signal-to-noise ratio.

Joy Johnson
Dec 7, 2015 · Unlisted
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Picture of the entrance to Building 37 at MIT, below the image of Astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair is a signed copy of the first page of his dissertation. This is also the place where I held my dissertation defense:).

Equation: Typically sophomore year an undergraduate studying Electrical Engineering* will encounter signal-to-noise ratio or SNR. A simple ratio, much more powerful concept. SNR = P(signal)/P(noise). Signal-to-noise ratio is defined as the ratio of the power of a signal (meaningful information) and the power of background noise (unwanted signal). So the larger the the noise (unwanted, non-meaningful information) the smaller, less clear the signal or the information you need. I told you it was simple yet powerful…

Thesis stories. Everyone who has a doctorate has one. It’s almost like the “how did you meet story” for couples. I love hearing them, the good, the bad and the ugly ones. My favorite one is that of Dr. Ronald E. McNair.

I have made it tradition to go to building 37, the McNair Building here at MIT, on January 28th, the day we loss one of the great one in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I remember running around McNair Hall at NC A&T State University as a kid at summer camp unaware that the face on the sculpture in the front lawn would follow me throughout my life. I will never forget Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson telling the story of how he lost ALL of his experimental data (2 years worth!) for his doctoral thesis right at the end. He never complained, they said he just showed up the next day ready to start all over. He focused on the signal. He focused on the fact, that it all the experimental nuances and data analysis outcomes were fresh on his mind. The noise of the despair and despondency he had to have felt as one so close to the end of his journey, he minimized it! And he did start all over, and over the course of a year he replicated all of the experiments and ended up getting better data the second time around…and his PhD. He understood SNR. He focused on the signal.

My thesis story is a little more dramatic… If you follow me on Instagram, I’ve been sharing mine little by little. But if you haven’t, it goes a like this…my Dad, Kenneth Johnson, literally saved my life* and lost his life all in the course of the completion of my dissertation work. I was wrapping up my Ph.D. when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. He always taught me to finish WELL (thus my #finishWell hashtag everywhere) and the day he died, as God would have it, I received an email that my very first, first author paper was accepted and I’d been asked to give an invited research talk at ICPT in Grenoble, France. At the time I thought it was ridiculous, like God was mocking the nightmare that had become my life, I couldn’t even imagine going back to school much less functioning well enough to present a technical paper in another country. I was focused on the noise. But, I remember what my brother-in-law said in my father’s eulogy, he quoted the scripture from a conversation he had with Dad, “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work and carry out your ministry fully” 2 Timothy 4:6–8.
And for an imperfect man, he sure finished his life SO WELL. He was sober and free of addiction for 25 years, he did the work not only creating a well-respected, waterproofing business for himself but that gave employment to those others found unemployable, he carried out his ministry fully as a loving and involved husband, father, grandfather and uncle. And to that I had no choice but to focus on the signal = FINISHING. I miss him like crazy but in honoring him, death has truly lost its sting.

Of course I held my thesis defense in the McNair Building. I would’ve had it no other place on the entire campus.

Advice: If I may humbly give some advice on completing the doctorate, this would be it. Your ability to control the SNR in your everyday (every hour) life will positively correlate to the amount of time it takes you to graduate and how much hair (and sanity) you have left when you do. So, here’s my advice for focusing on the SIGNAL and keeping that SNR to unity:

  1. Take care of your mind daily, like you would your body. Cleanse it with meditation, nourish it with prayer & strengthen it with positive thoughts and laughter. {Here’s a bibliography of positivity: 1/2/3/4/5 & humor 1/2 (since your family will never truly understand why someone your age lives in a dorm & makes less than minimum wage)}
  2. Relentlessly ignore all distractions (aka NOISE). If it takes getting rid of your precious TV for a couple months, getting a flip phone or setting your phone to be contacted for emergencies only and fasting from email (except your advisor and committee!)/social media (here’s how!)/negative folks, naggers & naysayers (here’s how to politely say no). Sorry but you gotta get ruthless on this one.
  3. Set yourself up for success. Sunday is it! Meal plan , clothes plan (even if you have to wear the same thing, it will save you precious time) & drown/schedule yourself into radical accountability (1 /2/3/4) and focused routine.
  4. Do it. Hour by hour, day by day, month by month…“Focus on the Signal” -Dr. Carol Espy-Wilson or as Aristotle put it (for my non-science doctoral students reading this blog) “Aristotle said, “Excellence is never an accident. It is the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution. It represents the wisest option among many alternatives.” He said, “Choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

That’s all my advice for now, until you’re ready for the big day for which I have worked with the great folks at Kit

I cannot wait to call you Dr!

*(another story for another day but let’s just say a father can tell better than a Harvard board certified doctor when his daughter is bleeding out. An outpatient surgery that turned into a major emergency surgery with two transfusions, a weeklong hospital stay and almost 3 months of physical therapy & recovery….its just NOISE to a PhD student trying to graduate, focus on the SIGNAL (and get a second opinion;).)

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