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November 01, 2012

Research: An Intriguing Playground for Your Ideas

From the beginning I have to admit that I’m not really a traditional academic. I skipped most of the classes during my undergrad studies in Romania in order to work as a software developer. It was not as much for the financial reward as it was for the hands-on experience. Since I always fancied the use of technology to solve problems, a day job offered me the perfect opportunity to do so. At the end of the four years of my degree in Computer Science I was completely confident that the thesis on sentiment analysis would be the last academic document I would ever write. Moreover, at that point I considered that most of the time spent in the university was somehow wasted. So how did I end up doing a PhD you might be wondering? Well, in my pursue of interesting opportunities I ended up working in Norway for Thomson Reuters. As you are probably aware, Norway is famous for being cold, dark and having rather short and flexible hours. With a sudden gain in free time and less opportunities to enjoy a spotless blue sky, I was left with two alternatives: be bored or try something new. While being bored was never a viable option, I started a postgraduate distance course at Aberdeen University. A lot of reading, many written assignments, lots of thinking, some exams, all in all a good taste of what academia is in the UK. After the first year, I decided to take it one step forward and pursue a master at the University of Warwick. Jay, my academic supervisor, managed to tempt me into doing research really fast, so I gave up the idea of a taught master completely and started a PhD/MRes right away.

So, why is research so interesting? First of all think of it as a playground for your ideas. One might argue that a position in the industry can have the same outcome. In a sense this is true, but with restrictions, middle managers, hidden agendas, IPOs, sense of emergency for paying salaries, etc. Academia has way less of all these, and in addition it encourages you to look sideways. More or less, a perfect environment for someone to play with ideas of how to change the world. If you want you can imagine it as being a CEO of a recently funded venture. It is a lot about thinking, explaining to audiences, making connections to your peers, and occasionally getting funded in order to make all the previous things possible for the next few years. Also, picture an environment where everyone knows many things about everything and is passionate about it. Every lunch is a chance to debate what’s the role of wasps in the ecosystem, or why / if a hard-disk gets heavier after being used as a consequence of the relativity theory. You never struggle to find an opportunity to use your brain and debate with similarly minded people.

Of course, like most good things in life, research comes with a price. You will have to publish your findings, probably in journals where is not really trivial to do so. You also have to understand what all your peers think about a specific area and learn their jargon. Only by using words that they are familiar with you would be able to “join the group”. Also, you will have to think about how you can help the university make more money (to invest in further research, etc). So a fair bit of your time will probably be invested into writing bids and proposals (the fantastic art of grantsmanship). You can also be involved in teaching and supervising students. I look at it as a giving-back thing and a great source of ideas from some of the brightest students in the world.

Finally if you consider it might be worth doing a PhD, try to think of it as the obtaining a certificate for being a researcher. It’s more or less your ticket to enter academia. Also, if in doubt about finding funding, you shouldn’t worry too much. In the technology area there is currently a lot of funding, so you might even end up being paid for doing your PhD. Anyone tempted now? :-)

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