If there’s anything you learn during a PhD (especially in the social science field), it is writing. Of course, the act of writing is born out of an underlying sequence of activities – thinking deeply (analytically) on matters, connecting dots, synthesizing (new) meaning and then comes the desire to communicate (writing). As I spend the next few months (10/15 – 01/16) writing my thesis, I also have the opportunity to reflect on the last 3 years of my PhD study life – the highs, the lows, mistakes, lessons learned etc. As with most of my writing on this blog, I share this series of posts, with the hope that it will both make an interesting read, and help someone in some meaningful way. This memoir is also inspired by the writings of Philip Guo who chronicled his PhD journey as a computer science grad student at Stanford in a rather detailed (and attention gripping) 100+ page memoir. Like Philip, this writing aims to be as candid, objective and as honest as possible.
A little Background
I have been fortunate to spend the last 3 years studying for a PhD at one of the better ranked Information Systems department globally – Department of Information Systems, City University of Hong Kong (see here, here and here). In some circles, my PhD degree will be more accurately described as management information systems as it heavily draws on social science research methodologies (quantitative, qualitative) and theories from the management, psychology, marketing and cognitive sciences discipline. Prior to this, I obtained an MSc in Information Networking from Carnegie Mellon University’s Information Networking Institute, and a Bsc in Computer Science from Babcock University. My bachelors and MSc degree were focused on computer science (software engineering), and my PhD was a bit of a switch from an Engineering College to a Business School.
Why this Memoir May be an Interesting Read
Some interesting aspects to this memoir :
The 3 Year Time Frame
This work provides an insight into the rather tight schedule that is a 3 year PhD. It provides opportunity to reflect on the upsides and discuss the inadequacies.
The (Mixed) Social Science Perspective
As I delve into the details of my research work, i.e projects I worked on during my study period, I attempt to highlight how harnessing my prior technical background (software engineering) and my PhD training in behavioral research methods made all of my work possible. This memoir might be particularly interesting to individuals considering a business school related PhD after holding an engineering degree.
An Objective, Yet Balanced Perspective
As with many reflections, hindsight is 20/20. This means I have an opportunity to “see” my mistakes and I freely admit them too. I also strive to achieve balance by discussing other non-research activities and how they ended up being important aspects of this journey.
A Happy Ending
A PhD is hard. Not just because it is difficult to devote time and energy to hunting down interesting unsolved problems, but also because of the heightened awareness of opportunity costs one develops along the way. A childhood friend gets married here, another has a kid there … and then another kid. A third purchases a car and a fourth moves into their own home. Observing these “losses” can be disheartening. That being said, I believe I have been lucky to observe these things and still have a really positive feeling about my PhD years. My journey has been fairly colorful (or that’s how I currently see it). Hopefully, this memoir paints a picture of hope (rather than gloom) for individuals weighing the pros and cons of a PhD degree. I do acknowledge this may not be the case across board and wholeheartedly encourage others to share their own unique experiences.
The sections below indicate how I intend to layout the memoir and the content of each section.
Some bits about my background. Learning about the PhD program from a random email. Having a phone interview with my advisor and deciding on the spot to study at CityU. CityU’s early offer and getting the HKPFS award. Arriving HK.
Chapter 1 – All work and some play
First year. Dealing with differences in expectations, especially research orientation (from an engineering to a social science perspective). Taking courses, discovering my weaknesses and my first project on Games and Learning.
Chapter 2 – Getting Serious, Grave Misunderstandings
On selecting a topic that would develop into my thesis. Made poor choices in my approach to this task and had a fairly incorrect conceptualization of my role as a PhD student.
Chapter 3 – Difficulties, Panic
Dealing with negative evaluations, cancelled applications, paper rejections, health issues and work stagnation. All time low, questioning my abilities, being nervous & stuttering during presentations. Being laughed at (true story). Almost getting expelled. Above all, being unsure of what I was going to do next.
Chapter 4 – Recluse Mode
A 4 month period of deep thinking, and planned action. A truly regimented life focused on getting my best ideas into drafts, imposing personal goals/deadlines and delivering on these. It may have been around this period that I read Philip’s PhD Grind account, discussed it with my partner and then decided to adopt his advice especially on “leading from below” and “playing the PhD Game” . Meeting and interacting with Paul. Realizing the value of collaboration. Thesis theme emerging.
Chapter 5 – Bright Light
Some bright light finally. Some things start to work out! Getting recognition for my work, awards, rediscovering confidence, doing some good work. The IBM Research Experience.
Chapter 6 – All’s Well that Ends Well
Putting together my thesis. Writing reflection. Moving on.
In the coming months, I’ll start gently piecing together the details in each chapter and hope to finish it all up by March 2016.