In the process of applying to graduate school, and then visiting schools that admitted me, I was told that PhD students needed to possess solid writing ability in addition to technical skills. One UT Austin professor told me he believed liberal arts students (like me) were better prepared than those from large research universities, presumably because of our increased exposure to writing courses. One Cornell professor emphasized the importance of writing by telling me that he spent at least 50 percent of his professional life writing. A Berkeley professor who I frequently collaborate with has a private Google Doc that he gives to students with instructions on writing papers, particularly about how to structure an introduction, what phrases to use, and so on.

The ability to write well is an important skill for academics, and I don’t mean to dismiss this outright. However, I think that we need to be very clear that technical skills matter far, far more for the typical graduate student, at least for computer science students focusing in artificial intelligence like me. I would additionally argue that factors such as research advisors and graduate student collaborators matter more than writing ability.

Perhaps the emphasis on writing skills is aimed at two groups of people: international students, and the very best graduate students for whom technical skills are relatively less of a research bottleneck. I won’t comment too much on the former group, besides saying that I absolutely respect their commitment to learning the English language and that I know I’m incredibly lucky to be a native English user.

I bring up the second group because much of the advice I get are from faculty at top institutions who were stellar graduate students. Perhaps most of their academic life is dominated by the time it takes to convert research contributions to a paper, instead of the time it takes to actually come up with the contribution itself. For instance, this is what UT Austin professor Scott Aaronson had to say in an old 2005 (!!) blog post, back when he was a postdoc (emphasis mine):

I’ll estimate that I spend at least two months on writing for every week on research. I write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Then I compress to 10 pages for the STOC/FOCS/CCC abstract. Then I revise again for the camera-ready version. Then I decompress the paper for the journal version. Then I improve the results, and end up rewriting the entire paper to incorporate the improvements (which takes much more time than it would to just write up the improved results from scratch). Then, after several years, I get back the referee reports, which (for sound and justifiable reasons, of course) tell me to change all my notation, and redo the proofs of Theorems 6 through 12, and identify exactly which result I’m invoking from [GGLZ94], and make everything more detailed and rigorous. But by this point I’ve forgotten the results and have to re-learn them. And all this for a paper that maybe five people will ever read.

Two months of writing for every week of research? I have no idea how that is humanly possible.

For me, the reverse holds: I probably spend two months of research for every week of actual writing. What dominates my academic life is the time it takes (a) to process the details from academic papers so that I understand how their ideas work, and (b) to build upon those results with my own novel contribution. Getting intuition on novel artificial intelligence concepts takes a considerable amount of mathematical thinking, and getting them to work in practice requires programming skills. Both math and programming fall under the realm of “technical skills.”

Obviously, once I HAVE a research contribution, then I have to “worry” about writing it, but I enjoy writing so it is no big deal.

But again, the research contribution itself must first exist. That’s what frustrates me about much of the academic advice that I see. Yes, it’s easier to tell someone how to write (use this phrase, don’t use this phrase, active instead of passive, blah blah blah), but it would be better to explain the thought process on how to come up with an original research contribution.

I conclude:

I would happily trade away some of my writing ability for a commensurate increase in technical skill.

Again, I am not disregard writing ability, since it is incredibly valuable for many reasons (such as for blogging!!) and more applicable than technical skills in life. However, I believe that the biggest priority for computer science doctoral students should be to focus on technical skills.