Starting a Ph.D.

Two months ago I joined the the University of Edinburgh as one of the first students of the CDT in Pervasive Parallelism. This post consists of a brief account of my experience applying for and accepting the position as a PhD student.

The CDT (College for Doctoral Training) that I have joined is a four year course that consists of a first year MSc by Research, followed by a traditional three year PhD. There are ten students in this first cohort, all working under the same broad remit of addressing the challenges presented by pervasive parallelism.

The journey I took to arrive in my current position consisted of two stages: the first was in deciding that I wanted to become a postgraduate student, and the second was doing everything in my power to realise that ambition.

I was relatively late to the decision of becoming an academic and forgoing a “real” job. I had entered my final year of undergrad studies having spent an incredible year working in Intel’s Open Source Technology Center, in a wonderful London office which allowed me to hone my software development skills and contribute to some great open source projects (and some terrible closed source ones). The decision not to rejoin them after graduating was not an easy one to make, and the rationale changed from day to day: was it that I wanted to distance myself from the “corporate machine”? To be intellectually free? To make a dent in the boundary of human knowledge? To truly absorb myself in a field of research? The simple and selfish truth is that I was having too much fun in Uni. The joy of continuously learning, practising, and improving, meant that a PhD was the only logical choice for my next career move.

Once I had decided to become a postgraduate student (trepidatiously, at first), I began searching for the right position, and was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer range of available courses, Universities, fields of research, and potential supervisors. Compared to applying for graduate jobs or even undergraduate degrees (a process that has long since faded from memory), the process of applying for a PhD is more proactive and somewhat alienating. When looking for a job, you find a list of employees who have advertised open positions, you pick one or two that appeal to you and submit CVs. By contrast, the PhD application process starts with you creating a job: you find a potential supervisor at an institution of your choice and you have to get them motivated about your field of research and make them want to hire you.

I sought advice from my undergraduate supervisor, who gave me a short list of recommended Universities to consider, of which Edinburgh was one. Once I found the CDT website, it immediately became clear to me that this was the right position for me, and thankfully, after the initial feeling of being overwhelmed and crippled by choice, Edinburgh was the only University I ended up submitting an application to.

After deciding that the Pervasive Parallelism course was the right one for me, the application process was relatively straightforward. From a list of supervisors available on the school website, I chose two whose research area appealed to me the most, and cold-emailed them to register my interest as a possible research student. Of the two supervisors I contacted, I received a very positive response from one, and after two informal Skype interviews, a coding challenge, and a review of my research proposal, I was provisionally offered a place. The provisional aspect of their offer was dependent on my successful completion of a formal application with the University, which went without a hitch, and was largely an exercise in providing information about my academic history and expected degree.

For me, the most unexpected part of the application process was the lack of “filtering”. At any reasonably sized company, you can expect a job application to go through at least one layer of indirection, as it gets filtered through the HR department before getting near to the people you will be working with. When applying for a PhD, your first interaction will likely be with world experts in your intended research field, and this can be as intimidating as it is direct. Still, know that this intimidation is entirely unfounded, and my entire application process was an utter pleasure and very enjoyable.

I share my research proposal here not because it is in any way representative of my current research (it’s not), nor as a model of a good research proposal (it’s definitely not), but purely as a curiosity to the interested reader. When writing my proposal, I found that examples proposals in related fields in were hard to come by, and I would have appreciated having some more to refer to when writing my own.

Full time geek with a passion for developing great software, often late at night.