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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.
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.
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.
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.