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Mentoring our Future Leaders

Vincent Chan

Vincent W.S. Chan



The future of the Society will depend on the new ideas (or lack thereof) generated by its constituents. I have been associated with ComSoc for almost half a century and over the years I observed this process evolved and saw an orderly renewal of the Society’s technical focus and volunteer base. In its history, it seems the Society tracked the evolution of the industry at large well and in many cases seemed to lead the transformations. An example is the steady data rate increases of applications over the years mostly due to Moore’s Law and the development of communication and network modalities to match. However, a couple of abrupt changes occurred that have made disruptive transformations in the industry. It started 30 years ago with the divestiture of MaBell per Judge Green. Divestiture gave rise to fierce competitions within the communication service provider and equipment manufacturer business, significantly lowering the subscriber costs. Cost benefits aside, it had the side effect of preventing MaBell from re-investing heavily in fundamental and applied research. It forever changed the equipment supplier scene and led to the multi-vendor development and massive deployment of wavelength division multiplexing fiber networks. In the early 2000s the capacity increase was so huge and disruptive it almost killed off the optical communication industry because the capacity increases overtook Moore’s Law and the applications could not take advantage of the increased capacity fast enough. Indeed, a significant fraction of the WDM equipment companies went bankrupt. Finally, by 2012, the excess capacities were exhausted and together with wireless capacity expansion, new deployment in wireless and optical networks increased again. This coincided with the availability of multi-core processors and allowed webscale service providers such as Amazon, Apple, Tencent and others, to create new applications generating a disruptive demand on capacity. Indeed, what used to be methodical increases in capacities and reach suddenly went through significant jumps in the past few years. The time scale with which the research community evolved in the past no longer can catch up with the compressed pace of these recent changes which could be an order of magnitude faster than before. This makes the renewal of ComSoc more urgent and it must be done in a faster and more responsive time scale. The members of ComSoc have been very successful in their research, but picking up the pace by an order of magnitude might be a little difficult for most of us. While we will reach out to other Societies for collaborations, fundamentally we have to develop new leaders among our younger and newer members.

This brings me to a subject that I think has not been emphasized in the past decades, and that is the mentorship of young professionals. Faculty members today are facing many more pressures to publish and graduate doctoral students faster (very often three to four years after receiving their bachelor degrees). Far too often junior faculty members do not have time to wait for the students to formulate their research problems but need to give the problems to the student to solve as a super problem set. This has the effect of not having enough time to train the student to explore and formulate their own research problems. Together with the numbers game of publication somewhat of a perfect storm has been created that may not be in the best interests of training new research leaders. We need to convince the sponsors, bureaucrats and department leaders that value, innovation and impact (probably not all at the same time) in research is more important than numbers. The graduate students need time to grow and hone their problem formulation skills and survey the field to find a fruitful area of research themselves. Linear extensions of existing ideas seldom lead to major breakthroughs. The doctoral thesis should have a significant exploratory component of new concepts. The training of students should start with instilling an excellent foundation of basic knowledge, fostering the fundamental understanding of underlying technologies and principles, and augmented by stimulating a keen sense of curiosity for creative thinking and exploration of new horizons and not shying away from taking risks. The focus of the research need not be the hottest topic around as long as it is relevant and an intellectual challenge. Once the students are trained they can tackle any new problems that confront them. The students also ought to acquire the experience of a couple of summer internships in the industry. Industry people have very defined goals and constraints and those drive the type of problems they need to solve, and the techniques to solve them are sometimes different from the standard academic tools. Knowing which high leverage problems to solve is a prerequisite attribute for a research leader. My observation is that more often than not the students come back from internships with new perspectives and seem more mature. Of course, there always can be bad internships and the advisers need to help the students choose them wisely. In many cases, the doctoral thesis research may be the one and only chance when the student is free to explore and do speculative and risky research. This opportunity should be guarded jealously and protected at all costs. Mentoring them should be one of the most important responsibilities of the senior people in the Society whether they are teachers, managers or senior technical staff. Far too often the pressures of our jobs have made us ignore this part of our duties, which in most cases are not even written in our job description. The current strategic plan of the Society emphasizes mentoring of young professionals. We are piloting several mentoring programs in the next year and hopefully through frequent interactions with the senior members of the Society we can help the development of these young members. The pace of communication and network development is so fast that we need all the talent we can summon to remain the thought leader of the field.