Monday, November 20, 2006

I did a PhD and did NOT go mad

I need some inspiration and motivation to get going. To do whatever I am supposed to do. I like this one piece of advice:

There's only one way of doing a PhD and that's your own, that's your own, that's your own...

A PhD, by its very nature, is a very individualistic venture. There is no right way to do a PhD (there are however a multitude of wrong ways).

This is the first big surprise for people who are starting their PhD having completed their undergraduate degrees -- there are well defined correct ways of getting a degree (usually `turn up to lectures, do course work, revise for exams, use a modicum of common sense') but such prescriptive techniques don't work for research degrees.

The award of a research degree effectively says `This person knows how to do research in his/her chosen area' and `research' is a nebulous, difficult to nail down thing which relies on insight, lateral thinking, inspiration and a lot of hard work.

An undergraduate degree is a lot of hard work, but doesn't put so much emphasis on inspiration. Most (if not all) people cannot sit down and say `right, today I'm going to have some inspiration'. The unpredicable nature of progress in a PhD means you spend a lot of time not sticking to the deadlines you set yourself. This is dispiriting.

In most departments there's always one smartarse who loudly proclaims that doing a PhD is easy and he (its usually a he) can't see what all the fuss is about, and he's just written another three chapters this morning, and he's submitted another five journal articles. People like this are lying, showing off, from Mars or over-compensating for inadequacies in other areas of their lives (if-you-know-what-I-mean). Ignore them.

The next big surprise for people who are starting PhDs after an undergraduate degree is just how excrutiatingly lonely a PhD is. When you submit your thesis you have to sign a piece of paper that says `This is my work, my work alone, nobody else's, all mine, nobody but me did it. Honest.'

A PhDs is so narrow and focused that the chances are that you and only you is going to understand anything about it. This is known as the Loneliness of the Long Distance Researcher and you have to get used to it. It means you're going to spend at least three years wandering around with a great chunk of bizarre, irrelevent nonsense in your head that only you can relate to. Get used to people's eyes glazing over and them shuffling in their seats when you try to explain exactly what it is you're doing.

Try to avoid emotional entanglements with people who say `penny for your thoughts' during romantic moments. If, like me, you say `the problem of formally refining liveness properties stated in a temporal logic for reactive systems' then you're likely to find yourself rapidly emotionally unentangled. Or at least they ask for a full refund on their penny with a written apology. Anyway, quite frankly, after a couple years of doing my PhD the last people I wanted to spend any time with were the sort of people who would be remotely interested in my work. To quote Groucho Marx `I wouldn't want to join a club that would have me as a member.'

Many departments have well integrated research programs with seminars and meetings and other such social gatherings. This is A Good Thing and will go a long way in relieving the loneliness of the long distance researcher. Many departments are, however, abysmal in this respect. If you're an active go-getting sort of person you may try sorting out social gatherings but be prepared for knockbacks.

There are going to be times when it all gets to you and you can't cope any more. (The day I found a paper that I'd missed in my literature survey that covered all the `new' stuff I'd done in the previous nine months was my own personal nadir.) What do you do in such circumstances?
Cry. Your eyes out.

In order to not become entirely divorced from reality it is a good idea to get a hobby and the less your hobby has to do with the subject of your PhD the better. If you are considering doing a PhD on a subject you really enjoy and find fascinating then beware -- the chances are that after three or so years of studying nothing but your chosen topic you'll hate the very mention of its name.

So, in summary...
- Do not just blithely start doing a PhD because you can't think of anything better to do -- that's what Masters degrees are for.
- Just because you sailed through your undergraduate degree, do not expect to do the same with a PhD.
- Do not expect to enjoy doing a PhD.
- Do expect to go mad.
- If you do enjoy your PhD you're probably mad already.
- If you finish you can tell people that you really have done something that's big and clever.
Three years is a long time to do something you really, really hate and your life is finite. If you're really not a happy bunny mid-PhD consider dropping it -- worse things happen at sea.
- Make sure you get full support from your department and complain if you don't.
- Try to have some sort of functional life outside your PhD, although this can be surprisingly difficult.
- If all else fails, eat chocolate.
- Eat chocolate anyway.

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