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What is a Research Summer School?

November 10 2022

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If I say "summer school" to you then you'll probably think of extra sessions in summer holidays for children; depending on where you grew up, you might expect such sessions to be either exciting non-academic activities or catch-up lessons. What about summer schools for research students (what I'll call "research summer schools" for the rest of this post, though in research circles they're unambiguously referred to as just "summer schools")?

I've co-organised four in-person research summer schools, most recently as part of the Programming Language Implementation Summer School (PLISS) series, and spoken at two others, and one thing that I've realised is that many people don't really know what they involve. Indeed, I didn't fully realise what they are, or could be, even after I'd been involved in several! This post is my brief attempt to pass on some of what I've learnt about research summer schools.

Let's start with the obvious high-level intent: research summer schools are intended to help research students better understand a research area. "Research students" is an umbrella term: the majority of attendees tend to be PhD students, but there is nearly always a mix of people from other stages of life, particularly postdocs and BSc/MSc students, but sometimes including people who are coming at research from a less common career path.

Research summer schools typically consist of a series of talks, some interactive, some traditional lectures, from experts in the field. At least in my area of computing, they tend to be about a week long, and are typically held at a campus university or non-urban residential facility, so that students and speakers are all housed near to one another, and distractions are minimised. As we'll see later, I think this closeness is important, but I've come to realise that one can overdo the monastic aspect: there are advantages to having a small number of moderate distractions somewhat nearby.

Whether stated explicitly or not, research summer schools tend to implicitly focus either on breadth (i.e. help students understand areas near to, but not exactly identical, to that they're working on) or depth (i.e. help students understand one area in more detail). One thing that surprised me is that it's easy for organisers to think they're focussing on depth without realising that students perceive it as breadth. This is simply because students, being new to an area, have rarely had enough time to learn as much as the (generally significantly older) organisers and speakers expect.

For example, when I co-organised a research summer school on programming language virtual machines, I assumed that such a specialist topic implied that students would know much of the relevant background material — even though, when I was at a similar stage, I knew only a tiny subset of this material! In one way I was right — the students who attended were much better informed than I had been at the same stage. But in a more significant way I was wrong — they were still students, and I don't think any of them knew the necessary background for every single talk. As soon as I realised this, I started asking some speakers to explain some terms that they thought were basic, but which I could tell most students were unfamiliar with.

As that might suggest, speakers at a research summer school have an interesting tightrope to balance on: they often want to show the students something they expect the students to be unfamiliar with, but they need to do so in a way that students can understand. Experience has taught me that, if in doubt, it's better for speakers to assume they're giving a "tutorial" rather than a "research talk". Even students who are very familiar with a given subfield tend to respond well to talks that cover the basics well. Enthusiasm in a research summer school talk is also far more important than for a talk at a research conference. I always ask a number of students which talks they enjoyed most and the correlation with "talks given with enthusiasm" is astonishingly high. To my surprise, that correlation is consistent between students who are familiar with a talk's area and those who are not.

At least as important as the talks themselves are the interactions between senior folk (speakers and organisers) and students outside talks. I always knew that this was important, but I now realise that I significantly underestimated how important it is. Frankly, only in the research summer school I co-organised this year did I finally feel that I personally got this more-or-less right. In particular, I went out of my way to talk to as many different students as possible, for example by making sure I sat next to different people at almost every meal. After 5 days [1] I think I'd had individual conversations, even if only a few minutes long, with about 80% of students, in breakfasts, coffee breaks, lunches, and dinners.

Talking to so many new people in such a short period of time might sound like a chore, particularly if you're a little introverted, but the appreciation that students shows makes the effort worthwhile. In the past I made my job unnecessarily hard by trying to start each conversation in a different way. This year I tried something different: I simply asked students what they're working on. Not only is this easier for me, but it's the best possible question for students: everyone has an answer to that question, and most are eager to tell you more! From there, a meaningful conversation quickly and naturally develops. In some cases, what students are working on was far beyond my ken, but in nearly all cases I was able to find something interesting to ask them, and in a few cases we realised there was something deeper to talk about, generally either career or research related.

When there's something worth talking about in more detail, I think it's useful to find a way to give that student more time, and often away from the crowd. These days I simply suggest we go to a nearby cafe or pub to chat. Since most research summer school venues have a limited number of such options nearby, people tend to naturally congregate there after a while. This works out well: by the time others wander over, I've generally had the most important parts of the conversation with the initial student, and then it's useful to gather more students to talk about other things.

The fact that I'm focussing so much on conversation is deliberate. To me, one of the big advantages of a research summer school is that it breaks down barriers between senior (i.e. old) folk and (usually much younger) students. It's easy for students to imagine that well known researchers are another species, impossibly clever, and unapproachable. Research conferences rarely do much to dispel this image. In contrast, when students spend a week in regular contact with senior folk, they tend to start to realise that they can talk to us oldies as if we're normal human beings. That relationship, as small as it might seem to the senior folk, persists beyond the summer school. I find that students feel they can approach me at other events once they've got to know me at a summer school, whereas students who haven't such an opportunity are often too nervous to make first contact.

One thing I've accidentally experimented with is the length of a research summer school and the number of participants. I now think think that 6 days is a good duration. It takes students at least a couple of days to take stock of the unfamiliar situation they're in, so they need time after that to to take advantage of the situation. However, too much time causes energy levels to drop to unproductive levels.

It's tempting to try and spread the advantage of a research summer school around by accepting as many students as possible. However I've realised that this comes with a significant trade-off: the more students there are, the disproportionately fewer interactions there are with the senior folk. I've come to think that about 8-10 speakers (plus a couple of organisers) and about 35-40 students is a good balance between maximising access and maintaining a cosy feeling that encourages interactions.

These numbers tend to mean that more students want to attend than can be accepted. Because of that, the events I've been involved with don't use a typical "first come, first served" application policy. Instead we solicit expressions of interest (with a simple form that takes under 10 minutes to complete), and later select students from that pool. The selection process is difficult because there are always more worthy applicants than we have places — indeed, we could often fill nearly all places with applicants from "top rated" universities alone! Instead of concentrating benefits, we try to spread them around as best we can, taking many different factors into account when selecting students, whilst doing our best to ensure that those we select are likely to benefit from the experience. No selection process can be perfect, but we've had enough positive comments about the diversity and quality of students attending to think that we're doing a decent job.

Research summer schools are not cheap to run. Costs per student and speaker are high, since it involves accommodation and meals. In general, particularly if the event is held in a residential facility in a wealthy country, the true cost per student can be prohibitively high. Fortunately, at least in my area of computing, it has proven possible to obtain significant sponsorship, from governments, charities, and industry (for example, the summer schools I've organised have received sponsorship from, in rough chronological order, EPSRC, US Office of Naval Research, NSF, ACM Sigplan, Raincode, Facebook / Meta, and probably others I will soon be embarrassed to have forgotten). We use this to subsidise [2] registration, keeping it reasonable for everyone, and offering part and whole bursaries (for registration and travel) to those who would otherwise have been unable to attend. It is difficult to overstate how important sponsorship is at enabling research summer schools to extend their benefits to a diverse range of students.

It's also difficult to overstate how generous research summer school speakers are: they give up their time and knowledge freely, even though many are very busy people. I'm extremely grateful to each and every speaker! I also find that nearly all speakers really enjoy the experience: relative to the size of research conferences, the small scale of a research summer school lends itself to deeper interactions, which are often very rewarding.

As an organiser my job is a bit different to a speaker's: I have to find a venue; gather together an interesting group of speakers; make sure that as wide a range of students as possible can attend; and make sure that while the event is on, speakers and students can focus on the important things — learning and interacting with each other. Estimating the workload is a bit difficult, but a rough estimate is that there's perhaps a working week of effort to be done before the event (albeit spread out several months), and during the event itself one can spend nearly every waking minute doing something! Personally I enjoy the work that needs to be done during the event more than that which needs to be done beforehand, and I'm lucky that my co-organisers have been happy to indulge this preference.

The fact that I've organised several research summer schools probably tells you that I think this work is worthwhile. Indeed, research summer schools are now one of the few things where I feel I can justify, without difficulty, the expense in terms of time, money, and the environment that travel requires. The reason for that is that I've now seen the impact over time on many students. Of course, it doesn't work for everyone, but that's inevitable. At the other end of the spectrum, two of the students, based in different continents, who met at a research summer school I co-organised subsequently married! As that shows, research summer schools can have all sorts of positive, if unexpected, benefits!

Acknowledgements: thanks to Jan Vitek for comments.

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Footnotes

[1] I should have had a sixth day, but my journey took 38 hours instead of 8!
[2] Note that I haven't said registration should, in general, be free, because humans have an astonishing tendency not to turn up to events they haven't paid for.
I should have had a sixth day, but my journey took 38 hours instead of 8!
Note that I haven't said registration should, in general, be free, because humans have an astonishing tendency not to turn up to events they haven't paid for.

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