Recently I was invited to speak at a PhD student dinner. When the time came to speak, I improvised, but here is the script that I wrote for myself in preparation earlier.
Dear All, Dear Students,
Thank you for inviting me to give this talk, it’s my pleasure. Yet when I was asked to give a personal address to PhD students, I thought, what could I possibly say, what could I advise. I am perhaps the most non-typical PhD student imaginable. I did my PhD while working in industry, on a topic that had nothing to do with what I was doing in industry. I never had a room or a desk at my department, I never asked for one. My PhD supervisor was from elsewhere. I would go see him every two or three months, we would have great discussions from politics to evolution (not that either of us knew much about evolution). Mostly we talked about life. PhD for me was a leisure time project, curiosity driven research that I would do anyway. Mostly my PhD was self-funded, not only living expenses, but also conference travels, research visits. At that time, I thought that if that’s something I want to do, it should not matter whether I get paid for that or pay myself. I had a luxury to define my topic and follow it. I take it turned out well, I got a national award for my thesis from the hands of the president of my country. Only after I got my PhD I switched to full time research.
I was curious, why I was invited to speak. The answer was – because you are successful. I don’t think of myself as particularly successful, persistent perhaps. Early on, I had many papers rejected, lots of job applications that I never heard back from, funding applications turned down, many in a row, more than perhaps anyone I know from my immediate environment. I kept thinking that I could quit and switch to industry at any time, but if I am in academia, I want to keep it as curiosity driven research. Which means – formulating meaningful research questions, and doing my best to answer them. In fact, this is a definition of a PhD, that comes from my supervisor. He used to say that a PhD is someone who can formulate meaningful research questions and answer them. I think both parts are equally important. To me, PhD firstly should be an identification of a thinker, only secondly an identification of a worker. But times are changing.
Nowadays most of PhD research is driven by project funding. As a starting PhD student you get a clearly defined task, that typically comes from a project proposal that your supervisor wrote. That leaves formulating meaningful research questions quite aside. Yet, my advice is – try to make your research your own research. Become the owner of your research question. Even if it is given to you, don’t be afraid to discuss, why it this way, not some other way. Ask, why this matters. Ask why that matters. Try to expand your perspective beyond the computational task that you are solving. Don’t forget why why why? Why does this solution work? Why does this solution matter?
Dig deeper and look broader into your task, and eventually you will find a path, a perspective that nobody else, even your supervisor, has thought of. Become an expert. Not in how to run this and that script, but in explaining the principles of why it works. Until you are so deep into the topic that nobody else in the world understands what you are talking about. But not for too long. Then explain it to the world such that the world understands. I’m exaggerating. But not quite. Discuss it with colleagues, discuss it with friends, with strangers. Don’t be afraid to write to famous scientists, if you ask insightful questions, most will be happy to answer, to discuss. Become a world expert on your topic. And once you have, meaningful research questions will come. A PhD is only a start. Be curious! And enjoy!