What it means to do a Ph.D. - psychologically

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Most people who decide to do a Ph.D. are well aware that it will mean a lot of work. You have to learn a lot of new stuff, possibly also outside of the topics you have studied so far. Taking machine learning as an example, you probably need to learn much more math than you’ve already been exposed to, including a mix of linear algebra, optimization theory, probability theory, statistics, and so on. But you also need to learn something about the area where you apply your methods, for example, bioinformatics, linguistics, and so on.

But at the same time, doing a Ph.D. also poses some psychological challenges and from my experience I can say that many students are quite surprised by the level of problems they face. In contrast to a Bachelor or a Master, which requires you to learn some topic and be able to apply what you’ve learned to new similar problems, doing a Ph.D. means doing something which hasn’t been done before. You need to solve a problem which hasn’t been solved before.

Now this may sound not that surprising because that’s what research is all about: exploring questions, solving problems, advancing the state-of-the-art. But you only realize what this really means when you’re one or two years into your graduate studies, you have learned quite a lot and come to understand the nature of the problem, and you realize that you have no idea how to solve the problem.

There is of course a lot you can do to hedge the risk of failing. For example, you can start with simpler subproblems and work yourself up towards the full problem. You can work on a number of smaller problems such that you build up a collection of work done. But at some point you will invariable find yourself in a situation when you have to admit that you really cannot know whether you’ll be able to solve the problem, or whether any of your usual strategies will help.

And this doesn’t even include the social aspects of doing a Ph.D., of getting published, getting cited, building up some form of reputation in the community.

I found myself in exactly this situation towards the end of my studies. I had to switch topics inbetween because the original idea didn’t quite turn out as expected. I wrote my thesis about convergence of eigenvalues and eigenvectors of the kernel matrix. But till the very end, a central proof was missing. I had run extensive numerical simulations so I was quite sure about what I wanted to prove, but only in the very end I managed to put the proof together. So here I was, with a few month left before my position ended, trying to solve that problem every day but not knowing whether I would be able to do that in the end or not. To illustrate my state of mind, when I moved to a different town, I couldn’t rent the truck of the size I had reserved but only one which was about a meter shorter. All my friends told me “Mikio, forget it, we’ll never get all your stuff in there”, but I was just like “ah, impossible, well, yes… .” In the end, everything except for one cupboard went in which was ok, and showed that we both had been wrong.

Actually, I have come to believe that this experience is part of what it means to do a Ph.D.. Eventually, you will succeed in one way or another, and you will have learned a very valuable lesson. You will see how the problem slowly sinks into your mind until your understanding of the problem will lead you to a solution, or uncover that it is not possible, but you will also have understood why.

In the end, doing a Ph.D. is exactly about this: Learning to do what no one has done before and be confident even when there is only a limited amount of time and you have no idea whether you will be able to solve the problem. And that is an important part of what science is about.

Posted by Mikio L. Braun at 2012-01-24 10:23:00 +0000

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