I am one of those lucky individuals doing research in one of the most happening fields in the world. The field that is often seen as the “electricity of the modern era”. Yes, I work in Machine Learning (ML). I work on its application to understand images and videos — Computer Vision. Though my perspective in this story is biased towards ML, it applies to most PhDs.
ML is a very active research field these days. There are billions of dollars floating around in terms of funding. Hundreds of academics are being approached by companies for consulting. For graduating Masters students this means ample opportunities for doing a PhD. From my experience of interacting with ~5 years of graduates from MSc programme, I notice a common trait: Top students get flooded with PhD offers and simply do not know how to choose the right PhD catered for them. As a result they regret having wasted their valuable years doing a PhD. Mediocre students just flow with the tide and go for the PhD that comes their way and regret having wasted their time. So, I wish to unleash some unwritten pointers for choosing the right PhD that suits ‘you’.
A PhD is a constant grind to explore the unknown aiming to push the boundary of a given tiny area of a field. As Andrej Karpathy puts it in his blog, “A PhD is simultaneously a fun and frustrating experience”. So to get a good PhD in the end (in n years 😃), it is better to choose a topic in an area of your field that is extremely interesting for you, excites you or has always been exciting. It is quite important not to be tempted by any other material temptations such as:
So, simply choose a topic that interests you and will keep you going for years. It is quite normal to drift away from where you started. But even with the drift, I have always seen students stay in the expert zone of their supervisor and not drift too far.
By location I mean the town / city where you will be working. Most of my friends declined PhD positions simply because the lab is located in a very small town in some corner of the world.
So why bother much about where you work when you get a chance to work with a renowned supervisor on a highly interesting topic. If you do best during your PhD years, you can bag a post-doc position in the city of your choice 😃.
Some research groups tend to publish on diverse topics. For instance a group may be publishing in Computer Vision, Robotics and Medical Imaging. Such a diverse group indicates either one of the two:
A bitter fact in such a big group is that the supervisor simply cannot keep up with what is happening with every student. For instance it becomes difficult for a Professor to read papers in every single conference in CV, ML, NLP. So they tend to manage the group as a hierarchy. They hire post-docs who are experts in different areas. The PhD students in turn get guidance from the post-docs. It is very easy to identify such groups looking at the publication record of your potential supervisor in the past 3–5 years.
“Small is beautiful” when it comes to group size. But if you can do it all alone, then choose a large group, work independently with lot of independent work happening around you.
In my opinion, there are two kinds of publishers in academia: quality and quantity publishers.
So, if you find your potential supervisor has 30 publications in a year, be sceptical. A supervisor with 3–5 publications in a Tier 1 conference or journal could be a better bet to work with simply because you will also be expected to publish quality papers and not churn-out quantities.
One of the joys of doing a PhD is that as a creative individual, most of the times you get to do whatever you want, at least within the scope of the area you are working on. But it may not be this way:
First, think twice what sort of person you are. Are you abreast with what is happening in the field? Can you come up with your own ideas and show through your experiments that the ideas are worth it? if so, you probably need to work with the latter style of supervision. It is worth talking to your potential supervisor’s team members to find out how they come up with ideas, implement them, publish and iterate the process.
Though a PhD is a solo journey with mounting pressure to publish as days pass by, you tend to spend a lot of time with your group mates, go for a few drinks with them every now and then. They may not be too helpful to you even if they want to as their expertise will be in a different area. But they do define the energy and morale of the team. The team could bring positive vibes to you by simply encouraging you in your journey. Or they can simply throw words at you during that 5 mins lunch break chats which can tumble the bricks of your confidence. So the energy and morale of your potential group mates is never to be underestimated while choosing to commit yourselves 3+ years.
Try to chat with the potential group mates as much as possible before choosing to commit working with them for few years. Identify the thin line of work culture running in the group.
Some other commitments for a PhD student could be:
All the above skills are quite valuable for someone wishing to pursue an academic career. But they also consume valuable research time from your 3 years. Would you like to graduate as that all-rounded person who has tasted every aspect of academia? Or would you like to focus on pure research during your PhD and let alone teaching and supervising others for later stages of your career?
With all other factors fixed, some supervisors simply expect the students to work all by themselves, come up with ideas and get results. This is because a PhD is the only time to mould you into that independent scientist who can constantly push the field ahead.
Some supervisors will help you quite a lot. They discuss with you all the ideas you need to experiment with. They write the paper if you are running experiments. The do the figures for your paper if you are coding the solution.
You and “only you” know who you want to work with. You may asses yourself by looking at how you behaved while doing your MSc coursework. Did you work alone? Did you like group projects or independent projects?
Unlike other degrees, the value of a PhD is in what you contribute! You are more likely to succeed if you choose to work on the right topic and the right people. All else is next. I hope this article helps make that right decision before embarking on that journey rather than regretting with a hindsight. Happy PhD! 😄
Also note: Publishing a few papers as the first author is the starting point for a research career. PhD is one defined path to do it. But in a small world, don’t many paths lead to the same destination? 😏