Now, Call Me a Candidate

Finally not a student anymore! Now I can use “Ph.D. candidate” in my CV. That is the first thought came to my mind after I got passed the PQE. I have to throw myself into bed for two days. That is my second immediate thought. Generally speaking, my PQE is far from a good one. The time management is like a disaster. Luckily, the oral presentation is finished as expected.

Surveying the Research Gaps

The most rewarding thing that I learned from PQE is how to identify research gaps through surveying. By literature review, we can construct a big picture of the previous and current research in a specific direction. It’s like changing the view from multiple trees into a forest, and what is beyond the forest. With such big picture of an area, we are able to learn the specific problems that previous papers trying to solve, the current state-of-the-art of solving it, and which part is still missing (the research gaps). During the survey process, there are two other skills that I learned.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The first one is how to give critical comments in the context of a research area. For a long time, the contribution of some paper looks very vague to me. What kind of contribution is it for solving an old problem with an existing method from another field? It’s clearer if we discuss the contribution, the weakness, and the inspiration of a paper considering the big picture. Contribution is a broad concept. Anything that benefits the research area can be count as a contribution. When doing critical thinking, there is more to think about than just discussing whether the techniques a paper used can be improved. They solve one part of the problem, but what other part is still missing? What are other related problems that may benefit from their progress? What can we learn to use in our own research?

The second one is how to organize and summarize batches of papers in a certain field. Common approaches for organizing papers include problem-driven and application-driven. The problem-driven approach is often very clear and understandable for outsiders or newcomers. Given a general problem that a research area is addressing, we then divide the problem into smaller ones according to some taxonomies. This is a very neat way to present the status of a research problem: what are the challenges of this problem, which sub-problems have been attempted and which have not, which have been well tackled and which still have space for improvements.

Presentation

In the last two months, I learned a lot for presentation. I think presentation is nothing but a media for conveying ideas, knowledge and all sorts of information. Speeches and diagrams are naturally more friendly for humans than paragraphs of academic papers.

Since presentation is an extra media for information distribution, the first question is, what are the receivers of this information? What are your audiences? For PQE, the most important audience is the committee. The committee might not familiar with the specific topic you are doing. So a brief and clear introduction to the background, the importance, and the challenges of the topic is needed. The second question is, how to more effectively convey your message. Prof. Qu has taught us the concept of signal/noise ratio in a presentation. Keep a high signal/noise ratio is the key here. But how to do that? Though PQE is more of a survey, we still need to have depth. Given 30 to 40 minutes, it is very hard to discuss every paper that you think is important in the presentation. Here is the trick that I learned from Prof. Qu: only discuss five papers in detail and five papers as a demonstration, and try to organize a storyline from these papers. And that’s the previous work you will discuss in detail in the presentation. Apart from PQE, academic presentations share the same idea. You have done a lot in your work. However, in limited time, it’s impossible to present all the details. We have to make decisions on what to kept and what to throw away.

The Stress, Research, and Time Management

The following is more of personal emotions.

I felt very stressed for the last three weeks. Sometimes, I even kept thinking about how to better organize different sections when I was eating or having a shower. While at the same time, I felt difficult to calm down to do the writing. The stress actually comes from me myself. I was given a summer to prepare the PQE, but I didn’t use the time well and spend it wandering around. My topic is finally fixed around late August. And I only started the writing after I came back from the VIS conference in October.

Appropriate stress can be a good thing for self-motivating. That’s what I always agreed with. I have not been overwhelmed by stress for quite a long time. Even during the submission of VIS ’17, I am not that stressed, since the stress was kind of relieved through the collaboration with Shaozu. And there are many other lab-mates also working on the submission. While this time, I can only face the stress by myself. I am not sure where the stress comes from. PQE is a survey, but it still requires the production of new knowledge – the big picture, the research gaps, and the future opportunities. Outputting is much harder for most human brains than inputting. For me, this is nothing like in the undergraduate, the things I need to know are either on the books or the Internet. At that time I have the confidence that I am able to master the knowledge of a course in a few days. However, the situation is totally different for research.

Before the PQE, I didn’t realize that a serious time management is not only a schedule that helps us get things done. It is actually also a solution for stress. If I had followed step-by-step the time schedules and sub-deadlines for PQE, I would not be that stressed. This is the other lesson that I learned from PQE.

Anyway, I am a candidate now. And I will make it a Ph.D.