Category Archives: Study

Valuing my PhD

Week 4 of the Alphabet Sufficiency: V.

I’ve circled on ‘value’ for a long time; this is the prompt of this essay series for which I’ve started writing four times. My relationship with value is ongoing, and I’ve got hidden writings now on how I try and tell if other people value me, on my relationship with the sunk cost fallacy, on the epistemological problems with measurement (that is, a measurement and reality are not the same thing), and even on irritating probability mind tricks that depend on weird phrasings.

But the sunk cost fallacy suggests I should pick something bite-sized and be done with it, so here it is: I am coming to value my PhD work. (Status of that: I’ve finished writing and been examined and done my required corrections. I’m waiting for university sign-off and eventual graduation. So, I’m not a PhD holder, but I will be. I’m a PhD finisher already.)

This has been a while coming. There are lots of things wrong with the PhD process, maybe less so in Australia than in some other countries and maybe less so in computer science than in some other disciplines, if only because for some computing employers outside the academy it’s seen as a positive signal rather than a negative one, as is the stereotype of how a PhD is seen in some other fields. (Note, stereotype; I know nothing of the reality.)

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - 110 - Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse close-up from Gokyo Ri

Everest, Nuptse and Lhotse (from Gokyo Ri) by McKay Savage

And it’s much easier to feel warm and fuzzy about something when the hard bit is nearly a year in the past, too. Somewhere in my photo collection there’s a self-portrait of me late last May, at 11pm, eating the spag bol my sister dropped off in a care package, alone in darkness. You know you’re at a peak life-stress when Steph drops off food: the other time last year was when I was unexpectedly hospitalised for a week last year. It was a cold evening, I remember taking the photo to email my family and I don’t know that I felt that was I was doing was valuable at the time so much as simply wanting it to be in the past. And also wanting to warm up. I did two things last May: write stuff, and learned a whole lot about climbing Everest (mostly from Alan Arnette’s blog). Not metaphorically, literally, because May is the end of the Everest climbing season. The Everest climbers and I were both cold, and both working hard. I felt we had a lot in common. Even if they got better photos than I did.

So, we need to allow for rose-coloured glasses, very much so. And I’ll also note that I don’t think a PhD is the only, or the best, or a better, way to obtain a lot of what I value from it. But it comes down to this: I wrote about 100 pages in 2 months. In that time, I did a small amount of experimental work (obviously most of it was done by then), I evaluated a lot of sources, and I did a lot of work in explaining things. I can tell you (but won’t, here) how I could re-do the whole thing, much better. And I did so much work independently — not always well in hindsight, but work — that every other project in my life pales in terms of sheer clinging onto the side of the mountain trying not to fall down it.

It will be a long time before I can decide if I did any of this well even in the (frankly unlikely) event that I read it end-to-end ever again. But the value I’m deriving from simply having done it is not negligible. It takes a lot of written material to intimidate me now, for one thing. I can read scientific literature outside my field and have some idea of how to scale the mountain. I feel much happier about having done it than I did at any time in 2012, including the day after handing it in. Its value probably still doesn’t come to seven years of opportunity cost, but it has some.

Bonus value: this blog entry has caused me to go back over my journals of last May, which include a few hilarious (entirely to me) moments:

May 19th:

[The thesis] also probably going to be longer than I expected: probably 150 pages or so in terms of sheets of paper, around 100 to 110 pages of non-appendix content.

Amusing or horrifying, your call: I sent it to the printers ten days after writing that, with 140 pages of non-appendix content and 201 total, so I blew my own projected page estimate by over 30 pages of prose in a week and a half. (I added a lot this year in response to my examiners too: the final version hasn’t been printed but is around 155 pages of non-appendix content and 230 total.)

Full disclosure: like many theses, it is double-spaced. It’s difficult to word-count accurately when you write in LaTeX, but it’s about 65000–70000 words, give or take, including appendices, which is a bit long for a science thesis, but that’s not unusual in computational linguistics.

May 29th (the day I ordered the printing of my examination copies):

I said to [my supervisor] that some people do all the training for a black belt and then don’t take the test (actually I don’t even know if this is true, but I said it) because they know within themselves that they are worthy and so…

He said “No. No no no no no. No way.”

The ‘f’ word for next week is ‘favourite’.

PhD status

Everest
Everest by Joe Hastings

A quick note that appearances do suggest that I am in the final weeks of my PhD, with submission in late May. I am reluctant to say this because I’ve been wrong before, but this time my supervisor agrees. So.

I probably will be pretty absent for several weeks. And if I am not, I may be very tired.

Also an explanation of how this works in Australia, because it’s quite different to North America. Mostly writing this so that people don’t start addressing me as ‘Doctor’ in June.

Short version: this work is me preparing my thesis for initial examination, and this is hopefully the hardest bit. But I won’t graduate for at least six months.

First, I finalise my thesis document (we don’t call it a dissertation). I submit this to the university where it is examined by three external examiners: ideally at least one from an Australian university. At this point my work on it is in deep freeze.

Unlike in North America in general, these examiners are anonymous to me (chosen by my supervisor) and were not involved in my PhD studies prior to this point. This means in theory that they might not like it: in practice I am told that around 99% of students who submit at all eventually graduate.

Examination in theory takes six weeks, it could take as long as six months (since appointing a whole new examiner might be slower than waiting for a late one). They submit reports which my supervisor reads and makes recommendations on (most commonly I agree, Mary should indeed fix all these things, followed by I almost entirely agree, Mary should indeed fix all but a few of these things). This is fed into the higher degree research committee (who usually agree with the supervisor, but they might come up with a different answer if the examiners’ recommendations varied a lot) and then there’s a huge range of possible decisions that come out of the HDR committee:

  1. pass as is
  2. make minor amendations to the Library copy and pass
  3. minor revisions to be checked by supervisor (for which I’d be allocated a month) and then pass
  4. major revisions to be checked by supervisor (for which I’d be allocated two months) and then pass
  5. revise and resubmit to examiners a second time
  6. only award a Masters degree (possibly in combination with revisions): recall that in the Australian system I don’t already have a Masters degree
  7. fail

The most likely decision by far in my research group is minor or major revisions: I’ve never heard of anyone avoiding them. Some people in fact prefer major just because you get a bit more time to revise. (In other faculties, it isn’t unheard of to pass without revision.) No one wants to be re-examined: this usually means re-enrolling and re-doing experimental work and similar.

Unless re-examination is needed, after any required revisions it is pure administrivia: the HDR committee must pass it, and then the university Senate. I submit a bound copy of my thesis to the university library and (far more importantly now) put it on my website and submit to the university’s digital collection.

I think at that point I am finally a graduand and can use the title ‘Dr’ in academia and so on. Actual graduation would take place in either September/October or April/May, so in the pathological case it could be a while between finalising the thesis and actually graduating.

I do not do an oral defence (a three hour or so session where my examiners ask me questions in person).

Reverb 10: One Word, Writing, Moment

One Word. Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?

“Vincent”, of course.

Vincent’s birth was interestingly timed in terms of the way I divide my life; slightly more than ten years after my relationship with Andrew started. So, 2000–2009 were relationship years, and very early in 2010 I had Vincent.

I thought about “mother” as well, but it seems too general to say that. Perhaps the word of 2010–2019 might be “mother”, but this year has been specifically about Vincent. 2009 was generalities about parenting and babies: what was it like, were we ready, would we make it? And this year has been more about answers. The answers are Vincent.

Next year’s word, I hope, will be “Doctorate”.

Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?

You know, I think right now, each day, I do exactly as much writing as I want to be doing.

What I need to be doing is more sitting around in the evenings in pyjamas snarking at the television with Andrew. What’s stopping me doing that? Earning money. Can I eliminate earning money? No. I need to finish my PhD though and move earning money to daylight hours.

Moment. Pick one moment during which you felt most alive this year. Describe it in vivid detail (texture, smells, voices, noises, colors).

The hospital where I had Vincent discouraged fathers from staying all night, unless the baby had been born very late. Vincent was born at about 4pm, and after I had been stabilised and finally transferred to the ward with Vincent, Andrew went home at 11pm or midnight.

Vincent had had several good breastfeeds in the delivery room, but newborn babies sometimes do not feed much for the first 12 hours or so after birth. And indeed, in the ward he initially didn’t feed much. I lay half-dozing in my hospital bed, bathed in the light of a green LED attached to my otherwise dark television set. Vincent slept, wrapped up tight, in a plastic cot to my left within arm’s reach. I smelled sweat, mostly, and looked at him.

Every few hours he would call softly, like a peep or a mew and I would pick him up and put him to the breast, which he would sort of explore for a moment and then go peacefully back to sleep. At some points, I left him to sleep on my tummy.