Four unfruitful years

It was sometime in May-2006 that I first got into “research”. In four years, many of my friends have gotten themselves a 200 page Thesis and a few papers, a couple of trips to Europe/ Hawaii etc for conferences and a DEGREE! My friends in Computer Science average 3 papers a year. Their resume’s are 3 pages long because 2 pages have to be dedicated to papers and conferences.

In the same 4 years, I have 0 papers, 0 conference talks and 0 results that I can proudly write in any thesis as my contribution to science.

I did not expect anything great from my M.Tech project. It was a downhill project from the beginning. Initially, I took more than I could handle, and as I slowly got to grips with the process, I had narrowed my scope vastly. Yes, I learned a lot about Monte Carlo simulations, model reduction, system identification, markov chains and master equations and such, but the end result of my research was as badly thrashed by peer-reviewers as Portugal thrashed the North-Koreans. Did the work have any merit? I guess not, otherwise the paper would have been accepted!

In Wisconsin, I took up Supply chain optimization using MPC. I was super excited when I started, because the topic looked full of awesomeness!

Nobody expected anything great to come out of Jan-08 to Jan-09, and I was not too disappointed with what I achieved. I could run some simulations of things that looked practical and useful. But it was too simple to be anything. I don’t even remember what I did in the spring and summer of 2009, except that I wrote up a huge simulation, which took almost 2 months and finally ended up not working ( I nibbled on the non-working idea again in Spring 2010, and still it remained the same: non-working!). Fall-09, was spent in making up innocuous Game theory examples and reading loads of papers on game theory. But by the end of December, I had no idea where I was going with the multitude of examples that I made up. Each of them were too simple to get any result out of, and in-fact because it was out of our group’s domain, the published papers had stuff with much greater detail in them. One such idea, I got to work on again during my internship this summer, but which again died a swift death, with it not adding much benefit.

Spring-10 was spent in vain trying to come up with a solution to yet another different problem. As you would guess by now, in vain! And today’s meeting with my boss and super-boss: 2 hours of discussion and we are back at the starting point of summer. It was a strange deja-vu during the meeting today, because we ended up discussing the same thing that we discussed at the start of the internship. I was asked to come up with another new idea, which I partially did by the end of the day, but going by past history and my luck with ideas, I  think I can guess where it is going to end up. (To add to my misery, the other intern that joined with me, has 11 papers/publications and he finished his intern project 1 month ahead of schedule)

To add salt to injury, during the summer, I attended quite a few talks given by applicants to jobs in my group. As the talks varied over a wide range from supply chain design, tactical supply chain optimization, advanced controls, scheduling, monte carlo simulations etc, I realized I have more than a decent grasp on all these subjects but without a paper, and a few “good” results, I would remain a dud! I mean how else would you show that you have prove that you have working knowledge of the field AND innovative research potential. Maybe, I just don’t have any research potential.

I remember the interview with Shell in the December of ’06. In the technical interview, I was asked to talk about my project. I explained it to them, about thin films growing on a substrate, about how the process was stochastic, about the intractable “true” solution to the problem, about the need of a simpler control relevant model and about my unsuccessful attempts at finding one. The feedback at the end of the process was that  I could cannot complete a given task.

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  1. #1 by Vinay on July 29, 2010 - 10:20 pm

    I was in the same situation till the end of three years of my PhD. And I too used to think the same way that you are thinking right now. But, somehow, SCP took charge and managed to give a direction to my research. I wouldn’t say my research is path-breaking, but definitely addresses problems which affected the research community till now.

    About the Shell guys: Don’t give a damn!! Those who gave you a feedback about not finishing task, are themselves finished. Shell has drastically curtailed its research centre activities in India. Many have been suddenly shifted to development and field jobs. So, do not worry too much about interview feedbacks.

    • #2 by Kaushik on July 29, 2010 - 10:57 pm

      Who wants path-breaking. I just want something that is good enough for a paper and something decent enough for a thesis.

      It is putting in the hard work and ending up with nothing that sucks, no matter how philosophical you want to get about not worrying about the results.

  2. #3 by sachita on July 30, 2010 - 12:29 am

    Yeah, I have heard of complaints from couple of other Phd in bio field(you are in chemical though right?) where when they thought they had a paper and but could never get results in the lab.

    In my field, it is relatively easier though, an existing circuit with modifications to prove that it works at a higher speed, i mean there is a definite paper – similarly papers with newer algorithms etc… so what i want to say it might be that different fields different strokes.

    ps: i normally wouldnt like some one advising me, but here it is, may be keeping a record what caused these ideas not to work and so on?
    ps1: philosphically speaking though, a high point always awaits on the corner after a low point in life:)

    • #4 by Kaushik on August 4, 2010 - 7:00 pm

      yes, I am in Chemical. And nothing is easy in any field (especially showing incremental improvement)

      I do keep such records. But sometimes it gets so frustrating that you have to rant it out of your system.

      I am waiting for the law of averages to even things out!

  3. #5 by SK on July 30, 2010 - 9:12 am

    Agree with Sachita’s PS2, good things are waiting to happen. If it is not good, its not the end. But of course keep trying, and giving your best.

    • #6 by Kaushik on August 4, 2010 - 7:01 pm

      Thanks! I will keep trying till I get bored of trying 🙂

  4. #7 by Pavithra Prabakaran on August 3, 2010 - 10:58 pm

    I am the last person who should be writing this, but you are sounding like me…life has brought you this far and of course that was because of your own efforts. Like all bad phases, this too shall pass. Four years of time may seem unfruitful to you, but I dont think it is actually that way, what you consider fruitful or not is based on how you measure something as fruitful or wasteful. That being said you may not really have anything to showcase your learning at the moment, in the form of papers, conferences and long resume etc, but that also doesnt mean you didnt learn anything. It is just a matter of time, dont give up so soon buddy…I am sure you can reach for the sky and actually touch it, just dont let negative feelings come in and begin ruling you. Good luck with you PhD and research.

    • #8 by Kaushik on August 4, 2010 - 8:26 pm

      Thanks a lot!

      Sometimes, reassurance is just the perfect medicine!

  5. #9 by beetlejuice357 on August 11, 2010 - 11:23 pm

    I’m not gonna spam your space ranting on about my ‘inadequacies’ [of which my blog is already filled with :D] but yea, im pretty much in the same situation…Why oh why!

    (Sorry I don’t have a solution/advice to give. I can only give you company in misery!)

  6. #10 by Anne De Plume on September 2, 2010 - 1:20 am

    I felt your article is dangerously honest. Many researchers go through the same process but are afraid to admit it, for whatever reasons….The ordeal will get over, either for good or for bad. As far as papers are concerned, the number doesn’t matter — one good paper will be enough if you can wrench it out. There is no reassurance, just try to get through it, that 200 pages thesis is just a matter of ‘getting over it’ ….

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