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Category Archives: my thesis year

Ascension to Doctorhood

research complete

research complete, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Well, okay, I’m not Dr Brochu just yet. There’s a list of minor revisions and some paperwork ahead of me. But on Friday, November 26, 2010, I successfully defended my thesis and passed my doctoral exam, so the days of gut-churning anxiety are finally over.

It’s disturbing how similar this feeling is to what I felt when I finally beat Nethack. (And I thank former fellow Kommunist and Nethacker Eddy for the title of this post.)

January was a Month of Adjusting

18304270_78188350a8.jpgThe lovely Janelle has been visiting, so I’ve been neglecting the ol’ blog in favour of spending my free time doing things with her, like eating calf brains at Boneta (verdict: Mucumpiz delicious) and watching Project Runway (verdict: hell of a lot better than I expected). But she’s in the spare room sewing and listening to Kevin Smith’s podcast at the moment, so I thought I’d give my as-promised report on how the thesis is going.

It’s been an interesting transition back to full-time PhD-dom. While working, I was much more focussed on productivity than creativity, meaning I went to Yaletown around 9 every morning and left around 6 or 7 every night, and worked on mostly fairly-immediate new features and bug fixes. When I did research, it was to find the solution to a problem, not to investigate something novel. While perhaps not entirely “creatively fulfilling”, I do get a lot of satisfaction just from the feeling of accomplishing and producing something pretty much every day.

The grad student lifestyle is a big a shift from that. For one thing, it’s a lot less structured. I am still working with Worio a couple of days a week, which forces me to manage my time a bit, but I generally work at different places and different times and decide day-to-day what needs to be done. This is not great for short-term productivity, but I find it very important for creativity. As an academic researcher in Machine Learning, there’s not usually a lot of payoff in incremental improvements and fixes — you need to take more chances and do something new. Which is why I spent a chunk of January working on a conference paper that ended up not being submitted. Most of the rest, I spent reading a couple of books and a stack of papers, some of which were interesting and some of which weren’t. I’m much more of an applied-science guy than a theorist, and much more of a doer than a reader, so the upshot is that I sometimes have to force myself to sit down and do the reading instead of diving in and doing the coding and experiments. But I think it paid off. I literally had one of those in-the-shower moments, where you have to get out of the shower, grab a notebook and write down a multi-page detailed description of your idea, complete with sketches of figures. It all felt very scientist-y. If it works, this is a publication and a chapter of my thesis. If it doesn’t, it’s a big chunk of lost time. I’ll know in a few weeks.

My Thesis Year

timeline_snip.jpgHappy New Year/Christmas/Festivus/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah, everybody!

If I were to sum up 2008 in a word — and I am about to — it was my “Worio” year. I spent the year working full-time with the Worio team on the web-page recommender system, and we have something I think we’re all fairly proud of. We demoed Worio at NIPS 2008 and got a good reception, we’ve received a bit of cautiously positive bloggage, and I’ve been awarded my first patent, for work I did with Worio.

Now it’s 2009, and I’m planning to make it my thesis year. I’m still involved with Worio, but as of January 1st, I’m no longer a full-time employee, I’m a full-time PhD candidate. Just before I went on leave to work with Worio, I defended my PhD proposal. A proposal is, essentially, an outline of what the thesis will be, and a schedule for finishing it. The idea is that if I do what I said I was planning to do, my committee has to grant me my PhD. Of course, the reality of research is ideas that seemed brilliant sometimes end up being harder that you thought, or impossible, or have already been done by other people. And at the same time, you have new ideas, or get unexpectedly good results from an experiment. So what ends up going into your thesis can look pretty different from what you said was going to go in.

I don’t know how much my thesis will end up resembling what I proposed, but I know the past year working on other projects has given me both some new ideas and also the motivation to buckle down and finish the damn thing. The conventional wisdom is that your PhD lasts until you want it to be over, and as much as I enjoy the grad-student lifestyle, I would like it to be done. I’ve spent years in academia and I’ve spent years in industry and I like industry a whole lot better. I’m also greatly looking forward to spending a while backpacking across Asia, which I’m planning to do after I finish my PhD.

So what are my goals for 2009? By the end of the year, I would like to either be done my thesis or be in the home stretch. I would like to have a couple of papers on their way to publication. I would like to see some of my research work going into a piece of real-world software like Worio, though I have a couple of ideas for projects of my own, too.

And so I may be neglecting this blog while I find a new work/school/girlfriend equilibrium. But my plan is — in addition to any other blogging I may or may not be doing — to have a longish, thesis-related post every month, kind of talking about how it’s going and what I’ve been working on. I’m not sure how interesting it will be to y’all out there, but it should be a useful exercise for me.