Letter To Prospective Students

Hi! Thank you for stopping by!

I am Xiaoqi Tan, an Assistant Professor at the University of Alberta and also a Fellow of the Alberta Machine Intelligence Instittue (Amii). In what follows you will find my perspective on some common inquiries from prospective students. I hope you find them informative.

What is my research?

My research spans various theoretical topics in optimization and decision-making under uncertainty, using tools and insights from computer science, economics, and operations research. On the practical side, I am also interested in developing new algorithmic and computational tools to address real-world challenges across various fields, including energy grids and markets, shared mobility, Internet advertising, cloud computing, network optimization, and beyond.

What I care about the most in research?

I enjoy the beauty of mathematics, and consider a technically-sound + aesthetically-elegant theorem the core of publication-worthy results. I admire good applied research, but also believe that not all research needs to have practical use — good theory sustains over time, and may unexpectedly unleash its power. I am most excited about connecting theory with practice to uncover fundamental trade-offs and gain sharp insights into the design and operation of real-world systems and markets. To do so, I believe it is important, and also necessary, to sacrifice certain details of the problem. “I want to know how God created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details.” - Albert Einstein

What I care about the most in prospective students?

I often receive emails from prospective students with descriptions like “I know how to use $X$ to implement $Y$” — this, unfortunately, is not what I care about the most. I am looking for students who are interested in converting real-world problems into rigorous mathematical models, and then developing algorithms to solve these problems with provable guarantees — in the form of mathematical theorems and lemmas. In short, I look for prospective students who are motivated and excited about creating new knowledge — to explain “how and why things work or don’t work.”

A frequently asked question by undergraduate and early-stage graduate students is: Mathematical proofs can seem daunting; how can I determine if I will enjoy them? While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, a reasonable approach is to ask yourself: Do I have an affinity for subjects like calculus, probability, linear algebra, and other math or theory-based courses (e.g., algorithm design and analysis, theory of computation, etc.)? If your response is a resounding YES, and you’ve had positive experiences with most of these courses, then it’s a promising indicator!

What is my take on good advisor-advisee match?

I respect scholarship and love research, like most academics do. I consider getting a graduate degree takes initiative and commitment — it requires strong motivation to excel, long-lasting enthusiasm in research, and probably most importantly, a good advisor-advisee match — based on mutual trust/respect, effortless communication, and sometimes, a bit of luck. While it is complex to define what is exactly a “good match,” a simple rule of thumb is: if you feel this is the person you are willing to “work with,” not to “work for,” then it is usually a good sign.

Am I looking for new MSc/PhD students?

Yes! I am directing the SODALab @UofA and we are constantly looking for graduate students at both the MSc and PhD level. Interested candidates should apply here and indicate me as your potential supervisor.

For prospective PhD students: If you don’t hold a Master’s degree, please be aware that the typical path in Canada is to pursue a Master’s degree first and then a PhD, which generally takes around 2+4 years. Going straight to a PhD program, which usually lasts 5-6 years, is less common. Additionally, it’s worth noting that thesis-based Master’s programs in Canada are often fully funded; for example, thesis-based MSc students at UofA receive full funding throughout their 2-year programs.

Should you write me an email?

I don’t mind if you write me an email about your application. However, to initiate an effective conversation, please send me your CV + Full Transcript + Statement of Interest (1 page) in three separate PDF files. In your statement of interest, please first indicate that you’ve carefully reviewed this page and then briefly summarize your previous research experience (if any), your future research interest, and justify why you are a good fit for my group. If you have any publication, pick the one you feel the most proud of and summarize your contribution to the paper. If you wish, you can also discuss what you see yourself after obtaining your graduate degree (e.g., pursue an academic career or work in industry).

I apologize for not being able to reply to every inquiry email, especially if the email does not show that you’ve taken the time to read through this page. If you are already at UofA, please feel free to reach out if you’d like to chat.

Last updated: Oct 7, 2023