Can you believe it? It’s been 3 years since I’ve started my PhD, and 3 years since I’ve started writing this blog. Looking back at these years I can say one thing for sure: I’ve learned a lot. A LOT. With a background in Media Informatics and an MSc in Advanced Computer Science I thought I’d be well prepared for a PhD, but it didn’t take me long to realise how little I actually knew.
My first year consisted mainly of reading, reading, and more reading. I was overwhelmed by the amount of work that already existed in my area and tried to make sense of the many formulas and algorithms I found. Sometimes I even thought I had managed to understand at least a tiny part of it, but ythanks to my supervisors, who both employ very good “poking” strategies (that’s what I call it 😉 ), I quickly realised that I had overlooked some fundamental points and, in fact, didn’t understand anything. In addition to all the reading, I tried my hands on a “mini project” which involved crawling the web for OWL ontologies – seemed easy, but due to my non-understanding of the ideas behind the project as well as pretty awful coding skills, I didn’t get very far.
Finally, at the end of my first year, after a lot of tumbling around, trying to start projects and failing, I completed my first conference paper (which, looking back, wasn’t even *that* bad) and got through my end of year report and interview, which seemed quite a good start to the next year.
Year two seemed to have gone by rather quickly – I honestly can’t remember too much of it. I had finally found the focus of my research project (“Multiple Justifications in OWL Ontologies”, if you’re asking ;)) and had a rough idea of where I wanted to go – just not quite *how* I could actually get there. With a lot of help from my supervisors, I found a nice solution for something I had been struggling with for a while, implemented some working code (go me!), ran experiments, and wrote the results up as a paper.
I also designed my first experiment with humans, attended and presented at my first workshop, and went to a fairly big conference in Germany. I often had to defend the work I was doing to a lot of people, whether it was in paper reviews, in Q&A sessions at talks, or in person, which was sometimes interesting and useful, and sometimes plain infuriating. This was probably the point where I started identifying with my work and really “believed” in it – something you usually don’t have in undergraduate degrees where you do the same coursework as everyone else, then abandon it at the start of the new term. Being able to work on something that is really “mine” is one of the things I like the most about doing a PhD.
In my third year, I finally realised that I could no longer go on without upping my coding skills. I had been struggling for too long with dodgy and buggy code, sleepless nights and errors that I only noticed after I thought I had finally completed the program. And so I sat down for two months, read a few programming books (if, like me, you’re stuck with a Java API, I can very much recommend Effective Java!) and online tutorials, wrote tons of “sandbox” code, signed up to github, taught myself some Python, and worked hard to understand the many concepts and ‘good practice’ guidelines of coding. Within a short time, my coding skills just grew exponentially – and while I’m still lacking the experience of someone who’s been a professional developer for years, I can at the very least write bug-free and neat code fairly quickly, to the point where I’m now okay with letting other people read my code. And you know how awkward that can be sometimes 😉
Besides the coding marathon, I read some more fundamental books on logics, started writing some more on my Semantic Web blog, and even gave a presentation that didn’t make my supervisors cringe (success!!).
After three years of work on my research topic, I’m now quite looking forward to seeing how it all comes together in my thesis. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few months while I’m completing my thesis, but I really hope I can make use of everything I have learned so far and turn it into a good and interesting piece of work. Of course, I’ve been through the same ups and downs and the “THIS IS IT, I’M DONE, I’M LEAVING” moments as everyone else, but I don’t think I would have had the chance to increase my knowledge and skills in so many different areas as I have during this PhD.