Sunday, 13 October 2013

Slow to Speak

I've been pretty busy with my thesis stuff lately and just kinda dropped this blog thing. I figured that it was taking up way too much of my time, and kinda was. But that was probably because I was spending a great deal of time writing up these fairly length posts. Hmm...maybe I should try just writing shorter posts and seeing if I'll get faster and faster over time?

To summarise the past few months: life's been pretty awesome. =P

Okay, now that the catching up is over and done with - let's do something mildly mathematical. Well, last week I gave a short talk for the Melbourne University Graduate Study Expo. I was meant to be saying a bit about what it's like to do a PhD, and I think that peeps enjoyed my talk but I'm pretty sure that it was less relevant to them. It was basically a room mainly composed of industry people who were thinking about doing further studies to increase their "human capital" - to use economist speak.

Anyways, here're the slides, and here's my talk:

The last conference that I went to was in Shanghai. For the very first talk, a Frenchman steps up to the podium as loud award-ceremony-orchestral music swells in the background. He's wearing a suit of dark grey, with a chain that I can only assume attaches to a fob watch. Instead of a necktie, he is sporting some unholy offspring of a cravat and a pussy bow. He walks up to the podium, leans into it and for the next hour, in his thick and impassioned French accent, he tells us - an auditorium full of 500 or so mathematicians - about the mathematics that he loved, the experiences he's had (like trying to find Boltzmann's grave, and the local grave-enthusiasts not knowing Boltzmann by name, but knowing his equation!), followed by a simple overview of the mathematics that he had invented. That man was Cedric Villani - a Fields medallist (it's like the Nobel prize of mathematics. Like many things in maths: it's lesser known, harder to get and comes with much MUCH less money).

That talk had everything that I love about maths: it's full of these wonderful and colourful characters, it's got the history, the passion and above all else, that talk showcased the beauty and creativity of mathematics.

Now, I've been asked to share with you my experiences doing a PhD in maths. And it's definitely been an adventure - my PhD has taken me to a month in Singapore, a month in America, a month in Germany and a month in China and a week in Istanbul. I mean, I wasn't just in front of a desk the whole time - I was on the alps, mountain biking...etc [something is omitted here for reasons about which I'd rather be cryptic].  BUT, the VAST majority of my time has been spent here in Melbourne, in my office, swivelling about on a chair in front of a Mac reading papers, frustrated by poor notation and typos, and checking my email every half an hour or so.

So, that's what it's like to do a PhD. And well, you've just heard my friend Jon (Kastelan, works at PWC) talk about what it's like to work in the industry and being typical of industry people, he gave you solid, practical advice. Well, I'm sitting in my ivory tower of academia and my questions are a lot more all-over-the-place, but I'll still ask them: what do YOU WANT in life?

I know that's a pretty big question, but a PhD is a pretty big decision - it's a fair few years of your life. For me, it was pretty simple. I love maths. But there are other reasons to do a PhD (and I'm not making a judgement call here): maybe you've heard that statisticians and mathematicians have some of the best jobs in the world in terms of pay and safety; maybe you've already worked in the industry for a few years and you find that you need some heavy mathematical machinery to solve the types of problems that you're dealing with; maybe you just like the sound of Doctor of Mathematics after your name. WHATEVER the reason, have a good think about if it's worth three or more years of reading and writing stuff that almost no-one-else in the world is going to read.

SO what if you don't know? Well, that's where a Masters comes in handy. There's a coursework component where you'll be "forced" to see different types of maths and figure out what you might like. And there's a thesis component where you'll get a preview of what it's like to do research and how to communicate it.

Of course, I'm not saying that you have to go and do a masters - if you're really not sure, and you've got a banking/engineering job line up, why not take it? I mean, getting a job outside of academia isn't a life sentence. I was just talking to a friend last week who's been working for a year or two and has decided that it sucks and he's going to come back and do a PhD next year.

Now, the other question I have for you is: CAN you do a PhD in maths?

As in, do you have the aptitude for it. If you don't know - again, a Masters is a good way for you to get a feel for it. And to be fair, I know that I've been pretty PhD-centric in my treatment of the Masters program, but it's a bit biased. You do get a lot out of a Masters - it gives you a very strong overview of the types of tools that we have at our disposal. Plus, it forces you to tighten up how you learn. There's no room for pride in mathematics - if you don't get something, you will have to ask - your supervisor will make sure of this.

Finally, is Melbourne the right place? For Masters? Ummm...YES. Melbourne's got a pretty well-rounded department, especially for its size. [Sth omitted here coz it's kinda cocky] As for PhD - it actually depends a lot more on what you're interested in. A much more important part of a PhDs is the specific project(s) that you want to work on; but if you do a Masters here, a lot of the people in the department are more than happy to help you find a good grad school/supervisor for your PhD.

So, I've shoved some details in your face, from Cedric Villani to sitting in front of a mac. And it's created this messy tapestry. And maths is all about sorting through these details and finding some underlying pattern. In your case --- these three questions [it makes more sense with the slides]. And I hope that, as you clarify your thoughts - the answer will reveal itself to you [it REALLY makes more sense with the slides]. =P

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