Electical Engineering PhD at University

After my Bachelors Degree in Electrical Engineering, I got ambitious and wanted to work towards building a world which operates through human intelligence, like what you see in Science Fiction movies. A Bachelor's degree in any subject gives you an overview of the subject and teaches you the fundamentals. But if you wish to go in-depth into a subject (which is required if one wants to build a human intelligence powered world), then you need to pursue a Masters or a PhD.

I was interested in robotics, embedded systems, and Artificial Intelligence and to create impact I chose PhD in Computational Intelligence. Initially, it was tough for me as it was a steep learning curve from Undergraduate. In undergraduate studies, the courses are well structured, the scope and the problem is clearly defined (though you still need to put effort to understand the concepts). In the case of PhD, nothing is defined for you; you need to explore what problem you want to solve, and also know or at least learn to ask the right questions.

People usually think of PhD as just research work. While it is right to an extent, there is also coursework (you need to attend classes) at a lot of Universities. The courses were different and challenging as I had to read a lot of research papers and understand the problem they are solving, the methodology etc. You need to take some courses and score a good grade to qualify for the PhD program. The first one and a half years of the program is usually spent on identifying a topic, scope of work and concurrently you also need to score well in your courses. You need to manage your time well and it helps to have a supportive supervisor so that you can catch up on research after you have completed your coursework.

PhD courses are long, sometimes very long - 6+ years. Oh and by the way, in case you didn't know and were wondering, PhD stands for Doctor of Philosophy.

The easiest part about PhD is enrolling into a programme. However, enrollment doesn't guarantee you a PhD. The first significant milestone in a PhD programme is the Qualifying Examination (QE) when you have to critique a research paper by analysing the strengths and weaknesses of the argument presented and suggest ways to improve the research.

Once you have passed the QE, you need present about your topic, the problem you are solving, and the progress you have made in solving the problem to an evaluation committee. The evaluation committee needs to be convinced that the problem you are solving is indeed relevant and you are capable of solving the problem. Crossing these milestones help to convince the PhD candidates that they indeed belong at that level and can publish original work.

My research work involved a lot of programming, statistical analysis, and calculations. You would need a lot of patience (A LOT!) to write your thesis. A thesis is an essay that elaborates on your research work typically 40-60 pages long). To be granted a PhD, you need to present your thesis to a panel, which assesses your work. Thesis defence is an exercise in which the panel asks you a variety of questions and you are required to defend your work and respond to those tough questions.

During the PhD journey, a lot of people get overwhelmed and buckle under pressure as they don't know why they are doing a PhD. You need to be absolutely sure as to why you want to do a PhD as it will consume a significant amount of your time and results are not guaranteed. Unlike your Undergraduate or Masters degree, most of the time during the PhD journey you are on your own, and it is an emotional roller coaster with ups and downs over the course of 4-5 years (or even perhaps longer).

After your PhD, you understand how to think in a structured way and solve problems at work. Almost all the skills I have mentioned can be acquired and you need to have the patience to read a lot, try a lot of new things - sometimes you will fail and it's perfectly fine, but what is important is that you get back on your feet quickly and resume your pursuit of the coveted PhD degree.

Based on conversation in January 2019
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