[Het CNN] Blog-reeks "Ervaringen met criminologische PhD-trajecten" - deel 3
"In deze blog-reeks vertellen 3 PhD-onderzoekers over hun ervaringen met een PhD-traject. Vandaag het laatste deel waarin Jeremiah Onaolapo - Computer Science PhD student at University College London - zijn verhaal vertelt."
15 juni 2018
Door: Jeremiah Onaolapo
To most people, obtaining a PhD appears to be a herculean or esoteric task, or both. In this article, I will present a brief summary of my PhD journey so far to demystify the process, show what it entails, and how to make the best of it. It is my hope that this story will inspire future PhD aspirants. Supervisors, PhD administrators, and the general public may also find it helpful.
Baby steps, giant steps
I arrived London in September 2013 for the full-time Information Security MSc degree at University College London (UCL). Between 2013 and 2014, my colleagues and I received intensive tutoring on the theory and application of Information Security (also loosely known as “Cyber Security”). My MSc dissertation on a privacy-enhanced password meter (PEPmeter) was supervised by Emiliano de Cristofaro. Afterwards, I applied for a PhD position under the supervision of Gianluca Stringhini to study botnets and malicious online activity in general.
Obtaining a PhD involves carrying out novel research to solve open problems. To get a good feel for such problems, the PhD student must become familiar with existing solutions. Hence, I spent a couple of months reading conference and journal papers in my field of research to gain a general understanding of previous work done by other researchers. Some of the papers were recommended by Gianluca (my supervisor). While reading the papers, I paid particular attention to the key lessons learnt and future work sections, since they comprised the holy grail I sought from each paper. In addition, I read Gianluca’s PhD thesis.
Gianluca loaned me a book that eventually inspired some of my main research projects. The book, titled “The Red Book: A Roadmap for Systems Security Research” by the SysSec Consortium, summarises state-of-the-art systems security research, including threats and vulnerabilities, and predicts future research directions to tackle those threats. This extensive literature search helped me to identify a couple of potential research directions to focus on. Hence, I consider it one of the most important phases of my PhD journey.
To collaborate or not?
Over the past three years, I have carried out studies to understand what happens to stolen online accounts, analysed online carding forums where miscreants trade stolen credit cards, and also studied an understudied form of 419 scam (advance fee fraud), among others. I could not have handled all these projects on my own, given the time and project resource constraints that I have. I worked with other researchers domiciled across the world (in Spain, USA, and Cyprus, to name a few). I was the project lead on my main thesis projects, while fellow researchers led other studies (collaborative work). This is synergy in action; researchers in teams contribute complementary skills and produce outcomes that will be more than the sum of outcomes if they had worked individually (I paraphrased Aristotle’s saying here).
To serve or not?
I have served as a subreviewer for a number of conferences. I was also on the 2017 Shadow Programme Committee of the prestigious ACM Internet Measurement Conference (IMC). Think of this as a mock committee comprising PhD students, to discuss and select conference papers that should make it to the conference proceedings from submissions. I am also a co-chair of the Measurement Reading Group in UCL. We meet fortnightly to discuss key research papers that report empirical studies in the field of Information Security. This is a great way to stay informed without necessarily having to read hundreds of papers. As Shehar Bano once told me, as you move up the academic ladder, it makes sense to involve junior researchers in the reading process to gain leverage.
Serving the academic community requires substantial time commitments, but comes with benefits. First, I interact with the wider academic community and thus build new connections. Second, it looks really nice on my CV.
First, a PhD is a great vehicle for gaining new skills or honing existing ones. For instance, I had to learn how to code in Python for data analysis during the first year of my PhD. My writing and presentation skills have also improved greatly. Second, having flexible working hours is awesome. Third, this PhD journey has afforded me the opportunity to travel around the world to present my research findings – all expenses paid.
In April 2017, I travelled to Australia and the USA to present my work at conferences and make new friends in the academic community. With much long-distance travel comes much jetlag, but the payoff was great -- I saw kangaroos, wallabies, emus, llamas, and quokkas in Australia for the first time.
The PhD journey is not always a pretty picture. There were times that I had to work very long hours alone. Those moments made me wonder if getting on the PhD track was a good idea. Having a strong support system helps me to navigate such days. Also, research projects are not guaranteed to succeed, in fact, some will fail. A PhD team (student and supervisor) should put contingency measures in place to prepare for such times. The ability to adapt quickly to changes in the research landscape is also a strong tool in the elite researcher’s kit, as illustrated in this article titled “On the Origins of a Thesis” by Steven Murdoch.
Downsides will vary depending on the field of study, research group organization, and the student’s personality, among other factors. The downsides can be managed well to make the journey enjoyable for all parties involved.
The PhD journey is not for the faint hearted. However, it should also not be a terrifying experience for the aspiring researcher. Mine has been fascinating so far, thanks to finding the right mix of collaboration, creativity, and adaptability. You can enjoy the journey too.