PhDs — hmmm.
Be Mentally Prepared (Well you can’t be, but know that :P )
Well first — you have to be ready to go back to a school mentality. It isn’t the same as undergrad at all, but it is very different from “real work”.
During the PhD you will be working 24/7 — as in if you take a weekend off you will feel guilty (even though you shouldn’t). So it’s tough mentally I think. Obviously it is doable — but I think especially if you have already been in the workforce, it can be tough to go back to a mental place like that.
Identify an Interest
The next thing is what interests you? There are the high level fields in Computer Science (Systems, HCI, Networking, Theory) and then there are specific aspects of each one. Within the specific aspect of each one, there are a few, smaller hypothesis/research questions that you might be interested in. Now, your first 2–3 years is spent working with your advisor on identifying your hypothesis and research questions, but it’s always a good idea to have some idea on what you’re interested in.
For example, when I first thought of going to grad school (Master’s at first) I had the idea that I wanted to go into Systems, specifically I wanted to explore the theory that the design of the interface of the Operating System could be changed to something more intuitive than what it was today (which is essentially a file structure). What did that mean? I have no clue. How would I do that? I have no clue. But that is what was interesting to me.
Steps for Coming up with an Idea:
1. How do you identify that interest? Start with a people problem, for example:
- People don’t know where their partners are throughout the day.
- Networks require too much infrastructure, which is difficult to achieve in 3rd world countries.
- People have many devices that they need to work with throughout the day.
- People don’t want to keep their receipts, but then when they need to return something they can’t find them.
- People don’t know how to keep their bodies healthy in a typical work environment.
All of these are kind of random and different, but they are people problems.
2. Think about what exists that starts to solve this, for example:
- Apple’s Find my Friends app
- (I actually don’t know much about networks :P )
- Chrome allows you to sign in to every device.
- Store Cards that keep track of all of your purchases with your phone number.
- Percko (Awesome Kickstarter! :P )
3. Identify the potential technical problem that exists that makes this a difficult problem to solve:
- People are on different devices and want to give different levels of information to different people
- (I actually don’t know much about networks…still )
- What about people who code? It’s not easy to leave one computer and start on another, unless you use something like git…but that can be a hassle.
- Now you have to have an “account” with every store and what if you change your phone number?
- What are the aspects of “health” that matter to different people?
4. If that technical problem is still something you’re interested in — then maybe that is a place to start.
How much do you have to know NOW?
Ok ok, you don’t have to have ALL this done now, but it is worth just playing with the ideas now. You can even have a bunch of different ideas and directions. From there you can start to people who might be doing this kind of stuff. It can be people at universities, but can also be people in industry. You can start reading some papers and watching talks that might be related.
The Non-Research Questions
There are also a lot of other things that you have to consider.
- Where do you want to live? You will live there for a while probably and, for example, I wouldn’t have been able to do it in Washington State — It would have been too hard for me because of the weather.
- What do you want to do afterwards? This will change probably 5 times throughout, but identify your goal for getting the PhD. Is it so that you can move up in the company? Is it to explore cool ideas you have? Is it for the status of getting one? Is it because you’re bored at work? Is it because you want to be a professor? All of these are valid — so don’t feel guilty for feeling any or all of these!
- Know that it is OK to walk away at any point. If you identify (and keep changing and identifying) your goal for the PhD as you go — know that it might come to a point where finishing isn’t really something you need. And that is OK too! Leaving with a Master’s, or just getting out, all of that is perfectly OK.
- Know the type of work environment you will need. Different advisors and different schools have different ways of engaging with their students. So make sure you really think about what kind of advisor you want (very hands on?), what kind of lab (a large one where 5 people all work on the same project?), and what kind of other requirements you might be interested in (TAing required?). These — though not the actual research — can make or break you throughout the PhD. And it’s OK to change your mind while going through it, but it’s worth thinking about now so that you can ask those kinds of questions when and if you identify schools you are interested in.