Saturday, November 7, 2009

public profile: The idea is simple: Students, Postgrads, academics, professionals

The idea is simple:
Document what you do, keep a public profile of your activities. A realistic profile, not advertising hype.  I would recommend Google sites as a great starting point, (instead of a blog).

For Undergrad students: this is useful for when they go for job interviews:
"What have you done other than get good marks in all the standard subjects ?"
"Well Sir/M'am, if you care to look at you'll see my final year project, my third year powersupply design. On my blog site at  you'll see what I do in my spare time."

Now it's important that this site is NOT thrown together in a huge mess in a week or so. It is important that it has grown over years. That it is genuine.

If you've been asked to help out Open-Day at your University, why not make the best of it and see it as an opportunity ?

My favourite grumpy old man has just taken this idea a few order or magnitude further:
----------- I quote from his blog:  ------------

This is a talent market. Developers are not even remotely interchangeable. Therefore, recruiting should work like Hollywood, not like union hiring halls of the last century.
In a union hiring hall, downtrodden workers line up like cogs, hoping to make it to the front of the line in time to get a few bucks for dinner.

In Hollywood, studios who need talent browse through portfolios, find two or three possible candidates, and make them great offers. And then they all try to outdo each other providing plush work environments and great benefits.

Here’s how Stack Overflow Careers will work. Instead of job seekers browsing through job listings, the employers will browse through the CVs of experienced developers.

Instead of deciding you hate your job and going out to find a better one, you’ll just keep your CV on file at Stack Overflow and you’ll get contacted by employers.

Instead of submitting a resume, you’ll fill out a CV, which links back to your Stack Overflow account, so that you can demonstrate your reputation in the community and show us all how smart you really are. To a hiring manager, the fact that you took the time to help a fellow programmer with a detailed answer in some obscure corner of programming knowledge, and demonstrated mastery, is a lot more relevant than the Latin Club you joined in school.

------------ end of quote --------------

Students who are "with it" will understand this.

For academics and professionals:

The same applies.
The inspiration for this came from seeing a well known figure in Engineering Education Richard Felder, put his wisdom and ideas publicly online:

It was Felder who gave me the key idea to build up my own profile on the web. I realized that any employer's site was subject to that employer and if you move on most of the material gets binned.
Hence the idea of making it accessible to all. Hence THIS blog you are reading now.

For Researchers, PhD students, academics.

Another excellent example is collaborative publications such as is exemplified in the ChinaBeat blog:
A group of academics get together around a topic and contribute to it.

Search Engine Journal is another collaborative effort, worth checking out

A student of mine who has set up his own

As a student: Making the best of things such as Open Day


Replies and correspondence from the above blog

Dear   K...
..... having your own profile is probably a good way to say: look this is my public stuff.

The other secret with these blogs thinggies is: you ONLY put out what you are comfortable putting out.

In the early days of blogging people did a psychological vomit on blogs... revealing things most private and perhaps best left that way.
Those days are long since gone.

Now if you have a site like Felder's  and people will quote you from it, see what you have been doing, invite you to talk about stuff. They will see what your emphasis and interest is. Do we want to invite this person to that conference ? Is she suitable to talk about XYZ ? etc...

Focus your blog on a topic: ie. Laos, or Lao health or ..... whatever.
I have different blogs for different aspects, some for travel others for teaching, and others for just whatever whimsical ideas pop into my brain.

For me as an academic: I use blogs to say to students.
See this link ? Read it.
Then talk to me again.

or to point people who ask about things over and over again to ONE clear answer.

For you as a PG research student: it is your public research profile.
it is your shingle.
You can have another blog for consultancies, etc... add to it as things come up.

Making the best of things

Technically: setting up a blog and using it is about as hard as setting up web based email and using it. I use Blogger by Google because it is easy to use, and they make it with a conscious emphasis on simple to use. E.g. lots of little things they have actually thought about and made them easier to do.

Recently I've moved to  Google sites as a great starting point, (instead of a blog).
Best to keep one site on one topic, start a new site if you want to start a new topic such as sport, etc...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

what to drop and what to keep: You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

JUGGLING or TRADEOFFS of Engineering.

Sometimes we all spend 90% of their effort on a part of the program that only earns <5% of rewards/marks.
If you find that one aspect of the requirements takes too much time and sabotages your entire program (close to zero marks), then it may be worthwhile considering a simpler version that works and gets you more realistic marks. This is a tradeoff situation and only YOU can decide the level at which you are comfortable.

You will need to juggle the need for thoroughly meeting ALL specifications
with the need to keep your code simple enough to confidently reproduce it in the
lab test.

In programming a number of possible paths exist towards a solution.
Your challenge consists of meeting the requirements within a given time limit, within your ability to remember, understand and confidently reproduce, test and debug your code. 

With unlimited time and resources your program would look very different from the one you will submit for the lab test.
 Making such choices is difficult, but part of the educational process,
not only at this University but also in the University of life in which we are all enrolled... .

These tradeoff choices litter the highway (or jungle) of life.... at every stage.
Having said all that here is simple HINT - you don't have to take it - it is simply a SUGGESTION:  
Keep you code simple.

Is the error check for commas in input such as: 4,123.5
really worth it ? It is if you can do it elegantly and simply,
It is not if it takes up 90% of your code.

Learning is a social activity.

Programming is a kind of "social sport" it is a team sport.
Talk to other students, work with friends, ask around, use the internet to gain the skills you need.
Yes, testing WILL be on an individual basis, to make sure you actually HAVE learned the required skills.

It is a neccessary part of our University courses. Why ? Because when we don't test your INDIVIDUAL skills then we get the "Passenger effect" and that is not a good thing.

More on the "Passenger effect" in a future email, I think it's not too hard to figure out.

And even though we ostensibly teach: How to control Hardware with Software i.e. Engineering Software and programming, (using C++), we are really also teaching:

  • - how to juggle different demands
  • - tradeoffs (i.e. should I bother with the error check for commas in input such as: 4,123.5 ?? can I live with the loss in marks ? )
  • - getting ALL of 'it' working, not just a bits of 'it'.

Of course for those who  are keen to do more research on this question outside narrow Engineering: see/google: Ivan Illich and the 'hidden curriculum' :-) for a really eye opening ideas.

The same idea as I've expounded at length above has been put much more succinctly by Kenny Rogers as:
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
Know when to walk away, know when to run
You never count your money, when you're sittin' at the table.
There'll be time enough for countin', when the dealin's done.
 Students often ask me about the Comma in input strings question, so below is a simple, no guarantees piece of code:
#include // leave this one in please, it is required !
#define TEMPSIZE 80 // assume input in always less than this number, professional code SHOULD really do error check to make sure this is the case...
using namespace std;
int main(int argc, char *argv[])
   if (argc == 2) {
        cout << "\n before removing commas: argv[1] is: " << argv[1];
        char temp[TEMPSIZE]; // assume input in always less than this number, professional code SHOULD really do error check to make sure this is the case...
        int inputstrlen = strlen(argv[1]);
        int tempIndex=0;
        for (int i=0;i < inputstrlen; i++) {
            if (argv[1][i]==',') { // found the comma, don't copy it to temp, ie. do nothing.
                // do nothing here, make it clear by using comments such as this.
                cout << "\nfound comma\n";  // handy debug comment, leave it IN for use later on.
                cout << "\n i " << i << "   tempIndes " << tempIndex;
            else { // copy the input string to temp
                cout << "\n In else: i " << i << "   tempIndes " << tempIndex;
        temp[tempIndex]='\0'; // huh?? what's this for ? what happens if you don't do it ? (Answer: Bad things happen)
        cout << "\n AFTER removing commas: argv[1] has been moved to string temp and is: \n" << temp <<"\n\n\n\n";
        return(0) ;
    else {
        cout << " This program requires ONE and ONLY ONE command line parameter\n\n";
        return(0) ;
return 0;

Saturday, June 20, 2009

too much talk, - let's just do it ! - ( Theory VS Practice )

Five people sit around a table: 
"Let's play this board game called 'Barricade'.
These are the rules: 
Throw the dice and the person with highest number starts. 
you walk the number you got on the dice. 
If you land on another player's piece they go back home. 
But below this line you are not allowed to throw people.
If you hit a barricade you can take it but only if you land on it, otherwise it's a block." 
"You mean if you land on a barricade you take it?" 
"Yes, that right." 
"What do you do with the barricade ?" 
"Plonk it in front of another person." 
"Anyone ?" 
"Yep, anyone, except under this line." 
"I can't remember all the rules anymore. When can you take another person again ?"

"Oh look, let's just play it and work it out as we go along...."

Play commences.Jack enters the room.
"Hey, Jack, want to play ?" 
He sits down. 
"What do I do ?" 
"You just roll the dice and try to get to the top here. Just start and you'll pick it up".
There is a lot of talk about how much theory and how much practice is the right mix for students. There is much erudite discussion in the pedagogical literature about the importance of hands-on teaching. 
In practice it varies and it is the teacher's job to sense the right mix and the right mood.
It is really not that much more difficult than knowing when you have eaten enough and need to go for a walk.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

teaching and meaningful connections with people - online communities Part II

I did a 4 month Zen Shiatsu course at the Australian Shiatsu College in Melbourne last year.

Why ? 
Well it was something I was kind of interested in for a long time. It was not a burning interest but a backburner kind of thing, one of those things to do "some day"

The reason I joined and paid tuition was simple: I liked the community of the college. I felt that I was a part of it, it was friendly, small and caring. 
That was the key of it for me. 

I would never have gone and enrolled in a large University and studied Shiatsu, not even out of interest. I work in a large bureaucratic University, I didn't want rush in after work, to sit in a lecture hall, do assignments, listen to some lecturer like myself rant and rave. No thanks. Most likely the other students would probably rush in, listen, rush out. All rather impersonal.

What was the course I did actually like ?
- It was after work, Monday night after work 3 hours. - OMG !.
- Yet I looked forward to it.
Why ?
- Small classes.
- Interested students.
- Teacher demonstrated on one us for 20 mins, then we practices on each other.

Ok there is some bias: the subject was practical and I received a massage from a fellow student every week. But it was more than that. It was the sense of belonging and the sense of caring and community that persuaded me to enroll in the first place.

NOTE: This follows on from the previous post online-teaching-growing-communities
Today (May 2009) I spoke with another student from the same college. She too is there, full time, because she likes the sense of community, the small personal size and the caring atmosphere. Yes she is interested in the subject matter she is studying, but the deciding factor was the personal nature of the place.
It seems to me that if online teaching can help to engender this personal community then it is a good thing. If online teaching technology is only a tool to dole out more information, and reach more people in an impersonal way, then it has only reached a small fraction of what it could be.

Of course if students have little choice and are FORCED to take certain courses, then even if the teaching and learning environment is not as good as at the college I went to last year, they will have just HAVE to do it and cope with it.
I hope that word of mouth will help those educational institutions which do a good job...
And I hope there is enough choice for students for that to make a difference :-)
There is another article in the back of my mind about how sheer size alone makes things impersonal bureaucratic and heartless. 
E.F. Schumacher talked about this in his classic "Small is beautiful". 
These days we can sometimes combine the small personal on a larger scale: Facebook is an example of a system that although big, does connect people at the personal level. But it does so by respecting the personal. Every user connects to people he knows in some way. There is a limit. I don't want to have total strangers talk to me all the time, because my time, my life, and I am limited.
And of course there is the issue of Online Community Governance - with fair and good governance a community is more likely to thrive.
What does this mean for teaching ? 
Simple: keep it personal. 
Other than that, I hand it over to the endlessly debating academics (I'm one of them, I should know :-)

Teaching and meaningful connections with people. 
More thoughts about online communities
This follows on from the previous post online-teaching-growing-communities

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

online teaching - growing communities -

My experiences of online communities
Returning from Overseas after many years abroad I found first hand that all my friends were busy with family kids. Most of them had  moved on in life, our thoughts and ideas had changed a lot and I was no longer the same person. 

Only once I accepted the internet as a "like interest finding tool" did I find a connection to the rest of Australian society again. 

For me: social life and get-togethers along lines of interest happen primarily via the internet.
I use the internet to find language practice groups, social groups, etc... 

A friend to whom I sent a link about a travel blog sent me this reply: (it shows how the net brings together people of similar interest)

Hi Hyko,
 ......Thanks for that website :)
It's amazing to know there are other girls who share the same aspiration.
How about your story :)?


I also us the Net to run my own interest groups, earn some pocket money etc...
The safe remoteness and yet the meeting point on a common interest is great.
Couchsurfing is a site I like especially, I feel more at home there and it gives me hope to know others who feel similar to me are 'out there' doing this kind of thing - my profile is here

Online communities to me mean I don't have to earbash my physically close friends, I can find people who relate to my interest on the internet. This blog is one way to get my ideas out there, instead of telling my co-workers I share them with you ! :-) 

I publish stories and ideas on various blog sites. I have a story site, and site for metaphysical musings, another for travel and a static old fashioned home-site that is the hub of it all.
And there is one other aspects to online communities: you can become part of a community ! 
Yes, you can feel part of a community just like you can be a part of a group of people in your neighbourhood. 
There are people on the net, I have never met in person, but I follow their exploits and tune in, and they feel like old friends. One such site is:
There are others who I talk to occasionally but again, will probably never ever meet in person. 
And there is yet another aspect to online communities: 
They are a way to get things "out". 
For me it is something I want to, or need to do. 
I miss not being able to write my ideas and thoughts down and share them with the world. 
This will not appeal to everyone but it is something I and I'd imagine most bloggers have in common: this need to share, talk, get it 'out'.

Long before blogging became 'blogging' I would write my ideas, make books to be published one of these centuries, or keep up a very lively correspondence with many people.
So I think it is a certain 'writer or author' personality type who likes to share, and write.
Blogging is just the modern version of something that has always been there. Samuel Johnson, G. K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley and thousands more wrote streams of essays and articles - in today's world, I've no doubt they would be blogging as well.

Not every person likes to blog and write. Only a certain group do. This is important to keep in mind when you set up online learning and teaching communities.

Some students will love it, others simply don't want to do it. Those are simply natural differences, not everyone is an athlete and everyone is a natural scholar.
What does it mean for online learning though ?

How to do you get the best kind of online teaching ?

At its worst, online teaching is just a do-it-yourself guide, a manual that is doled out in small expen$ive chunks.
At its best online teaching is a living community of active people that has a life of its own. It is fun to belong and motivates people to contribute.

There is no sure-fire recipe, but there are a few commonsense foundations - details below.

Once I sat down to list them, I realized they are all put much better in the links below. So the rest of this article is more of a list of useful links about online communities.

Good governance: 

Set up a fair and good government for online communities. The article by Joel Spolsky gives a good introduction:  Building Communities with Software by Joel Spolsky  -

I think this quote from Joel's site sums it up very well:
 So, we have discovered the primary axiom of online communities:
Small software implementation details result in big differences in the way the community develops, behaves, and feels.
The theme of good government, fair government is also debated at:

A  review of the above articles:

The article below is a classic and talks about the early days of online communities. We have progressed (???) since then.

Who is the community for ?

Be aware of the age and lifestyle of your target community. Busy parents, with kids, will not react the same way as teenager, who will not respond the same way as single
University students.

"demographics" is the key word: single people, will use the Internet and online tools totally differently from those who have children, a full time busy job.

Not everything can be engineered.

And of course, there is that final mysterious element which you simply can't force, can't bottle and can't define. Just as you might have two restaurants that look the same right next to each other, for some reason one is always full and the other is always empty.

However: if you do the above commnsense things and you do it with joy, chances are you will get a thriving online community in which people learn.

The links below are useful for anyone wanting to grow an online learning community:  - you might not agree with it all, but they raises some good points.

BBC article about the business of online communities 

Various links that are related to this post

What does a moderator do in a community ?

My favourite is still:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why Academics Blog

Why do Academics blog ?

This is an extract from an email to a friend who is just starting her academic life.

Hi S,

you said:
" I like writing and sharing opinions about Laos. If I could do that for the rest of my life I'd be pretty happy."

You might want to check out: the site:
You will notice that is a site run by a number of academics, Phd's and a collection of authors. It's a joint effort. It has a good following.
See what you think of it.

Blogging in some way and building up your presence online is a good way to start your academic profile, it will take years to reach the right momentum and there is nothing to stop you starting now, as a student.
This Blogger site on which you are reading this now is a good start, there are others such as which have advantages.

If you are interested in blogging, sharing your knowledge and building up a presence:
I'd suggest: write about the things which grab YOU now about Laos, things which YOU want to say, put them on the blog, your blog, and then later those blogs may turn into fully fledged papers. Comments and feedback in the meantime will help to refine your ideas, - aid your papers.

I have a number of blogs on different subjects. I'm now building up my academic presence on the web.

It took me 6 years to realize that I needed to do that, that the Uni and official publications are old technology and very limited, talking to a small elite that plays the paper counting game, for prestige, for job security, career and of course genuine interest.

The academics that have impact on many people have a web presence and are known and quoted online.
Their official paper output is a subset of that.

A blog/web-presence, also gets your ideas out to anyone and everyone interested, not as limited as official papers in official journals.

A fine line between 'pestering' and 'sharing'.

With email you need to decide who to send your latest great idea to, and chances are your friends will politely receive your mails and never read them. They are your friends, that does not mean they will be interested in ALL you are latest great ideas.
A blog, like a social network site, offers things to people, it does not thrust it in their faces. Like birdseed on a hand, you hold it out, and if and only if interested, people come and look.

A recent BBC article makes a very nice point of how we have shifted from direct 'in-your-face-email' to 'check-and-look-if-you-like' status updates, found on social networks.

I think of blogs as the mature, slow moving more encompassing equivalent of social network sites. In a blog you focus on one area and you do it in to a depth that is not possible in a social network site.

On a blog I want my ideas to be seen and listened to by as many people as possible, even those who are not 'friends' simply because I don't know them yet. The upshot of this is that what I put on the net has to be:
  • Appealing to an interest group.
  • Make sense and be coherent to a degree I might not bother with in just a quick email.
In a blog I want to attract people along similar interests, like a magnet attracting iron filings.

Below is a list of links to other academics, describing their reasons for blogging.

An academic, Elizabeth Lane Lawley writes a nice intro called:

why do academics blog? click here

She writes: I keep getting asked this question by colleagues here at RIT and elsewhere, and I find myself sending them the same links over and over again. So here’s what I give people who ask me this, in an attempt to clarify the value of blogging to those of us in academia. It’s not all about personal confessionals. Really. click here.

Lawley describes why she blogs and how she started here: why_do_academics_blog.php

The next four points below are taken from her blog above:

  1. Anders Jacobsen describes why he blogs here,
  2. The contribution academics make in blogging here and here and here and here .
  3. Collin Brooke - blogging_mea.html
  4. Essay collection on blogging here

Below is a list of academics with sizable blogs and a web-presence:

If anyone has other examples please email or comment.

Monday, February 2, 2009

the core of academic literature reviews: - or Learning to ride a bicycle

Academic reviews take this format: - also known as 'literature reviews'.
Read on ONE topic, pick one of the many your supervisor has given you and write a few pages.

Use this model:

Describe what Dr's XYZ say... about a topic,
then what Dr's ABC say about the same topic,
then: YOU give your analyisis in something like this:
XYZ have a good point about blah blah and blah, but they neglect the aspect of bleep bleep bleep.
Bleep bleep bleep is addressed by ABC in this and that way.
Looking at the whole topic is seems to me that one can say the following
booop blooop blooop.

Does this make sense ?

There is a descriptive part1: Who says what about the topic. Just summarize, regurgitate, reference your sources !

Then comes the analysis part: That's YOUR part: compare, contrast, synthesize, find the overlap, the differences, the holes, give YOUR angle on things based on what was described. This second part is where you get to be CREATIVE, get to say what YOU THINK !

Do this for one topic, then move to the next topic of subtopic.

Help from friends/tutors/supervisors/...
Step1: Like a good wine, let your writing lie quietly in a dark subconscious underground chamber for a few days - figuratively and literally.
Step2: Read your own work and edit, correct. If you are really 'with it' this is the time to make a list of the top 3 or 4 mistakes you pick up in your own writing and improve yourself quickly - simple method outlined HERE.
Step3: Find someone else to read and review things for you ! That's really important. Ask friends, or even pay a senior student/tutor.

"Crank the Handle" approach:
Once you get the hang of it, you will find that research and academic stuff is as easy as riding a bicycle, you fall off and hurt yourself the first few times but in the end you are fine...

no big deal anymore ;-)

Good Luck !!!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Teaching life skills at Uni ? - VS Uni of Life 101

PS: dear Dr CM

a brief Postscript re the PhD grad survey which I just completed.

there was in the survey an unspoken assumption that a PHD should include training in social skills, leadership, and even more general life skills.

It may be useful to include a question of
a) whether such skills SHOULD be included, or can be expected to be included in a PhD programme (or any University programme for that matter)
b) what if anything should be included.

Everyone on the planet is enrolled in the University of Life, 101, or 201, etc...
some skills that are packaged and thrust upon educational institutions to teach rightly belong PRIMARILY with Life101.
Sure Universities can foster those skills, and support them, but the key responsibility still rests with the individual.

Personally I didn't expect my PhD to teach me leadership, - I could as part of being in life per se, have used my PhD to teach me those leadership skills, but I chose not to, I had other priorities and I focused on those.
Most importantly however I did NOT EXPECT this from a Phd. I simply expected good supervision, guidance and support to carry out my research - this I certainly obtained and have no complaints.
"Any hand's a winner and any hand's a loser, ...." there is an onus on each individual to make the best of things and assume their individual responsibility.

Having said this: the old saying that "it takes a village to raise a child" applies in my own experience to PG study just as much: I was fortunate to do my study in a research environment surrounded by more than 100 PG students, many of whom were like myself keeping odd hours and interacting socially and informally in ONE physical location. This kind of milleu is excellent and develops its own momentum in an organic natural way.

In contrast I teach and supervise in a primarily teaching University, where PG students are physically strewn all over the place, supervisors are torn between mountains of admin and teaching work. There is no critical mass amongst the PG students even though the actual numbers are quite high (approx 100 for a school of 800 UG students).

Come to think of it: I did go on a 'leadership course' in my PG days. It felt 'tacked on' - a kind of holiday camp for geeks.
I far preferred the jungle principle approach to PG study: provide good soil, a variety of plants and let it all grow.
I was fortunate to complete my PhD in a rich academic setting, where good supervision, solid research and was coupled with a hands off approach.
After all the curriculum in the University of life never stops, and organizing my time, coping with life's ups and downs, seizing opportunities in any situation are MY responsibility.

that's my two bob's worth.

- picture totally unrelated to anything :-) other than it was handy from a recent trip to Egypt

Friday, January 9, 2009

doing a PhD and getting paid for it - How to find a good supervisor

"Hyco how do I find a scholarship to do a PhD ?"  
How do I Find a good supervisor ? "Where do I start ?"

1) Understand how a supervisor thinks, what does a supervisor look for in a research student ?
2)Read this article.
3)Know yourself: do you have what it takes? Do you have the interest, tenacity and ability to keep going with something that might bore you to tears for some of the time and thrill you for the other time ?
I you are doing a technical/Engineering PhD Read this article and see if this is really what you want to do.  

If you are doing an Arts PhD similar stuff applies, the only difference is the nature of the thesis. 

You see: no one really cares what the TOPIC of your PHD is, they just care that you DO it properly. To do it for 3.5 years and to be a master at anything you have to 'really be into it'
Doing a PhD is one of those times when you can choose whatever your heart desires, let yourself loose, go for your dream. 

This guy says it pretty well here and here

So, iff you are sure (ok 80% sure, pretty sure...)  that research is for YOU, and you want to go ahead, then:

Ok here is the low down: My personal experiences, recommendations and ideas from having done a PhD and supervised PhD students.

Research students doing Masters or PhD's by research are the workhorses of academia.
What do the students get out of it ?

  • time to research, usually paid,
  • supervision and guidance
  • training in how to research, how to write, how to think scholarly,
  • life training in how to "stick it out" (and everyone feels like just throwing it all out the window at some time)
  • publications and the start of an academic career if you want that, or the start for a wider careers in the big wide world out there...
  • time on their hands to deal with life issues: relationships, personal stuff, family etc... (for some reason these things happen a lot to research students)
  • prestige
What does the supervisor get out of it ?
- work is done on her research area. Her research is advanced.
- publications (conference, journal papers)
- prestige: graduating a PhD student gives great benefits for the supervisor and government income for the University.

How to find a potential supervisor
- internet, Google, (the hardest way, but the only way for many)
- ask friends, use your social network of connections, be daring.
- read articles in the topic you are interested in, look up the references, follow them up. SHOW the academics you talk to that you have some idea of the area you want to do research in. 

I'm not going to go into much more detail than this.

Doing a PhD requires independence, self discipline and get up and go. Contacting potential supervisors is the first step on that path, and the first filter :-P
Good luck.

Luxor 2008 Egypt

How do you impress an academic so they will want want you as their student (and hopefully find you a scholar$hip, or use their grant money to pay you to study) ???
assuming you HAVE made contacts with some potential supervisors, how do you impress them ?
By impress I mean: convince them you CAN do a good job of your PhD.

Try to enter into the mind of a supervisor: what motivates a supervisor and how does he gets his 'brownie points' from his superiors ?

Remember at the basic level a supervisor is looking for certain benefits from a PhD student (his "workhorse")i.e. he wants to see a thesis, journal papers, solid research.
Any supervisor wants to minimize the risks of the student not completing.

Below is a list of things that are likely to impress potential supervisors:
- papers, conferences ? If you have already written papers or presented your work at a conference, that's a bonus point.
One of the questions that any supervisor asks of a potential student is "Can she do the work ? Can she write ?" Providing evidence of having done something that is similar to a PhD will help convince the supervisor.  This is really the BEST way to impress a supervisor: it proves you can write. Make sure YOU wrote the material, or else your time will be short lived. (I've seen that too.)

- If a potential supervisor asks you to do some writing work to show him what you can do, - do it! - on time - if you are serious.

- a well written proposal. This means you have done some real research on your topic YOURSELF ! Nothing impresses me more than a student who comes to me and says: "Sir, I'm interested in the effects of frequencies on the human body and I've looked at these 5 key papers and I've read these 7 articles and it seems to me the most of them say that frequency is the key. But I would like to pursue this other angle..." 
A student like that has done some real work ! Wow !

- read the supervisor's profile: i.e. his research interests, show that you have understood the topic and taken the time to look at the profile.


A good way NOT get a good response: 

"Dear Sir,
I would like study in your esteemed University, do you have scholarships ? I'll do anything you want me to, just give me a scholarship."

This type of email will not get you far.

The last paragraph in this article "Tips for supervisors in choosing a PhD student:" offers some more clues.

Looking for a good supervisor: Tips for students:

Let's assume you have a couple of suitable supervisors in mind. A good supervisor is one who:
- is careful about who she takes on as a student. A lot of time and energy goes into good supervision, as well as that money stuff.
- has already graduated a few students ON TIME.
- gets good informal reports: talk to current & past students of that supervisor and ask about the real background story. Be realistic.

- Given that PhD students make a significant contribution to the research reputation of a University and its academics, scholarships are offered to good students.

Scholarships come from the following sources:

- competitive scholarships: a pot of money is given out the to the best students. Universities and Faculties are given a certain quota of scholarships. For Example: The Engineering School of University HeikoRudolph might receive 10 scholarships to give out to its top 10 applicants.
How this pot of money is divided and how fairly can vary. Having a well published and well known supervisor on side and barracking for you, is generally a good thing. 

- grant money scholarships: this is a scholarship paid for by grant money of a particular supervisor. Supervisor Heiko might have a $300K grant to do research work, with half the money allocated for PhD scholarships. Being from a grant, the topic area is usually fairly well defined. Equipment and materials should be well funded. 
An important thing about grant money: Often the supervisor will chose people he wants directly. He will choose people who have some connection to him already and where he is confident the student will be able to do the work. In others words: grant money scholarships are not as competitive. The selection and the competition happens earlier on, by proving to the supervisor that you are good, can do the work, have written some publications etc....

Note: some scholarships only pay for tuition costs, and the student needs to find money for her cost of living in some other way. Sometimes casual tutoring work is offered to such students.
My personal advice is: avoid such scholarships. Tuition and casual work tends to take over and crowd any PhD studies into a minor role. Students often they spent most of their time working for money and their studies suffer.

The scholarships that are really worth pursuing cover the cost of tuition and pay a stipend for the cost of living. In Australia in 2009 this about $25K per annum tax free.

If you are interested in a particular supervisor:
Find out how long it took his students to finish ? If all his students took 10 years... keep looking. If most of his students finished in 3-4 years then fine ! :-)

Does the supervisor have money, grant money ?
---- you might need equipment, travel costs for research or conferences.

The 'clout' factor: Does he have a senior position ?
--- Can be useful if you need access to equipment, if you need world wide contacts, need to get stuff done and approved.

Does a junior academic do all the real supervision work or does he do it himself ?
--- ask around how well this works, if its a working and good arrangement, then fine.

Can you get along ?
--- you don't have to be best of buddies, but can you work together in a professional working relationship - 99% chance you can.

Talk to a few (not just ONE) of his past or current students.

Tips on choosing a thesis topic:
- Face it: Once you are finished with your PhD, hardly anyone is going to be interested in your thesis topic. All people care about is that you did it, that you survived and did something hard, rigorous and disciplined for 2-4 years. Sorry but that's the reality.
BUT there is good news in this: Since no one really cares too much WHAT you study, you are FREE to indulge yourself, to research whatever it is that takes your fancy.
Do the patterns of butterfly wings in the Amazon basin hold the mysteries of life for you ? Great, study that.
Do the marriage customs of Pygmies intrigue you ? Go for it.
Does the atmosphere on Pluto fascinate you ? or a do you want to save the world with an antigravity widget using inverting Laplace step functions capacitors ? this is the time to do it.

Not that often in life do you get full support and prestige and help to do what you want.
Choosing a PhD topic is one of those times.
Use it.

Ok there is always a price: No matter what it is you choose, you need to do it in a scholarly rigorous, logical and methodical way. The WHAT you study is up to you (largely), the HOW you do it is NOT up to you.
Doing a PhD is a course in learning to become fluent in the scholarly tradition. Whatever you do must be done in the scholarly way: logic, clear thinking, step by step progression, referencing your sources, exposing your ideas to scrutiny etc... these are the HOW of doing a PhD.
That's the deal.

An excercise: ask someone with a PhD about their actual PhD thesis. You'll either get shocked surprise, an evasive answer, or a looooooooooooooong lecture. If you are very lucky you'll get a brief comprehensible summary in everyday language.

- could you make your thesis into a book that sells ? Are there people who would love to learn from the marriage customs of Pygmies ? Can you choose your topic in such a way that you can turn your thesis into something people would want to read ? depends on your topic, on your area, etc... - but worth considering for Life AFTER the PhD (there is life after a PhD I'm told)

- do you like to travel ? choose your thesis topic in such a way you get to indulge your interests and hobbies. If you like to meet people, then a thesis in abstract physics theory is not likely to get you out there meeting people.

Tips on being a PhD student (might sometimes feel like being in an underground cave)
- treat it as a job - and have fun !
- get a life outside research (this is really the same idea as the line above).

- work hard & play hard.
- don't do it part time - unless NO other choice (usually can't get scholarships for part time study either) .

- do fun things: look at spending 3 - 6 months in another University while you do your PhD. Most Universities have an exchange program, there is usually not extra charge to pay. This idea comes from the old European idea of the 'wandering scholar'. A scholar was not considered fully 'baked' until he had wandered from University to University and studied, worked, done post-doc work under a number of other Professors (if you like, research the historical idea behind the German concept of "Wanderschaft" ).

Note: in order to find a good University to do the exchange in, spend time in your first year finding out who the top 5 heavy weights in your field are. Contact them, read their papers. Perhaps only 2 of the 5 will want to talk to you. Fine. Talk to them.
By year 2 or 3 you might be over there spending time in their lab or doing some kind of work with them.

- read this: REALLY read this link:

Using Computers:
- The 3 golden rules of Information Technology when you type your thesis or do your research on a computer:
1) back up, 2) back up, 3) back up. ---That's all there is to it.

Tips on actually writing your thesis:
- keep it simple and clear.
- keep sentences short and clear.
- don't don't don't try to sound 'academic', sophisticated, convoluted and hard to understand (Unless you have no f***ing idea of what you are talking about or you are trying to hide that fact, or you are really into obfuscation of the obvious).
More on 'academic mental masturbation' in a separate blog

From day ONE, start making a reference library. Every paper, every article your read, record the full citation reference details PLUS the abstract and perhaps even the intro and conclusion. Trust me: it's really worth doing this.

I personally really need to use this programme:
it kicks me off regularly and stops me from overusing my hands and prevents RSI.

- you WILL feel like it's all a HUGE WASTE of TIME and effort.
- you will at some point want to throw it all down the .....@&#(
- you probably will overwork and
- you probably will underwork.

You WILL get over all these and finish !
Staying the course, and finishing is part of the real test. It is part of the deal, part of the achievement.

Likely only 1 or 2 people in the world out there really care about your thesis topic (there are exceptions). What people value is that you did it even though it was hard, boring, tough, felt like giving birth to an elephant.

Celebrate, every step of the PhD, give yourself a reward, a trip away or whatever you value.

Tips for supervisors in choosing a PhD student:
Rule #1: test them before accepting them as your student: "try before you buy" - ask them to write something for you by a certain date. The work they show you might be by someone else. Ask them to do some simple research, fully referenced on an area you specify. Set a clear deadline. If they can't do it, forget them. You are making a big time and money investment which only worth it for a student who can do and DOES do the work.

Rule #2: test them: see rule #1.

Rule #3: offer only small steps: successful completing of basis Masters degree before allowing progress to PhD.
Yearly review of progress, and scholarship only continues if progress satisfactory.

Rule #4: review after 6 months and 12 months and be TOUGH!!!
The longer a student is in a PhD program the harder it is to remove them, to discontinue them. After 2 or 3 years too much time and energy has been invested by yourself and the student. A student who stops after 2.5 years and has nothing to show for her time is not a good thing. Does not make the student or you feel good.

If after 12 months it is best that the student stop, then it is best if the student agrees, and comes to understand and sees that it is in her best interest to stop. A student can always come back. A student can always take leave of absence.

Meet your student regularly, weekly or every two weeks. Students can drift, stuff happens, they loose focus, things go off the rails etc...

Note to students who have read this section: This section was really aimed at you and beginning supervisors to show you what an experienced supervisor will do and looks for.
Any good, experienced supervisor won't have to read this, they got to their current position by doing all these things.

Finished your PhD ? Congratulations, you can be proud of yourself ! Reward yourself.

Let me know how useful this has been, any feedback welcome.
Questions, just email me (tell me what you've done, tried, and where you are aiming to go)

**************************** UPDATE *****************
March 2016 email to an anonymous inquirer:

Hi D

1) read the papers that interest you and get a very good understanding of your area. 
- do some more research, 
- look at the research in the last 3 years. 
- what are the key new things ? 

2) Write a summary of the current state of research, what is being done, 
- what the current issues and challenges are. 
- reference them properly. 

3) Think about what you would like to research and HOW. 

4) read  the links below

5) contact the academics who are doing the work you want to do, area you want ot work in 

good luck