Helen Xu @ MIT on 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.

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