How I started the journey? - Part I.3

Torture but fun!

“You will get the same treatment!”

It was a nice and quiet evening in the summer of 2016. I got a phone call from my advisor that the committee voted for my admission, and I was officially locked in! Finally, after a few uneasy and anxious months, I made it through. I still remember that wife and I celebrated it with a nice bottle of wine! What a beautiful gift for a soon-to-be 30 years old crazy man!

A few days later, I had a meeting with the department chair, who made a joke saying “You will get the same treatment!” That was exactly what I wanted to hear from the chair! I would be dead if they tailored a particularly less rigorous plan simply because I was a part-time student.

🤔 The last thing I wanted was: I worked so hard to convince the committee, but they were giving me a special treatment. You should be very clear that they will not loosen one bit of academic requirement. Would you want to get a different diploma? Or, a same one except with a footnote saying “this guy was not treated as a real Ph.D. student”? That said, if they allow a bit loosened on-campus study rule, it might save you a lot of hassle.

The excitement quickly faded away as I started worrying about a list of things. For instance, I worried about if I would be able to manage my focus for a 45-minutes lecture. I hadn’t been in school for almost 3 years! The list just kept growing until I regretted doing it.

I guess it was a short period of time, a few weeks maybe, that I had a very serious imposer syndrome: “Did I steal the spot from someone else?” “I can’t be doing this thing!” “Help me!” The feeling was so strong that I still remember every bit of details till these days.

Luckily, I wasn’t bothered by the fraudulent self-portrait for too long, as I had to figure out how to cope with my shaky mathematical background.

I earned a B.A. in English and a B.Econ in Finance before started my master program at Lehigh, so it is safe to say I didn’t have a great maths background.

Even after the master program, I knew my maths skill was quite shaky. Yet, somehow, I made up my mind that I could handle a maths-heavy Ph.D. program just fine! And, even crazier, I got accepted to the program!

🤔 I tend to believe anyone working on a part-time Ph.D. gotta be in a much better position than me in terms of academic readiness. But, even if you are not so good at something, it could be just fine. You probably just don’t know you are actually pretty good at them yet.

Years later, my fellow doctors joked about we were just a bunch of Ph.D. in “Inequalities” because we all had to use some kind of inequalities as mathematical tricks to figure out the proofs of some algorithms. In that sense, it would be an overstatement that one must be a mathematician to finish the Ph.D.. But, it was no doubt that I had to figure out how to build a solid mathematical foundation before knowing how to use those tricks, and to use them well.

🤔 Some engineering fields favor a strong background in mathematics, but some doesn’t. For those requiring solid foundation in mathematics, the chances for them to study mathematics is almost zero. The reason for them to attribute heavily to mathematics is more for having a Ph.D. student know how to use mathematics as a tool. That said, unless you are thinking of a maths major, I doubt yours requires more maths than the field I worked in.

Two years into the program, I was surprised how much I fell in love with theoretical stuff, a lot maths and fun. I will talk more about it in next part.

Zheng Shi
Zheng Shi
Team Lead, Data Science | Ph.D., Machine Learning & Optimization

Deep Learning, Machine Learning, Optimization Algorithms, and Data Science.