own analogy, I thought I would crosspost here as well]

As a full-time student, I do lots of persuasive writing on a nearly daily basis: I complete my work for class.

Of course, this is more or less expected of most such students, but do not be fooled by the myriad topics of your homework- in the end, they are all just variations on persuasive communication. The trick is that you have to correctly identify whom you are persuading, their attitude, take into account their likely reactions just as you would in any other form of persuasive communication (say, as in writing a business memo). As I'm sure all of you are intimately familiar with homework, let me review a few key concepts of persuasive writing, interpreted through the analogy of homework.

Being cooperative: If you want a good grade from your teacher or grader, being cooperative is always important for setting the tone of the interaction. This is especially important in writing assignments, because whoever ends up reading your assignments likely would rather be doing more interesting things (as opposed to figuring out why you didn't follow instructions). If you complete the assignment in the incorrect format, or submit it to the wrong place or in the wrong manner, you are being uncooperative. This gives the impression that you do not value the time of those who read your writing, and you are less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt.

On modesty: Invariably, once in a while you think that you deserve exception. In school, this can take many forms- I deserve an extension, I deserve reconsideration, I deserve leniency, and so on. However, stating that you deserve any of these things to your teacher is a quick way to be ignored or worse. The best way to compromise on a potentially troublesome request, idea, or argument is to express yourself with modesty. Explicitly adding that “you may be asking quite a bit” to your exceptional requests acknowledges that you may be inconveniencing someone else, and have the thoughts of others under consideration.

Exemplifying fair-mindedness: Chances are very good that your teacher has been studying the topic of your coursework for much longer than you have. Thus, when making arguments it may be helpful to show that your line of thought has considered alternative opinions and viewpoints. To do otherwise insults the intelligence and background of your teacher by doing nothing to allay their likely questions and concerns. More importantly, relating your idea to other ideas demonstrates that you have a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. In the same vein as being cooperative, avoiding logical fallacies and disingenuous arguments also demonstrates the fair-mindedness of the student.

As one moves in either direction between school and work, keep in mind that the rules for communicating persuasively are largely the same, but the environment and audience differ.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Figuring out how to complicate my semester

Over the past week or two i've been getting serious about narrowing down the fellowships I plan to apply for later this year. I started off looking at quite a handful:
and all the acronyms like
Of course, I cannot possibly apply to all of these programs and still have time for eating/sleeping/homework, so I have to narrow them down a bit.

Fellowships for study in the UK

Of these, many of them are for 1-2 year tenure of study in United Kingdom institutions. To narrow down the field, I looked at departments to see who has the greatest number of possible advisors, and surprisingly Oxford does not have a computer science department quite nearly as impressive as my two top picks, Imperial College London and Cambridge University. This rules out the Rhodes, which is specifically for study at Oxford. Similarly, while the Marshall fellowship recipient can study at many tenable universities in the United Kingdom, sadly Imperial College is not one among them. Thus, I am left with a choice between the Churchill, Gates Cambridge, and the Marshall scholarship; since the Marshall does not have as good of a stipend as either of the other fellowships, I might as well not apply (since there will be much competition among Marshall applicants to attend schools other than Oxford/Cambridge).

At this point I'm going to concentrate on the Churchill Scholarship; explicitly concentrating on the Gates Cambridge is not possible, as it is part of the normal application to Cambridge graduate programs. There are only 10-15 Churchill Scholars per year, but I think I have a decent chance, considering my attempts at research thus far and the awards it begot; at least half of the Churchill scholars have previously received the Goldwater scholarship. Moreover, it is definitely time for a Computer Science major to recieve- the last time it happened was in 2003.

Were I to be awarded either distinction, it would fund up to 2 years of graduate study in a MPhil program (like a Master's degree), plus a decent stipend for living. The likely plan of study is split into two options: the first option is 10 classes and a small report/thesis, and the second is 6 classes plus a substantial research project. There is also the advantage of being at one of the best institutions in the world, and being in very close proximity to Microsoft Research Cambridge. Without the award, the chances of studying at Cambridge for a year are slim due to financial considerations (especially if someone is coming with me).

Fellowships for the United States (Doctoral)

The considerations for normal doctoral graduate fellowships are not completely understood yet, due to the inherent uncertainty involved in concurrently considering a PhD program in the United States and a MPhil program abroad (followed presumably by the PhD program in the United States). Many doctoral fellowships cannot be taken abroad, nor can they be deferred for a year as many graduate admissions can be. This will require a lot of flow-chart diagrams and tough decisions, but as the deadlines are in the later half of fall semester, I have some time to figure out my options.

While almost all doctoral students in Computer Science receive tuition waivers and research or teaching assistantships, recieving a graduate fellowship can significantly increase your options. I have heard many stories of automatic grad-school acceptance following the announcement that the applicant has a multi-year fellowship funded by an external agency. Furthermore, you are not limited by the availability of grant funds in choosing your advisor or thesis/research interests. Probably most exciting is the permanent honor of listing a fellowship on your CV :)

At the outset, there is the Hertz, the NDSEG, and the NSF fellowships, which are listed here left to right according to prestige. The Hertz is an ultra-competitive national fellowship similar to the Churchill, Rhodes, and other non-acronym fellowships; however, it has an infamous reputation for a grueling and masochistic 2-round interview process. I believe my application is probably quantatively similar to others who would apply for the Hertz, but it may not be in my best interests to pursue it. For one, it would be extremely stressful to apply for the Hertz and the Churchill (and others) at the same time, and if I do end up going to Cambridge for a year, then I cannot use the Hertz there.

The NDSEG and NSF are still quite competitive (about 100 and 2000 awardees a year, respectively) but may be a better probabilistic use of my time. Furthermore, they are due in November and January, so by that point I will have my personal statement polished to a diamond, my GRE scores satisfied (hopefully), and I will be nearly done with my graduate school applications anyway.

Any way you look at it, I still have a mountain of application work to do this coming fall, so I am already in June beginning to plan and triage all of the myriad statements, prompts, reference letters, and so on. Here's my top-level list so far:

Churchill Scholarship Application
Cambridge Graduate Studies Application (required for Churchill and Gates Cambridge)
NDSEG Application
NSF Application
CRA Outstanding Undergraduate Application (again)
Senior Awards at Purdue
(tentatively) 5 Graduate school applications

Each of the above involves a personal statement (of varying lengths and foci), at least 3 letters of reference, mundane form-filling, official transcripts, statement of research plan, and in some cases GRE scores.

...I suppose I should start thinking about how I can thank my recommendation-writers if I actually win any of these things :)