WARNING : Long post ahead! May not make much sense to laymen (yep, we super smug researchers like to call the rest of the world that).
A question that I am asked (too) often :
“When the hell are you going to complete that PhD of yours?”
That’s a question which has been eliciting different non-chalant replies – “God Knos”, “Come on.. I’ve just started & talk about completion?!”, “Is that of any concern to the general good of the universe?”, “When my supervisor can tolerate me no more & kicks me out”.
But when a sweet Prof casually asked “So, when do you intend to start writing your thesis?” in the lift, I blinked!
I blinked, blinked again & finally blurted out “End of the year” & quickly add “that’s what supervisor wants”.
He smiled & asked, “When do you want to?”
I blinked, blurted out something, continued to blink & was left blinking while he left the lift on his floor.
Tadaa. . one of those “eye-opener” moments. . The only problem being that the opened eyes refused to close for a while, even to blink!
So, one question that I have been asking myself since :
“When am I ready to ‘complete’ my PhD?”
A check-list :
1. Have I learnt to really appreciate research?
Around 3yrs back, when I was asked in the PhD admission interview “Why do you want to do a PhD in CS?”, my answer was “Because I am passionate about Computer Science research”.
Today, my answer would be “Because I am passionate about research, and CS seems to be my pet research area”.
Thanks to an advisor who was & still is more interested in pushing me to think more about the exploit-the-physics part of my current research topic, I today find myself enamoured by research problems in any field. There is that zoom out effect – from focusing on just CS problems to finding problems everywhere and finding beauty in them.
So, yes, I have learnt to really appreciate research in a wholesome sense.
Point 1 – Check.
2. Have I learnt how to keep alive that passion for research & rise above disillusionment?
Enter PhD with this utopian expectation of “next few years dedicated to research, problem solving, excitement”
One year into it : You feel “Oh, it’s not all green grass here”.
Finish course work & plunge into “pure research” : You know “It’s NOT green grass here”
And it comes with the freebies – crazy deadlines, TA work, work that seems to pile up in burst mode, frustrating duties as a TA , seeing the dynamics of the proferssors’ lives – not really free of monotony, boredom or absurdities, suicide-prompting ‘duties’ as a TA (I know, that’s an intentional repetition), etc etc etc.
Worst of all : Days, and sometimes weeks pass without an iota of research happening. Either for the lack of time or for the lack of mood/peace of mind. Or both. That hits at the very foundation of the “Oh, research in academia is intellectual bliss” notion.
The next time you get that stretch of few hours sans disturbance when you can really find/attack a problem at peace, all the disillusionment gets undone.
The trick seems to be keeping this cycle’s period as short as possible. By hook or crook.
For instance, going AWOL & being nocturnal for a week, staying away from lab and allowing yourself to get obsessed with a problem – not necessarily urgent/useful towards your thesis seems to work. Wonderfully.
So, yes, I can negate disillusionment & re-spark that passion for research whenever necessary.
Point 2 – Check.
3. Have I learn to come out of utopia when necessary & be practical in research?
Being a person who is prone to getting obsessed with one problem, however unimportant it may seem, I sometimes need to be shaken awake to be able to see the bigger picture.
Has that been done? Yes, quite often.
Would it need to be done by an external force in future? Perhaps, but not much.
I have learnt to “let go” of a problem when it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere for a while.
Point 3 – Check.
4. Have I learnt the importance of going back to fight with I had “let go” long back?
Whenever I find myself saying “Yes, that is an interesting idea, but I explored it 2 yrs back and it did not work out”, I almost always find myself getting more insights of the issue/solving the issue when I go back to the problem again. Don’t know if I get wiser with age or the problem gets easier with time! Guess the problem just gets marinated long enough at the back of my mind & becomes soft enough to bite through.
A lesson learnt long back, and reinforced recently.
I should start a “failed ideas” diary & note down all the ideas I “let go” of & flip through it once a year or so.
Point 4 – Check.
5. <More such “have I learnt”s about attitude towards research, which are too many to list>
Point 5 – Check.
6. Have I had time to think, introspect, and “take it slow” that I now believe that I would not feel that my life as a PhD student was ‘incomplete’?
Absolutely. Had the luxury of a supervisor making the mistake of saying, once, “Take time, learn. There’s no hurry to produce results for a while.” and exploited that statement to the fullest.
The “a while” got extended to “quite a while” to “a long time”, but in the process, learnt to enjoy life inclusive of “work”. Learnt to explore & be adventurous – both in research and otherwise. Learnt not to be a workaholic. I know, that’s debatable according to ppl who know me, but please believe me, I am not a workaholic. 😉
Point 6 – Check.
7. Have I learnt to face the necessary but boring evils in research without sulking (much) – namely writing papers, preparing presentations (conforming to certain ‘rules’) etc?
I think so. Yet to be confirmed.
Point 7 – Half check.
8. Do I have the ‘results’ to flaunt & demand that tag of “Doctor of Philosophy”?
Not yet. But I have a feeling that’s the easier part, once the rest is covered.
Point 8 – Pending.
Wow. . More than 81% (tentative) coverage. Good going. [Pats her back]
Tentative – cos there might be (should be) more metrics to judge how “ready” one is to complete a PhD.
If I want to boost that coverage number (as a true blue engineer), I would have to add the following points to the check-list :
- Do I want to eat real food, without having to go through the trouble of going to restaurants? YES. Check.
- Do I badly, badly want a washing machine & instant geyser of my own? YES. Check.
- Do I want a scooty? YES. Check.
- Am I fed up with that part of TA work which needs me to answer questions like “If I change that file, and something goes wrong, then?? [scandalized look]”, but not with “The world will come to an end. Please don’t trigger an apocalypse”? – YES. Check
That pulls up the coverage to 87.5%. Awesome.
Any additions? Especially to the non-bonus point in the check-list?