Monday, June 23, 2014

PhD tales: (Part1) Most challenging part

Doing PhD is indeed one lifetime experience for every PhD candidate. But what is interesting is that every PhD tale has its both unique and comparable narratives. As it is notorious for, PhD comes with lot of challenges and hurdles. Before even trying to start answering the research question that you yourself propose, you need to answer and walk through a trail of many questions. First answer them and satisfy your soul. And get convinced. The very first and foremost question is to ask if you really want to do a PhD. Are you a PhD material? Can you devote your next 5 years studying? Can you make your PhD studies both your friends and family? Most importantly, does it align with your life’s goal??? And once you examine the depth of your intent and interest in doing a PhD, then comes rolling the never ending list of deciding the school, your advisor, thesis topic, and further on.
For me, the director of computer science from an ok not a great university, owning a bioinformatics lab called me and interviewed me. He then later offered me a PhD position which I joined. This meant, I already had my advisor when I started my PhD. When I joined his lab, I was expected to take over the project of a former graduating PhD student in our lab. I heard it is very common in biology community to first take over projects from previous PhD students in your lab and then only think what you yourself want to do. For that, I had to fully understand his whole software written in C and develop its web application. This would help its users to be able to access and run it on web on our servers. So, my first year was spent in understanding that software and building its web-server. It was indeed, a very useful learning experience. I developed the online tool and wrote a conference paper as first author.
Having understood the software so well, I started taking up services where our collaborators wanted to use that tool. And on side I was also digging its various projects that it had been used for, in past. I found one of our collaborators projects and its result sitting in our computers for last two years. The results looked so promising and representing one unique feature of that tool, unnoticed till then. I polished that feature of that tool and further analyzed those results. Eventually after prolonged efforts of bringing together all the past collaborators on that project to provide me with more details, I finally wrote a paper and got it published. It is always advised to take care of the low hanging fruit first. It was hard to get all the authors back to their 2 years old project and review a long research paper. That paper had absolutely different angle than for what they used that tool before. Reminding busy professors and struggling new post-docs for reviewing the paper I wrote was a tough job by itself for a naïve, immature PhD student.
And, then only after my fairly successful 2 years came my very first real challenge to decide on my thesis topic. The challenge that many of us think is to decide in first year or even before joining a PhD program.

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