Wednesday, December 03, 2008

PhD angst

So... I'm now two months into this PhD thing & many things are starting to fall into place, however lots more things have appeared on the horizon that I don't like the look of.

I don't have to do anything that isn't relevant, you say? Or anything that isn't interesting?

This is a blessing and a curse; mix these two and you can become lost in rabbit warren of academic references and citations. It's obvious now why academics invented the internet - surfing the web is just a degenerate form of surfing citations/cited-bys. Having lost several days (without taking notes - bad twak!) down various versions of these rabbit holes I think the same dangers apply to both - they're endless time holes. I'm going to try to write up my half-complete findings on image morphing soon (honest).


There is def. an art to reading. I can't read everything, ever. It is very much about always being on task, and checking what you are taking away from a text. This is a real problem in a new (to me) subjects like biology. Skimming great biology textbooks means that you're too far away from the subject to take away the ideas that you need. But reading them in their entirety comes down to taking first and second year biology classes - something I don't have the time (or ability to memorize random names) to do.

Biology has many concepts and features that weave together into an web of knowledge that is denser than CS. The subject feels backwards - undergrad textbooks flag massive areas of knowledge as unknown and under research. This feels quite alien because the bits of knowledge that the CS undergrad course admits now knowing about are few and far between and those that we don't know about (P == NP?) are presented as "can we ever know this?".

The lack of direction atm is really causing me to loose momentum. Being able to explore the whole world is great, but you can only explore a little at a time, and that's really frustrating. I think I have a real need to ground my knowledge by applying it or otherwise spending time digesting it. Grounding is thinking or coding or writing a blog post (hence ramblings here). I get distracted thinking, so coding/writing is a great way to stay on topic*.

I feel like I make such slow progress. I have lots of good intention - "reading & documenting a new paper every morning" was one, but I'm still spending my whole time reading books and writing up a paper takes a morning in itself. My supervisors are very good, assuring me that just exposing myself to all this material is def. the correct direction. Hopefully more disipline will follow after Christmas.

The department is the first place where I have challenging conversations on a daily basis. People actually questioning my opinions, so unlike my undergrad degree :). I guess this is what I missed at Oxbridge (still can't find Oxbridge on a map tho).

In this blog I'm trying a model of open research - documenting those directions and ideas that seem promising (and I have time to write out). I'm not pretending everything here is correct, accurate (or even well thought out - tis is a personal blog/notebook). It should be an asset to me when writing up end-of-year reports as the material is closer to being publishable. My ulterior motive is to try and build some reputation (pagerank?) for the topics I'm reading.

My subject "procedural geometry" isn't very well known in the way i'd like it to be, and I think I was hoping to get in early and grab some obvious research areas. For this reason it didn't really matter where I studied (although I am (very) happy with my supervisors and environment in Glasgow), but it did take me a couple of years to find someone (SICSA! woo!) to fund it. I was supprised that there was no computer-graphics (apart from image-analysis). This means that I'm even on my own for undergrad things like geometry and suchlike, but since it's just another topic on the heap-to learn-it's no great issue. Perhaps I should find a summer school or similar to fill in the massive holes I have in my computational geometry knowledge?

This really does explain a lot about how academia functions. The people that get through a PhD are unlikely to be the go-getters (unless they are particularly brilliant) but those that can build on something for a very long time (some people who are starting are only 21, meaning one sixth of their life is being invested) while fighting against all the flack from other academics and nay-sayers. This means that people in academia learn to be right the hard way, by being smacked down and wasting huge quantities of their life when they're wrong. Quite a fantastic entry-gate to have mind you, although not entirely compatible with the ability to teach.

In summary, lots of what this book says it true.

*To force the commoditization of a concept, to be able to use it as a building block for other ideas (#define "personal commoditization of an item of information" grok).

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