When dropping out might be right choice for students
Many university faculty members would be disconcerted to have their doctoral students give up on their degrees, but Stanford emeritus professor of computer science Jeffrey Ullmann is nonplussed.
Having supervised 53 doctoral candidates at the California university, he was used to the occasional student disappearing – to join, or sometimes start, a new company.
When the ones who didn’t return include Google founder Sergey Brin, you can see why his take is a bit unconventional on the importance – or not – of finishing a degree.
“I’ve seen it both ways,” he says over lunch in Dublin, where he was visiting as part of his new role as chair of the international advisory board of the school of computing at the National College of Ireland, with overall responsibility for the strategy of its new cloud computing centre.
“Sergey went off to found the company, never got his degree, and I don’t believe he will ever miss it. On the other hand, look, if you join a company and it’s not successful you can come back and do your thesis.”
With a long roster of former students who went on to either found their own business or become influential in companies including IBM, Intel, Oracle and Microsoft, Ullmann is used to encouraging students to take such opportunities.
One, he told, “If the company is successful and you don’t join it, you’re gonna kick yourself, and kick me, forever for not letting you do that.” The company was successful and was bought by Amazon. The entrepreneur returned four years later to finish his PhD with Ullmann.
Despite its reputation as an entrepreneurial hothouse, Stanford provides little formal training in the area, he says.
“Basically, it’s a matter of the culture – it’s what you see around you. The students ahead of you go out and start a company or start working for a start-up and you say, ‘I could do that too’.” But he adds that Stanford, crucially, always valued producing software that people would actually use.
“Not so long ago I got an email from a student asking, can a PhD thesis be both useful and acceptable as a PhD thesis and I said, yeah, I think it can. He then said would I therefore go and fight with his adviser who was apparently of another opinion. Being useful was a proof that your thesis was not academic enough.” At Stanford, the opposite view would hold.
Ullman received his own degrees from Columbia University (BSci) and Princeton (PhD). Prior to joining Stanford in 1979, where he chaired the computer science department from 1990-1994, he was on the technical staff of Bell Laboratories, and on the faculty of Princeton.