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“So why are you doing this?”

One of the questions that I’m often asked is “why would you want to get a PhD?” or “why do you want to do research?”

Everyone that even considers pursuing a PhD will no doubt be asked this question at some point.  I’ve been asked it a number of times recently, no doubt due to the various events swirling around my life and my decision to pursue this unusual direction.

Working in industry can afford numerous opportunities to make incremental improvements.  These improvements are certainly valuable, but they are also quite focused on work within the current paradigm.  Changes to the paradigm can arise in this model, but they are definitely heavily shaped by commercial considerations.

Working in academia tends to focus more on exploring in a broader range of directions.  Sometimes it is funded by industry, but more as a long-term investment, with an expectation that most ideas just won’t pan out.  Sometimes research is done within industry as well – a long-term bet on developing the next great technology.

So, what does this have to do with pursuing a PhD?  One difference between me and the typical PhD student is that I have done quite a lot of work in industry and have gained insights into things I see that look like problems ingrained in the system.  Thus, for me, this PhD offers an opportunity to explore ideas that reflect those insights – a willingness to question what is just assumed, and then see if I can find a way to try something new.

In essence, I want to change the world.  But the other thing I’ve learned is pragmatism, so I’ll consider it to be a success if I can at least rock the boat.  Maybe in that way I can build a foundation upon which someone smarter and with greater insight than me can actually build something that does change the world.  I don’t see that happening for me in industry.  It’s certainly not guaranteed going down the academic research path either, but I will do my best to do good work and enjoy the experience.

If I knew what the outcome was going to be, it wouldn’t be research, it would be development.