Recently I've been thinking about what I wish I knew about PhD study before I began. When you start out to do a PhD, there are many things you have to learn that are not necessarily directly related to your proposed topic. This blog post isn’t intended to highlight all of them, since everyone who pursues a PhD has a slightly different situation: the location, institution, department, course of study, expected thesis format (and page length) are going to drastically affect the individual’s experience. There may be many other blog posts that target your particular context (some are linked below), but here are some practical considerations that I think apply to everyone.
1) Research your (potential) supervisor before starting a PhD.
I was personally very fortunate to find a good supervisor. I didn’t do much research on my primary supervisor beforehand, but things really worked out. His teaching/mentoring style really matched my learning style, and I was able to get enough support from him that I learned a ton and became aware of how much more there was/is to learn. I was also fortunate to find a co-supervisor that I worked well with and learned a lot from, which meant I wasn't stuck when my primary supervisor was unavailable. I also received quite a bit of practical support and can say that both my supervisor and co-supervisor are still important friends and mentors. But I know of other people that received much less support, and in some cases it meant they were unable to finish their PhD. If you’re going to pursue a PhD, make sure that your potential supervisor isn’t someone who is likely to be a cause of difficulty along the way, either causing you to drop out of the program or give you a bad reference later. Of course some things cannot be predicted, and sometimes bad things happen, but do your best to research the person and their track record, or at least their character and interpersonal relationships with (former) students.
2) Learn/develop organizational skills.
By the time I started my PhD I had learned organizational skills for keeping track of bills and projects as an independent musician. But in my first year of PhD study I had to learn how to keep drafts in folders, organize papers, and otherwise have a filing system that helped me find stuff. Even so, I occasionally find duplicate files in random folders on my hard drive. The digital organizational tools you use are only as good as the systems you have in place to help you manage your work. After my PhD I discovered that there was a much better way to organize my files, data, and workflow (more on that in another post), but I would have been even more productive if I had learned these things early on.
3) Get practical advice on finding a job after your PhD, and learn some skills/abilities outside of your main subject area.
Fortunately I had mentors who had their own life experience and had done things in between academic jobs. In some cases they had worked odd jobs after their PhD while applying for everything and anything in their subject area. I learned that the basic post-PhD pattern is: complete PhD, apply for lots of jobs (postdocs, lectureships, professorships), get a few interviews, get a lot of rejections, keep applying, work odd jobs in the meantime, write/submit lots of papers (and receive lots of rejections), finally get a job. It’s a pretty rough deal, but if you’re willing to travel for jobs you have a decent chance. And secondary skills (like how to program or be a barista) can tide you over until you can get back to doing what you REALLY want.
4) Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Doing a PhD is hard. Sometimes you’ll wonder if it’s worth it. For some people it’s probably not. But if you pursue it, realize that there are some things you should get really pissed off about, and there are some things that you’re better off letting go. Having people steal your work is worth getting pissed off about, but most other things aren't. For example:
a) Let go of thinking that you’re better than the next guy. Accept instruction from your mentor(s) who really DO know better/more than you. Even the cleaner in your hall might have specialized knowledge that can help you out.
b) Let go of thinking your thesis must be perfect. Your knowledge will never be perfect, and your thesis is only a snapshot of what you know at the beginning of your journey. Don't let this fact stop you from submitting it to your supervisor - let them be the final arbiters of whether it's acceptable or not.
These are just a few of the things I've learned in pursuing and completing a PhD. If you're interested in learning more, and you're actively thinking about graduate school, you might find this UK blog post helpful, or this Australian one. Some other practical advice, as this post notes, is to publish early and publish often, even during grad school. You should also consider searching more specific criteria related to your area of interest, but hopefully these four suggestions will get you started.
Last week I had a Eureka!* moment. I love these moments - when you've been trying to figure out a problem (could be big, could be small) and it is frustrating you to no end, and then finally you break through and find the solution! It's pretty amazing.
This Eureka! moment had to do with the linguistic examples I wrote about earlier. They weren't formatting properly, and because of this some of the examples were splitting across pages. Pretty early on in my attempts, I posted on a forum devoted to LyX/LaTeX/TeX, the typesetting program I use. Forums are pretty nifty ways to aggregate knowledge, and I've learned a ton about LaTeX through this particular forum. If you have a specialized industry or tool and you haven't found a forum where people can help each other out, find one quick or make one yourself. It is totally worth it.
Unfortunately, with this particular issue no one was able to help. So I kept troubleshooting, trial and error. Eventually one of the things I tried worked! So satisfying. I imagine this is what I'll feel once I finally submit my PhD thesis... though people tell me a grammatical description is never complete, even if it's over 1,000 pages.
*As I remember, and according to Wikipedia, "Eureka" comes from the Ancient Greek word εὕρηκα heúrēka, meaning "I have found (it)" and is attributed to Archimedes, who discovered how the volume of objects could be measured by water displacement.
So my team did not make it through to the next round. They played a good game against Portugal last night, but it just wasn't good enough. Too much ball control, not enough finishing power. A ton of missed chances. Disappointing, but such it is sometimes. Hopefully next World Cup will be a different story.
Now just to clarify, Ghana is the country I was born in. One of my Chinese friends was shocked that I wasn't supporting the USA in the World Cup - why would I even consider supporting a country other than the country of my passport? I explained that in the USA we like to support the 'underdog', a concept that took a bit of explaining. We actually spent 5 minutes with me trying to explain why Americans like to support teams that meet the requirements of 'the little guy'.
Now Ghana is definitely not completely the little guy when it comes to soccer (football for all the non-Americans), but as a nation when compared to the USA, which is pretty much the biggest on the block, they are. And as someone born and raised in the African nation, I guess I have more call than most to support them on the international stage.
But this definitely does not mean that I dislike the USA - not at all. In fact, I am really glad to be a citizen and am really glad they made it into the World Cup, and hope at some point they get to hoist the trophy. But given a sports matchup between them and Ghana, I'd have to support Ghana all the way. Though now that the US is through, I still have a team to support...
As I've been working with code to try and do some programming to get the computer to format my text properly, I've run into some issues. It's got me thinking... You know how computers think... wait, you do?! No you don't! Computers don't think, unfortunately, that's the problem. Computers aren't good at connecting the dots or making inferences like humans are. All they can do is connect the dots that a human tells them to. There's the rub. The computer is only as smart as you are.
Fortunately, when I'm writing a program to go through my 80,000+ words of text (times 6, since there's 4 lines of interlinearization plus one of free translation = 480,000) which it parses in an instant, the computer tells me when it fails. Or rather, since I'm writing the code, when I FAIL. You know exactly where you stand with a computer, because there's only one right way for a code to run, and that's if all the processes are logical and well-formed according to the rules of the code's architecture.
I must say I'm glad that life isn't that way. Yes, there are principles that can be recognized and lived. You generally receive from life based on what you put into relationships, study, work, etc... But there's no single perfect way to run. It's not like the world is a giant piece of code architecture and your life is a logical process from one thing to another. Life is dynamic. It can change and be changed by a small movement in one direction or another. And failure is just the beginning of a new direction.
On the way back to the office from dinner the other night (see how much time this coding takes if I go back to the office after dinner!) I was talking with one of my friends about job prospects and how life changes. There's a lot of uncertainty, but I said that one thing I've learned is to figure out what is important to you and make it part of your life. I guess I'm still figuring...
I've been reflecting a bit on this season, which comes around once a year. As I write this, I'm really enjoying the holiday podcast from Under the Radar, which features some excellent music for the weekend season. You can listen to the whole podcast here: Radar Radio Easter Special
As I grow older, I really value the cycles of the Christian calendar, which reminds me of the incredible story of salvation that I'm part of. Reading scripture, it becomes more and more clear to me that everything in the Bible is about Jesus. Take the psalms for example. I was reading Psalm 146, and check out what it says (ESV):
Over the coming weeks I plan to feature different people or groups of people who have helped make this album a reality. And where better to start than with the people I first started working with in Singapore?
I moved to Singapore in August of 2010 to begin a PhD in Linguistics, and I had been demoing tracks in the US before I came, following a series of small tours and shows in 2009. I usually do my own recording and engineering, but coming to Singapore meant that I could only bring a couple bags, so all my equipment was left behind. In my first semester, once the dust had settled and I knew my way around, more or less, I started searching for a place to record. I found SoundFarm Production Studios on the web and went to meet them.
It turns out that the studio had only recently begun, as a sort of side project that was rapidly turning into a full-blown business. Their equipment was really good, their room was nice, and they were open to experimentation. Reuben Raman was the main engineer I worked with, but as time went on I met Mandric Tan, Sikai Goh, and their mentor Geoffrey Low. I started recording with them in October of 2010, and over a weekend we were able to record most of the guitar parts for the album, and demo the vocals. I went back to the US that Christmas, where I then tracked drums, rhodes, and organ with friends in Lancaster. More on them next.
I've been reminded this week of my mortality. It's always good to be reminded of the big picture, that my life is simply a part of the tapestry of humanity, of life. But when someone you know dies unexpectedly it's a hard reminder. Like a brick wall to the face.
In 2010 a friend of mine was killed in a car accident. Aimee was a beautiful young woman full of life and joy, when a car coming the opposite direction drifted into her lane. They were both going over 45 mph and she died soon after.
I penned the song 'Greet the Dawn' shortly after hearing about the accident. In some ways I was trying to understand the situation - the random death of a friend - and to reconcile this occurrence with the promises of God to his people.
God gives a lot of promises in the bible, that those who believe in him will experience blessings and joy, but also trials and pain. I try to grapple with some of these things in my new album, ultimately finding comfort in the promise that through everything God is with us, that if we trust him death is truly a dawn that we can greet with joy.
So this is my first official post of the new year, and also my first post on the new blog which is integrated with my website. I like the idea of having everything in one location, so everyone who wants to can just come to hiramring.com to learn more about my life and my music.
Over the next month or two I hope to figure out how to either migrate my old posts over to here, or maybe just link to it from here. And I also hope to start blogging more regularly. I think it's something I need to schedule, since I'm already busy with other things and this is just one more thing to do. Case in point: it's taken me a lot longer to release this new album than I thought it would.
That being said, though, I'm happy to say that the album is being mastered and the artwork is being worked on as I write this, which is super exciting! Stay posted for more details!
I'm also writing a bit of new music, and here's a song that I wrote a few months ago and recorded a couple weeks ago. Enjoy!
I'm a linguist and singer-songwriter. I write about life, travel, language and technology.