What I Learned from My Ph.D.

I recently completed my Ph.D. (thesis, defense presentation) and currently, I am cherishing my beautiful days back in Athens. This is also a laid back time (well.. not so much) to ponder about the last three and half years of investment. The pondering revealed that I learned many things during this period, not only technical but also concerning social and personal aspects. The major source of my learning is my supervisor Prof. Diomidis Spinellis, Prof. Panos Louridas, and colleagues from my lab and university. Here is an attempt to put together what I learned in words, at least some of them.

  1. Automate experiments
    Let us get started with a technical learning. During my initial days of Ph.D., my advisor hard-coded me to automate all the experiments related to a paper. I was not very convinced initially for automating small tasks, but soon I realized that I am repeating the tasks and wasting my time. We are doing research; our experiments will fail and we have to run them multiple times. Hence, creating automation for experiments at the beginning itself will not only pay off the effort in terms of time but also reduce the possibilities of making mistakes. Ideally, our whole experiment related to a paper should work with a single command—it applies to quantitative analysis, obviously. Many times, we need to run the experiment multiple times in different configurations or options; I typically put all the parameters of the program at one place with some basic documentation and make sure nothing else needs to be changed to run it multiple times except the initial parameters.    
  2. Seek  impact
    I came back to the academic world from the industry with the mindset that my academic work must solve a real problem or at least must help me or the community to achieve the goal. My belief became more profound in these years after interacting with many researchers and practitioners. In ICSE 2016, Prof. Gail Murphy presented an insightful keynote titled Is “Continuous Adoption in Software Engineering Achievable and Desirable?”. Using a case study, she emphasized how a research work can make a broader impact and motivated us to seek for an impact beyond our Ph.D. thesis. This is one of the many occasions I realized the importance of making an impact rather than writing papers for the sake of publications.
  3. Implications first
    Implications are tightly related to impact; in fact, implications are our understanding of the potential impact. I remember when I presented a quantitative analysis to my supervisor and he asked: “so what?”. Later he added that the analysis looks good but if there is no implication of this analysis why we are doing this. It was one of my significant learning; this has changed my perspective and I started asking myself “so what?” more often.
  4. Failures are part of life
    Failures, in terms of paper and grant rejections, are part of academic life. I remember the phase of my Ph.D. in which I faced six continuous paper rejections. My advisor always told me to learn from the mistakes and move on. I believe that we learn more from our rejected papers than the accepted ones.
  5. Be rigorous and pay attention to details
    Towards the end of my Ph.D., I was working on our smell detection using deep learning paper with Prof. Panos Louridas and others. We put together a data curation process and relatively large and complex experimental setup. He taught me not to look away from the finer details that may lead to wrong results even when we are in a hurry to submit. For example, he made me write all the fine-grain steps (that we normally don’t write in papers) that anybody can read and replicate exactly from downloading a repository to all the way to tokenizing individual samples and preparing the final input which is ready to be given to a deep learning model. Though those suggestions look arduous at that time, they uncovered problems and emphasized their importance.
  6. Serve—Give back more than you take
    The academic world depends on peer service—our peers review our work to enable us to publish. All the successful academicians that I observe devote a significant amount of time towards servicing the community in the form of reviewing papers, organizing conferences, and be on the editorial board of journals. Whenever we submit a paper, we are creating work for others and hence we need to pay back the service debt. I believe that we should review more papers than we submit.
  7. Network—Know your peers
    This is one of the things that I learned quite late. Producing good work is definitely necessary and desirable. However, our academic success depends on our network to some extent and hence we need to use all the opportunities to know our peers and seniors. A lot can happen over a conversation during a conference lunch—honest and critical feedback of our papers, an idea for a new paper, our next job, and many other collaboration possibilities. Once a Ph.D. student is walking towards the completion and looking for the next move, these contacts may play an important role.
    What we can do when we are not attending a conference? Well.. we interact with peers using social media. Social media can significantly help us with our research—especially when we are conducting a survey or requesting some feedback from peers.
  8. Have a life—Ph.D. is part of your life, not your life
    Obviously, Ph.D. is demanding and could be stressful at times. Working hard is necessary; however, at the same time, taking off and spending time with family and friends is also very important. It is important to realize that the Ph.D. is part of our life and not our life. Spending a weekend evening with friends in a balcony with beers in hand is blissful after working hard for the whole week.
    I was blessed with a great company of friends in Athens. We spent countless evenings in the Plaka and other nearby areas in the center of Athens as well as in balconies either celebrating paper acceptance belonging to one of us or supporting the one over the beers whose paper got rejected recently. It’s interesting (and funny) that I know city-center of Athens much better than city-center of Bangalore.

There are many more coming from living in a foreign country. I believe that the international experience made me more open-minded, flexible, and humble.