Mohamed

Beyond the borders of sanity

Should I do a phD?

As I’m almost half-way through my M.Sc. thesis, it’s time (actually kind of late) to make a decision about whether or not I should consider joining graduate school ~September to do a phD. Maybe you can help me take that decision. But in order to allow you make a more informed decision, you need to know more about me, and what I’ve been up to. So let’s take a step back in time to know what I’ve been up to for the past year and a half or so. I won’t tell you all the details, but I’ll let you know enough to help me out.

Highschool and undergrad

Nothing special there. Built my first website in Adobe Dreamweaver. Started dabbling with Adobe Flash and realised I was a bad animator. But it was the fact that I loved the joy of creation at that time that might be relevance

I started studying computer science at University of Bahrain for this purpose perhaps. But I didn’t do anything significant during my undergraduate studies. Maybe a few contests here and there, but mostly working on assignments and studying. The way we were being assessed frustrated me back then. Short examinations and quizes didn’t quite reveal the true competence of students in my opinion.

I started getting a little serious about my programming during my last year. Well, maybe “serious” is not the right term here, but I wanted to be really good at it, and I was really enjoying it. I also starting hearing about open source software, and the concept really attracted me. I didn’t really get involved in it at this stage, however.

Stand back, I just graduated

“Hooray! I won’t be seeing those academia suckers again” – I thought. I wasn’t really involved in research back then. In fact, I didn’t know what the point of it was. My personal intuition didn’t like it though. I used to think that professors and researches were people who were not competend enough in the industry. “Those who can’t make, teach”.

Anyway, right after graduation I started working on some silly projects. Something about JavaScript attracted me back then. It wasn’t about the web, or interactivity. It was about the language itself. Anonymous functions, prototypal inheritance …

I got my first job as a JavaScript developer. It was an under-paid job, but I have to say it was lots of fun. Meanwhile, I started hearing alot about starting your own business, following your passion, and being your own boss. It seems like a friend of mine had been driven by the same motives. So I quit my job and we both joined an entrpreneurship contest. We won first place!

One mistake that we did was that we didn’t have a clear objective about our business. Our ideas were too general, and also too common. We wanted to start a graphics and web design company. Personally, I felt that I was being driven by making money rather than creating something amazing.

Something was wrong. Victory felt good however. We decided to go on with the dream and start casually taking on some freelance web and graphics projects.

During the same period my dad was actively encouraging me to apply for a Masters degree. I got an unconditionally offer at University of Birmingham. I had to make a choice between industry and academia.

Doing an M.Sc.

As you might have guessed, I went with the M.Sc. offer. My awesome dad helped me fund my way through it. I was also working with our new company. Kind of midway between both careers, unable to decide.

But what I did realise was that I wasn’t enjoying company work as much as I though I would. I felt like it wasn’t my thing anymore. What makes me tick is writing code, understanding concepts, and solving difficult, complicated problems. Sure, you could do that while starting a company to fill in a hole in the market, but somehow that didn’t sound appealing to me anymore. At least not for the moment. I didn’t want to be driven by money, but rather by the love of creation and figuring things out. I just want enough money to pay for my server, eat, drink and sleep.

Also, since I had to focus on both the company and my M.Sc, I didn’t perform well on either one. So I had to make a choice. I had to pause work on the company for a while, so I quit. This gave me time to focus on my M.Sc. mini-projects.

Then I realized that I wasn’t right thinking that research was boring and not fun. Au contraire! It feels good to actually figure something out, and try working on something novel. Research is actually quite interesting. It’s kind of like when you’re hacking or writing code, and you figure out how to do something. And somehow getting down all your thoughts on paper helps organize them and gain a deeper understanding about the subject.

So … Should I do it?

So we’re back to the present, where I’m currently enjoying working on my thesis, and thinking about doing a PhD. I’ve tried applying for some scholarships but no luck. If I’m going to do one, I’d probably have to go part-time and self-fund my degree (doing freelance webdevelopment?). This gives me more freedom to chose my own topic.

What’s a PhD like? Publishing papers, doing research, travelling to talk about your research and attend conferences? None of that sounds exciting to me, except the ‘doing research part. So I’m still unsure if a PhD is for me or not.

I’m not even sure what topic I should do it in. Sure, I have interest in compilers, programming languages, image processing and functional programming. But I don’t know enough about any of these to be able to decide what precisely I should work on.

So … Should I do a PhD?

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