Image source: https://deborahgabriel.com

The Reluctant Researcher — As a PhD Student

I started of doing PhD in March 2010 but the quest to do PhD started a few months earlier when I applied for a PhD position in NTNU, Trondheim, Norway.

The decision to pursue PhD was not because I loved being a researcher but for far more practical reasons. I had chosen the field of digital system design as my career, industrial opportunities for which were non-existent in my home country of Pakistan. I knew I had to return so the more practical way of pursuing this field was doing PhD and then getting an academic position in any university back home. So in some sense, I was not following my passion but a purpose and goal that I had set myself.

However, I never had my heart in doing research. My PhD also was more about implementing new hardware architectures for signal processing applications. Designing and implementing hardware architectures was what I always wanted to do but in an industry rather than in an academic setting. I structured my research in a way more reminiscent of working in the industry rather than academic. I shied away from the more theoretical stuff, leaving much of that to my supervisor and that was the first in a series of mistakes. It is not that I didn’t read research papers and studied the topic, but on a limited scale. I did look at various options for an efficient hardware architecture but it was more about designing an architecture and analyse its various features as input specification change.

I also shied away from spending too much time in understanding anything that seemed difficult at the outset. Another mistake. I suffered and continue to suffer from lapse of concentration. I used to regularly switch to browsing internet when reading or doing something or trying to understand something difficult or challenging. I struggled to concentrate on reading books, papers, technical articles or blogs. Instead of putting my head down and focusing on the problem on hand, I took the escape route. Even spending 15 minutes working on a problem seems like a lifetime while time on the internet used to fly and before I realized, I ended up spending a good 45 to 60 minutes doing nothing but browsing the internet, watching videos on YouTube or reading news. And here is the interesting part, I never had a hard time reading non-technical stuff, yet shied away from reading stuff that was important.

This habit of regular visits to the internet was not new and on hindsight, I suffered from it from the time I had easier access to the internet. It was not that I did not realize about it during my PhD. But instead of overcoming it, I started spending more time in office so that at least I can do some meaningful work in any given day. But that work was still focused on building architectures and implementing them using some hardware description language, something I already knew before hand. Furthermore, spending more time in my office meant regularly going to home late which affected my young family life.

Another problem I faced during my PhD studies was the fear of trying something new. I was always feared that what if I try something and it did not work out, liking writing a piece of code or experimenting with something. Such fear is not good for innovation and research.

All this meant that in terms of real learning, I was not able to achieve as much as generally PhD students achieve during their doctoral studies. My skill levels only nominally increased which had an effect on my career post-PhD. This is not to insinuate that the work done during PhD was not novel and unworthy of a doctorate degree. I was able to publish good work in leading journals and conferences which eventually enabled me to graduate.

But at the time of my graduation I was still satisfied with myself as my goal was to get employed in any university in Pakistan and spend the rest of my life quietly teaching without the need of being an active researcher, yet another mistaken thought. However, there was a reason why I wanted to be a teacher, focus on teacher and was confident I can be a good teacher? This is because the one thing that I think I was able to achieve was learn new teaching methods, specially project based learning and the way the undergraduate program was structured to aid students’ learning and hoped to carry that back to Pakistan.

How did I fare in Pakistan and why assuming I can quietly teach was a mistake? Did I address the mistakes highlighted here? That’s for another blog.

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A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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Syed Asad Alam

Syed Asad Alam

A reluctant researcher, making the transition to industry. Opinions expressed in my posts are mine and not of my employer.

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