Tag Archives: Dissertation

Sam’s Blog Classic: SO MUCH WRITING!

Today I’m posting a “Sam’s Blog Classic” entry. That is, I take an entry from my old blog and re-post it on my new blog because I’m just too busy to write a full entry. This one is topical. Remember when I was complaining about writing five pages?

I’ve spent the last week writing a five page paper. Single spaced. Double-column. 9-pt font.

The length isn’t even the issue, in fact it’s been a bit of a struggle to make it as short as it is; I’ve actually made the format more dense, changing from tiny spaces between paragraphs to indentations and removing all the spacing between the references. Even still, my entire system’s architecture diagram is stuffed onto one tiny column, covered in bubbles just big enough for the font to be legible and with short, stubby arrows filling the tiny spaces between them. The caption on this architecture diagram reads “certain modules omitted for simplicity.” I started this paper as an outline on Monday. It’s due Monday. Specifically, it’s due Monday at 11:59 (UTC-11), which means Tuesday at 6:59AM in Raleigh. Fortunately, I have two brilliant professors, both co-PIs on my project, who are helping me author this thing.

I work on it for a while and turn it in to one of them, who sends it back to me with to-dos. An awful lot of these to-dos are formatting issues, like removing the space between paragraphs. I was lucky enough to know how to use a reference manager to automatically handle my references because one of my tasks was to “change references to be alphabetically ordered.” That means all of the little numbered citation boxes need to be updated, too, then I would need to check them to make sure they’re pointing correctly. My advisor specifically asked me to do this. For my own personal health I will not imagine doing it by hand, as so many other academic authors apparently have done.

The paper just keeps getting better, though. Most people who look at it have been impressed, even this morning when the paper was almost entirely different. I’m thinking that after much reviewing and many iterations the explanation of my system may be understandable to people who aren’t me, but I’ll give it another week before I dump it onto my blog.


What’s Next?


Now that I’ve completed my written qualifier, also known as a written preliminary exam, there are two official hurdles left to earn my PhD. These are my oral preliminary exam and finally my dissertation. The oral preliminary exam, much like the written preliminary exam, is a bit of a misnomer. Each exam contains both oral and written components.

The written preliminary exam, the one I just passed, is referred to as such because it used to be more like a conventional test that confirmed that  a given student knew all there was to know in the fields immediately surrounding their own. So since I’m focusing on machine learning, I would have to know everything there is to know about all the various machine learning techniques as well as many other similar artificial intelligence techniques such as planning. Thank goodness, it is now assumed that one has a working knowledge of computer science from one’s undergraduate degree, so the written prelim is designed to gauge the extent to which a student will be able to write well enough to submit to a conference and present well enough not to make a fool of his or her advisor, department, and school at said conference. I meet these requirements.

Next I will move onto the oral preliminary exam, for which a more descriptive title would be the “dissertation proposal.” In this exam, I write a paper where I explain what I intend to do for my dissertation and write up a defense of why this is appropriately ambitious but also within my reach. I choose a small committee of professors who judge me in another defense much like my qualifying exam, except more demanding. This exam is not a simple pass/fail, though. Instead professors critique the proposal and say what they will want to be different in order for them to be satisfied when this work is presented to them again as a dissertation.

Finally, some say the dissertation is actually the easiest part because the requirements are clearly defined in the oral preliminary exam. Just do what you said you would and how can your committee (the same committee as before) do anything but pass you? So long as you were not overly ambitious in your proposal, it’s basically just writing a very, very long paper and then defending it in another defense.

So, that’s the overall arc of the rest of my PhD career, but it’s important to note that I won’t be doing it right away. In the meantime I build systems, do research, and publish papers. Papers are a big part of how folks will measure my success, so that’s priority one right now.