Friday, April 15, 2016

2016-04-15: How I learned not to work full-time and get a PhD

ODU's commencement on May 7th marks the last day of my academic career as a student. I began my career at ODU in the Fall of 2004, graduated with my BS in CS in the Spring of 2008 at which point I immediately began my Master's work under Dr. Levinstein. I completed my MS in Spring 2010, spent the summer with June Wright (now June Brunelle), and started my Ph.D. under Dr. Nelson in the Fall of 2010 (which is referred to as the Great Bait-and-Switch in our family). I will finish in the Spring of 2016 only to return as an adjunct instruction teaching CS418/518 at ODU in the Fall of 2016.


On February 5th, I defended my dissertation "Scripts in a Frame: A Framework for Archiving Deferred Representations" (above picture courtesy Dr. Danette Allen, video courtesy of Mat Kelly). My research in the WS-DL group focused on understanding, measuring, and mitigating the impacts of client-side technologies like JavaScript on the archives. In short, we showed that JavaScript causes missing embedded resources in mementos, leading to lower quality mementos (according to web user assessment). We designed a framework that uses headless browsing in combination with archival crawling tools to mitigate the detrimental impact of JavaScript. This framework crawls more slowly but more thoroughly than Heritrix and will result in higher quality mementos. Further, if the framework interacts with the representations (e.g., click buttons, scroll, mouseover), we add even more embedded resources to our crawl frontier, 92% of which are not archived.


Scripts in a Frame: A Two-Tiered Approach for Archiving Deferred Representations from Justin Brunelle

En route to these findings, we demonstrated the impact of JavaScript on mementos with our now-[in]famous CNN Presidential Debate example, defined the terms deferred representations to refer to representations dependent upon JavaScript to load embedded resources, descendants to refer to client-side states reached through the execution of client-side events, and published papers and articles on our findings (including Best Student Paper at DL2014 and Best Poster at JCDL2015).


At the end of WS-DLer academic tenures, it is customary to provide lessons learned, recommendations, and recaps of their academic experiences useful to future WS-DLers and grad students. Rather than recap the work that we have documented in published papers, I will echo some of my advice and lessons learned for what it takes to be a successful Ph.D. student.

Primarily, I learned that working while pursuing a Ph.D. is a bad idea. I worked at The MITRE Corporation throughout my doctoral studies. It took a massive amount of discipline, a massive amount of sacrifice (from myself, friends, and family), a forfeiture of any and all free time and sleep, and a near-lethal amount of coffee. Unless a student's "day job" aligns or overlaps significantly with her doctoral studies (I got close, but no cigar), I strongly recommend against doing this.

I learned that a robust support system (family, friends, advisor, etc.) is essential to being a successful graduate student. I am lucky that June is patient and tolerant of my late nights and irritability during paper season, my family supported my sacrifices and picked up the proverbial slack when I was at conferences or working late, and that Dr. Nelson dedicates an exceptional portion of his time to his students. (Did I say that just like you scripted, Dr. Nelson?) I learned to challenge myself and ignore the impostor syndrome.

I learned that a Ph.D. is life-consuming, demanding of 110% of a student's attention, and hard -- despite evidence to the contrary (i.e., they let me graduate) -- they don't give these things away. I also learned about what real, capital-R "Research" involves, how to do it, and the impact that it has. This is a lesson that I am applying to my day job and current endeavors.

I learned to network. While I don't subscribe to the adage "It's not what you know, it's who you know", I will say that knowing people makes things much easier, more valuable, more impactful, and essential to success. However, if you don't know the "what", knowing the "who" is useless.

I learned that not all Ford muscle cars are Mustangs (even though they are clearly the best), that it's best to root for VT athletics (or at least pretend), that I am terrible at commas, and that giving your advisors homebrew with your in-review paper submissions certainly can't hurt; the best collaborations and brainstorming sessions often happen outside of the office and over a cup of coffee or a pint of beer.

Finally, I learned that finishing my Ph.D. before my son arrived was one of the best things I've done -- even if mostly by luck and divine intervention. I have thoroughly enjoyed spending the energy previously dedicated to staying up late, writing papers, and pounding my head against my keyboard to spending time with June, Brayden, and my family.

Despite these hard lessons and a difficult ~5 years, pursuing a doctorate has been a great experience and well worth the hard work. I look forward to continued involvement with the WS-DL group, ODU, my dissertation committee, and sharing my many lessons learned with future students.


--Dr. Justin F. Brunelle

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