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Confessions of a doctoral student

Meld Magazine

Fri Aug 19 2011

Melbourne University

ARE PhDs reserved just for the super-intelligent? Or just another excuse to put off getting a job for a few more years? Paul Tune shares the ins and outs of life as a doctoral student.

With the uni year coming to an end, you’ve no doubt heard people talking about specialisation after an undergraduate degree. Young minds inevitably turn to whether or not they should undertake a PhD, if not for the glory, then at least as an excuse to put off getting a job for another couple of years.

But I have news for you young minds, life in a doctoral program is not as entertaining as “The Big Bang Theory” makes it look. It does, however, have its own perks, like travelling to exotic places for conferences.

I should begin by dispelling two myths. The first, and most common, is that you have to be extremely intelligent to do a PhD. Yes, it requires a sufficient level of intellect, otherwise you’ll never get the necessary scholarship, but, beyond that, it’s irrelevant.

In my experience, a PhD mostly boils down to persistence and a little bit of luck. Think of it as a road-trip to (insert holiday destination here). The more intelligent people might be driving a Maserati. With better acceleration, this luxury sports car will give them a head start, but it doesn’t guarantee they’ll get to their destination. Slow and steady wins the race, remember? And even the smartest people can get lost along the way to completing their 100,000 word thesis.

The second biggest PhD myth is that PhD graduates are entitled to high paying jobs. This is not necessarily true. Like any other degree, a PhD is, at the end of the day, just a piece of paper. One of my ex-colleagues went as far as to say that all it does is tell other people that a graduate knows how to think. What happens next is entirely up to you.

Depending on the field, a doctorate may open doors to places inaccessible to the layman. These opportunities are contingent on other soft skills though, which, in my opinion, are just as valuable, if not more valuable, than technical skills. These skills include, surprisingly, networking skills, since anyone you meet may be a potential employer or grant provider. Imagine telling strangers to invest in some potentially mind-blowing, extraordinary, world-changing and sustainable idea that neither you nor they know how to obtain. That is what you have to do to apply for a grant. If you approach them sounding like a scam artist, you’re not going to get your grant!

Now, I don’t want to discourage any young minds from pursuing a PhD. It can be rewarding, honestly, but you have to be aware of the risks. The key, I believe, is connected to two things – choosing a research area you absolutely love and choosing the right supervisor.

The former may sound like a no-brainer, but choosing the right topic isn’t always straightforward. I would suggest getting a broad idea of the areas available to you and know your strengths. By all means, talk to alumni and different faculty members, but the final topic decision should be yours. Don’t choose an area you hate, but think has the potential to reward you financially in the future, and stick to one area of competency, then branch out later when you’re confident.

Your supervisor, on the other hand, is like a parent figure, so picking the right one is essential. I’m lucky to have a good, albeit absent-minded, one that has shaped my thinking process in a way no one else could. That said, your personalities should click on a professional level. I have seen friends and colleagues quit simply because they could not work with their supervisor. Find out how they work. For example, my supervisor likes doing things at the last minute, so I have to expect ‘surprises’ often.

Once you have your topic and your supervisor, it’s time to consider how you work. Some of my colleagues have a fully structured route – get into the office at 9, have lunch at midday and then continue until 5pm. I, on the other hand, work like a writer. If I’m inspired by something, I can work till the wee hours. The rest of the time is spent in, uh, cafes. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to research, but the bottom line is that you have to be disciplined enough to make progress every day.

Of course, there will be times when you’re tempted to throw in the towel. That’s the nature of research. It’s hard and, paradoxically, if it doesn’t make you feel stupid at times, you’re probably answering a question someone else has already answered. There are also times when all you can see are the uncertainties, but it’s important not to fight them. Instead, take a walk or do something else, then come back to the problem. Often, a distraction can clear your head and lead to an “Eureka!” moment.

And a final word of advice, a PhD is not an easy path. In fact, I would go as far as to discourage anyone from pursuing it if you’re not prepared for potentially huge uncertainties in your career path. But at the end of the day, if you truly love what you’re doing and are prepared to take the plunge, then a doctoral study can be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever do.

Paul Tune is a research fellow in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Melbourne. He is currently studying the nature of information with particular applications to computer networks and signal recovery. He is passionate about the role of academia in anticipating and overcoming future societal challenges.