Address to Doctoral Students and Postdocs

August 24, 2010
By C. L. Max Nikias

This is a historic gathering. And I’ll tell you why. This is the first university-wide reception USC has ever held for our doctoral students and our postdoctoral scholars and researchers.

In the past, Ph.D. students and postdocs have been greeted by their schools or departments. But now we’re starting a new tradition.

When I became president, I wanted to make sure you received a warm welcome as important members of the entire Trojan Family.

So, on behalf of the entire USC community, I want to welcome you. I also want to congratulate you. The fact that you’re here this afternoon speaks volumes about your intellect and your talent.

To get to where you are today, you have to be at the forefront of your fields. You have to be head and shoulders above the rest.

And I want to thank you for choosing to become part of this academic community.

When you decided to come to USC, you did more than enter a program or accept a postdoctoral appointment. You changed your destiny. And I believe that where you are today has a profound impact on who you will become tomorrow.

USC is the perfect location to embark on the next stage of your intellectual journey. Because place has power. And it’s important to be at the right place at the right time.

Throughout history certain places have been catalysts for advancing human knowledge. Think of the agora of Athens, where philosophers debated ideas.

Or think of Florence at the dawn of the Italian Renaissance, a place that kindled the fire to discover, to create, to imagine.

Or think of Silicon Valley during the heart of the dot-com boom, a location that accelerated the information revolution.

Like those places, USC has a special energy, a distinctive character, an uncommon spirit.

At USC we’re not content with the way things are today. We are dedicated to inventing the future. This is a community that seeks out new challenges, that searches for new ideas, that explores new territories.

Here you will find colleagues and mentors who are eager to carve new paths, to conquer new worlds, even create new fields of study. Here you will find people who support you, encourage you, collaborate with you.

Some of these people are here today. You may introduce yourself to someone who introduces you to a new way of seeing the world. You may meet someone who provides the missing piece to a problem that has long been puzzling you. You may start up a conversation today that will still be going strong decades from now.

As you meet your fellow scholars, be sure to go beyond your disciplines. Talk to people from other schools. Get to know your peers from other programs. Share your ideas. Listen to their opinions. Let them ignite your imagination.

Why is it important to meet people from other schools? Because the oxygen that fuels intellectual combustion is found in the spaces between academic disciplines. Intellectual fire is generated by interdisciplinary sparks.

The real action, the real invention happens where branches of knowledge converge.

We can move backward and forward through the maze of human knowledge, but it is the thread of interdisciplinary work that holds it all together, that helps us find our way, that provides us with real meaning.

So, I urge you to break down the barriers between disciplines. Reach out beyond your department. Reach out beyond your school. Seize opportunities to collaborate with your colleagues from other fields.

Just as our minds are not bound by disciplines, neither is our capacity to innovate. Great ideas emerge from every field. Ingenuity is available to all of us. It is within the grasp of the philosopher as well as the psychologist, of the engineer as well as the historian, of the musician as well as the mathematician.

We have a new goal at USC. We want to make innovation the trademark of doctoral education.

Many people have tried to define innovation. My favorite is from management expert Tom Peters. He said, “The point is not to ‘push the envelope’ or ‘think outside the box.’ The point is to rip up the envelope and to burn the box.”

That’s what we want to help you do. Rip up the envelope. Burn the box. Discover. Invent. Innovate.

That’s why we’ve created a unique new program. Beginning this fall, we’re offering a Diploma in Innovation.

This is a program that you won’t find at any other university in the nation.

The Diploma in Innovation will not replace your current projects. Instead, it will complement the work you’re already doing.

This program was designed to do many things. It will help enhance your natural creativity. It will help you see old problems from new angles. It will help you turn theoretical ideas into practical solutions.

The Diploma in Innovation can help you learn about intellectual property. It can help you develop a business plan. It can help you assess the competition. It can help you bring a product to market. It can help you change the world.

And that’s exactly what we hope you’ll do.

The Diploma in Innovation is not for everyone. It’s very selective. You will face tremendous competition. But I encourage you to take a bold step, throw your hat in the ring, and submit an application.

The great news is that this program won’t cost you anything. It’s completely free to all qualified Ph.D. students.

I’ve talked about the importance of interdisciplinary work. I’ve mentioned USC’s renewed commitment to innovation. Now let me tell you about some of the people who bring both of those things together.

In addition to your peers, there are some other important people here today. Some of you may have seen the deans from your schools. Others may have noticed world-class faculty.

They’re here at my request. I wanted these scholars and researchers to be more than recognizable names. I wanted them to be familiar faces.

Some of you may want to meet a professor who is engaged in a number of projects at the intersections of electrical engineering, computer science, linguistics, and psychology.

Or maybe you would like to connect with a professor who is a leading social psychologist who studies how habits guide our actions and why those habits are so hard to break, as well as evolutionary models of gender differences in human behavior.

Still others may want to meet with a neuroscientist who studies how the architecture of the brain affects learning and social behavior in children.

Remember that even our most successful faculty were once in your shoes. Before their CVs listed dozens of papers, or numerous patents, or multiple appointments, they were just like you.

They were once graduate students or postdocs. Like you, they were brimming with questions, curiosities, and ideas. They were fueled by ambition. They were driven by a hunger for knowledge.

Get to know these established scholars and researchers. Seek their guidance. Ask their advice. Let them inspire you.

When I was a Ph.D. student, I worked very hard! I read all the papers of my field and those related to my field. I reached a point where I knew the literature better than my advisor. This is what you have to do!

So, it’s important to connect with other members of this academic community. But I also want to share some other tips. These are things that can help enrich your educational experience at USC.

Whenever you get the chance, immerse yourselves in the university environment. Become a part of the fabric of campus life. Get out of the classroom. Get out of the library. Get out of the lab.

Get involved. Go to games. Go to Visions and Voices events. Go to lunch at the new Tutor Campus Center.

And don’t limit yourselves to this campus. USC is not located in just any big city. This is one of the most exciting cities in the world. Everything is right here in your back yard.

Go to museums, or concerts, or galleries. Soak in the sights, the sounds, the experiences. Broaden your horizons. Have new adventures.

If you are new to Los Angeles, realize that it may take you some time to adjust. It will take time to learn how to navigate this city. It will take time for L.A. to reveal its hidden treasures to you.

But you don’t have to make this adjustment alone. You have guides on this journey. You have people to help you along the way. And those are your academic advisors. Reach out to them. Ask for their help. Ask for their thoughts. Let them help you make the transition to your program and to this city that is now your home.

These are just a few of the ways to get the most out of your time at USC. As you take the next step in your educational journey, take hold of the opportunities available to you.

Get connected. Get involved. Meet new colleagues. Make new friends. Use your talents wisely. Use your time well. Work hard. Break new ground. And invent the future.

Make this a new era of innovation at USC.

Welcome to this university. Welcome to our academic community. And welcome to the Trojan Family.

Thank you.