Majdi Radaideh (RAD) Mentoring Plan for Students
This mentoring plan is not meant to be comprehensive; students can raise questions about specific aspects of this plan, and I will be happy to accommodate students’ requests.
Mentoring Philosophy and Research Expectations
How would you describe your mentoring philosophy in short?
My mentoring philosophy is a bit different than traditional ones and it is more of a researcher-researcher relationship rather than an advisor-student relationship. I always try to show students that I am their research peer not a PI who they need to do everything he says word-by-word. I understand that early graduate students may struggle to bring ideas or solutions, and this is when they will likely follow most if not all my suggestions. However, as they grow, I expect students to take ownership of their research, become independent, bring creative ideas, and establish strong research arguments with me so we can decide the best direction to move forward with. When working with me, students typically start working on a project where they start to build necessary skills to find a good PhD idea. At this stage, I find myself heavily involved with the student to teach them how to perform research correctly. Typically, in a year or two, the student will be exposed to several problems, one of them grows to become the PhD idea. Afterward, the student takes leadership of the work, and my role becomes less involved.
To summarize, I wish my students would step in the office with ONLY focus on making a novel research impact without worrying about doing what I ask literally or worrying about my reaction if they proved that my proposal was not ideal. Research is open and there are always better solutions.
What are your expectations of students’ skills when joining your group?
AIMS is a software-oriented group, so we heavily work with algorthims, maintain codes and computational methods, and interact briefly with experimental systems for deployment purposes. To succeed in this group, we look for three types of skills depending on the student’s level:
- Basic skills: Ability to use Linux and interact with the computer from the command window (not from GUI), programming experience in at least a single language (e.g., Python), basic knowledge in at least one of the common nuclear codes (e.g., MCNP, Serpent, SCALE, RELAP5, SIMULATE3, PARCS, OpenMC). This is typically expected for a senior or master’s student.
- Intermediate skills: Ability to apply various nuclear codes for reactor design problems, ability to understand and write AI/ML algorthims, and advanced programming skills in at least two programming languages (one modern like Python and one fundamental like C++). This is typically expected for a PhD student.
- Advanced skills: Ability to build and maintain software products through git, advanced object-oriented programming, development and changing nuclear source codes to perform certain capabilities, and interaction with experimental systems to deploy our software products. This is typically expected for a senior PhD student, a postdoc, or a staff member.
Please, notice that the skills above are only for reference to help students understand AIMS’ focus. Students are not expected to know all skills and will develop most of them after they join the lab. For specific questions about these skills, students are encouraged to contact Prof. RAD directly!
What are your expectations of the students in research projects? Any requirements on where and when the student needs to perform the work?
Students are expected to focus primarily on a single research project, where they lead every aspect of that project. Also, students are expected to patriciate (in a small part) in other projects to apply their expertise when relevant. Students decide where (e.g., home, office) and when (e.g., day, night) they like to perform their research work, whichever makes them more productive and satisfied. What matters for me is the progress at the end of every 1-2 weeks. Definition of progress is broad here and can vary from reading a literature paper, writing a script, testing a method/concept, showing good results, showing bad results that prove a certain concept is not promising, and so on. Any work you perform toward your degree is considered “progress”.
I discourage students from long working hours and extensive weekend work. During my graduate school, I don’t remember I have ever exceeded a daily work routine of 5-6 hours and probably 1-2 hours on Sunday (I never worked on Saturdays), and I was always feeling productive. Unfortunately, I had to break that routine for few nights preceding a major deadline.
Do you have general expectations for graduation?
Every student is different and the expectations vary depending on the progress, results, and maturity of the research. In general, each student is expected to pass the qualifying exam, the prospectus exam, and the final defense. Each student will write a dissertation that includes most of the research accomplishments. The PhD dissertation is usually the most interesting idea(s) the student produces from working on the funding project. There is no required number of published academic papers to graduate; the quality of research is the factor. You publish for yourself (see the Publication section below).
Do you ask students in your group to serve as a Graduate Student Instructor (aka Teaching Assistant) or mentor undergraduate students over the course of their program?
Definitely! I encourage every PhD student to serve as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) at least once over the course of their studies. I also encourage them to mentor undergraduate researchers if we have interested students in our lab. These qualities are particularly important for graduate students who plan to apply to academic positions. When I was a student, I served as a GSI for three semesters, and I was consistently teaching in my advisor’s courses when he was away. I have mentored many undergraduate students during graduate school time as well.
Are you supportive of your students going on internships? If so, what is the best time for internships? Do you help students find opportunities and where your students typically intern?
Definitely! I support students taking internships for both undergraduate and graduate students as they can significantly improve students’ research skills and collaborative network. I encourage students to intern during the summer, which is the best time of the year where most interns meet, but internships during Fall and Winter semesters are also possible if they are in the student’s best interest. Students can find their own internships, but I can also help them find ones in the national labs (ORNL, INL, ANL, PNNL) or industry (Westinghouse, GE, Constellation, Blue Wave AI) if both parties are interested.
What is your definition of a “distinguished” student?
The student who consistently makes progress, is prepared in majority of the meetings, shows significant results at least once a semester (or a collection of small achievements from the semester), frequently publishing papers, respects and helps new lab students, mentors undergraduate students, and finishes the degree in the expected time. Overall, distinguished students let the “work” not the “words” speaks about them.
Communication and Meetings
What is the best way for students to contact you?
AIMS lab’s Slack is my preferred way to interact with students, followed by email. I typically reply to all emails in the same day, and sometimes after a minute if I know the answer and sitting in front of the computer. My email is bombarded by tons of email every day, so if you do not hear back from me in 2-3 days, please remind me again, and will likely respond right away.
How often do you plan to meet with students one-on-one? Do you like the student to have a prepared plan for the meeting?
I ensure every PhD student gets a 1-hour 1-on-1 weekly meeting beyond the group meeting. I leave it to students to decide if they need the meeting or not even though I push for more 1-on-1 meetings in the first year to ensure students are comfortable in the group and making progress. When I am not busy with teaching or proposals, I typically encourage impromptu 1-on-1 meetings and open-door policy with any student. As I used to do that with my advisor, I strongly encourage every student to have a list of questions/topics prepared beforehand for the best use of our meeting time.
Do you have regular group meetings and what are your expectations of the students during the group meeting?
Yes, there is a weekly, 1-2 hour long AIMS lab meeting that includes all lab members. Students usually show their weekly progress in that meeting (either oral or in a few slides) and propose ideas for the next steps. We also discuss other topics in that meeting such as publication preparation, conference attendance, internship opportunities, our lab culture, and related topics. At least once a semester, we organize group activities like having a dinner, going for a hike, or playing a sport, that also include students’ significant others, children, and pets.
Do you have a required number of papers to publish before graduation?
Nope, work quality is more important to me, and it is up to each student if they want to publish or not. Nevertheless, I keep pushing and reminding students to publish from time to time. Papers are really important if you are seeking academic positions or R&D jobs after graduation and can also make the path to your graduation easier if your dissertation research is already peer-reviewed.
How far in advance of a deadline should a student expect to provide feedback for a publication draft?
It varies depending on how much work I need to put on the draft (e.g., writing parts from scratch, heavy editing). I prioritize publication feedback and try to get them done quickly as they can easily pile up. But in general, I expect one week for abstracts/summaries (e.g., ANS summary), 2 weeks for a conference paper, and 4-weeks for a journal paper. Although the time can be shorter, I discourage last minute submissions in any case.
How do you decide authorship and authorship order in papers?
I leave this decision to students if they lead the research in the paper. I suggest students consult with me and other collaborators to decide the authorship and order if they are not sure if the contribution is sufficient to justify a co-authorship. When I was a student, I was including people who contribute to the paper either in modeling, simulation, experimentation, data, coding, and/or advising.
What funding is available to attend conference meetings? Which meetings do your students generally attend?
AIMS lab provides full conference travel funding to student(s) who share first authorship and want to present a paper. Domestic conferences are usually easier to attend and fund than international conferences. The lab also supplements travel funding from the student’s other existing sources (fellowships) when needed. Students typically attend nuclear energy meetings (ANS, PHYSOR, M&C), data analytics and AI/ML meetings (VVUQ, NeurIPS, AAAI), and control conferences (NPIC, PHM, CDC).
Time Away from Campus
What is the timeframe for notification regarding anticipated vacation? Do you have any restrictions on how long the vacation can be?
I strongly encourage regular vacation for students to maintain physical and mental health during their PhD journey. When and for how long is up to each student. I appreciate 2-3 weeks’ notice in advance, so that I can plan my schdule accordingly for any upcoming milestones. I don’t have any work expectations from the student during the vacation time, so I leave it to students to decide if they want to work minimally or not even though I encourage complete unplug from work during vacations to come back fresh.
Are there standard times that you encourage students in your group to take vacation during them? Are there times that you do not encourage vacation?
There are no standard times that I recommend taking or not taking vacation during them, since we all come from different backgrounds. However, typically I saw students taking vacation during the university breaks, religious holidays, end of summer before the fall semester starts, and when passing a major exam or meeting a major deadline. If students can make sure their research and coursework are in a good shape during the vacation time, I am fine with the timing.
Do you welcome undergraduate researchers in your lab? If yes, what are their responsibilities?
Definitely! Indeed, I had a successful history of mentoring undergraduate researchers who were able to build their research skills to the level that made them join me as co-authors on high-impact research articles. Undergraduate researchers are valuable to the AIMS lab mission, especially in performing research tasks that are essential for project success but are not the best use of a graduate student time. These tasks are for example building a dataset for a machine learning project, running sensitivity analysis in a nuclear code, performing simple modeling and simulation of a reactor design, testing various machine learning methods for a specific application, scripting and automating certain parts of a framework, and similar others. Such skills are invaluable to undergraduate researchers to prepare them for the graduate school or the industry. I frequently take UROP students, SURE students, Senior Design students, and NERS undergraduate researchers as part of the NERS 299/499 independent study.
What are the differences that you consider when interacting with undergraduate researchers compared to graduate researchers? Are there specific times when you typically take undergraduate researchers?
I understand that undergraduate students are more involved in coursework than graduate students, so I expect that there are certain times in the semester where the undergraduate student cannot make progress. Undergraduate students are welcomed to attend the AIMS weekly group meeting if their schedule allows. Nevertheless, I hold a bi-weekly meeting with undergraduate researchers in my lab along with their graduate student co-mentors (if applicable) to track students’ progress. I also expect the graduate student co-mentor to hold a weekly meeting with the undergraduate researcher to discuss various research issues. For the timing, undergraduate researchers are welcomed all year long, even though the summer semester might be an ideal time for me as I will be more free to be involved. Other than that, majority of the mentoring philosophy above remain valid for undergraduate students.
How your mentoring approach is different for postdocs?
In our first meeting, we set a plan that considers the career goals of the postdoc and how this postdoc opportunity can be useful and successful. Such plan will consider job prospects (e.g., faculty, labs, industry), backup options if the first option did not work, research projects, skills to leverage, teaching involvement, student mentoring, and department service. We keep acting on and refining this plan as the time goes. Other than that, the interaction and expectations are similar to the PhD students as indicated above.
Do you have publication expectations from postdocs?
Yes, although I don’t have expectations from PhD students, I do have for postdocs since this is crucial for the success of their appointment. Postdocs already possess research and writing skills and are independent enough to write quality papers. For a 2-year postdoc appointment, I expect the postdoc to produce 2-3 quality journal papers from their research work.