Wednesday, April 15, 2015


There are certain times I know that people around me define my happiness. Today is one such day. I defended my first research paper today. This contributes to 1/3rd of my PhD requirements. Instead of qualifiers, we are required to have done 144 units of PhD level coursework with one research paper at the end of the second year. I am done with coursework and the first defense. Therefore 33.33% of my PhD is done. There is a second paper due the same date next year and yes, yes, I am getting to it in just about five minutes.

I cannot have more supporting advisors. For the entire week they have been trying to work on my paranoia, constantly telling me that I was going to do great. It was so nice to stand in this crowded room (with a heater than just wouldn't switch off), knowing I could turn to the familiar smiling faces for support if things went horribly wrong or if I ventured into la-la land, which I have the propensity to do, when things become uncomfortable.

My quorum consisted of the best people in their fields, extraordinary Statisticians and Economists who took time off their schedule to stop by my talk and I think that is really nice of them. It is not everyday one gets to listen to all these people telling me that I had done good work.

I was pacing the corridors all day yesterday for no reason until a professor took pity on my fragile nerves and offered to listen to my talk. She took about forty minutes off her schedule and gave me such good advice on the really small but really important details on how to talk. She arrived to my talk and I could see her beaming as I spoke. She then told me that she was incredibly proud of me. Doesn't happen everyday.

The other PhD students took turn to listen to me ranting, sacrificed their weekends sitting with me so that I obsessively time and re-time the talk. They were people who told me that they were going to nod sitting in the front row so that I get to be reassured during the talk in case I need reassurance. People cannot get better.

All my friends showed up stood for good forty five minutes at the back of the hall because it was full though they knew what exactly I was going to talk about. My best friend spent just about four days helping me to script the talk so that I knew what exactly I had to say.

It is not everyday that someone gets to defend a paper while both the advisors taking pictures of me talking just so I can mail them to my mother or they can congratulate me on Facebook. Seriously, I don't know how many PhD students can say this, my advisors are the coolest. Refer to Figure 1 below. You have to click on the picture to see the whole picture.

Fig 1: One of my advisors posts a photo on Facebook

What strikes me is that there are so many many people invested in my success here more than at any point in my life which is just wonderful. I was a kid brought up on a staple diet of acerbic taunts which left me so cynical about goodness in people. As someone who does Bayesian work, this might be the time when I should acknowledge that my data overwhelms my prior about humanity. There are so many nice people who genuinely want me to do well and it is a pity that I spent about twenty years obsessing about how people were fundamentally jerks, using a limited and a very biased sample.

 Speaking of family, my mom's voice always radiates happiness whenever I do something good that involves a lot of public speaking. Believe me that this a woman who is very hard to impress and the voice very rarely radiates that much approval. She spent a considerable portion of her life writing fiery speeches in Tamil for me. I remember all the evenings sitting on the terrace working painfully on the small finer details for hours. This was for competitions that happened in some corner of a dusty school hall which no one on the earth would care about as much as my mom did. I was high on her approval meter today and she told me that all her time was not wasted after all.

 I never really wanted to write this post because I didn't want this to be jinxed, but I did, because this is one day I want to remember in the future when I start whining about how difficult doing a PhD is

So, what was my paper on?

This is what my professor asked me to say when I asked him how to succinctly summarize my research in ten seconds.

My research sits at the interface between two fields: Combining Social Science techniques to understand the drivers of fraud and consumer responses to fraud, with Computer Science and Machine Learning techniques to develop managerially relevant responses to review fraud.

It is called A Tangled Web from ...

“Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive”

Sir Walter Scott, 1808, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field 

I think this is the 10% of doing a PhD that everyone says makes up for the 90% of work.

Alright. That's all the happiness a grad student is allowed to have every year. Now, to sleep and wake up to a morrow filled with programming a 29 page Hidden Markov Latent Drichlet Allocation model from scratch.

Fun times, indeed.

1 comment:

Arun Kalyanasundaram said...

Congrats Utara.