Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Five-Minute Ph.D.

As my Ph.D. defense nears, I'm thinking a lot about the most important lessons I learned. Here are my top five:

  1. Don't look for reasons to fail; find ways to succeed. If something should or must be done, find a way to do it.
  2. First figure out the right thing to do. Only then think about implementation, and see how close you can come. Even if you can't reach the ideal, at least you'll be pushing in the right direction.
  3. Understand the problem deeply. Any good problem solver can hack a good solution quickly. What's more valuable is identifying the true underlying problem, and how it relates to other problems. This tells you if something is a true solution, and helps identify opportunities.
  4. Think in a structured, disciplined way. First, separate out orthogonal issues. Then, solve them incrementally and iteratively. Don't try to attack the whole mess at once.
  5. Finally, when communicating with others, tell a story. Start with something familiar, then make sure your ideas flow.

Those are the big ones. The gems of a Ph.D. education, in five easy minutes. Interestingly, none of these are particularly technical. But deeply technical things are limited in application. I think that's the real secret: the work you do for a Ph.D. is technical, but a good Ph.D. is about becoming a better thinker and communicator.

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