Notes of “The Ph.D. Grind”
… research philosophy … an ardent pragmatist who cared more about achieving compelling results than demonstrating theoretical “interestingness” for the sake of appearing scholarly.
If it’s already been done before, then it wouldn’t be research!
Be proactive in talking with professors to find research topics that are mutually interesting, and no matter what, don’t just hole up in isolation.
1. what’s the problem?
2. what’s my proposed solution?
3. what compelling experiments can I run to demonstrate the effectiveness of my solution?
…the importance of deeply understanding the motivations and incentives of one’s potential collaborators before working with them.
To fend off procrastination, I worked tirelessly to impose selfdiscipline and structure on my workdays. I tried to “micromanage” myself by setting small, bite-sized goals and attacking them every day, hoping that positive results would eventually come. But it was hard to keep myself motivated when I didn’t see noticeable daily progress.
In fact, one of the purposes of tenure is to allow professors to take risks by attempting bolder project ideas. However, the dark side of this privilege is that professors will often assigne students to grind on risky projects with low success rates. And the students often can’t refuse, since they are funded by their advisors’ grants.
The story of how I arrived at MSR that summer illustrates the importance of combining concrete achievements with professional connections. Many Ph.D. students get internships (and later full-time jobs) through some sort of connection, and I was no exception.
In computer science research, the main form of labor is performing computer programming to build, test, and evaluate new software-based prototype tools and techniques.
…, I no longer cared if my graduation was delayed by a year or more due to lack of additional publications; I got so much satisfaction from knowing that a piece of software I had invented could improve many people’s computing experiences.
Out of the five projects that comprised my dissertation, CED was my favorite since it was a simple, elegant idea that turned into a practical tool with over 10,000 users. It was by far the least sophisticated from a research standpoint, but it was the most satisfying to work on due to its real-world relevance.
… the main purpose of a postdoc is to boost one’s resume to improve the chances of getting a university faculty job.
All I thought about was computer code; I could barely speak in coherent English setences except during my weekly progress meetings with ..
Despite lack of mainstream acceptance, I still thought that my Ph.D. ended successfully because I was able to carry several of my own ideas to fruition and graduate with a dissertation that I was very proud of.
However, to me, the most significant contribution of my dissertation wasn’t those specific prototype tools. Rather, it was that, to the best of my knowledge, I was one of the first computer science Ph.D. students to identify a pervasive problem – the lack of software tools catered to the needs of a large and growing population of computational research programmers – and to offer some early-stage prototype solutions that others can improve upon.
So why would anyone spend six or more years doing a Ph.D. when they aren’t going to become professors? Everyone has different motivations, but one possible answer is that a Ph.D. program provides a safe environment for certain types of people to push themselves far beyond their mental limits and then emerge stronger as a result. For example, my six years of Ph.D. training have made me wiser, savvier, gritter, and more steely, focused, creative, eloquent, perceptive, and professionally effective than I was a fresh college graduate.