Lab 42. Image source: https://campus.uva.nl/science-park/lab42/lab42.html
One year ago, I moved to the Netherlands without knowing anyone here, to start my PhD. And I moved 3 days before my work starts. I have now completed the first year of my PhD. As a way of convincing my brain to look back and take lessons from the past, I push myself to write about things. This post is the result of this process. It is not meant to be educative or inspiring.
Writing has been easy and fun, as long as I write for myself. Writing with the expectation and desire of having people read, is hard and never feels like it is complete. Like my research. I know the cons, it is not finished yet, there is still work to do, it is only about a very specific topic, I didn’t mean to include that other thing, otherwise I would say it differently…
What takes courage is to write without going back and read it again. This is not a well-thought and well-designed script, it is my line of thought, and it is messy. My brain wonders among many things, and this is what my fingers can capture, it is not the full data that my brain goes through, but a representative sample. It is your responsibility to reconstruct in a way that hopefully will give you a new perspective. In a way, we are writing this together.
I remember my first days. Everyone was so humble, and I did not get that. Reading people’s paper or listening to their research talk and then interacting with them in casual daily situations like wasting 10 minutes in front of a broken coffee machine can be confusing. Which one is this person? S/he did not seem to understand why the coffee machine was broken for 10 minutes, but then that paper seemed quite complex and impactful. People can be intelligent in thousands of different ways, I did not know that in my first year.
These intelligent people can get bored quite fast. They may seem quite interested and engaging at the beginning of a conversation and then quickly fade away. If you think yourself as a smart person, this might be devastating. I remember thinking of saying many things but then not doing so because they seemed to have an obvious response or did not seem interesting enough.
My first year was full of reading. But this type of reading was different from how I had been reading. Reading to find flaws, mistakes and opportunities to do and say a new thing on top of what has been written. After reading as critically as I possibly can for 5-8 hours a day, excluding the 8 hours of sleeping, the other 5-8 hours of my day was about getting to know other people and trying not to be critical. No one would want someone critical around them all the time. People are not and can not be deterministic and one should not ask more than two why questions in a row.
Materialistically, the most important part of a PhD is the publications. I have noticed two kinds of processes for publishing in terms of the timing of publication. The first one starts with a relatively broader area of reading. There is nothing new under the sun, so every idea is a combination of other ideas. Broader reading results in a bigger search space of ideas fitting together but with a higher probability of success. This process has the possibility of ending up with a new problem definition, which has its own pros and cons. If it is a valid question, and you can get people to think and write about it, then it is a greater success. But it is also equally likely that the question being asked will be forgotten with a partial answer provided by you. The time to publish for this type of process is about feeling that both the question and the answer are mature enough to go wild and be judged. I call this value-driven publication. We publish when it is good enough, and not because you want to have something submitted for a big conference. This is what I have been trying to do so.
The second type of process is (in my opinion) less creative, less fulfilling, and more stressful. I call this deadline-driven publication. This process starts with a relatively narrow and focused reading. At the end, the performer of this process has to have something submitted to that conference this year. This is more about being part of a community, working on complementing what other people have been doing, answering the same questions in a 2% better but more sophisticated way, and never missing a deadline for that famous conference. The output will feel less mine/yours, but more belong to the community. A typical pattern of this process starts with replicating 1 or 2 papers and then pulling around the existing methods, the architecture or the algorithm to make it look 2% bigger.
4 years of PhD, 4 projects and 4 full publications. That is the bureaucratic success criterion. Every PhD is different, yet the criterion is the same. There has to be a criterion, but it can not be personalized. So it is better not to take things personally. Some things always has to be done to look good on a piece of paper. Understanding this can help reducing stress. I have been lucky to have a publication already and great supervisors to guide me in the process of making it.
The last person to know everything was Thomas Young. After that, knowing the literature even in a small area of research became extremely difficult. It may seem easy to find relations among various questions and answers in different fields. One simply can not redirect a same question to a different field, or adapt an answer to a different question without knowing the field. Collaboration makes things easy, and it is the single most important skill that I have noticed that it is missing for me in my first year.