Sunday, October 20, 2013

Getting a PhD in 20 Months

There must be some lucky factors for anyone to get a PhD in 20 months. I'm no exception. As I acknowledged in my dissertation, my committee, boss, colleagues, customers, friends and family provided me super strong support during those 20 months.
Despite the luck I had, there are things I did that can be reproduced by other PhD students to shorten their years in a graduate program. I'd like to share an ingredient of my secret sauce with my students and the readers of this blog.

While pursuing the PhD, I was also working at a consulting firm. With the mindset of a consultant, I treated the process of getting a PhD as a project. The project manager is myself. My resources are my advisor, committee members, and the professors I took courses with.

Every week, I wrote a report to document:
  1. The planned activities of the previous week;
  2. The accomplishment this week; and
  3. The plan for the next week.
These reports helped me and my advisor track the progress. They greatly contributed to my miracle 20-month PhD.
So is the secret source just to write weekly reports?

I bet many PhD students were asked for status update in some format, such as weekly reports or regular meetings. Below are the things that may differentiate my weekly reports from most others:

Define measurable success factors

A solid plan should identify why to do something, how many hours it will require, how much elapsed time it will take, and how to evaluate the performance. For instance, I let all of my students to read the materials on Tao's Recommended Reading List for Energy Forecasters. I don't consider "reading Dr. Hyndman's FPP next week" as a plan. Instead, I would put the following in my weekly report:
I'm a beginner in forecasting and would like to read a practical book that offers good introduction to the various forecasting methods. FPP is a good one to start with. Reading this book may take me one to two months. I'd like to spend 20 hours next week to go over the first two chapters. I will use the exercises in each chapter for self-evaluation.

Revise the plan with my advisor

I tried to meet with my advisor regularly to get feedback on my progress and plans. I enjoyed the discussions and sometimes debates with my advisor. It's always nice to work with an expert who has gone through the process and supports what I am doing.
Learn the lessons when missing the target

There can be various reasons that lead to a failure to reach the target. The plan may be too aggressive to execute. I may suddenly get a lot of work from my daytime consulting job. No matter what reason it is, I would like to figure it out and find a way to avoid the same thing happening in the future. Gradually, I became better and better at making and executing the plans. I did not have to ask my advisor when I can graduate, because I had a plan to graduation and I knew I can make it.
Pay attention to writing

I'm not a native English speaker. Writing has never been my favorite task. Weekly report is a good opportunity for me to practice my English writing, so I paid much attention to the details when writing my weekly report. Thanks to these practices every week, it did not take me too long to write my dissertation.
Maybe a better title for this post is "how to write a weekly report". In sum, there are four points at high level to take away:
  1. Prepare short term plans carefully;
  2. Seek advice from the resources proactively;
  3. Learn from the mistakes;
  4. Find the weakness and try every chance to practice.
Hopefully some of my students can beat my record.

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