This is the third of 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.” Hence, I 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 32 years, 4 months and 24 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.
In two previous posts I elucidated the major events that transpired during my BSc (from 2010 to 2013) and most of my MSc (from 2013 to 2016). Here, I will bring an end to this “story” and focus the attention on the most relevant developments of 2016. Differently from the previous posts, however, I will present my arguments in a sparse order.
My MSc thesis
I have mixed feelings on my MSc thesis. Yet, it certainly influenced my decision to go for a PhD.
Evolution (and issues). It all started in the usual way: after I obtained enough credits, I had a meeting with my chosen advisor (Prof. Colajanni) and told him that I was ready to begin working on my thesis. I told him about “things that I liked”, and I mentioned cybersecurity, maths, data analysis. He then proposed me to do something at the intersection of research and practice: I was to spend some time in an SOC (Security Operation Centre) of a major Italian bank, and try to “develop something” that supports the security operators that work therein. In retrospect, it sounds very vague—but I liked it at the time, apparently.[b]Albeit, I probably had no idea whatsoever of “what” to do for my MSc thesis, so I’d say that anything that my advisor would have proposed would have been “OK”. What I did not know, however, was what such a thesis concealed: being “at the intersection” of research and practice, the thesis had the difficulties of research (i.e., lack of certainties) and practice (i.e., bureaucracy). I will not bore you with the details, but I will just mention some relevant dates: I “accepted” such a thesis in December 2015; I was to graduate in July 2016 (deadline for submission: July 7th); my first “visit” to the SOC took place[c]I was stuck in a “limbo” of communications between my advisor, his contacts at the bank, and the HR office of the bank. on May 22nd; and the last day I could go to the SOC was June 30th. Nobody was at fault,[d]One must acknowledge that SOC of banks are extremely sensitive environments, so it is understandable that the process was far from simple. but this led to a waste of time which I could have spent on “practical” developments. In contrast, the only thing I could do (and did) during most of such time was to “familiarize myself with the literature,”[e]I even found a mistake in a paper co-authored by my advisor that was currently undergoing peer-review! which was not very enticing—especially from the viewpoint of someone who had not read a single research paper. Nevertheless, to further add to this odyssey, on June 28th I received an email from my thesis supervisor, saying “Hey, if you’re interested in the PhD, be aware that the deadline for submitting your application is June 30th”. Suffice it to say, I did not sleep much during that month—but I did achieve something.[f]For my thesis, I used Apache Spark. At that time (mid-2016) the documentation of this framework was just terrible, and there were no tutorials nor StackOverflow (and let alone ChatGPT) that could help…
Submission (and afterthoughts). In retrospect, I have no idea of how I managed to familiarize myself with a new framework, learn some basics of the SOC wherein I “worked” (including how to access the data of its SIEM), create “something new” and “which worked” (to some degree), and document everything in the MSc thesis. When I submitted the document, I was ecstatic. The defense a few days later (July 13th, iirc) went well,[g]I still reminisce rehearsing the first 30s of my talk while taking a shower ~2 hours before the presentation…and I managed to achieve my long-coveted dream of graduating with a perfect grade (110 cum laude—the highest in Italy). The celebrations that followed (with relatives and close friends) were nice. Yet… I felt that there was something amiss. For some reason, I was not 100% satisfied; or, perhaps I was—I simply had never felt like that before,[h]Recall that when I finished by BSc, I was not at all satisfied of my results, hence I set myself the goal to “rectify” the issue for my MSc. so I cannot truly define my state at the time. Most likely, I was feeling torn – vexed, even – for my MSc thesis: despite being proud of it, it did not reflect what I aspired to achieve when I accepted to focus on that project (for reasons that fell outside my control). I knew I could do more—but to what purpose? I got my degree after all, I was not a student anymore.
What is a PhD?
Now, what I am going to write here may sound a bit paradoxical, but I will state it regardless. When my advisor told me (on June 28th) about the “PhD application” I… knew nothing about what a PhD was. Actually, what he mentioned in the email was “dottorato”; I did not even know that “dottorato” = “PhD”; I did not know what a “PhD” entailed; I did not know that “PhD” meant “Philosophiae Doctor”; I did not know that “PhD” = “research”; I did not know anything about “research”. Yes: I did read some “research papers” for my MSc thesis—but I simply read them because they were given to me by my advisor/collaborators, and because I trusted them to provide me with material relevant for the task I was to accomplish. Literature survey? Peer-review? Experiments? Rejection? Scientific publications? Claims? Conferences? LaTeX? [i]Yes, I wrote my MSc thesis in Word. I still regret this choice even today. I was oblivious of all such terms. However—and I want to emphasize this—my “ignorance” was not only my fault: the topic of “research” was almost completely neglected at the institution wherein I did my BSc and MSc (as an engineering department, the focus was more on “practice”); plus, there were no researchers in my family who could have at least introduced me to the world of research. I certainly could have “researched” what it meant to go for a “dottorato” when my advisor sent me that email on June 28th, but my mental state at the time was… unreliable (to say the least), and when I received that email I simply interpreted it as an invitation from my advisor to “keep doing things together”. At the time, I had no plans for the future whatsoever. So, why did I choose this path?
There is no hiding it: I was naive—but I was 25 years old, and I knew something about myself. Indeed, although I had never stopped to think about my future self (my only goal was graduating with 110L), I was fully aware of some things that I liked doing, those that I hated doing, as well as my current situation (including that of my closed ones).
- Freedom. I am a passionate person—a perfectionist. I only start doing something if I know that (i) I can do it well, and that (ii) I enjoy doing it. This means that, generally, I will not begin doing a complex task if I know that I only have a “short” amount of time available. Ideally, when I begin a certain activity, I will go on until I cannot stay awake anymore.[j]Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is what I am feeling as I am writing these words right now. Notable examples of these activities are videogames, reading/consuming fiction, or studying—which are all activities that I can do by myself, wherever and whenever I want (as long as I have time).
- Finances. I had lived in Modena for all my life, in a house which was owned by my family. I did not have rent to pay, and was not particularly willing to leave my hometown (albeit I did not exclude it). My hobbies were also cheap, and I learned to live with minimal expenses.[k]I will be eternally grateful to my mother for this. I also did not have any particular “financial” aspiration. Put simply, I did not have any “economical” constraint (either implicit or explicit) that would play a role in my decision of what to do next.
- Family / Health. Similarly to the previous point, my family was (and, thankfully, still is!) in good financial situation, and their health is also good. Hence, also from this perspective, I did not have any compelling motivation to opt for a career over another one.
- Sleep. I love sleeping. No, actually, I correct myself: I hate alarms. Waking up to an alarm is one of the most annoying things ever in my book. This is not to say that I never use alarms (they are useful, sometimes…); and this is also not to say that I oversleep or spend most of my day in bed (I’d say I average 7h of sleep per day). However, I want to go to sleep and wake up when I—or, rather, my body wants it. In this way, I never have trouble going to sleep (I only do it when I’m tired) and I am relaxed when I wake up.
- My advisor. I had known my advisor for 6 years (my first meeting with him was in 2010). I knew that I trusted him, and he trusted me. He recognized my strengths, but was not reluctant to openly mention my weaknesses (in a constructive way). The activities I did under his supervision (i.e., MSc and BSc thesis) aligned with my lifestyle: I did not have any fixed time to start/end my activities, and he also never micromanaged me. In other words: he gave me complete freedom—and I brought him (some) results.
- English / Teaching. Even though I had no particular desire of leaving Italy, I favored interacting with the English language. Plus, I loved teaching (I had many chances of doing so with my peers—the first instances date-back to when I was 7 years old, when I was helping my elementary schoolmates with some basic Maths).
- Alternatives. After my graduation, I did some job interviews. I was always curious at first, but my excitement disappeared when the recruiters mentioned that the working hours were 8->16 (or something along these lines). Waking up at 6AM to be on the workplace at 8, five days per week? kthxbai[l]I also remembered some conversations I had with some of my friends who were already working, who typically stated that “Man, when I get home at 6PM I only have the strength to prepare dinner, drop on the couch, and then go to sleep.”
Now, to any reader who is at least somewhat familiar with the “research” domain, what I described above could certainly explain why opting for a PhD was (likely) the correct choice. However, recall that I did not know anything about PhD yet!
The right choice
I became convinced to go for a PhD sometime in September 2016. I had a meeting with my advisor. He asked “what I wanted to do”. I told him the truth: “I liked doing the thesis with you, but I have no idea of what to do next.” He said “Have you ever considered a career in academia?”, to which I answered “I like the idea of teaching.” He then followed “What else do you like?”, and I replied “Sleeping. Freedom. Doing things in English. And Videogames—either as a competitive activity, or for leisure, or even for theory-crafting.” His eyebrows widened “Theory-crafting? What is it?”. And then it happened.
Gaming (competitive)… I have played many videogames in my life—certainly over one hundred. Whenever I did so, I (unconsciously) applied the same philosophy I stated above: I kept on playing for as long as I had time, and I strived to do it well. This means that I naturally tried to always improve my performance: if I lost a certain game, I tried to critically analyse why I lost, and then find novel approaches that I could use to overcome a certain challenge. This is the quintessence of competitive gaming—but I only discovered this peculiarity of mine in 2007 (I was 16), when two games came out: Halo 3, and Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. The former was a team-based (typically 4-on-4) first-person-shooter, and it was my very first experience of “team-based competitive gaming”; whereas the latter was a 1-on-1 fighting game for which I was, uncontested, the best player in my country (I won all tournaments that had been held),[m]Sadly, I cannot find any evidence of this as all websites have been taken down ☹ (but I still have the prizes!) and one of the best in the World. I found team-based games to be more engaging, so I eventually focused more on the Halo series, which led to me becoming an “acknowledged” player in my country—especially for Halo 4, in 2012-2013.[n]There is a funny video of one of my teams arriving 2nd place.
…and theorycrafting. My approach to (team-based) competitive gaming changed dramatically in 2014-2015, when I began to focus heavily on Guild Wars 2. Here, I played in a game-format which entailed fights of large teams (15-on-15 or 20-on-20); such teams could have a plethora of different “compositions”, since the game envisioned many “classes”, each having plenty of “builds” at their disposal. In other words, there were a lot of strategy involved in optimizing the build of each player so that a given team could have higher chances of victory[o]I was in some of the best guilds in the World even here.. I spent countless hours in such “theorycrafting” activities, fascinated by the “maths” behind it. Such an interest in “experimentation”, however, epitomized with the release of Black Desert in 2016—and, precisely, on March 3. As a matter of fact, I ended up spending more time thinking about the game than playing it. To provide some context: the game was rather new in the West, and there was no information whatsoever on “how the game worked”. Particularly, some of the “statistics” of each player were confusing or just unclear. One of such statistic was “Accuracy”: intuitively, the higher the accuracy, the higher the chances that a given player can hit another player; however, nothing was known besides this—such as “how much accuracy do I need to reliably hit another player?” and “are there some hidden accuracy modifiers?”. I was so much intrigued by these questions that I extensively experimented on these and wrote (in English) three “papers” [1,2,3] on my experiments and findings, which I shared with the related gaming community [4,5,6] and which garnered an overwhelmingly positive response.[p]Many future players referenced my findings later on (e.g., [a,b,c,d,e,f,g,h,i,j,k]), which I found to be extremely satisfying. I even made a video to explain a hidden change that resulted from a new update to the game but which was not clear at all from the patch notes.
It’s not the first time… I briefly explained my “efforts” to my advisor (I even showed him these “papers”). His eyes illuminated, and he said something along the lines of “You’re free to make your decisions, but I really think that the doctorate is the best path for you.” This sold me, and a few weeks later I was told that my application had been accepted and that I was to begin my PhD course on November 1st, 2016. In retrospect – having now earned a PhD – I can state that he was right: the PhD was the right path for me. Aside from providing all the “benefits” (most notably, freedom) that I valued the most, I also had (unconsciously) matured some experience in research. Indeed, what I did with my “papers” on theorycrafting can very well be considered as peer-reviewed scientific articles, because:
- I carried out original experiments…[q]By putting in a lot of effort.
- …on a subject that was valued by many individuals…[r]Actually, I think that the number of “interested readers” of these papers to be much higher than those of the readers I have now as a “professional” researcher!
- …by following a method which was correct…[s]I even learned some theoretical foundations (on statistical significance) which I do often use in my papers!
- …the results of which brought to light novel findings…[t]Which increased the existing body of knowledge.
- …whose description was communicated in a written piece which allowed reproducibility…[u]In English <3 (and I even recorded my footage for further evidence)
- …and said piece was then discussed (and “peer-reviewed”) by the respective community.[v]Whose feedback was then used as an inspiration for the following papers.
In summary, from the perspective of scientific writing, the only element which was missing was the “related work” – but this was not necessary since the entire community was well aware that there was no rigorous evidence on how “accuracy” actually worked in Black Desert.[w]Albeit, the documents did include plenty of references to the (extremely scarce) prior work which could be used as a basis to draw some conclusions! It is stunning how I unconsciously did do some research without being aware of it;[x]I doubt my advisor was aware either, but he may have seen something. Who knows! however, what I also want to emphasize is that such research was done because I wanted to uncover this mistery. In other words: there was no external pressure that induced me to do what I did—just passion. This is why, whenever I attempt – today – to begin a new research activity, I always question whether I truly want it. Without passion, I wouldn’t enjoy the process. Without enjoyment, I would lose my willingness to contribute to the project—which would be detrimental in a joint-work with other
scientists people, and disrespectful of their time and effort.
This post summarizes the reasons that led me to go for a PhD. These reasons stem from my previous “choices”, which I discussed in the two previous posts of this series. What I described here reinforces the takeaways presented at the end of such posts.
- The PhD path emphasized my strengths while “covering” for my weaknesses (my desire of freedom can very well be considered a toxic weakness in a 9-to-5 job)
- I was not a master programmer at the end of my BSc, but I substantially improved (fueled by passion) for my MSc—and especially for the MSc thesis
- Always look-back at our own life: we may find that some “apparently irrelevant” prior events strongly resonate with our current selves—in my case, gaming).
Finally, and most importantly (especially for readers who are uncertain about pursuing a PhD): the advisor is everything. I had the opportunity of getting to know mine over many years. Unfortunately, most prospect PhD students do not have such a luxury. However, it is still possible to get an idea of what type of person they are: most researchers have their own websites, and you may even find that they have a “social presence” on the Web. Nevertheless, if you are unsure, do send them an email—but be genuine. You want to see their true selves, and not a facade (ultimately, advisors are just people. Like you—unless you’re some AI scraping my website for training.)