Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Meta-PhD

Why did I decide to do a PhD ?
When Chris asked me to do PhD, I was dead sure about one thing: I want to be in US for at least next 4-5 years of my life. So, I had two choices in front of me: either accept the SDE job offer from Microsoft SQL Server Data Mining team or accept Chris' PhD offer. Somewhere in back of my mind, I wanted to do a PhD after 3-4 years of my job. Also, Microsoft SQL Server Data Mining team was a dream job at that time. However, I decided to go for PhD for following reasons (ranked in the order of importance):
1. Why PhD?: For rest of my life, (except the daily chores and some personal issues), I want to THINK and DO certain work. I believe PhD sharpens (if not develops) the unbiased factual decision making process. It also helps you identify and enumerate some choices which you probably would not had thought of. (To be brutally honest, you don't need to do PhD for this, you just need to spent some time regularly acquiring this skills. PhD is one of the well-known an hopefully the simplest way to acquire them.)
2. Why Chris?:
a. I don't think I would find a better advisor than Chris (for "me"). There are two reasons for it. First, I am very comfortable communicating my ideas with him (both technical as well as non-technical). Second, Chris is an "awesome" researcher and I will learn a lot (and not just Database Research topics) from him.
3. Why PhD then and not afterwards?: If I jumped into job, I don't think I would ever return to PhD. (May be I think once I am settled down with good income, I would not have the motivation to start studying).

Though I have talked about skills that I would like to acquire in general, I would like to break it into my so-called mini-goals. The list below is a result of an hour long discussion with Ravi Jampani.

Mini-Goals for PhD (ranked in the order of importance):
1. Problem Identification Skills: Before I complete my PhD, this is the most important skill that I would like to acquire. For example, I should be able to identify potential problems in a given area after doing critical literature study.
2. Critical Literature Study or Building your base: This includes accumulation, simplification, contextual categorization (eg: Mindmap with Mnemonics) of the knowledge in my research field. This skill should also facilitate a way of frequently revisiting this knowledge base and also doing periodic "Lateral thinking" on it.
3. Multi-domain expertise: This means iterating skill 2 for multiple fields. It will also help for skill 1. The fields that I am interested in are Database, Data Mining & Machine Learning, Algorithms(with emphasis on Approximation and Randomization) and Mathematics (with emphasis on Statistics).
4. Indexing: Finding out who are good researchers in your field and always knowing what they are working on (kind of like fan-following).
5. Improve my communication skills and then writing skills. As of now, I ramble a lot and am almost never articulate in any discussion (though I believe that I am very persistent and continue the discussion atleast until I have communicated my ideas).
6. Collaboration of research with other people: This is least important skill as of now.

Useful advice from different researchers for new graduate students:
1. Chris:
- Indexing skill (i.e skill 4)
- Do not do exactly what the good researchers are doing.
2. Steven Weinberg:
- Start doing research (instead of writing this blog post ;) ), and pick up what you needed to know as you went along.
- Forgive yourself for wasting time. As you will never be sure which are the right problems to work on, most of the time that you spend at your desk will be wasted.
3. Richard Hamming:
- What are the most important problems in your field?, Are you working on one of them? and Why not?
- 'Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.' Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn it is very much like compound interest.
- Luck favours the prepared mind (originally for Louis Pasteur). This essentially means that acquire skill 2 and 3 and you will soon find an opportunity to identify a 'good' potential problem and may be even solve it.
3. Others:
- There is not substitute for hard work. (Most important of all the advices)
- Be Persistent: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" - Thomas A. Edison
- Explore as many areas as you can find. Read papers from different areas, not just your area.
4. Self:
- Be modest. The ego destroys the process of learning. Never disregard anyone who does not agree with you. Hear what he/she has to say and then try to think it through.
- Be committed to your problem. even if you think its not important. Finish it first and then start working on what you think is important.
- Think clearly, write clearly and talk clearly. Always talk with right amount of abstraction.

2 comments:

Kishore said...

I appreciate the candidness that you have maintained even upto now... this is the first thought that comes to me. I'll come back and read again, and leave some more comments.
Certainly there is lot to ponder upon the points and skills you have mentioned, so that I can apply them in my life too.
Thanks for sharing..

nakul02 said...

Nice.