My PhD experience

29th June 2014


Completing a PhD can be a very challenging, but extremely rewarding experience. During the last couple of months I have become a little nostalgic about my PhD experience and I thought that I would write a blog about some of the better and worse parts. I hope that these words will either be useful for a prospective PhD student, or help graduates also reminisce about their own experiences.

Choosing a university

I had two runs at this. I commenced studying for a PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2008 and the University of New South Wales in 2010. Since I only have one PhD, it shouldn't take long to work out that I only completed my studies at one of these institutions. The fact that I attempted to complete a PhD twice taught me a lot about myself and how I need to work in order to be successful.

I moved to Newcastle the year immediately after completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Wollongong. It was the wrong time for me to start PhD study, mainly because I was not disciplined enough to ensure the achievement of my goals solely through self motivation. PhD study is very self motivated and I found that without setting appropriate goals it was very difficult to complete the work that I felt was required. I did not really work in a way I thought was necessary (e.g. I was putting in very sporadic hours) and did not perform as well as I would have liked. I wanted to do a PhD and I tried hard to keep at it. However, I finally came to the realisation that it was just not the right time for me to take on this type of study. As such, I made the decision after 5 months to withdraw from the PhD program, "sell out" and go work for an investment bank.

It did not take me too long employed at the bank to work out that PhD study was a much more appropriate avenue for me. Most importantly, I decided that investment banking was not the career for me and that I wanted to work in the airline industry. I decided that the best way to work in the airline industry as a mathematician was to complete a PhD (this was also decided prior to moving to Newcastle). So, I gave myself some time in the bank, approximately two years, and then returned to PhD study.

The second institution that I decided to study at was the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Australia. There were many reasons for choosing this institution, some being that it performed very well on World University Rankings and it had a good name within Australia. In addition, my research on potential supervisors pointed me to this university. In finding a supervisor I had a couple of criteria than needed to be filled. First, I wanted to work in optimisation and integer programming (so I could enter into the airline industry). Second, it would be desirable that my supervisor actually worked on airline applications. I was able to fulfil both criteria by working with Gary Froyland in the School of Mathematics and Statistics. Fulfilling these criteria was designed to attain my end goal of working in the airline industry, but attending UNSW gave me so much more.

It is about the people, not just the research

The School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW is one of the largest mathematics schools in Australia. As such, there were a large number of other students undertaking PhD study while I was there. In fact, there were many students that commenced PhD study within 6-12 months of me, which meant that I was attending UNSW with a great, diverse group of people.

The large group that I shared my PhD experience with was one of the biggest factors contributing to the enjoyment of my studies. With a large group comes many opportunities to interact and a many different way to improve the social nature of the office. In particular, one student actively sought people to give seminars in a PhD student seminar series. Now, this was no ordinary seminar series. There was a rule stating that your talk was to be on something you found interesting and hopefully unrelated to your PhD. The talk didn't even have to be mathematical. Such talks included, algorithmic music, game theory and the UN security council, an introduction to VIM and an optimal substitution scheme for a soccer tournament. This brought the group together, creating a regular academic and social event. Consequently, we got to know each other really well.

In addition to the regular seminars, our group was very happy to interact socially outside of the office. Within a few months of starting, another PhD student asked me whether I would like to help organise regular Friday afternoon drinks. What I found is that most people are willing to attend and it only takes one to instigate an easily organised, but thoroughly enjoyable event. The drinks turned out to be very successful, to the point where people were disappointed on the weeks it didn't happen. Also, another student of my supervisor was always very happy to organise dinners out for the group. Once she got a little too busy completing her own thesis, I took over and started to organise events such as a lawn bowls afternoon, craft beer nights and end-of-year/Christmas BBQ's. The most rewarding thing about organising these events was finding that people were more than happy help out and more than happy to attend.

It was very clear to me that the group I attended UNSW with created an environment that made one of the best parts of my PhD experience.

The hard work

Lets face it, when undertaking PhD study it is fair to assume that you will have to work fairly hard. This is where I fell down the first time when I attended the University of Newcastle and I corrected this for when I started at UNSW. Two years at a bank gave me the skills to work on my own without much direction. This was necessary, as my supervisor was very happy for me to work on my own and have me independently pursue my own research ideas. However, this form of supervision was both good and bad, at times when you just want a little bit of direction the bad can really dominate your thoughts.

When designing your own research project there is a great risk that you may not actually realise the required outcomes. When you are studying for your PhD, outcomes are important as you are put on a very strict timeline. Specifically, your funding expires at the end of 3.5 years. This makes it very important to get your PhD completed within that timeframe. If you happen to get lost in a project that goes nowhere, then there are serious financial consequences if you run overtime. Unfortunately I did happen to get lost multiple times, spending months looking at a piece of code that I just couldn't debug. Weeks turned into months and I saw absolutely no progress, increasing the stress significantly. When these situations arise it is difficult to keep motivated, especially since the only option you have is to push through and hope you will resolve your issues quickly. Fortunately, I managed to resolve the issues each time, but I did lose many months in the process. This is just a feature of PhD study and you will never be able to predict when it will happen.

One of the hardest parts of PhD study is the final few months, just prior to submitting your thesis. My experience was a little easier than most, with one experience much worse than my own shared by my wife (see here). One thing that made me feel particularly stressed was that I ended up being given a strict time period to complete my thesis. My wife left for Hamburg during my final few months, due to return a few days before my thesis submission date. As soon as I dropped my wife off at the airport I had the very sudden realisation that my thesis must be completed upon her return. While I knew this anyway, it just made the deadline very obvious. Forcing me into action. From the point that my wife left (actually the very day she got on the plane), the work hours increased and I was in business mode.

When you come to writing your thesis, there is just so much work that needs to be completed. All I could see was this mountain of work, and it didn't feel like there would be any relief from it. My usual day was wake up, exercise, work all day, get home late, cook and then go to bed. It was just such a grinding routine, that it made it feel a lot harder than it needed to be.

It is a very personal thing on how you finish, and in many cases it comes down to luck as to whether your experience will be good or bad.

What I think I did right

As I said, I believe that my experience was better than most. Luckily, I was still able to exercise. That gave me an outlet, something other than work to focus on. Also, I had established a very good routine during my studies, so I was able to build on this at the end of my PhD. In this section I will elaborate on a few things that I think made my PhD completion a little easier.

In the first place, my time working in the bank provided my with a very good work ethic and set me up for self guided research. When working in a company, it is more often necessary to put in regular hours. Also, being present at your desk can be a strict requirement. I was able to take the work discipline required for the bank into my PhD study and started putting in regular hours (the typical 9-5) from the very first day. I treated the PhD as a job and that served me well throughout my studies.

One of the most important things that I was told prior to starting my PhD is that I should start writing early and write often. I thought that made a lot of sense. This is the best possible advice I can give to anyone starting out. Even at the start of your PhD when you have the least to write about, there is always something that you can put down on paper. When you start writing early in your PhD, it is important to remember that most of your writing will be very poor and you probably won't use it in you thesis or a paper. However, I found it much easier to edit or even rewrite pieces of writing than to start from a blank page. Also, writing often sets a very good habit that can continue into the final stages of your studies and even into your academic career.

Following on from the previous point, it was very important for me to write papers during my studies. This was from a PhD and a career point of view. From a career point of view, if you are looking to follow the academic path it is better to have a number of papers published (or at least submitted) by the end of your PhD. The more papers listed on you CV helps to distinguish you from other candidates that are applying for the jobs you want. (Please note that this opens up another debate of quality versus quantity in academic publishing, but that will not be addressed here).

The second reason for writing papers is that it can make your thesis completion much simpler. This really depends on the form of thesis you plan to write, but a paper can form a nice contained chapter. So if you have written 4 papers, then that can give you 4 content chapters. While all of my papers were not completed prior to my thesis submission, they were close enough that only a few modifications were necessary to form a thesis chapter. In my opinion, modifying papers to form chapters is much simpler than trying to writing a thesis from scratch in the final few months of your studies.

Finally, there was one big thing that I believe helped the smooth completion of my PhD and that was explicitly planning my time. From the point that my wife left for Hamburg, I set myself three months to complete my thesis. I started this period by setting two different plans, a weekly (only out to 6 weeks) and monthly (extending past the expected completion date) plan. I was not the best at writing plans, but I learnt from my wife, who is incredibly good at organising herself. While it was very difficult to stick to the plan, just having one allowed me to better visualise what needed to be done. Every couple of weeks an update with respect to my current progress was required, which is a very important part of the process. As mentioned previously, in the writing stage it feels like there is so much work to do and not enough time to do it in. The plan made it much easier to systematically work through it all. Having little successes when I met my planned expectations helped to keep me motivated.

Epilogue

I feel that the most important thing for me while completing my PhD was having a community that I could share my experience with. At UNSW, every student was working on very different projects, but that made the group so much more diverse. Also, it was not possible for us to discuss work, so our social time really was a time to relax and hang out. I feel that this community only came about because I attended one of the largest universities in Australia. But also, people were willing to organise events and most were willing to join in. I am very happy to have attended UNSW and it will be a highlight of my education.

© 2018 Stephen J Maher
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This page was last updated Tuesday, 23 January 2018.