Friday, 7 January 2011

NOW they tell me

I've made very few personal posts lately. Time for another one.

From The Economist:
Why doing a PhD is often a waste of time

On the evening before All Saints’ Day in 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg. In those days a thesis was simply a position one wanted to argue. Luther, an Augustinian friar, asserted that Christians could not buy their way to heaven. Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research. Writing one is the aim of the hundreds of thousands of students who embark on a doctorate of philosophy (PhD) every year.

In most countries a PhD is a basic requirement for a career in academia. It is an introduction to the world of independent research—a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor. The requirements to complete one vary enormously between countries, universities and even subjects. Some students will first have to spend two years working on a master’s degree or diploma. Some will receive a stipend; others will pay their own way. Some PhDs involve only research, some require classes and examinations and some require the student to teach undergraduates. A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.
Er... 50-somethings.

And collaboration with supervisors hasn't exactly been close, as the ones I've been able to find aren't specialists in my area of research.

My work involves both theoretical research and experimentation. There's not usually a lot of the latter in Computer Science, it tends heavily towards the theoretical. But then, it looks as if my PhD will be in Computational Chemistry rather than Computer Science as such. If I get it. Busy writing up now, trying with increasing desperation to find some theoretical justification for our extraordinary (and extraordinarily useful) results. It appears that the evidence tends to support some rather heretical (well, unpopular) ideas, but until we extend the work to other problem domains, I'm not even sure we can say that with any confidence.

Certainly the results weren't what I expected. But checked and re-checked, the results are sound. I really thought the method I came up with had to be good. Just not that good.

And in order to keep the wolf from the door, I'll be teaching two subjects in 2011, one at master's level, the other undergraduate. I love teaching, it's something I've always had a passion for. First Can off the rank, COMP8100 Requirements Elicitation and Analysis Techniques. Or "before we start making a system... what the heck is it supposed to do?" Too many systems have been built exactly according to specifications... but have been useless, as the real requirements and contractually stated requirements bore little resemblance to one another.

Digression: I found out long afterwards what my nickname was at ADFA (the Australian Defence Force Academy), when I taught there. They give all the lecturers and tutors appelations, some printable, others not.

They called me (though never to my face, more's the pity) "Mum". I rather like that. And yes, I was presenting as male at the time... and actually thought I was doing a good job of it. But it seems that while my appearance said one thing, my personality said another. They didn't know I was Intersexed, or Transsexual, or whatever. Just that... I was Mum.

At least at the ANU (Australian National University) I won't be looking at the casualty lists, and remembering those killed in action or giving disaster relief as the 18 yr old kids they were, not the professional military officers they became.

Excelsior. And with luck I might just have a life after my PhD regularly teaching part-time in Academe, maybe while formalising my research into the science of sex and gender. I'd like that, in the next stage of my life.


Lloyd Flack said...

In hindsight it's obvious that you were trying to be a female concept of an ideal male. The pressures on you and your motivations were a bit different from the usual male ones. It didn't come across as female so much as a bit odd. Certain bits of behaviour were there without their expected accompaniments.

Unfortunately a male trying to become what he sees as a female idea of the ideal male and a female trying to become what she sees as a male idea of the ideal female are both making the same mistake. In trying to center themselves around someone else's priorities they both set themselves up for exploitation. And some employers did exploit you.

Diana said...

COMP8100 Requirements Elicitation and Analysis Techniques. Or "before we start making a system... what the heck is it supposed to do?"

Oh, cool! That's part of what I do for a living. I'd be curious how it's being taught. Also how it's being received.

So many tech types would rather tell the users what they need rather than listen.

Zoe Brain said...

Lloyd - so many things only make sense in hindsight.
I feel your analysis is accurate, very accurate.

Zoe Brain said...

Diana - very often neither user nor analyst knows what's required from the start. It helps to identify the stakeholders first, users being the most important and obvious, but there are others too.
Who's paying for it, for example. Customers, not just users. e.g. in medical therapeutic devices, the patients.

Often the users may want some functionality that's a real bear to implement (but could live without it), yet really require something else that's easy to do, but they think must be impossible.

It's also important to figure out what are the real constraints on implementations of a system in terms of human resources, ways of doing things, as well as hardware and software.

Finally, things like maintainability, flexibility etc have to be determined, and accurate metrics formed to measure them rather than having weasel-words that can't be tested.
When requirements may be constantly evolving, speed of development is also an issue, we may need not a system but a system to develop systems.

It may turn out that instead of new h/w and s/w, the goals can be accomplished by re-training in using existing assets in new ways.

There's a need for communication - the analyst listening to stakeholders, and then telling them what's possible, what's feasible, what's costly, and making recommendations about options.

Diana said...

Sounds like a terrific class Zoe! I wish you'd come teach that stuff in my neck of the woods.

Laserlight said...

a. One of my roomies in college was doing his PhD in organic chemistry. I remember him saying "Oh rats....I may have discovered something." "Rats" because if results were as expected, you're done, but if you've "discovered" something, you have to go back and check everything to see if you just screwed up.

b. The first thing I tell new sales creatures is, when a customer calls and wants to buy something, you ask "what are you doing with it?" All too often, what they want to buy is not ideal, or not even usable, for their intended purpose.

Rob said...

I'm in a rather unusual and fortunate position. I'm about to start a PhD in Melbourne, and I'm doing it out of personal interest (and for fun) - not as a means of enhancing my career prospects. I'll be receiving a tax-free stipend, but I'll be donating all of it to charity. So, for me, the PhD is not a waste of time. And my supervisor is very cool. I feel very fortunate.

Tor Hershman said...

Glory to our Savior
Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Zoe Brain said...

Criswell Predicts...

"Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are giving you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimonies of the miserable souls who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places, my friend we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty, let us reward the innocent."

They don't make films like that any more.

For which we can all be grateful.