Research World, Volume 6, 2009
Online Version

Article A6.1

What I Learnt From My Experience in a Doctoral Programme

Ramasubramanian Sundararajan
Lead Scientist, GE Global Research, Computing & Decision Sciences
John F. Welch Technology Centre, 122 EPIP, Whitefield Road, Bangalore 560066, India

Not too long ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on learning theory, a field that is concerned primarily with learning useful lessons from the available data and being able to apply them in a more general context. One of the key tenets in that field is that the quality of the lessons learnt depend on the quality and volume of data they are learnt from. The smaller the sample, the less robust the learning.

So I suppose there is something ironic about the fact that I am writing an article on lessons learnt from my experience in a doctoral programme--a small sample if ever there was one. However, when you spend a number of years in the pursuit of a chimeral entity called a good dissertation, you realise that optimism is not a quantity you can afford to have in short supply. So I shall write this in the hope that some of you who embark on the same venture will find something useful in the coming paragraphs.

People enter a doctoral programme with varying aims. Some want a career in academia. Some others want to enter the industry and pursue a career in applied research or consulting. Yet others do not have a clue going in and figure it out as they go along. Irrespective of what your particular objective is, I hope that these lessons will make sense to you.

1. Questions First, Answers Later

You will spend the bulk of your time in the programme solving a research problem. But the bigger payoff is not learning how to solve a problem, but in learning how to find and frame the problem in the first place. When you enter a corporate research environment, you will often just get business problems to solve--it becomes your responsibility to find the research problems within. In an academic environment, you most likely would not even have the luxury of having someone give you a problem to solve. Given a reasonably good toolkit of techniques to use, most smart people can solve a given problem. What will differentiate you will be your ability to find the right problem to solve.

2. Ask Why

Every so often, my thesis advisor would ask me, “Why are we solving this problem?” When you have been working on a problem for a while and your advisor asks you why you are working on it in the first place, it is a pretty disconcerting experience! In hindsight, it was among the best lessons I learnt. Research problems, both in academia and industry, have a habit of changing as you go along. The problem you end up solving may be very different from the one you started out solving. If all you do is focus on how to solve it, you might find yourself with a wonderful solution to a problem nobody cares about. The job of a researcher and a teacher often involves a certain degree of evangelism--you have to make people care about what you are doing. You will be better placed to do that if you can relate your work to problems that matter to them.

3. On the Shoulders of Giants

One of the most important components of the research experience is the literature survey. In the course of writing your dissertation, you will read hundreds of papers by luminaries in your field. Read them avidly, learn all you can from them. But remember always that the point of a literature survey is not just to ask what questions a paper answers, but what questions a paper does not answer. If you have to improve upon the existing body of work in your area and present something original, you need to be able to explain what other people have not done. A good way of doing this is to understand the assumptions a piece of work rests on. Knock off one of those assumptions or change them substantially, and you will have a new problem to solve.

4. If You Want to Learn, Teach

By far the most useful non-research component of my experience was being a teaching assistant. I had the good fortune of being able to teach more than a few classes in my area of interest. What I learnt was this: in order to teach a class, you need to understand a subject in far more depth than as a student. Not just that, you also have to be able to communicate what you have understood in a manner that is intuitive and simple.

5. Seek Perfection, but Learn to Walk Away

The most commonly asked question about any doctoral programme is: How long will this take? Everybody asks this question at some point or the other, with varying degrees of anxiety. Do not worry too much about knowing the answer to this question: the best unit of measurement for a dissertation is the quality of work, not the time it takes. However, do not take this to the point of impracticality. A PhD is, in many cases, an entry pass to pursue research as a career. So make sure that you learn the lessons it offers you, and then get it done and over with. Your dissertation will most likely not be the best piece of research you will ever do in your life. But make it something you would not be ashamed of 10 years hence.

Years ago, when I first applied to the doctoral programme, I spoke to one of the students to get a better idea of what it was like. Barring questions like where the mess hall was, his answer was mostly: “It is a function of the individual.” How true it was, I would learn in the years to come. What you take away from the programme depends very much on what you bring to it. Keep your mind wide open for all that it can offer you, and this will turn out to be one of the most enriching experiences of your life.

All the best, and thanks for reading this far!

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