Policy Debate vs. Research

Applying high school debate skills to PhD research
JUNE 2018
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Unlike many of my fellow graduate students in computer science who have been doing programming and math competitions since high school (or potentially earlier), I spent six years in middle and high school in policy debate.

This usually meant I was traveling around the country almost every weekend to argue about the government and international relations at hundreds of words per minute. Although debate may not have prepared me for Computer Science (CS) research, it might have been better preparation for becoming a grad student.

For those who do not know, policy debate is a fast, technical, competitive speech-based activity comprised of “rounds” where two teams of two students argue different sides of a proposition (called the resolution) about a specific type of policy that the United States government could enact.

The activity looks completely different from the presidential debates we see on TV, with debaters racing to say as many relevant words as possible in the time allotted.

I enjoyed my time in debate and seriously considered continuing the activity in college and studying something related like political science or international relations, but I wanted to try something completely different to see if debate was really what I wanted to do with my future.

In my first semester of college I took a computer science class because it seemed like a change of pace. I quickly found that research in CS and debate were related.

Both are social rather than solo activities.
Debate is an inherently social activity as it takes at least two people to discuss an issue. In contrast, before I started a degree in CS, I had an image from the media of computer scientists as solitary programmers.

When I first got to MIT, I was so excited when I figured out that I could work with my friends on research since the majority of my ongoing projects are with other students.

Furthermore, if a research paper is accepted to a conference, I have to communicate my work to others in a talk and/or poster presentation. While a PhD / research can be lonely, my experience thus far is that parts of it are extremely collaborative.

Both require gathering knowledge.
In debate, there is a broad topic set at the beginning of each year. Before researching the topic, you may only have superficial background knowledge about it.

After doing a literature search, you find what positions seem interesting to you and read more articles to decide what topics you want to continue exploring. Finally, you gather your research into a document to make a point. Having a strong understanding of the existing research on a topic is integral to both debate and research.

Research projects follow a similar arc of defining the parameters of a problem, building on past solutions, and coming up with a novel approach.

Both rely on good storytelling.
Once you have gathered your articles (in debate) or results (in research), it is important to tell a story with your understanding of the field and prepare to explain why you chose your particular approach.

In debate, one side affirms the resolution and explains why they think a particular policy that fits under it is a good idea. For example, the affirming side may support increasing funding for STEM education and argue that STEM is important for the US to keep up with international technology development. The affirming side must be prepared for possible arguments against this proposal, such as concerns about the cost of education or potential tradeoffs.

In research, your story includes how your results fit into existing work and how they build upon current knowledge. Telling a story in research helps reinforce your point, engage your audience, and convince readers that your solution is unique and valuable.

Both are time-constrained.
Debate follows a “round” format, where each member of each team has a fixed amount of speech time with a few minutes for questions. Similarly, conference talks are often limited to around 15 minutes (including questions).

Since presentation time is limited, the research (or evidence) that appears in public is often a small fraction of the work you actually did.

The time constraints force the presenter to think about what their most interesting results are and how to present them in a clear, concise way. More recently, lightning talks lasting only a few minutes have become popular in research as a means of getting people interested in your work. We live in an age where being pithy matters.

Both can result in a lot of rejection (before success).
I find it difficult sometimes not to take rejection personally, even though it is not a statement about my worth in general. In research, your papers are often rejected from conferences or journals with reviews that you may feel were unfair or missing the point of your research.

Similarly, in debate, a judge determines who won each round. Their decision may be influenced by factors outside of your control. In research, important processes such as getting published or winning grants are subjective. The best “argument” may not always win.

Both can be travel-intensive.
During my last year of high school, I was traveling almost every weekend around the US to participate in tournaments. My teammates and I would stay up almost all night prepping for rounds, much like how my friends and I now have to prepare our talks at conferences.

I discovered that both conferences and tournaments can be overwhelming because they require you to be involved for multiple days without much rest. In both activities, it is important to pace yourself to make the most out of the event.

Despite my background in a seemingly unrelated activity, I found that many of the skills I learned during my time debating were applicable to my research. Although I am now a CS PhD researcher, I only started programming in college and had no idea that I would end up doing research.

There are researchers at MIT who have been writing code since they were five, but there is no clear-cut path to a PhD. There is an amazing variety of backgrounds at MIT, and everyone draws from their own personal experiences and backgrounds to create a rich research environment.