Why did I go for a PhD? (P1)
This is the first in a series of post in which I reflect on some milestones of my own life.
At the moment of writing, I have no idea of how to structure all such “stories” – so, I must warn the reader that whatever is written here may be subject to change, and may even be incomprehensible if one is not familiar with my persona.
After having lived for 31 years, 3 months and 9 days, it is difficult to determine which decision I made had the greatest impact on my life. Yet, I find that going for a PhD was among the most significant ones. In what follows, I will attempt to summarize, contextualize and justify the reasons that made me opt for this path. [a] SPOILER: after reading many blogs of other renowned scientists and researchers, I can safely state that my reasons are much different from anyone else’s—and by a huge margin.
To this purpose, however, I must first provide some background on myself. Starting from when I began my BSc. [b] WARNING: the following content can be rather sensitive.
A fresh undergrad (aka: myself in 2010)
I did my High School studies in Modena, Italy, attending the Liceo Scientifico “Alessandro Tassoni”. For those who are unaware of the Italian high-schooling system, a “Liceo Scientifico” (at least when I attended it – from 2006 to 2010) is a specific type of secondary school which is focused on providing an education on various subjects. Subjects included Maths, Natural Sciences, Chemistry, Physics; but also Latin, Literature, History, and Philosophy. Such multidisciplinary focus is in stark contrast with what is typically taught in the other type of secondary school, the “Istituti Tecnici”, which focus on just a few core subjects (e.g., electronics or programming, to name a few).
Why am I saying this? Because me attending a Liceo Scientifico had a profound influence on my BSc. and MSc. career. After getting my “Diploma”, I enrolled in the BSc. in Computer Engineering at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. However, I did this solely because I had a great passion towards IT and PC in general – a passion stemming from my love of video-games, which allowed me to learn some “tips and tricks” about PCs (from the perspective of both software and hardware [c] Apparently, few people ever opened a PC and/or assembled one from scratch or replaced some components.). Unfortunately, little did I know that my “expertise” was almost useless to pass any of the courses entailed in such degree. Indeed, I had 0 (zero!) experience in programming [d] Aside from maybe 5 hours in total spent in 2006 in “learning” Turbo Pascal. Such a lack was significant, and during my BSc. I had to work extra hard to compensate my low programming skills.
Now, the reason why I say “low” is because a huge amount of my coursemates were far better than me in such subjects—due to the fact that most of them attended “Istituti Tecnici” (and it was only natural that they were better than me: they had 100s of hours of prior experience, so how could I compete with them?). Nonetheless, while it was true that I may not have been at the same level as all the others, I was (arguably) on a different league when it came to other subjects—and, specifically: Maths, and anything that entailed “writing”. Again, this is only natural: we’re all humans after all, and we all live 24h per day. We all have our strengths and weaknesses: to be successful, we must acknowledge our weaknesses, and exploit our strengths. My decision to go for a PhD has its origins on this simple fact. But I did not know that—not yet, at least.
What is a degree, exactly? (aka: myself from 2011 to 2014)
My BSc. went relatively smoothly until the second half of 2013, when a series of (unforeseen) issues turned my life into a downright spiral. Nonetheless, a crucial (positive) event was me meeting my course-mates.
The importance of physical interactions. In January 2011, I was lucky enough to meet two students who ended up being my staple course-mates for my BSc. (and also, later, for my MSc.): Matteo and Lorenzo. It was totally random: I was waiting outside the office of the lecturer of “Fundamentals of Computer Science I”, and there was another student (Matteo) waiting next to me. I don’t remember the reason, but we began to talk; he invited me to “come tomorrow to practice, there will be also another guy!”: I was in desperate need for some guidance on programming, so I gladly accepted. The following day, we met in the library of our campus: the third guy (Lorenzo) was a student who I remember asking a lot of insightful questions during the “Fundamentals of Computer Science I” lectures, so I thought “Wow! This guy must know a lot!” – and I was right: he was a prodigy; way outside my league.
Acceptance and Awareness. I am rather confident of my own capabilities, and even though I acknowledged me being “worse” from a programming perspective (at least with respect to Matteo and, especially, Lorenzo), I kind of suspected that I may have had something “they did not have”. The truth emerged during the natural evolution of our BSc., since I (believe!) ended up providing a lot of assistance in exams entailing Maths, Statistics, Physics and “generic” writing. In a sense, we complemented each other: none of us excelled in all subjects taught in our BSc., but – taken individually – each one of us was skilled in at least a few. Such alchemy physiologically gave birth to an extremely effective teamwork—epitomized in group-based projects, during which we organized ourselves to have our strong points better emerge, and cover each other’s weaknesses. At the same time, however, these activities made me further aware of my strengths: apparently, (most?) students in Computer Science only want to write code—potentially overlooking the importance of writing actual text.
The good… The following two years went through pleasantly. I aced any Math-related course, [e]Even Analisi Matematica I, considered to be the “bane” of (most) Engineering degrees (at least in Italy), was just a breeze. whereas courses more akin to Computer Science required extra effort from my part; thanks to my group, however, I eventually overcome most obstacles with relative ease. By July 2013, I only had “tough” exams (and the thesis) left: Databases, which had a written (which I passed with a low grade, and was planning to retake fully) and a practical test; and Principles of Operative Systems, which had a single practical test. I wrote “tough” because I was aiming for a “perfect” graduation mark, which required me to get very high grades. Hence, I was planning on graduating in April 2014, since it was the last possible “call” for being considered on par [f]At my institution, degrees are typically awarded in July, October, December, and April—the April one determining the end of a given cycle.. Unfortunately, some unexpected (and unpleasant) news started to arrive.
…and the bad. After a discussion with the tutor of my BSc. thesis, I was made aware that the last possible “call” to get my BSc. degree so as I could enroll in the MSc. degree was in December 2013. In other words, if I got my BSc. degree in April 2014 (which was my plan), I may not have had to pay the extra taxes—but I’d have had to wait until September 2014 before enrolling in the MSc. degree. Such news urged me to change my plans, i.e., study extra hard for all remaining exams so that I could get my BSc. degree in December 2013 – hopefully with the mark I wanted. I was aware that it’d be difficult and that I’d have to forgo any kind of “Summer Vacation”, but I was confident that I could achieve my intended goal. But that was not the case.
Misfortune. At around July 2013, my cat began to behave strangely. He was always tired; he started to lose appetite; and he did not play as he used to. After many visits to several vets and to a local clinic, it was found that he was anemic, but the cause was unknown. His condition started to get worse and worse, and there was nothing that anyone could do. [g]Now, it is impossible for me to convey to a reader the type of bond I had with this cat – suffice it to say that there was very little I valued more than him. The reader is free to interpret this in any way they see fit. Long story short: my brain was unable to focus properly during most of Summer 2013. Surprisingly, when I took the exam of Principles of Operative Systems, I thought I performed very well. After seeing the grade, however, I couldn’t believe my eyes: an 18 (the lowest possible grade in the Italian scale); I went to check the corrections and… well, I realized what it is usually implied when “someone cannot think straight”: what I wrote in the test made no sense whatsoever, and such grade was even too generous, in retrospect. Since I had no more chances to retake the exam (if I wanted to graduate in December 2013) I had to accept such a low grade (I was also able to pass all the other exams, but the grades hardly were what I was aiming for). On the good side, I was finally able to start working on my BSc. thesis; plus, my cat started to get better, “the numbers are good again!” said the vets.
It’s just a piece of paper. My cat died in late October 2013, a few days before I submitted my BSc. thesis. It was completely unexpected: he was (or at least looked to be) doing well until one week before his departure. Then, all of a sudden, things went downhill and one night he passed away.[h]It was found that he was affected by an extremely rare (and apparently incurable) disease. He died at 8 years of age. It was the most traumatic loss I had in my life. Still, I was able to finish my thesis in time and it was of good quality (it was one of the few to receive the most “points” after its defense). I got my BSc. on December 13th, 2013 – with a grade I did not like (still higher than most BSc. graduates, but not the one I wanted). At least I could enroll in the MSc. – also in Computer Engineering, also at the University of Modena, and also together with Lorenzo and Matteo (who graduated in October and December 2013, respectively). However, my brain was in denial.
(end of part 1)
Lessons Learned (from my BSc., 9 years later)
I realize that what I wrote is way more than what I intended to write initially. Yet, after re-reading it, I do not feel anything to be worth removing: ultimately, all of the above is crucial to explain why I went for a PhD. If I have to distill what should be gleaned from such a long WoT, I would say that:
- Life is unpredictable. There are simply too many things that are outside our control – both positive (I gained reliable comrades) and negative (I lost a soulmate).
- We all have strengths and weaknesses. There is no such thing as “the perfect person/student”. Someone that is excellent at something has to be mediocre at something else.
- You do not need to be a programming wizard to get a Computer Science-related degree. One can very well get a degree with average [i]I dare say that it is simply wrong to associate “Computer Science degrees” with “good programming skills” in general. skills—as long as there is “something else” to compensate.
I conclude this part with a remark. When I got my BSc. degree, I was oblivious of the three “lessons” described above. At that point in my life, I was just “going on” – as most humans in their early 20s tend to do (AFAIK). It was only much later that I became aware of these lessons, and put them to good use—or, at least, that’s what I think I’m doing.