PhD Attempt Number 2

15 Feb 2012past-lives

My second attempt at a PhD went off rather better than my first. It was all done, dusted and examined in the allotted three years, without too much psychic suffering. Even more remarkable was that, in a period of four years, both my partner Rita and myself finished, wrote up and graduated. Without any domestic bickering at all (well, more or less).

I put most of this down to the excellent atmosphere in the research group I was in in Bristol, founded by Paul Valdes, one of my two supervisors. We had frequent group meetings, both in the department and in the pub, there was a lot of good cross-fertilisation of ideas, and, best of all, the group was full of people I was happy to spend time with (not at all a common situation for me, as anyone who knows me will testify). It was great. Paul had a super attitude for a group leader, letting people mostly get on with what they wanted to do, never coming the big boss, and it worked really well. The BRIDGE group is one of the things I miss most about Bristol.

My other supervisor was Steve Wiggins, in the maths department. He was responsible for enormously broadening my horizons in all kinds of ways. There are mental states I would never have entered without Steve’s prodding, mostly in the form of late night emails with bundles of papers attached, saying “You really ought to know something about this stuff...”. Steve has a work ethic that would kill an ox, and I don’t think he ever missed one of our Friday morning meetings throughout the three years, despite being head of the maths department and running an active research group. I guess someone who has written five or six fat books about dynamical systems probably knows a thing or two about time management. I’m very grateful that he agreed to take me on as a student.

As for the work I did during my PhD time, well, I started off with all sorts of grandiose plans, and ended up producing a workmanlike though not terribly inspiring thesis about nonlinear dimensionality reduction methods. I did learn a lot along the way, and the thesis probably represents only about 20% of the work I did. Since Paul and Steve mostly left me to get on with things, I ended up doing real research, i.e. cocking up repeatedly and having to start over with slightly modified goals and preconceptions. I think that with more guidance, I could probably have written a more impressive end product, but I don’t think I would have learnt as much as I did during my sometimes rather pathetic flailing.

All in all, it was a good time. I met a lot of cool people, did a lot of caving, some kayaking, climbed some mountains, and had a lot of thinking time, something that seems to be sorely lacking as a post-doc!