Starting a PhD

Just writing this for those who have the guts to start a PhD and would like to make the right choices from the start. Getting a PhD does initially seem like a mess, at least it was for me. However, having gone through the trouble of getting a PhD in Engineering from Cambridge, I notice that there is some structure to the whole thing. One could try to build a solid foundation to allow him/her to successfully undertake the challenge. From those eventful years, I believe there are four elements that have to be in place to ensure that a student will be able to truly enjoy a PhD. These four, by order of importance, are:

1. The student
2. The supervisor
3. The research topic
4. The university

A prudent student should evaluate these elements and decide whether he is ready to start his studies. Although preferable, not all four must be properly set up – two out of the first three should be enough for a student to survive and complete the PhD. He might not be happy during his studies. He might not enjoy it. But he’ll live. The fourth element, which is the university you do your PhD in is pretty much a bonus. Nice to do one in a top university but it isn’t that necessary.

1. The student
By far the most important element of the four. This is the element that a student has most control of and is able to most accurately measure in order to determine his/her readiness. A student must have:

(i) the right motivation/mindset to fuel him to work long hours for 3-4 years with little recognition
(ii) the right knowledge to complete a novel piece of work given the limited timeframe
(iii) healthy enough to endure a PhD. (note: I ranked motivation and background knowledge to be higher than health here)
(iv) sufficient financial and moral support

Common misconceptions:
We’ll be rich after getting a PhD, people will automatically like us (actually others may find us boring), we can easily get our dream job, we’ll be famous. These are wrong motivations. We’ll realise soon enough that these aren’t true and may get demotivated halfway.
We need to be already an expert in a subject to do a PhD. Not really. In the first few months after starting the PhD, everyone will realise they know nothing about the subject. We need to do something novel anyway so it’s a new territory by definition.
We don’t need to know anything at all about the PhD topic. We do need a good foundation.

2. The supervisor
We’ll spend a lot of time with our supervisor and need his/her advice to finish. So pick wisely. Unfortunately this element and the rest that follows are not something that a student is able to gauge as accurately as the first element. One can only understand a supervisor only if he/she does a PhD with the supervisor. This is because a PhD requires a lot of interaction between two individuals. And we all know that not everyone work well together. Two nice people may not like each other. Two evil guys may actually enjoy plotting to take over the world. Despite the uncertainties, there are several things that we must look for in a supervisor:

(i) Good reviews from their ex-students, preferably those who just graduated. Current students can be good referees but they may not yet have a good view of how things will work out. A supervisor’s actions and plans may initially look messy but make perfect sense once the student reach a certain level of maturity in the research subject.
(ii) A good track record of successfully supervising PhD students.
(iii) His compatibility with our personality. The best way to do this is to correspond with and if possible, meet him in person for a chat to have a sense of what he’s like. Some people like supervisors who let them do their own stuff. Some prefer more guidance. We know what you want so meet the potential supervisor and we’ll understand if he fits our idea of a compatible supervisor.

Common misconceptions:
He needs to be a Professor. He just needs to be an active researcher.
He must be a well-known expert in the field. Well, good to have but do expect to not see him much. ie: we’ll be ranked very low in his priority list.
A good supervisor is someone who spoon-feeds and holds your hand throughout the PhD. Not quite. We’ll probably need this in the first year. But a good supervisor will train us to be independent. This means letting us chart our own progress after the initial year or two, under his watchful eye of course.
It’s a one way street where the supervisor is expected to always be on the giving end. It’s a two way street my friend. Compliment him when he does good work. Congratulate him for his promotions. Share new papers with him and inform him of exciting call for papers/conferences. He’s a human being as well and our relationship with him will be more fun for both the supervisor and the student if it’s symbiotic.

3. The research topic
We must be very passionate about the subject we’re working on. To be honest, I am a bit divided whether to rank this as the second or third most important element. The reason I rank the supervisor higher is because we’ll eventually find the research difficult and frustrating. Our passion will carry us far but not far enough. Once we hit a wall, only a good supervisor will be able to help us overcome the problem and rekindle our love for the subject. In addition, one may not have sufficient knowledge in an area to start with to fully appreciate a subject. In this case, a good supervisor will be able to ignite our passion in the area by highlighting the importance and the interesting bits of the research subject, therefore providing us with that passion required to finish the thesis.

Common misconceptions:
The subject must be a popular research topic. We’ll have a hard time finding new things to discover as others are rapidly doing good work.
We can do experimental PhDs without a proper lab in place as we can always start our own setup from scratch. Buying things and putting together our experiments take a long time and a lot of money. If we want to do an experimental PhD, make sure the lab has sufficient apparatus and materials.
It’s good to choose an ‘easy’/’straightforward’ research topics such as repetitive measurements or data crunching in an area we’re already familiar with. It doesn’t hurt to do these. We’ll get our PhDs. But these three to four years are perfect for us to attempt something crazy. We’ll have a lot of time to concentrate on solving difficult problems and we’ll (hopefully) have the full support of our supervisor and colleagues. Try something difficult. Learn something new. Discover.

4. The university
Actually I am quite inclined to not even list this as an important element. The reason is because it does not quite matter where we do our PhD. Good supervisors and good research projects can be found even in small universities. The quality of our PhD will in the end be determined by the quality of our thesis and publications. But I guess it does matter a bit as you would like to do it in established, preferably household name universities as they will have a structure in place to: (i) help you if you are in trouble and (ii) ensure that your are able to finish on time. Plus it looks nicer on your CV.

Final words:

What about completing a PhD? Well, I am not going to write much about completing a PhD. The reason is because each PhD journey is unique. Hence, it is more difficult to ascertain what constitutes a good advice and what is not. It all depends on one’s particular situation. If it helps, I followed several advice which I found useful:

(i) Write often – both your thesis and research papers. Since day one. 50% of the papers I wrote was never submitted. I rewrote most of my thesis in the final year. But were the earlier drafts and the rejected papers a waste of time? Not at all. They all helped to form my final thesis.

(ii) Be nice – it can get fairly competitive. Just keep things healthy, respect everyone and never shy away from helping others. Be humble.

(iii) Develop a thick skin – disappointments come often. Papers get rejected, unsuccessful experiments, rude people, being looked down by more senior figures. Just pick yourself up and deal with it.

(iv) Work hard everyday – read papers and discuss with others in the first year. Accept the fact that we know very little. Learn. Do experiments/simulations in the second year and after. Document failures. Try again. Discuss. Document successes. Write. Publish. Everyday.

Just a takeaway point, I just would like to say that despite the sacrifices, I never regretted doing my PhD. I’ve learnt that the important thing is to try. And once we’ve started the journey, keep working hard. It’ll end, most likely happily. And we’ll be glad we tried in the first place.