Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Five-Minute Ph.D.

Okay, I lied, both about how often I'd start posting, and about the content of the next post. Briefly put, finishing a thesis and preparing for a defense while working a full-time job is both painful and time consuming. My defense is September 18th, after which there will be much rejoicing, and possibly more consistent posting.

Until then, here's a cross-post from my other blog. I'm behind on that one, too, but since it's a work commitment, I write there before I write here.

As my Ph.D. defense nears, I'm thinking a lot about the most important lessons:
  • Don't look for reasons to fail; find ways to succeed. If something should or must be done, find a way to do it.
  • First figure out the right thing to do. Only then think about implementation, and see how close you can come. Even if you can't reach the ideal, at least you'll be pushing in the right direction.
  • Any good problem solver can hack a good solution quickly. What's more valuable is identifying the underlying problem, and how it relates to other problems. This tells you if something is a true solution, and helps discover other opportunities.
  • Think in a structured, disciplined way. First, separate out orthogonal issues. Then, solve them incrementally and iteratively. Don't try to attack the whole mess at once.
  • Finally, when communicating with others, try to tell a story. Start with something familiar, then make sure your ideas flow.

Those are the big ones. The gems of a Ph.D. education, in five easy minutes. Interestingly, none of these are particularly technical. But deeply technical things are limited in application. I think that's the real secret: the work you do in a Ph.D. is technical, but a good Ph.D. is about becoming a better thinker and communicator.

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