Why did we decide to pursue a PhD?

March 17, 2022

Why did we pursue a PhD? Some personal experiences...

People have various reasons for wanting to pursue a PhD. It can be for the chances of getting a better job or a better paid job. Or perhaps for the possibility of becoming a professor. Or for the excitement of investigating and finding out something new. Or because they already have a clear research question in mind and want to understand it thoroughly. Or maybe because of the status this title can give them. Or maybe because they’re unsatisfied about their jobs and they believe another type of career could be more thrilling than their current one. Perhaps it’s quite difficult to pinpoint what sparked the will that led to a certain action. It’s oftentimes the case that it was a combination of events, choices and their interaction that led to a final decision.

Below we are reporting our personal experiences of pursuing a PhD.

A street surrounded by trees.

Neele's experience

I was never sure what I wanted to do with my life. Unlike other students I did not know whether I would like to become a lawyer, a teacher or go to the police. It was only by chance that I found the subject of computational linguistics because a career couch at school proposed it to me as I asked for an option to combine language and computer science (I found both subjects interesting).

When I started studying computational linguistics I often found myself overloaded as I have a weakness in math and really struggled to solve all the  math-related assignments. I liked programming a lot but wouldn't have considered myself as a natural talent (like other students who were really good in coding). It was a lot of work for me but it was fun and I was always proud when I was able to solve the tasks.

Although I thought that due to my lack of talent in this field I will never pursue a career in it I continued to do a Master. During that time I started to find out a bit more about what kind of topics and research directions are interesting for me and which are not and I realized that the field of NLP is so diverse that you can be very interested and as a result successful in one subfield without being talented in another.  Because I was working as a HiWi in a research project I also got the chance during my Masters to make experiences in how it is to work on a larger research project and how writing a publication works. I saw the challenges and the frustration you get when you try out a 100 things and nothing works but also how interesting and fun it is to do research (never ever boring ^^). 

Nevertheless, I doubted from the bottom of my heart that I could pursue a PhD as I perceived myself as "not intelligent / talented enough" and I had this image in my head that people with a Doctor title are only the most intelligent / natural talented once .  However I had a really good supervisor during my work as a Hiwi who motivated me to think a bit more about considering the possibility of doing a PhD.
She lend me this book "how to fly a horse"  by Kevin Ashton which really motivated me and somehow changed my perspective a bit. The book reports several stories about how famous 'creators' (researchers, artists, company founders) and how the things they achieved  did not simply fly to them but resulted from long, often frustrating processed accompanied by many failures.

I realized that you can achieve something (does not have to be life-changer) if you keep up. You have to work hard and there will be times when you will have no ideas / creativity at all. But you have to be patient with yourself and maybe lower your own expectations. And most importantly you have to work on a topic / in a research direction that you are really interested, that motivates you to move on even if there is a lot of frustration.

Lucas's experience

My phd is on news recommendation systems and their impact on users. This is a topic with a high economical relevance. Still, I believe a phd is the right environment to approach it.

This is because in my experience economical environments usually confront projects with very tight margins, that root from the need for profitability. Thus, goals, as well as steps taken towards them need to be very well-defined and foreseeable. In turn often there is no room far shots or questions with an uncertain outcome.

Typically, the end-result needs to be a complete product. Therefore, you are better off taking the obvious and direct path towards a goal, although it may miss an important detail.

Questions regarding the impact of some product will almost certainly be given little priority, despite that they could heavily influence user decisions in the long run.

In a phd all this can be different. Research can be open-ended and you are free to ask hard questions with no obvious answer. Detours are acceptable and the focus is on understanding details.

This is not to say it makes everything better and certainly not easier. It can also be a trap. But a phd gives you the opportunity to ask questions (almost) without economical constraints. This opens up a range of possibilities that would not be accessible otherwise. You are basically free to  ask anything as long as it is reasonable and your answers are consistent and correct.

Tanise's experience

In my personal case, I think the decision to pursue a PhD was just a consequence of how much I enjoyed studying computational linguistics and natural language processing during my master’s. On the other hand, I think the master’s degree was a conscious decision that required a lot of pondering and effort in order to be pursued as I didn’t continue my studies in row. Moreover, the fact that I was also willing to change area of study added to the difficulty in taking the decision. It required a lot pondering because at that time I’d already left university and had been working outside academia as a language teacher for some years. When you have a full time job, it’s more challenging to turn to a different direction both because of lack of time to think about it and because of financial hurdles. 
Nonetheless, at that time, I was starting to miss the academic environment and I was not so happy with the work conditions I found myself in. I wanted to have a job that was more dynamic, that allowed me more flexibility and freedom. Then, regardless of hurdles, I gathered my will and determination together and started looking for a master’s degree. After some time investigating and talking to people, I decided to dive into computational linguistics since it had some -even if little - connection with my previous studies (English language and literature) and it seemed to be a buzzing area with many opportunities because of its relevance both for fundamental academic research and for industry. Now I can say it was a lucky shot, I could have hated it because it also involved many computational and mathematical challenges, things that I’d never seen before. But on the contrary, I fell in love with the area and couldn’t be happier with my decision. 

Boarding on a PhD pursuit experience is boarding in the direction of the land of the unknown without a clear final destination. This metaphor could be read as rather dramatic, but what I really mean is less dramatic and more objective perhaps. That is, we or most people, don’t really know what is waiting for us in this adventure. Also, when you start a PhD, there's not going to be a person 'teaching' your tasks or you're not going to go through a formal training such as it could happen in a company. What we do know is that it’s going to take us somewhere out of our comfort zone quite constantly until its end. Of course we may have many ideas of what it means to pursue a PhD or to be a PhD student/candidate, but we are just going to find out the nitty-gritty, once our seat belt has been fastened.


Authors: Neele Falk, Lucas Moeller and Tanise Ceron

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