If I would do a PhD again, what would I do differently?

Recently, I gave an invited talk at University of Pisa in Italy (online). A PhD student asked me: If you would do a PhD again, what would you do differently? In this blog post, I will answer this question, which I think can be interesting for graduate students.

First, I think that one of the key aspects to consider for a PhD is to choose a good research team, preferably in a good university, where you will have a good research environment and can work on some important research topic.. In my case, I did my PhD in a university that is maybe not so high in the world rankings but is still good, and more importantly my supervisor was great and gave me several opportunities through his social network. Thus, for this, I would not  change.

A second important aspect is about time management. If I would do a PhD again, I would try to manage my time in a better way to be more effective. As a student, I had a lot of time but sometimes spent time on things that were not so important. It is important to be able to assess what is the most important and to choose carefully how  to spend time. For example, if you have one day left to submit a paper, is it more important to spent it improving the colors of figures or proofreading? Generally, the latter is more useful.

A third important aspect is to collaborate more with other researchers. As a PhD researcher, it is easy to work by yourself on your thesis. But having the feedback of others can be highly valuable. Moreover, collaborating with others can help write   more papers and find other opportunities. On this aspect, I did well during my PhD as I had several collaborations but I could have perhaps discussed more about my project with   other researchers.

A fourth important aspect is to choose a research topic that you like. Personally, during my PhD, I first started doing something on e-learning before gradually moving towards data mining, which is my current research area. If I had made that decision earlier, it would have been better. But this is easy to say, afterwards. Although I also liked working on e-learning, the community was quite small to work on Intelligent Tutoring Systems and thus it was hard to have some impact in this field despite doing good research. Another reason why I stopped working on this is that conducting experiments was quite time-consuming and complex, while in data mining it can be as simple as running algorithms on a benchmark dataset that you download to test a new algorithm. Besides, I personally like research on algorithm design.

A fifth important aspect is to have clear goals for your career path after the PhD. It is never too early to search for jobs or opportunities such as postdoc positions. I think I did quite well on this part as I got a postdoc position in a good data mining team. But I could have started searching earlier.

A sixth important aspect is to focus on having quality papers in good journals and conferences, recognized worldwide if you intend to have an international career. In some countries like Canada, some conference papers are well regarded in computer science, and there is not much pressure to write journal papers for PhD students. Even, some PhD students may graduate without any papers at some universities. But internationally, several countries consider journal papers as highly important and have various ranking systems to evaluate journals and conferences. For researchers on intend to work internationally, it is thus something important to consider. Sometimes, it is better a few very good papers than have too many papers.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I gave some answers to the question of what would I do differently if I would do another PhD. Hope it was interesting. If you have some comments, please write below.

Philippe Fournier-Viger is a full professor working in China and founder of the SPMF open source data mining software.

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