Home » PhD

Category Archives: PhD

The advisory shuffle

Friday, October 13, was my adviser’s last day.  He remains as an adjunct professor, but as such he cannot directly advise or supervise graduate students.  Thus, just a few weeks into my official life as a PhD student I find myself adrift.  While I started adrift, over the past 10 months I stopped drifting and began focusing in a specific direction.  It is a peculiar thing – to be adrift, then to find direction and focus, and then be adrift again.  Humbling, certainly.  When adrift the first time around I didn’t know what to expect, or how good it is to work with someone that encourages crazy ideas.  I touched on this in my last post. But life doesn’t always go the way we anticipate.

I spent a bit of time going through an existential crisis of sorts because being adrift meant that I had to once again consider all the various directions I might go. So that’s what I’ve been doing.  Considering externalities (they’re trying to recruit someone that would be an awesome match from a research perspective).  Considering crazy options (applying to go somewhere else).  Of course, there’s also the option of considering other faculty to serve as adviser, but that is surprisingly challenging.  One of the best fits isn’t in the same department, which creates other potential complications.  Sorting it all out takes time.

Then I realized that this is part of the challenge of completing a PhD – the willingness to persevere in the face of factors beyond my control.  Hence why I found myself asking why I wanted to do this.  I’m not a brilliant researcher though I like to think I’m at least a competent one.  I can write reasonably well.  My hope is that the insights I do have can be used to contribute something.  I’m also pragmatic enough to know that it is rather unlikely I will change the world.  Still, I’m idealistic enough to want to try to change the world.

The good news is that none of this is an emergency.  I have time to look at options, to consider what I wish to achieve.  In the end, it will force me to look for clarity.  My hope is that I will actually find it.  Only time will tell.

“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.


PhD offers

So I’ve now been offered admission to two of the three PhD programs to which I have applied.  The third I knew was unlikely as they require a thesis Master’s degree, but I don’t have a thesis.  I was hoping that the fact I’ve co-authored two books might count for something (because frankly, writing a book is far more work than writing a thesis).

So for now I’m mulling over the best decision to make – but what an amazing place to be: choosing between two excellent schools, with the choice of two amazing advisers.  There really isn’t a losing option at this point, which is an amazing place to be.



What a long strange trip it’s been!

This is my first post in over a month.  The past five weeks have been eventful – a period upon which I suspect I will look back in the future and remark about how so much change can be packed into such a small amount of time.

My former employer and I parted the ways on November 15.  While not entirely a surprise, the manner in which it was carried out was a surprise.  The week that followed included a trip to the company HQ (in the eastern US), at my own expense, of course, and ultimately finding out that not only had I lost my positions with the company and been locked out of my own offices here but they had also seized control of my shares in the company.

I took stock of my situation and decided that I needed to deal with wrapping things up and planning for the future.

Thus, I briefed my lawyers to the extent possible.  I decided that I would sign up for three classes in the Spring 2017 session for my MSCS program which would put me in a position to graduate at the end of Summer 2017.  This seemed like a terrific idea given that I wouldn’t be working for some period of time!

I also decided that I would push ahead with the PhD applications. On December 4, 2016 I submitted three applications: two to UBC (CS and ECE) and one to Georgia Tech (CS).  I chose ECE at UBC because my professor at Georgia Tech had strongly recommended someone in that program, though I wasn’t convinced they’d be willing to waive the usual thesis requirements (though you’d think that having published two books in the field might count for something.)

The surprise came the next day.  That afternoon I’d received a letter forwarded to me by my legal counsel.  It seemed filled with invective and really had upset me because it painted a picture of me that certainly didn’t square with my vision of myself.  To console myself, I convinced my spouse to meet up for an after-work drink.  As we sat down I looked at my phone and saw an e-mail from a UBC CS professor – in fact, the very person I’d originally identified as being a strong prospective match back in 2013 when I had previously applied.

Imagine my surprise as I read the letter and found he suggested meeting and discussing my “(interesting) application”.  My mood changed – I responded quickly, said I was available and responded.  A few exchanges later, we’d agreed to meet for coffee nearby two days afterwards.  That initial meeting was short (45 minutes) and while it seemed positive, he’d been clear that I’d have to wait until the end of the PhD recruiting process.  He also suggested that I sign up to take the class he is teaching in January, noted there were forms that needed to be completed and left it to me to chase that to ground.  The final suggestion was that I meet with one of his current graduate students.

I went home, found the necesary form, completed it and sent it along to him.  Two hours later I received a signed copy back from him.  He followed up with an e-mail to me and one of his students suggesting we meet soon – like the next day.  So we met the next day, and chatted.  It seemed to go resonably well.  I followed up and the next day (Friday) we exchanged more e-mail and the CS professor suggested another meeting the next Tuesday.

It was at that meeting that it became clear I was “part of the team” (albeit provisionally, for sure).  He told me that he’d hire me as a research assistant until fall 2017 but he was still working out the details with the staff there.  He discussed what they were doing and at the end of the meeting suggested meeting on Friday.  Later, when I looked at the follow-up e-mail invitation I noticed that it was for every Friday, not just the next Friday.

At our first Friday meeting he spent a bit of time going over logistics.  Once again he reiterated that he wouldn’t be able to commit to my acceptance into the program until the “PhD recruiting process is done,” which admittedly was a mixed signal. Today (Friday December 23) was the second standing meeting.  Between the two meetings I spent considerable time running around trying to deal with various details.  Ultimately, nothing was quite resolved because we ran smack into Christmas break, but the ball is certainly rolling.

One challenge was taking his class.  While he signed off on it, and the CS department signed off on it, once it reached the “Enrolment Services” team, they advised CS that I was not eligible to register for the class because I wasn’t an “unclassified student”.  It turns out the deadline for applying for “unregistered student” status  was November 15.  I did find some irony in this, as this was my termination date.

One thing I recall from my own time working at Stanford many years ago is that Universities have rules but they also generally have a mechanism for overriding the rules – it’s mostly a matter of making a persuasive case and convincing someone with authority to grant an exception.  I was successful at doing so.  Further, by the time I received the exception I’d already started the “time consuming” part of the process – namely, getting them original transcripts directly from my undergraduate institution showing that I was granted the degree I claimed.  So, when everyone returns after the first of the year, I should be able to get that situation resolved quickly, register for the class and have student status.

Similarly, they’re also processing the paperwork for my appointment as a research assistant.  Ironic how I’ve come full circle almost 30 years later.  I was also amused to see that my old boss has endowed a chair at UBC.  It’s definitely a small world.

So now I can start focusing on doing research.  In the course of just over a month, I’ve gone from being employed, to terminated, to being a PhD applicant, to getting back into reserarch.  While I’m not accepted into the program yet, my perspective is that it will happen unless I screw up.  Naturally, my goal is to demonstrate my worth.

Exciting times!


Letters of Recommendation

Once again, I find myself in the position of asking people to write letters of recommendation.  My usual MO for this is to first ask if they are willing to do so. I make it clear that I will provide them with a template letter which they can then modify as they see fit – after all it is their letter, but it is to my benefit.  Thus, I want to minimize the hassle for them and ensure that the letter is strong.

In that context, I ran across this awesome post on Quora by Dr. Richard Muller about what he asks students to write up to assist him.  The gist of this was his requirement that someone give him an interview:

My first step is to interview the student.  I ask to be reminded of every time in the past we had interacted, if at all. Normally I mention these times in my letter; it helped the reader to recognize that the student was active.

Then I ask for any things that the student worried about, bad grades in other courses, for example. We then discussed them, and in my letter I might mention the fact that I was familiar with it (with a D, for example, in another class) and I would describe why (if true) I didn’t think that should be used as a negative. (Typically the student had a good reason.)

I ask the student to write me a page describing what he thinks of himself/herself, and what the student does outside of classwork. That’s based on my experience that those reading my letter often like candidates more if the student was well-rounded and personable.

I thought this was brilliant and plan on using this moving forward.