My PhDiary: Term One

By | 6 February 2022

It turns out running a blog while starting on a PhD isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Who could’ve predicted that?

With exam season in the dust and term two starting, now seemed like the best time to give an update on how it’s been so far. I’ll try to keep this one shorter than my last post on the topic, because the last thing we need is a diary of every minute of every day. Here’s my summary of the key highlights of the course so far, based on questions asked of me by me. Let’s go!

What’s it like being in a 3+1 CDT, i.e. one master’s year before the PhD starts proper?

Considering that I did my master’s degree at the same university in 2019-2020, not very different. There’s a bit less Covid this time around, which is a plus, but managing the coursework and deadlines is like before. I won’t delve into the specifics of what units I’ve studied this term, but you can see them in the course catalogue if you’re curious. It’s been a wonderfully interdiscipline mix of computer science, engineering and humanities. As a Jack of all Trades, this is very much up my alley!

One of the best benefit is that this time around I have my own office to sit and work in. It’s convenient for free food, getting a social fix, and bugging my peers on anything that I’m stuck on. Which goes both ways of course, so it’s not all take and no give! It also gives me a desk to put my spiky succulent plant, nicknamed Hellraiser by my peers. Unfortunately said plant died over the Christmas break, I suspect due to overwatering. Whoops!

That said, I’ve been mixing working at home and office a fair amount, unlike some of my colleagues who favour one or the other. I don’t opt to work at home only because going to the office means walking up that f*cking hill (which I’ve managed about 25 times now, hurray!). Instead, because working at the office is such a good opportunity to talk to everyone, often I don’t get much actual work done! My best focused work environment involves zero conversation and some gentle jazz, which the office does not support. At the end of the day, I socialise at the office and concentrate at home, and I’m told that’s a perfectly healthy balance.

Otherwise, juggling work with the occasional PhD responsibility or event isn’t that time consuming. It certainly helps that I’ve done a master’s degree before. I’m also still very much in a conceptualising stage with my research, so I’m not spending too much time on reading papers or designing experiments yet. Which I will absolutely get around to when it becomes my top priority, which I’m not saying only in case my supervisors read this.

So how is the PhD part going?

A seminar I went to early on in the term about the PhD life described it as an emotional rollercoaster, a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many others. I have to say, I’m must be on a very gentle rollercoaster as my PhD related emotions have been pretty level so far. A result of it not being the main thing I’m focusing on right now, perhaps?

And yet, that doesn’t sound quite right. When people say that your PhD is on your brain 24/7, it’s not quite an exaggeration. No, I’m not mulling it every waking moment, or lying in bed at night staring at my ceiling questioning ‘Why haven’t I done more today?!’. But my brain cogs do keep whirring for potential topics and directions, grinding the ideas down into something workable. Helping this along is the reading I’m doing, particularly this useful reading list from the authors at 80000 Hours on how to govern AI systems. It’s an area I find myself more and more interested in.

At the start of the term, my focus was very much going to be on developing a novel mathematical approach to explainable AI. This is a valid PhD topic, and there’s plenty of talented researchers working on this very area, but I’m moving away from that direction. My final project will probably still involve plenty of maths, because that’s my background, but I’m getting more and more into the social sciences I’ve studied for the course. It’s left me wishing I’d done a bit more social sciences in my previous education, and I’ve even debated putting the PhD on hold to study them more first!

From studying social sciences, my PhD has been drifting more and more in a broader direction of ‘Why is Explainable AI so hard?’. My ideal uncritiqued outcome of the work will be to to develop some sort of process that will enable a smoother delivery of explainable AI systems. There’s loads of benefits to something like this, at least as far as the pitch in my head argues. I do realise that many readers of this blog might not be sure what explainable AI is, though. I’ll save the details for another post, but a one sentence informal summary would be ‘Artificial Intelligence whose decisions are understandable’. Look forward to learning more soon!

There is no guarantee that the final topic will be this, mind. I’ve heard from people in their third year of the CDT how the topic can evolve no matter how far in you get, and I can’t imagine I’m the exception. While I’m sure at some point all this pondering has to translate into actual words, it seems inevitable that I’ll keep rewording my questions, until I finally stop waffling and type those words out to get it done!

The takeaway here is that while my PhD is still very much in the early stages, it is something I’m continuing to contemplate and hone on a daily basis. Make no mistake, I am in constant envy of some of my colleagues in the same year who are already deep into their chosen topic. But I don’t see any reason to rush yet, a sentiment echoed by many staff members within the CDT. Once the summer starts, I start working on the gateway report into my PhD proper. I’ll have plenty of time to get down to fine tuning my research and figuring out what the big questions to focus on are. Right? Right.

How’s the social life?

Good! Between the office space filled with peers and regular events orgnaised by our centre’s hard-working coordinators, I’m making plenty of new friends and contacts.

I’d assume one of the advantages of a CDT over a direct PhD is that you share a lot of classes with people in the first year. It’s a good excuse to work together and get to know them better. If everyone was concentrating on their PhD from the get go, it might be easier to wind up in an academic bubble and not talk to each other. That would likely contribute to those feelings of isolation people like to warn about, which would be a downer. Since instead everyone’s working on the same things, there’s time to chat around lectures and coursework. That’s lead to some good friendships that have involved coffee, drinks, secret Santa, robot wars and bouldering. Not at the same time, mind.

Our entry into the robot wars competition: Spykder. We didn’t win, but we did pretty well!

On top of that, the variety of projects means there’s always something interesting to hear about. My year may have a bit of an overrepresentation of reinforcement learning as a field of research (sorry guys!), but I always love hearing about the sort of things everyone across the CDT is working on. Some of them are talking to the BBC, others are researching abroad in Denmark, and outside of that a few are selling businesses or getting married. Interesting conversation is not something I’m left wanting for!

What are you looking forward to next term?

The weather improving, for one! Winter term always has the downer of the skies turning dismally grey and the days pitifully short. I look forward to the season turning to Spring and the sun reemerging from behind the clouds. Bath is a beautiful city, doubly so in the summer months when you can sit in a park for hours on end or stroll about town with friends. It’s also much nicer for walking up the hill to uni in the morning!

In more course specific terms, continuining with new modules is definitely something to look forward to. Like last term, there’s a healthy mix of maths, social science and management subjects, and I’m looking forward to flexing my muscles learning a bit more about all of them. The management course is crammed into one week, which will definitely be a challenge, but it does free up time the rest of the term at least!

Another important upcoming unit is the AI Challenge, which will be my first long term AI project. To summarise, it’s developing a solution to a problem using AI as a team project. That’s wonderfully non-restrictive, and the long term nature makes it far less stressful, in my books. I have no idea what the problems will look like, but I expect it will make its way into a blog post if all goes well!

At the end of the day, I’m looking forward to term two for the same reason that I enjoyed term one. Interesting content, intellectual freedom, lots of enjoyable people to be around, while getting challenged on a regular basis. Having settled in for the most part, and with fewer hectic issues like a leaking bathroom ceiling this term around, I’m even hoping to flex my muscles and get back into some martial arts. I’ve had Jiu Jitsu suggested to me by one of my colleagues, due to my compact frame (read: shorty short), so there’s something new to try already.

Any advice to people starting their first term on a CDT?

Relax! Enjoy it! It can be very easy to get stressed thinking you have to do everything right now and make a tonne of progress on your PhD “proper”. But the master’s year is there for a reason. Take the time to develop yourself mentally, do some regular but not-excessive thinking around what your PhD research is going to be, and network with the people around you. You’ll learn way more doing that, and they might give you some solid recommendations!

And of course, as with anything in life, prioritise your own well-being as much as is practical. A master’s degree is a big undertaking, even if it’s seen as a lead-in to the even bigger PhD phase. Don’t start kicking yourself if you’re having a tough time with it, you don’t deserve it.

Unexpected problems in the rest of your life can still crop up, and they can be far more stressful than a leaking ceiling. Talk to the staff in your CDT who are there to help you, or any other available support services if you need it, and be kind to yourself. Life doesn’t go on hold because of the PhD, and people will understand if you can’t run at 100% for a while.

Having a tough time doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing the PhD part later, or anything else negative you might want to think. You got into the CDT, so you almost certainly can get the job done. Keep calm, have a cup of tea, and talk to people you trust if you need to vent. You got dis!

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