The Process of the PhD

getting a phd is a long
process

Having just finished up my exams, now is the best time to think about and make accurate plans for the future path through University.

In the same way that people tend to make bad food choices when grocery shopping on an empty stomach, making decisions about your future academic pathways is done worse when you're all relaxed and in a holiday mood.

Right now is the time, when exams are no longer bugging me, and the impressions of research and coursework still fresh, that I'll be able to make the more accurate predictions of the path that I want to pursue. So I was pondering the merits of a PhD, looking to those who have already walked my planned path (in my case, complexity research) in an attempt to draw accurate conclusions.

It's important to note that getting a PhD is a decision to get into research. Hence the first question that I needed to ask myself was whether research was something for me.

Prolonged Focus

Research is intensely, intensely focused. This stems from our earliest days in the savannahs of Africa, when we realised that specialisation was the key ingredient to success.

Fast forward a couple of million years, and we're pushing the boundaries of specialisation ever further, to the point where it takes the duration of our ancestors' entire lifespans to get good at the task at hand.

If your intellect is on par with geniuses like Steven Wolfram, then expect to be good enough by the time you're in your late twenties. For the rest of us, we're probably going to be in our mid thirties before we can make any meaningful contribution to the world.

That's in part due to the time it takes for mastery, and also due to the nature of discovery.

Truth in Model

We as humans fundamentally stumble upon knowledge. We generate a model seemingly out of nothing, and then seek to prove that the model we have is accurate.

It took a long time to realise that the earth was round, and it took longer to figure out a working model of the solar system. We can easily take these notions for granted today, but constructing that model was an uphill battle, first against doubt and inadequacy, then against incumbency.

Even something as radical as germ theory was resisted for a long time. Telling surgeons to wash their hands was a statement that was taken as an insult. Unfortunately, as a researcher, one has to be a savvy marketer as well to ensure that your ideas see the light of day in your lifetime.

In other words, research is pulling ideas out of the sky, refining those which show promise, trying to rigorously verify those ideas, and dropping them mercilessly when a fit is not found. After you've done that and convinced yourself, then begins the long road to convince others.

That's a good definition of insanity right there, and some people willingly commit to that over a \$80,000 a year paycheck.

So Why Do It?

I'm a believer that all innovation has to be first and foremost driven by research. I'm also a believer that no amount of research can compensate for the courage and wherewithal to connect the dots and push for a practical solution.

After all, researchers at MIT and UCLA were already sending around data packets in the 70s, but it was only in 1990 that a daring individual (Tim Berners-Lee) streamlined the process known as HTTP which would give rise to the internet as we know it today.

Yet it takes a certain level of knowledge and experience with research to be able to achieve such feats. Berners-Lee himself was a researcher in CERN, and undoubtedly had great technical knowledge. His distinctive characteristic was of course the want to make a dent in the universe, which is what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about.

This spirit is only enhanced, never diminished by deep technical knowledge, and I want to be part of that elite crowd.

Still, getting a PhD is a rich man's game. One has to be in a good spot financially, emotionally, and technically, to sustain the rigour needed to contribute meaningful research to humanity.

It's something that I think is a platform to contribute some unique value to the world, but isn't a pre-requisite, neither is it a panacea.

I won't gun for a PhD in my 20s, and maybe by the time I get round to it, the relative value of such would have diminished, pulling my decisions in another. In any case, planning is necessary for this long process, and I've got time =).


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