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The PhD Experience : What’s Involved

Bachelors vs Masters vs PhD

By now you know the answer to the question What is PhD in graphical way. Above image is one of several pictures used to explain the difference between Bachelors, Masters and PhD.  Next, question is what does it take to complete PhD?

That’s exactly we are going to find out today in this article.  What is PhD life like?

Thanks to Mihir Bellare – Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego who gave permission to share his article.

Professor Bellare wrote the PhD Experience for his prospective and current PhD Students.

He talks about the research “way of life”, relationship with your advisor, and the expectations and goals of the PhD program.

I have split his article into 4 parts to make it easy to read and understand and discuss.  This is the Part 1 of  5 in “The PhD Experience”

The PhD Experience : Why a Ph.D?

There are many reasons people are trying to get a Ph.D. It is useful both for you and for me to know your reasons.

Why are you pursuing Ph.D in computer science? (Mark all that apply).

  1. I enjoy research
  2. I want to teach, and a Ph.D is required for that
  3. A Ph.D will help me get a higher salary
  4. I needed to leave my home country and this was the best route
  5. My parents expect it
  6. My sibling(s) did it
  7. I really wasn’t interested in anything after my Bachelor’s, and grad school was the easiest route
  8. Other (explain):

What are your goals after graduating with your Ph.D? (Mark all that apply).

  1. Get a research-oriented academic position
  2. Get a teaching-oriented academic position
  3. Work in a research lab
  4. Work for some hot Internet corporation
  5. Consult
  6. Start my own company
  7. Other (explain):

What is involved?

Perhaps the most common vision of entering students on (theoretical) research is that they will have to solve some hard problem that nobody solved before. That will be their thesis.

Maybe, but in general research is about a lot more than problem solving. It is about conceptualizing, finding issues and directions, definitions, exposition and critical insight. Problem solving is always there, but the role it plays varies.

A common situation is to be developing a new model or notion. This will involve making definitions, and then developing algorithms and analyses. When you have new models, the technical aspects of some of the first solutions may be quite simple. You might then wonder why nobody else did it. The reason is they did not ask that question, or look at it in that way. Don’t look down on simplicity; good research is often simple.

Your starting research project is not likely to be to solve some known hard problem, unless you want it that way! More likely it is something like the above, where one can make progress step by step.

Don’t start by thinking about a thesis or a thesis topic. Your goal is to produce papers.

What can I get from a Ph.D?

The Ph.D experience is about much more than learning to do deep work in some technical area. Here are some of the more general things I expect you to get.

You should get a sense of confidence in the power of rational thought and the range of its applicability. Everything in life is a problem of some sort of the other. How often do we think about it that way, and approach methodically the job of solving it? After a Ph.D you should have the inclination and ability to research anything, whether it be mortgages, biology, cooking or Toyota engines, and the expectation that you will understand it.

You should get the confidence and inclination to question all that is around you and seek out new ways of doing it or seeing it. You should be more likely to ask why things are done a certain why, and how it could be made better.

A Ph. D should give you the confidence that you can jump into a new area, pick it up quickly, and have something interesting to say about it, even if other people have looked at this area for a long time. More than depth in any one area it should give you the courage to jump from area to area.

You might increase your appreciation for creativity, in other people and in all areas of life. You might view art differently, or think differently about music you hear, more appreciative of what it took to do this and how it departed from the previous works. You should learn to value creativity and seek it out.

It will install a sense of taste and a critical sense. It should make you unwilling to accept the common standards and norms, and to put them to the test of your own intellect and opinions. You should naturally find yourself questioning things. You should be willing to contradict conventional widsom. That doesn’t mean being a rebel just for the sake of it; you are too mature for that. It just means being constructively critical.

How I envison working with you: The path to the Ph.D

The way a student and advisor work together differs of course from student to student. But here is the kind of path I try to show students. Not all students follow this kind of path. It is just a rough guideline.

Phases

In the first phase I will typically try to give you a well-defined project that could lead, if successfully completed, to a reasonable quality publication. This starting project should have clear questions, goals, and deliverables, meaning a student should be clear on what is the target and what needs to be done to get there. We would typically work together on properly formulating the questions, solving them, writing up a solution, submitting it to an appropriate conference, and, if it is accepted, preparing a presentation, so that the student gets a view of the whole process.

In the second phase I could continue to suggest projects, ranging from well-defined to fuzzy, but you are more on your own with respect to solving the problems and writing up the solutions.

By then you should be well enough advanced that you can find your own questions as well as the answers. That’s the third phase.

Meetings

I expect to meet with you at least once a week during regular quarters and probably more often if you work here in the summer. You are also free to drop by at non-scheduled times, or send e-mail.

Working together is fun. I enjoy it and hope you will too. So if you want to discuss a problem don’t feel shy to stop by. A good deal of research is spontaneous and social, arising from interactions with your peers or advisor.

You may not have something substantial to report at a meeting. That’s OK, as long as it’s not a habit. See the section on time allocation below.

Questions

I see my advisor

  1. Not often enough
  2. About as often as I want
  3. About as often as I can stand
  4. Way too much

Meeting preparation

Prepare for your meetings. If you plan to present a scheme or an analysis or some solution, prepare the presentation so that you can make it clearly and well. Plan the order in which you will say things, and think about what you will write on the whiteboard, and where. There are several important reasons for this.

Our communication goes better and quicker if you prepare well, and this makes better use of our limited time. If I have to spend more time understanding you, you get lower quality feedback and it is harder to work together towards a solution. Don’t underestimate the importance of the quality of your presentation to the fruitfulness of our interaction. If I find it difficult to understand you, I pay less attention and tune out, and if it continues over time, have less and less inclination to know what you are up to, and that is probably not to your advantage.

Students often launch into the middle of their current technical problem. It is at the forefront of your mind because you have been working on it. It is not necessarily at the forefront of mine: I have many projects, and my memory is flakey in my advancing old age. Please bear with me here. Start from the beginning, checking up where I am and what I remember. Present things in logical sequence, slowly.

Think of your presentations to me as practice for ones to other people and larger audiences.

Preparation for presentation is different from the actual technical work. No matter how deep you are into your problem, you have to think separately about how to present it concisely and clearly.

Not all meetings call for presentation, so don’t go overboard either. You may not be presenting anything.

Question

With regard to my preparation and presentation for meetings with my advisor: (Mark all that apply)

  1. I prepare carefully
  2. I prepare a little
  3. I just waltz in
  4. I want more feedback about how to do it and when I am doing it well or badly

Meeting notes

Some of you remember what we discuss, others don’t and I have to repeat it next time. I suggest you bring a notebook with you to our meetings and take notes. Don’t hesitate to spend time doing that or to ask me to stop while you do. Ask for clarifications or repetitions if necessary. Make sure we are clear with each other about the technical issues and what to do next. If we have to go over the same thing again at the next meeting, time is wasted for both of us.

Meeting wrap-ups

Try to be clear about where you think you are headed in the period up to the next meeting. What are the tasks, questions, deliverables, if any? Have this written down if you are unsure you will remember it.

Questions

With regard to what I get out of meetings: (Mark all that apply)

  1. I find the meetings productive and get what I want from them
  2. I get something out of them but would like to get more
  3. I leave meetings more confused than when I went in
  4. I leave meetings unsure about what I am to do next
  5. Here is how the meetings could be made more productive for me …

PhD Series:

Credit : Thanks to Mihir Bellare – Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of California, San Diego who gave permission to share his article. Professor Bellare wrote the PhD Experience for his prospective and current PhD Students.

11 Comments

  1. Tapos Kumar on October 29, 2013 at 6:44 AM

    I am thinking about my phd in accounting. But i face some trouble to decide my future career & which country is more perfect for me to do this phd in accounting. I consider three country, 1. Australia 2. New Zealand 3. UK..

    So, any one can advise me to choose perfect location i.e. country. Is Australia better than uk in the field of accounting research.

  2. RAJESH on October 28, 2013 at 12:17 PM

    Here is another link and a 120 page book to describe what involved with a PhD in USA

    http://www.pgbovine.net/PhD-memoir/pguo-PhD-grind.pdf

  3. Nguyen Van Tan on October 28, 2013 at 11:27 AM

    Dear Professor Bellare,
    Thank you very much about your article. It is usefull for me.
    Tan.

  4. Prabhakaran on October 27, 2013 at 12:11 PM

    PhD is definitely more than a full time job. I wonder whether they have time to enjoy like others or they get fully obsessed with their research. 🙂

  5. Nagendra on October 27, 2013 at 2:11 AM

    We can get rid of office politics where I think if you are a professor will not be there and more over I want everything to be perfect or no perfect at all.

    • Santosh on November 1, 2013 at 11:36 AM

      Professors do have politics about who have more power in the department or who presented more papers or who got the best Teacher or Researcher award in School etc.

  6. Yagoub on October 26, 2013 at 1:18 PM

    Enjoy research

  7. Ellei on October 26, 2013 at 7:35 AM

    Thnx… great article

  8. Mohammed M.M. Alshaer on October 26, 2013 at 5:44 AM

    GOOD JOB HSB

  9. Abhijeet Chausalkar on October 26, 2013 at 12:22 AM

    What a beautiful article..it really gives the most detailed workframe for a PhD aspirant .This will surely help to build better understanding of pursuing PhD in USA and reduce apprehensions in the minds of the aspirants…i am really happy to read this article…good work raghu

  10. Rakesh on October 25, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    This is a very nice article HSB.

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