The Sweat, Sorrow and Sweetness of my PhD Journey
So, it’s been a long time a wrote a blog post. But I’m embarking on an interesting journey (which I’ll explain later in the next post) which I have decided to write about as I proceed. So my chain of thought may be somewhat all over the place as I write this blog post but I hope you won’t mind.
On 15th December 2014, 1800hr, I submitted my PhD dissertation to the department staff who smiled and congratulated me on successful completion and submission of my thesis. As I made my way back to my office, I looked up to the cloudy sky, closed my eyes and let the cold wind slap my face and trickles of snow fall on my outstretched hands. I felt light, relieved and relaxed but unfortunately no smarter than I was few days before. As a walked slowly towards my office, I allowed my mind to drift away to my first day on campus…
It was a relatively chilly evening on September 17th 2007. I stood in front of the big brown widely opened school gate where I knew I’d be spending the next two years of my life doing a masters’ degree program.
What I did not know at that time was that the 2 years would ultimately extend to 7 years to include a Ph.D program which was filled with several bitter-sweet moments.
I have a Computer Science background and I was fortunate enough to graduate as one of the top 5% in my class. As Telecommunications was a booming field in Nigeria around 2004 when I graduated from BS, I thought it would be a good field to advance my studies.
My excitement about my admission to GIST to study Communications Engineering was short-lived when the moment of reality hit me and I realized that I was totally unprepared for the field as I did not have the necessary mathematical background needed to be a straight A student among the highly competitive and extremely smart Asian kids in my class.
Four semesters later I graduated and decided to go ahead to get my PhD in the same field having published a couple of international journals and conferences during my MS program.
My PhD journey was really hard. Extremely challenging and filled with several moments of self-doubts, fear, rejection and self-criticism. There were night I broke down in tears in the middle of the night due to frustration and depression. I worked 16 hours everyday, starting from 9AM and working late into the night, sometimes leaving the Lab at 1AM. Coming from CS background, I always wished (till now), that I’d done more Mathematics and Statistics courses in college.
Indeed, academic research is like a swimming duck. Appearing smooth and settled on the water, but paddling furiously under the water. Nobody sees the stressful paddle but everyone gleefully admires its graceful glides on the water. Nobody sees the many rejection letters, the sleepless nights, and times you almost quit the race… all that matters is how you finish…
The first academic examination I ever failed in my life was my Doctoral qualifying exams!
I passed on my second attempt!
Somewhere along the line, I had a burn out and I lost my passion for getting my PhD. I was seriously contemplating quitting the program. Problem was, I’d already hit the point of no return, I was three years in with some papers already published in international journals.
I decided to hang in there, work a little smarter, change me schedule a bit and find some extra-curricula activities to take my mind off work. I also made the difficult decision to stop working on weekends and instead engage in other activities that could take my mind of anything work related.
How I maintained my sanity during my PhD program
I’m extremely grateful for the support systems around me during my PhD program – my two lovely daughters and my amazing wife who stood by me and gave me reasons to laugh and be happy in my darkest hour.
I had essentially two reasons why I did not quit my PhD program.
First, I do not want to regret five, ten years later. I do not want to think about those “what if …” and “what could have been…”, I do not want to regret not completing my program when opportunities that require a PhD come knocking.
Secondly, I was constantly battling the thoughts of how I’d advice my daughters when they have difficult times in future. Would I tell them to quit and move on or would I tell them to hang in there, that there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. I want to be a model and a reference point for them.
One other thing I did that really helped me during those difficult time was physical fitness. I made sure I worked out in the gym and I joined an awesome amateur soccer club where I played football every weekend for two or three hours. Needless to say, at some point, it was the highlight of my week and something to look forward to every week.
Sweetspot on my PhD Journey
When it was good, it was really good. Those sprinkles of joy gave me some occasional motivation that I needed to move on. I was fortunate enough to get a full-time teaching faculty position in one of the top private universities in Korea even before I finished my PhD program. That, by my reckon is an amazing opportunity.
One other great thing about doing this PhD is the opportunity I have to work on a topic of my choice. Plan my time the way I wanted. Decide when I want to work and when I want to just lazy it out in my room.
There are many other tremendous benefits and lessons I’ve learnt during my PhD journey which are not so different from what other people in similar path have experienced. One amazing benefit of my PhD program is the great flexibility the PhD program gave me. I got married one month before I started my PhD. The time flexibility allowed me to spend time with my wife and daughters. I could get away from my desk, play horseback-ride with my baby girl while I think about the bug in my code!
I had great time flexibility that I’d never have had if I were working with a multinational company. My PhD time gave me great opportunity to watch my daughter grow and allow me to build a solid foundation for my very young marriage. PhD is NOT all dark and gloomy provided you know your purpose.
PhD is a rollercoaster of emotions. The highs are excitingly high and the lows are depressingly low. But when you get out of it, you breath a sign of relief and you look back with a great sense of accomplishment.
Five core lessons PhD taught me
Obtaining a PhD degree is not about how smart you are. It’s about tenacity, your discipline, willingness and ability to stay the course even when things are not working as expected. Tenacity is your determination and persistent to keep trying different ways to solve a problem until you find a headway.
One of the requirements for successful completion of your PhD is successful publications in peer reviewed papers. My institution only recognizes SCI(E) publications and my advisor only fancies certain type of journals which unfortunately are highly competitive to get published in. This invariably translate to several rejection as most journals have about 8% to 25% acceptance rate.
You need to develop a thick skin to rejection and not allow depression to set in when your work is rejected. Someone once said, “for students that excelled as undergraduates, the sudden and constant barrage of rejection and failure is jarring. If you have an ego problem, Ph.D. school will fix it. With a vengeance. ” It’s totally true!
Perseverance is a major key to successful completion of a PhD program.
PhD program is stressful for most people and everyone have different ways of dealing with the stress. Some take it out on people around them by becoming verbally abusive and aggressive while some take it out on themselves, hitting the wall, banging head on the desk, soliloquizing and throw stuffs against the wall like someone who’s lost his mind. A kind and gentle colleague going through a difficult time in his PhD program may suddenly become hostile and unresponsive. One of the great things you can do at such time to maintain a good relationship is simply to understand and tolerate them. Try not to respond harshly. Even if you do, quickly make attempt at damage control and re-establish good relationship. You cannot afford to carry extra baggage of conflict in addition to your academic stress.
You need to learn how to clearly and forcefully articulate your thoughts and idea both verbally and in writing.
Science is as much an act of persuasion as it is an act of discovery. Once you’ve made a discovery, you have to persuade experts that you’ve made a legitimate, meaningful contribution. This is harder to do than it seems.
You may be required to make periodic presentations, seminar, lectures and conference talk in front of people, from a pocket of people to large audience up to a hundred people. You need to learn how to communicate your idea clearly much the same way a marketer needs to learn how to sell his product.
Start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don’t even have to write about your research. I started a blog where I wrote about video surveillance system. I got interested in this topic after doing a project involving using OPNET modeler where I studied the deployment of IEEE802.16j relays as vehicle-to-roadside (V2R) infrastructures for uplink transmission of emergency mobile video surveillance (EMVS) in WiMAX networks.
Interestingly, I started getting lots of traffic and comments on the blog and made some money through adverts. Profits from the blog got my a first Macbook Pro and another laptop for my wife among other stuffs.
Sense of Purpose
PhD is not for everyone. I read that countless time before I started my PhD but the significance of that statement never really resonated with me until I got into the heat of the program. You must figure out why you are doing the PhD program before you start or at worst early in your PhD program. Figure out the why will give you a sense of purpose and a great impetus to move on when things get awry. If you’re looking for reasons NOT to do a PhD, I’ve got 1000 reasons for you here. You should totally read it and think about it before you start your PhD program.
In my next post, I’ll write about my decision to change my research path from electronics Engineering back to Computer Science which happens to be my main background. I’ll be writing about my exploration of the field of Data Science and big data. In the meantime, feel free to comment below if you have enjoyed this post and you’ve got a few things on your mind to share with me.